Russia At War 1941-1945
The War: 1941-1945
Alexander Werth, Mr. Ehrenburg tells us in the most recent installment of his autobiography, is a nervous, witty man who was born in St. Petersburg and speaks excellent Russian. He also retails one of Mr. Werth’s jokes Ehrenburg had a Scotch terrier which had suffered from the blast of an explosion in the early days of the war As a result the dog was mortally afraid of the victory salvoes in Moscow later on in the war; as soon as the radio gave the call signal he would set up a despairing howl. Coming upon one such scene Werth said: “Now I see he’s a true British dog: he’s afraid of Soviet victories.”
Mr. Werth was a correspondent in Moscow from 1941 to 1948; he has now produced a volume of some 1100 pages, not counting the maps. The book has been hailed by William Shirer (as well as Earl Attlee and a few others) as “the best book we probably shall ever have in English on Russia at War.” And the publisher announces on the jacket that “Mr. Werth in this book does for Russian participation in World War II what Shirer did for Nazi Germany.” The publishers probably meant that Mr. Werth would do for Messrs. Dutton what Mr. Shirer did for Simon & Schuster, which, of course, is a very legitimate aspiration. Russia at War, like The Rise and Fall of Nazi Germany, is an enormous book and Mr. Werth is a more interesting, broader writer than Mr. Shirer. He has other qualifications to recommend him: his knowledge of Russia and the Russian language, his long stay in Moscow. He also has more axes to grind than Mr. Shirer.
One should, I think, give credit to any writer tackling such a vast canvas; the sheer physical task of writing a book of this size demands both courage and stamina on a scale not very common these days. Books on a big subject, moreover, are needed far more than the kind of specialized monograph which seems to be the only legitimate literary genre in academic circles. I have little patience with those who criticized Mr. Shirer simply because he was not a college professor; the average foreign correspondent knows as much, if not more, about recent history than the average professor, and he usually writes better. If most academics shy away these days from tackling the big subjects, they have no one to blame but themselves if others boldly step in where they fear to tread.
If Mr. Werth has not succeeded, we have to look elsewhere for the reasons. “To write an authentic history of the war in Russia one would require access to stenograph reports of, say, the Politburo, the Central Committee of the Communist Party and the most important of the military conferences.” I have just quoted from a book by Mr. Werth published some twenty years ago. These reports are not available, but a great deal of other source material has been made accessible, and an authoritative history of the war could now be written; but this isn’t it. It would be unjust to say that it is merely a rehash of his dispatches, articles, and books written during the war. He has made good use, for instance, of the six-volume Russian History of the War and he skillfully weaves into his narrative excerpts from the memoirs of Soviet writers and military men. But for a historian it will not do to be familiar merely with some of the relevant sources or even half of them; he has to know all—unless, of course, he wants to write a historical novel. This too is a legitimate literary genre, in which one can interweave fact and fiction, and in which there is plenty of room for creative imagination. Mr. Werth, I feel, should have written a historical novel about the war; though it may not have turned out another War and Peace, it could have been an interesting book. But to work one’s way through that giant mountain of documentary evidence is a thankless, perhaps impossible, task. Like Mr. Shirer, Mr. Werth has not even tried to do so, perhaps wisely; he might never have finished the book otherwise.
Finish he did, but the book as a result, is of limited value and not very reliable. It may be asked whether it is really necessary to shift all the detailed evidence; the broad outlines, after all, are well known and will hardly be affected by whatever may be discovered in the archives. This is true in the sense that we all know that Hitler invaded Russia; that there were the battles of Moscow and Stalingrad, and that it all ended with the fall of Berlin. Such a history, based mainly on speeches, newspaper cuttings, and personal observation, could have been written and would have been of some value twenty years ago. In 1965, it will not do. Mr. Werth does not seem to be aware of many specialized studies published in the West, and he has missed the most important source of all, the German documents, which include much Russian material that fell into Nazi hands during the first years of the war. A few examples should suffice. The pre-history of the German-Soviet pact and especially the diplomatic negotiations that preceded it are related by Mr. Werth almost exclusively with reference to the six-volume History of the Great Patriotic War. His narrative consists of big chunks of quotations prefaced by “According to the Soviet History,” or “The Soviet History reports,” etc.; the same occurs time and again throughout the 1100 pages of Russia at War. This History, Mr. Werth says, quotes “revealing dispatches” from Astakhov, the Soviet chargé d’affaires in Berlin, on his conversations with Nazi diplomats. In fact, all the History does is to quote a few sentences; thousands of pages of reports transmitted from Berlin to Moscow that summer remain unpublished. If these few sentences were all we knew about the negotiations, they would be of great importance, even if tendentiously selected. But we know much more from sources other than Russian; there have been collections of documents, learned articles, monographs about this period. Mr. Werth seems not to have bothered to look at them—if he was aware of their existence. Instead, he quotes another newspaper correspondent, namely Mr. Shirer. The question of who in Berlin or Moscow made the first serious move towards a rapprochement in 1939 is of the greatest interest. Mr. Werth, on the basis of his few sources, tells us that “the Soviet History now claims…that it was the Germans who made the first tentative approach to Russia on May 30, 1939.” This is a bit disingenuous; one would hardly expect the Russians to admit now that they first approached Hitler.
