A plucky Britain refusing to bow to the Luftwaffe’s blitz, Patton and Rommel dueling in the North African desert, the D-Day invasion and the Battle of the Bulge — these tend to dominate American’s conception of the Allied defeat of Nazi Germany.
But as important as the episodes were, military historians have always known that the main scene of the Nazis’ downfall was the Eastern Front, which claimed 80 percent of all German military casualties in the war.
The four-year conflict between the Wehrmacht and the Red Army remains the largest and possibly the most ferocious ever fought. The armies struggled over vast territory. The front extended 1,900 miles (greater than the distance from the northern border of Maine to the southern tip of Florida), and German troops advanced over 1,000 miles into Soviet territory (equivalent to the distance from the East Coast to Topeka, Kan.). And they clashed in a seemingly unrelenting series of military operations of unparalleled scale; the battle of Kursk alone, for instance, involved 3.5 million men.
In short, the war fought on the Eastern Front is arguably the single most important chapter in modern military history — but it is a chapter that in many essential ways is only now being written. From evidence released from Soviet archives since the mid-1980’s, scholars have learned, for example, that Soviet deaths numbered nearly 35 million, nearly twice as large as the original estimate; that the Red Army raped two million German women during their occupation to wreak revenge; and that an astonishing 40 percent of Soviet wartime battles were for decades lost to history.
In the last few years, academics have lamented that access to Russian archives has tightened considerably. Surprisingly, though, specialists in the field say that what may turn out to be a bigger problem is the dearth of Russian military historians in the West who can take advantage of the documentary material already available, coupled with the lack of money in the former Soviet Union to support those academics prepared to dive into the papers. So far, it’s a “missed historiographical opportunity,” said Col. David M. Glantz, now retired, the former director of the United States Army’s Foreign Military Studies Office, who has written or edited more than 60 books on the history of the Soviet military in the Second World War. The extraordinarily prolific Colonel Glantz said he would need “three lifetimes” to mine the documents that have already been released.
Military historians like Williamson Murray, professor emeritus at Ohio State University and a defense consultant in Washington, hold that the Soviets probably documented their war more fully than any other of the combatant states. Yet the war on the Eastern Front is still obscure, largely because of the cold war. During that period, the U.S.S.R.’s immense archives concerning the conflict were essentially closed to Western scholars. At the same time, the decisive impact of America’s erstwhile ally was often deliberately underplayed in the West for political reasons.
The Soviets also buried the history of the Eastern Front. Soviet military historians turned out accurate and detailed work, but since they could analyze only what Soviet officials permitted them to write about, they skirted, or, more significantly, ignored those facts and events the government considered embarrassing. Soviet propaganda, meanwhile, lionized the heroes of the “Great Patriotic War.”
For the most part, then, scholars were forced to rely heavily on German sources, which presented an extremely distorted view of events. Only the Scottish historian John Erickson, whose two-volume history of the war in the East — “The Road to Stalingrad” (1975) and “The Road to Berlin” (1983) — remains the outstanding comprehensive study in any language, managed to get beyond such one-sided accounts. He did it by virtue of his close relationships with high-level Soviet officials and current and former military officers in order to gain access to closed records. But probably his greatest cache of Soviet material actually came from combing German records for captured Soviet documents.
Since the fall of the Soviet Union, though, the flood of published Soviet military documents and the opening up of the Soviet archives have been transforming historians’ understanding of this pivotal theater of the Second World War. Indisputably, the chief scholar in this endeavor is the 62-year-old Colonel Glantz, who spent most of his years in the Army thinking of ways to defeat the Red Army.
Drawing on the vast and varied newly available Soviet document collections and archives, his dozens of books are what military historians call operational histories, which minutely and meticulously examine what took place on the battlefields. They aren’t concerned with the Eastern Front’s political, social, diplomatic or economic dimensions (Colonel Glantz barely touches on the Wehrmacht’s role in the Final Solution, for example), or even with all its military ones, and to the layman they can be very heavy going, with their recitations of faceless units moving in unfamiliar places.
But thanks largely to his and Mr. Erickson’s work, Westerners have radically revised their appreciation of the Red Army’s wartime skill and performance.
According to the conventional view, based largely on the often-self-serving accounts of German generals, the Wehrmacht was the most operationally advanced military in the war, and Soviet tactics and performance were leaden and unimaginative in comparison; the Red Army ultimately prevailed not because it was skillful, but because it was so large.
By incorporating Colonel Glantz’s findings, however, Mr. Murray of Ohio State and his co-author, Allan R. Millett, conclude in “A War to Be Won” (Harvard, 2000), their general history of the Second World War, that the Soviets’ brilliant use of encirclement and what they called “deep battle” — extremely rapid, far-reaching advances behind the enemy’s front lines — constituted the most innovative and devastating display of “operational art” in World War II. Soviet operations from the summer of 1944 to the winter of 1945, they conclude, were far superior to those of the German Army at its best.
Speaking from his house in Carlisle, Pa., near the United States Army War College, Colonel Glantz marveled that close to one-half of wartime Soviet operations — including major battles involving hundreds of thousands of Red Army soldiers — are simply “missing from history,” either neglected or covered up.
For example, in November and December of 1942 the celebrated Soviet Field Marshal G. K. Zhukov orchestrated a gigantic offensive (“Operation Mars”) involving seven Soviet armies with 83 divisions, 817,000 men and 2,352 tanks. The failed operation cost the Red Army nearly 350,000 dead, missing and wounded men, and 1,700 tanks, yet it was methodically concealed in Soviet historiography, in large part to preserve Zhukov’s reputation.
Not all of Colonel Glantz’s findings would have proved so embarrassing to the Soviets. In one of the most contentious debates that emerged from the war, Western historians and their governments throughout the cold war accused Stalin of deliberately holding back the Red Army from aiding the Polish uprising in Warsaw in 1944, thus tacitly permitting German forces to destroy the beleaguered Polish Home Army. But Colonel Glantz concludes, after scrutinizing the documents, that the Red Army initially made every reasonable effort to come to the Poles’ assistance and later chose not to — Stalin’s political considerations aside — because such action would have required a major reorientation of military efforts and a consequent slackening of the main offensive against German forces.
Using other newly available Soviet military documents, the British historian Antony Beevor focused on the final months of the conflict in his harrowing study, “The Fall of Berlin” (Viking, 2002), during which Russian soldiers victimized two million German women, 50 years before rape was recognized as a war crime.
And where Colonel Glantz shies away from larger historical or cultural analysis, the historian Christopher R. Browning firmly ties what the Nazis called their “war of destruction” against the Soviet Union to the Holocaust. In Mr. Browning’s view, which he details in his forthcoming book, “The Origins of the Final Solution” (University of Nebraska), Germany’s mass murders of Jews and non-Jews alike on the Eastern Front crystallized Nazi policy regarding the eradication of European Jewry.
A popular Soviet postwar slogan was, “No one is forgotten, nothing is forgotten.” It is only now, though, as more information is being mined about this immense, chaotic war, that historians are realizing all there is to be remembered.