Archive for May, 2010

Svechin on the Encirclements of 1941

Wednesday, May 26th, 2010

I’ve been reading quite of bit of military theorist Alexander Svechin over the last couple of weeks, and came across a nice observation of his on the nature of future war. It fits well with a phenomenon I’ve always found fascinating, which is the disintegration of encircled Soviet forces in the fall of 1941. When Soviet troops were encircled en masse by the Germans, as at Vyazma, say, or Kiev, some managed to keep their cohesion and break out through the stretched-thin German encircling forces. Most, however, marched off meekly into German prisoner-of-war camps–some 600,000 at Kiev alone. It’s difficult to know for certain, but the experience that drove Andrei Vlasov into collaborating with the Nazis may well have been the disintegration of his 2nd Shock Army when it was trapped behind German lines outside Leningrad and eventually disintegrated.

The contrast is quite striking with the German experience at Moscow in the winter of 1941-1942, where cut-off German formations maintained their cohesion and held on until they broke out or were relieved. It’s also a contrast with the Soviet experience of spring and summer 1942, when the Germans were advancing as quickly through Ukraine and southern Russia as they had through Belorussia and western Russia in fall 1941, but not were getting nearly the same haul of prisoners. Soviet troops were much more likely to retreat in good order out of German encirclement.

The reasons for the difference don’t seem especially mysterious to me–the Red Army in fall 1941 was badly-commanded, inexperienced, and not particularly thrilled with Stalin. By spring-summer 1942, the Red Army’s high command was getting better and the genocidal nature of the German war effort was increasingly clear. Svechin’s observation is quite striking, and a damning indictment of what Stalin’s regime had done to the Red Army:

“The typical battle of the future is fighting in encirclement, when the enemy will be on all sides and above . . and any sort of precise information on the location of one’s own troops and the enemy will be lost. The greatest achievements of military technology have put the center of gravity back on the human material—on the soldier’s consciousness and dedication to the banner under which he fights.” from Front nauka i tekhniki # 7, 1934, republished in Postizhenie voennogo iskusstvo (Moscow, 1999), p. 423.

Alert the media? Not so much.

Saturday, May 15th, 2010

UPDATE: The pummeling continues. At an LSE blog, Artemy Kalinovsky reiterates the problems with Stroilov and Berlinsky’s overblown claims. He adds an additional point: what will the reaction of Russian archivists be to people bragging of sneaking documents out of Russia? Most likely, banning scanners, closing off collections, treating foreign scholars with even more suspicion.
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UPDATE: Ron Radosh, whose anti-communist credentials are not exactly open to question, does a thorough demolition job on Berlinsky, Bukovsky, and Stroilov. Ouch. Hat tip to Tom Nichols for the pointer.
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Claire Berlinsky, writing in the City Journal, has asked why more people aren’t paying attention to revelations from the Soviet archives. She presents two individuals who smuggled documents out of the Soviet Union. One of them, Vladimir Bukovsky, has at least posted his documents online so that people can see for themselves what kind of material he’s got available.

The other person Berlinsky mentions, Pavel Stroilov, hasn’t put any of his material on the web, at least as far as I’ve been able to find. But as Berlinsky presents his claims, he’s got lots of terrific and untapped documents, like Georgii Shakhnazarov’s Politburo minutes and Anatolii Cherniaev’s diaries. Here’s the problem: a 700-page book in Russian has been published, based on those Politburo minutes from Shakhnazarov and others. Cherniaev’s diaries were published in the journal Novaia i noveishchaia istoriia, and are even available in English. They aren’t exactly tough to find–type “Cherniaev diaries” into google and see what pops up.

So at least some of the hot, secret material Berlinsky says Stroilov possesses is neither hot nor secret, and representing it as hot and secret is misleading. It’s tough to know whether Berlinsky or Stroilov is responsible. Berlinsky herself admits she doesn’t know any Russian.

