Who really defeated Hitler: the Western democracies, or the mass and brute force of the Red Army?
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Hastings describes the fierce battle for Budapest in which the Russians suffered 80,000 dead and a quarter of a million wounded. During the siege, 38,000 civilians died, and tens of thousands more were deported to the Soviet Union for forced labor. Many of them never returned. The German and Hungarian forces lost 40,000 men, and 63,000 more were taken prisoner.
“This savage, futile battle would have been accounted an epic had it taken place on the Anglo-American front,” writes Max Hastings. “As it was, only the Hungarians took much notice of its horrors, then or later.”
Benjamin Schwarz, the literary editor for the Atlantic, wrote a provocative book review of current and emerging scholarship on the Second World War entitled, “Stalin’s Gift,” in which he argued for a reorientation or reappraisal of our understanding of the conflict:
It’s time for those (mostly male) readers interested in the Second World War to put down the umpteenth account of D-Day and turn to the new crop of books on the most colossal conflict the world has ever seen: the German-Soviet clash on the Eastern Front. Since the late 1980s, a historiographical revolution has been underway, as scholars fundamentally alter their understanding of this epic struggle, which killed 27 million Soviet soldiers and civilians and nearly 4 million Wehrmacht troops. They aren’t merely revising an established narrative; they’re discovering new facets of the conflict — even entire battles — that had been lost to history.
Both Schwarz and Hastings comment on the role of the NKVD in maintaining discipline in the Soviet ranks and inflicting harsh punishment for desertion. The Soviets executed more than 158,000 soldiers for desertion.
Citing the British historian Norman Davies, Schwarz observed that, for four years, more than 400 Red Army and German divisions fought over a front of 1,000 miles. “At its most intense, the war in the West was fought between 15 Allied and 15 Wehrmacht divisions,” wrote Schwarz. “Eighty-five percent of the German military dead fell there; in July 1943, in the decisive battle of the war, the Soviets permanently broke the Wehrmacht’s capacity for large-scale attack at Kursk, ‘the one name,’ Davies properly asserts, ‘which all historians of the Second World War should remember.’”
Schwarz continues: “So…the most odious criminal regime in Europe’s history was defeated by an even more murderous regime, if numbers are the yardstick — which significantly tarnishes any notion of the ‘Good War.’” He concludes his essay with a quote from historian Geoffrey Roberts, who ventures to say that “Stalin…saved the world for democracy.”
The reappraisal of the slaughter in eastern Europe is also reflected in Timothy Snyder’s powerful, daunting book Bloodlands (2010), which treats the killing fields between Berlin and Moscow, from 1933 to 1945, as a single, intertwined history of 14 million murdered souls. The story encompasses not just the Holocaust, but also Stalin’s starvation of 3.3 million in the Ukraine, the extermination of Polish elites, and other assorted horrors. “This is a history of political mass murder,” writes Snyder. “A quarter of them were killed before the Second World War even began. A further two hundred thousand died between 1939 and 1941, while Germany and the Soviet Union were not only at peace, but allies.” Again, cruelty and irony present themselves in contemporary histories of these infernal regions.
Max Hastings’ final assessment of the Second World War is very much in line with Benjamin Schwarz and the historians he surveyed.
Hastings recognizes the valor and contribution of the U.S. Navy, Marines, and Army Air Force in defeating the Japanese. He applauds the sacrifices of American, British, and Commonwealth forces in Italy and France. He rightly praises the code breakers at Bletchley Park, the courage of the RAF, the heroism of the Poles and Norwegians, and the skill and fortitude of the Royal Navy.
But, in the end, Max Hastings believes it was the Soviet war of mass rather than maneuver — of brute force, heedless of the loss of human life — that, in the final analysis, broke the back of the German army and with it the Third Reich.
“Whatever the limitations of the Red Army’s weapons, training, tactics and commanders, Soviet culture armoured its forces to meet the Wehrmacht with a resolution the softer citizens of the democracies could not match,” he writes. A more unsettling conclusion to a masterful history of the war can hardly be imagined.
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