For far too long in my life, even as I arrogantly assumed the mantle of a WWII history buff, I regrettably neglected the Eastern Front and possessed only a parochial, U.S.-centric view. Over the last few years, I have come to view any World War II, or really any 20th century history education journey, to necessitate deeper knowledge and understanding of the world shaping events that happened before, during, and after the Eastern Front.
For those of you who may be skeptical of my initial claim, consider the following as to why you need to dive into the “rest of the story,” as Paul Harvey was fond of saying, and the Eastern Front’s tragic and longstanding global impacts, along with some of my personal recommendations on books to read to begin the journey:
- Combined U.S. and U.K. total casualties, soldier and civilian, were less than 1M. In comparison, Soviet casualties were more than 27 million. It is impossible to comprehend that scale of death and the impact on a society, but it is easy to understand that a 27X impact is going to leave a completely different indelible experience and impact on a society, especially one as closed and isolated as was the USSR of that time. For more on the Red Army and life within it and within the USSR in general, the book Ivan’s War is a good place to start. Vasily Grossman’s Stalingrad and sequel Life and Fate are magisterial historic fiction accounts that bring his experiences as a Red Army correspondent to life in gripping narratives.
- Whereas U.S. generations view this war broadly within our culture as one of the relatively few just wars in our history and one fought by the “greatest generation,” the Russian view is more likely to be much more complicated and represent a range of simultaneous paradoxical views of both triumphal pride in a patriotic war of survival combined with a deeply ingrained view of the unmitigated horrors of total war on their homefront and the decades long costs born by the most “tormented generation,” of which this war was but a capstone in a long line of tragedies. This was a generation that not only suffered the death toll above and all its attendent horrors, but also suffered 20 million+ deaths that happened during the years between the Russian revolution and WWII, suffering and deaths that were a direct result of Stalin’s gulags, terrors and purging of the state and military, and his forcing of peasants onto collective farms that sparked mass arrests and caused horrific famines. For more on the history of Stalin, Stephen Kotkin has impressive and highly readable biographies split into three volumes (the third is still due to be published). Harvest of Sorrow by Robert Conquest is the most moving account I have read on the horrors and mechanisms and causes of the manmade famines. Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipeligo and Varlam Shalamov’s Kolyma Tales are the go-to sources of gulag literature.
- The unfortunate Eastern European countries (Poland, Ukraine, Romania, Moldova, Lithuania) caught between Germany and the Soviet Union throughout WWII experienced their own horrors that are relatively neglected in the annals of World War II focus in western societies. The people within these nations suffered from both German conquest, and for these countries’ Jewish citizen- the Final Solution were the ultimate terror, as well as Soviet dominance, oppression, and ultimately the generations-long impact of Iron Curtain that are still with us today. Timothy Snyder’s tragic book Bloodlands is a seminal work on this topic.
- The evil megalomaniac drama that unfolded between Hitler and Stalin leading up to the German invasion of the USSR is worth reading and understanding. The drama includes the non-aggression pact between both nations that bought time and needed resources for both dictators (Hitler time to attempt to knock out Britain and receive grain and commodities from the USSR and for Stalin to build military capacity and capability, mostly to repair his own self-imposed ravages and murders of military leaders, and to get military technology and kit from Germany) followed by years of high stakes maneuvering, drama, misunderstandings, paranoia, and intelligence and spying on a global scale that eventually ended in Hitler’s decision to invade coupled with Stalin’s inconceivable and tin eared miscalculation that Hitler was not going to invade (at least, not yet) that would have massive impacts on the human life toll. Kotkin’s biographies, particularly Volume II, handles this remarkably well, including fascinating ill omens such as Hitler codenaming the invasion “Barbarossa” after a Holy Roman Emperor who drowned during the Crusades because he allegedly wanted to prove his bravery and tenacity by crossing a river in full armor. Another interesting ill omen is brought out in Kotkin’s Volume II is the fact that a bust of Bismarck, that predecessor statesman who united the fragmented German lands through political craftiness and war and whose firm political beliefs was to never instigate a war with Russia, owned by Hitler, was cracked at the neck and hastily and shoddily repaired on the eve of the German attack on the USSR. Not that such omens mattered to Hitler nor would it have changed the outcome, but nobody bothered to tell the Fuhrer of the mistake.
Hopefully these few ideas on a complex and fascinating topic whets a few appetites.