It is the task of a historian to sift all the important evidence, not to quote the claims of one side; Mr. Werth, unfortunately, sticks very close indeed to the six-volume Russian History throughout his 1100 pages. It may make life easier, but it isn’t exactly a model case of objective historical research. Time and time again he interprets Hitler’s decisions and intentions for our benefit, but these interpretations make little sense without reference to the basic source material, namely the so-called Fuehrer Direktiven. As a result, Mr. Werth comes up all too frequently with the wrong explanation—about the decision to attack Russia (he doesn’t seem to be aware of Professor G. Weinberg’s researches), about some of the decisive battles of the war. He also misses some of the essential facts about the last weeks before the Nazi invasion. It is a long book and the list of omissions and mistakes would be long too.
A British critic of the book, Alan Clark (about whom more below), has said that Mr. Werth is unable to form a sound historical assessment of any of the major military or political events whose background he recounts—or even to describe them accurately. This is an exaggeration, but I have a suspicion that Mr. Werth is basically far more interested in music and literature than in politics. When he quarreled with Moscow in the late Forties it was not about Stalin’s policies, but about some decree about the state of Soviet music. It may have been this lack of interest in politics (in contrast to political gossip) which misled Mr. Werth; some of the things he wrote during the Forties about Stalin, the victims of the purges, or about Soviet democracy, do not make very nice reading now. There were, I suppose, mitigating circumstances, but one who was born and bred in Russia has to be judged more exactingly than an innocent Western tourist. Be that as it may, we are all anti-Stalinists now, and Mr. Werth. who neither saw nor spoke evil during his seven years in Moscow, now talks about “Stalinist barbarism”; he thinks that Beria should not be made the scapegoat for all that happened (including the skedaddle on the frontier in June 1941). He concedes that as far as the Katyn massacre is concerned, the Russians seem to be on a sticky wicket, to paraphrase again the pre-war public school jargon that frequently appears in this book. Considering the character of Mr. Werth’s reports from Moscow and Leningrad at the time, this seems to be a big advance. But is it? In a way, it is easier to forgive the uncritical acceptance of official handouts twenty years ago when a war was on, when Hitler had to be defeated, and when critical observations on an ally were not called for. If Mr. Werth is now more outspoken about the events of 1941-42, so is the six-volume History; has he simply moved with the times?
Mr. Werth, one of the few surviving Western correspondents who spent the war years in Moscow, had, in a way, unique opportunities to observe from a close angle many of the events described in his book and many of the dramatis personae. But in fact these opportunities were far more restricted than would appear at a first glance; foreigners in Moscow were isolated from the general population even during the comparatively liberal war period (Mr. Shirer in Berlin had a much easier time of it), and the Russian leaders were never accessible. The life of the foreign correspondent was spent between the British Embassy, two or three hotels and restaurants, and Mr. Lozovsky’s daily press conference. There were infrequent, carefully chaperoned visits to some regional headquarters near the front, but on these occasions, too, there was hardly an opportunity to savor the real taste of war. This, of course, was not Mr. Werth’s fault, but it means that all too often we get, instead of the real flavor, chit-chat from the British Embassy, conversations mostly with foreigners picked up in the “National” or the “Aragvi,” speculations about some diplomatic visitor. Mr. Werth’s dispatches were splendid about the war effort, reporting how “Russia can take it.” But one now knows from the descriptions of countless Russians and non-Russians, soldiers and civilians who fought in the army or who went through the hardship in the rear, that what they experienced and what Mr. Werth saw from his room were two different worlds. The window of a Moscow hotel was not the ideal place to watch the real Russia, its sufferings, its agonies, and its final triumph.