The next big problem is that in many cases, Stroilov is pushing on an open door, and Berlinsky seems simply unaware of what scholars have known for quite some time. For example, Stroilov’s documents on German reunification (as presented in late 2009) show that Margaret Thatcher didn’t want to see it happen. Of course, that’s the same conclusion established by more or less all the scholars who’ve worked on the subject, including most notably Philip Zelikow and the hardly obscure Condoleezza Rice, who showed quite conclusively in 1997 in Germany Unified and Europe Transformed that France and Britain opposed German unification and only strong efforts by Helmut Kohl and George Bush the elder made it happen. Helmut Kohl himself in his memoirs, published four years before Stroilov’s big unveiling, said exactly the same thing.

Berlinsky says Stroilov’s documents describe “most shockingly” that Francois Mitterand wanted a socialist Germany under French and Soviet domination. Since Mitterand was a socialist, and French politicians since de Gaulle have wanted to see Germany under French domination, I don’t see how this qualifies as shocking.

Last, it’s clear that Berlinsky is writing with a particular political agenda–to discredit the European left, question European unification, and cast doubt on the continental European social model while at the same time pummeling the dead horse of Communism. I don’t have any problem with that. My problem comes when pursuing that political aim results in doing violence to historical perspective. One example: Berlinsky finds it scandalous that Joaquin Almunia, current member of the European Commission, was strongly opposed to Ukrainian independence. Know who else was opposed to Ukrainian independence? George Bush the elder.

Wow. Just . . . wow.

Friday, May 7th, 2010

Courtesy of the Russian Ministry of Mass Communications, a major new site has just gone live in time for victory day. Entitled Chronicle of Victory, 1941-1945, it’s an historian’s dream come true.

The site is simply breathtaking in what it makes available. Aerial photographs, operational maps, complete runs for the war years of Vestnik frontovoi informatsii, Izvestiia, and Krasnaia zvezda (viewable on screen or downloadable as .pdfs) . . . it is truly spectacular.

Sure, I have some quibbles. The site requires a Microsoft silverlight plug-in, there’s no navigational aids in English, you can’t browse the newspaper holdings but instead have to search by date, and the offerings of archival documents are very slim. Plus, I could get the newsreel footage to work, but not the audio-only clips . . . but that shouldn’t detract from the ridiculous mass of material free for the asking.

UPDATE: Chronicle of Victory, as of May 2013, is down for revisions. The site, now listed under a slightly-different URL, says the update should be complete by the end of 2012. Clearly that deadline was missed (though academics are hardly in a position to criticize). Thanks to Mark Edele for pointing this out.

You’re not helping . . .

Thursday, May 6th, 2010

Interfax headline (hat tip to Johnson’s Russia List):

Russian president tells conscripts not to see army service as personal tragedy

While I understand Medvedev’s desire to boost morale among Russia’s poor conscripts, this hardly seems inspirational, especially on the eve of Victory Day. The headline doesn’t distort his actual words, which are that “those to are called into service must understand that it is not some kind of personal catastrophe.”

“Once more unto the breach, dear friends,” it ain’t.

The health benefits of booze, cigarettes, and women

Tuesday, May 4th, 2010

The London Times (Hat tip to Ralph Luker at Cliopatria) has a charming profile of Norman Stone, who is the author of what is still more-or-less the only book out there on World War I on the Eastern Front (Peter Gatrell has a good intro to the social and economic side of the war, but doesn’t talk much about operations).

Stone (no relation) has clearly missed the memo–or perhaps used it to roll cigarettes–on what modern academics are not supposed to do or say. Health benefits of booze and tobacco? Check. Chasing undergraduates? Check. Vocal fan of Thatcher and Reagan? Check. Global-warming skeptic? Check. National and ethnic stereotypes by the dozen? Check.

Stone has a new memoir coming out. Sounds like it should be quite a bit less excruciating than your average academic autobiography.