If I had it to do all over again . . . new research on the Great Fatherland War

One of the things that this year’s ASEEES meeting brought home to me is the way in which all of our judgements as historians are inherently and unavoidably provisional. In particular, I heard quite a few things from new research on World War II that made me think about The Soviet Union at War, 1941-1945, and the things I’d like to be able to put in that book if I could do it again.

This is not to say I have “editor’s remorse.” As I’ve said previously (and actually meant), I’m delighted with the quality of the chapters in the book. But when you hear about new research, it’s hard not to wish for a chance to find some way to get exciting results in. I’ll cross my fingers and hope for a paperback edition.

One panel in particular had a lot of new material. While Peter Waldron focused on World War I (discussed elsewhere), other papers brought in new and exciting research on World War II.

Donald Filtzer looked at the phenomenon of deprivation and death among the Soviet population, but as a social historian with access to reams of statistical information. We tend to throw around numbers on excess deaths, but given the enormous demographic shifts in the wartime Soviet Union, it’s hard to get a good handle on what was really happening to the population. Teasing out the difference between death from disease and death from malnutrition is quite difficult. Filtzer’s approach is to look at reams of mortality data from Soviet cities during the war. This mortality data is as problematic as you might expect. Lots of deaths took place without much inquiry from medical professionals, so the proportion of causes of death attributed to “other” skyrocketed during the war. Can we make sense of this?

Filtzer argued that though malnutrition can mimic the wasting of tuberculosis (endemic in the Soviet Union), malnutrition can also unleash a previously dormant case of tuberculosis. By combining figures for tuberculosis mortality with “other” mortality, and comparing that to those mortality levels before the war, we can get a reasonable sense of malnutrition-related deaths.

OK–but besides satisfying morbid curiosity, what do we learn? Well, Filtzer finds some intriguing patterns in the data. In the first year or so of the war, malnutrition killed vulnerable populations: children, the elderly, inmates of the Gulag. By 1943, though, starvation was killing males of working age in large numbers, far more than females. This leads to a couple of follow-up questions. One was asked at the panel: could it be that healthy adult males were in the Red Army, leaving the weak and sickly males on the home front to die disproportionately from malnutrition? Of course, it’s sobering to think just how sick someone would have to be to NOT make the Red Army’s standards, given enormous manpower losses. My question is slightly different: evidence from other cases of hunger (like, for example, the Donner party) suggests that women are more resistant to starvation than men; is that what we’re seeing here? We’ll have a better sense with Filtzer’s full results.

Brandon Schechter, a graduate student at Berkeley, looked at the material culture of daily life in the Red Army during World War II. This is something that really hasn’t been done before–we have a good sense, much like the Soviet leadership did, of the big, glamorous items of supply like tanks and aircraft. We have much less sense of mundane issues like uniforms and canteens. Some of what Schechter finds isn’t surprising, either in the specific Soviet experience or cross-culturally: food was vital to morale, for example, and scrounging, improvisation, and theft were quite common.

Other findings are newer and more startling. I didn’t know, for example, that Soviet soldiers carried glass canteens (with concomitant problems of weight and breakage) until very late in the war. The Soviet military initially focused on providing soldiers with high-calorie, low-bulk food that kept them fighting but made them unhappy. Soviet soldiers perceived a clear improvement in the provision of supplies over the course of the war.

My question to Schechter was, given the scale of Soviet pre-war maneuvers, and the Soviet experience of campaigns in Eastern Poland, Manchuria, and Finland, why were there such difficulties of supply in 1941? Was it the purges, the defeats and retreats or 1941, or something else? Schechter suggested that it was a combination of circumstances (distance and destruction), together with the Red Army’s decision to tie itself to field kitchens to keep its soldiers fighting, contrary to the American model of extensive preserved rations to enable soldiers to fight for at least some time without being bound to food supplies from the rear.

Finally, over lunch with Scott Palmer, GlavKom of this blog, I heard a great deal about his upcoming project on technology in Russian history. Of all the chapters that ought to be in the book but aren’t, I’d put science and technology at the top of the list. In part, that omission was a result of the lack of a lot of literature out there on those questions for the wartime years. Palmer’s book promises to be an excellent step in that direction. Perhaps he can be persuaded to share some ideas in this forum.

One Response to “If I had it to do all over again . . . new research on the Great Fatherland War”

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