Russia at War, 1941-45 Paperback – 9 Oct 1997
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He commences in 1939, with the Finnish-Russian war, and the conflict in the West after the invasion of Poland. Naturally there was much political maneuvering to avoid the Russo-German aspect of WW II, and when it finally came, although it had been much anticipated, it was startling how unprepared the Soviet forces were. Werth quotes the novelist Simonov: "It seemed that everyone had been expecting the war for a long time and yet, at the last moment, it came like a bolt out of the blue; it was apparently impossible to prepare oneself in advance for such an enormous misfortune." The Russians had 600,000 soldiers captured in the Kiev encirclement alone; only three in every one hundred would survive the war. Perhaps due to the fighting in the Balkans the Germans invaded later than planned; in June instead of May, and although General Heinz Guderian famously stood on a hill and could see the spires of the Kremlin, divisions of Asiatic Soviet troops threw the Germans back, and Moscow never fell. The agony of Leningrad, however, was more severe, although it never fell, perhaps a million people starved to death during the 900 day siege, which was covered in depth in Harrison Salisbury's book. Werth says the psychological turning point of the war was the epic battle for Stalingrad, where the German 6th Army was surrounded by a counterattack of over a million men. Werth was on the battlefield there, before the Russians had the chance to collect all the Germans, and noted an emaciated German soldier squatting over a cesspool, and the skeletons of horses devoid of meat, and wished that Hitler "smirking at he stood on the steps of the Madeleine in Paris" could see what had become of his army. The author says that the military turning point was the Battle of Kursk, in the summer of 1943, when 3000 Russian and German tanks slugged it out. I was at Kursk in 1990, and what struck me most was how very little the place was commemorated, as compared to Normandy.
After Kursk, Werth follows the Soviet forces to the Brandenburg gate in Berlin. Along the way the casualties and "payback" were horrendous. He covers well the Russian partisans, who fought behind Germans lines, and endured savage reprisals. His coverage of the reasons why the Soviets stopped on the Vistula River, while the Polish partisans rose in Warsaw, and were slaughtered, was balanced. Other controversial aspects of the war Werth presented with the facts of the time, such as the Katyn forest massacre, where the elite of the Polish officer corps were executed. There were reasons and facts that supported the theory that the Germans did it, likewise for the Soviets. We now know that it was the Soviets, in an effort to control the post-war Polish government.
Other reviewers have criticized Werth's pro-Soviet reporting. To some degree I suppose these criticisms as true, but I tend to see the issue of Werth's empathy for a people enduring one of the worst calamities of all time. Between 20 and 30 million Russians died in "The Great Patriotic War," the ramifications in today's world still abound, and this is the sine qua non account of this tragedy.
(Note: Review first published at Amazon, USA, on June 15, 2009)
If you have an interest in World War II and not tackled this volume, your reading is incomplete.
It is the only book I have read three times and have packed it in my photo bag for those wet days during the next cricket season when I shall start reading number four.
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