Shattering some of the Stalin-Hitler myths
‘Deathride’ revises much about tyrants
By David M. Shribman
DEATHRIDE: Hitler vs. Stalin — The Eastern Front, 1941-1945
By John Mosier
Simon and Schuster,
480 pp., $30
WE THINK WE understand the great German-Russian conflict of the
Eastern Front of World War II. We think it was the great grudge
match of the tyrants, Stalin and Hitler. We think Stalin panicked
in June 1941 when his Nazi ally turned on him. We think Hitler was
beaten by the same Russian winter that defeated Napoleon a century
earlier. We think Stalin was steadfast in refusing to consider
surrender. We think the Soviets prevailed in the greatest tank
battle ever, at Kursk.
Maybe not. At least that is what the historian John Mosier, who in
an earlier volume shattered the myths surrounding Hitler’s
Blitzkrieg, is telling us in “Deathride: Hitler vs. Stalin — The
Eastern Front, 1941-1945.’’ It is a dramatic departure from the
conventional wisdom and is itself a dramatic chronicle of the most
brutal theater in the most brutal war in one of history’s most
brutal centuries. But the real theme is even bigger than the
Eastern Front, which itself stretched from the Baltic to the Black
Mosier is arguing that World War II was fought for economics, not
for political or ideological reasons. That is not a new thesis, to
be sure, but his is a creative approach, holding that not only the
motivations but also the maneuvers of the war were almost entirely
economic in nature.
Hitler, for example, wanted Poland because it was a net exporter
of goods to Germany. The Allies then tried to block iron ore
shipments from Scandinavia, hoping to deny the Nazis the materials
required to build tanks and planes. And the whole bloody thing was
a war on an economic, not a political, front. The Allies, which
included the Soviet Union by war’s end, simply out produced
Germany, and in fact the Third Reich was defeated by two nations
that weren’t even their adversaries when the war began, the United
States and the Soviet Union.
This is a clear-eyed, compelling description of a battle that has
been described many times, but seldom with such an ironic eye.
This monstrous war, conducted against the backdrop of the tyrants’
purges and their mechanical approaches to civilian death, was
conducted in a great killing field of ethnic groups, including the
Poles and other Slavic peoples, many of whom fared little better
under Stalin than they did under Hitler. And these persecuted
Eastern Europeans were themselves no friends of the Jews, who were
virtually exterminated in this charnel house.
What emerges from these pages is a struggle between vicious Soviet
bunglers with a craven leadership willing to sacrifice millions to
survive versus vicious German technocrats with a leadership that
didn’t anticipate the dangers of military over-extension and the
advantages its rival possessed by fighting a defensive war in a
primitive land with unlimited cannon fodder. That said, Mosier
believes that Stalin was closer than anyone (including Stalin
himself) knew to running out of men, some of whom by 1943 were
getting only two days of training.
Now back to those myths that lay shattered on Mosier’s pages.
Stalin wasn’t immobilized by Hitler’s perfidy in 1941, only stuck
in a 1914 reverie that permitted him to believe he had weeks to
mobilize and to think a diplomatic resolution was plausible. The
Nazis were defeated in Russia more by Father Fall than by General
Winter — that is, not when the land was full of ice but when the
roads were full of mud. Stalin would have entertained an armistice
but fought on mostly because Hitler wouldn’t consider one. And as
for Kursk, that wasn’t the clear-cut victory that Soviet
Wars have a chilling bottom line, and Mosier’s is this: The war in
the East was Hitler’s to lose and he did. Several times on the
verge of victory, the Germans were not defeated by a superior
rival, only by superior will or at least the willingness to pay
the price of victory. Stalin won the war “only because he was
willing to sacrifice approximately 27 million Russians.’’
Horrifying conclusion, horrifying battle, horrifying victory.
David M. Shribman, executive editor of the Pittsburgh
Post-Gazette, was for a decade the Globe’s Washington bureau
chief. He can be reached at email@example.com.