Many important sources about the war in Russia have become available during the last year or two; among them the memoirs published in connection with the twentieth anniversary of VE Day, the full descriptions of the battle of Berlin, the documents on Soviet partisan warfare, the records of the various German army groups, and autobiographical novels like M. Mann’s At the Gates of Moscow. Furthermore, a few Western students were for the first time given the opportunity to consult Russian military archives. There is therefore some hope that Mr. Shirer was not right in calling this the best book we are likely to have in English. It is a book not devoid of merit. Much in it is vividly written and shrewdly judged, and there are entire sections with which one finds little to quarrel. But a work for which high claims are made has to be judged by the highest standards.
“When Barbarossa begins, the world will hold its breath,” Adolf Hitler said, Barbarossa being the code name for the invasion of Russia. This is the subject of a study by Alan Clark, a young British military historian at present with the London Institute for Strategic Studies, who showed considerable ability in a previous book on the British Expeditionary Force in France in 1915. In this new study of the greatest land battle ever fought the author again shows promise. He makes a number of useful, though not altogether novel points; that Russia would have won the war, or at any rate fought the Germans to a standstill, even without a second front, and that there is no reason to assume that the German generals would have won the war had they been left to fight it without Hitler’s interference. Unlike Mr. Werth, he describes the war in the East as seen from the German side; even so he should have made greater use of Soviet sources, of which his knowledge seems to be scanty, to say the least.
Nevertheless, this could have been a valuable book. Unfortunately, however, author and/or publisher seem to have been in a great hurry, concerned perhaps about the appearance of Mr. Werth’s book, which came out some months earlier in Britain. The result is regrettable. Barbarossa contains much that is quite irrelevant in this context, such as a detailed description of the activities of some minor German conspirators against Hitler. But there is nothing, or next to nothing, on the economic and political aspects of the war or on partisan warfare. There is unnecessary “color”; the book opens as follows: “On the afternoon of Sunday, 5th of November 1939, it was raining in Berlin. Through the empty streets a single black Mercedes, without escort” etc., etc. I am not at all certain whether it was raining or snowing on that afternoon in Berlin, whether the streets were empty, and whether General von Brauchitsch went from Zossen to Berlin in a Mercedes or a Maybach; anyway, what does it matter? On the other hand, there are innumerable errors, big and small, wrong titles and dates; as for misspelled names, this book must be a serious contender for the all-time record. Sometimes these mistakes are quite engaging. I liked especially the constant reference to the SS units as “Liebstandarte,” but it is surely no laughing matter when one counts seven spelling mistakes in one single word. The author should have been told by his publisher that this, his first draft, was not without merit, that it had in fact the makings of a good book, but that another year of intensive work on the manuscript was needed.
The publication of Ilya Ehrenburg’s memoirs (in Russian) has now been completed, whereas the English translation has just reached the war period. We have been told many times that Ilya Ehrenburg is a lesser writer than Tolstoi and that his character compares unfavorably with that of St. Francis of Assisi. Some people keep reminding us of these facts whenever the name Ehrenburg appears in print, which has happened frequently during the last forty-five years. Nevertheless, his memoirs are of considerable value, especially for a generation of young Russian intellectuals who have grown up isolated from the West. For them these books are, to paraphrase Peter I and Pushkin, a window towards Europe.
I find it difficult to attack Ehrenburg for having trimmed his sails according to the wind; a foreigner in Moscow (like, for instance, Mr. Werth) was under no obligation to justify the Stalin regime; the position of a Soviet citizen like Ehrenburg was different indeed. It is a pity that he had to wait so long to give us his autobiography; there is too much name and place-dropping, too much breathless staccato writing. Ehrenburg has met many interesting people in his long life; he has obviously tried not to omit a single one of them from these pages, and so there are too many fleeting glimpses and disconnected pictures. During the war he became more popular in Russia than ever before or after; the cosmopolitan writer who had felt more at home in the Rotonde than in Magnitogorsk became the Red Army’s favorite writer in Russian’s darkest hours. In simple, short newspaper articles, of which he wrote a few every day, he told them at the very time when morale was lowest why they had to defend their country and to defeat the invader. He struck exactly the right chord; at a time of severe paper shortage his articles were about the only part of the newspaper not to be used for rolling cigarettes. They were crude and often vulgar, they certainly were not literature, but at the time this was the most important job to be done. A Red Star correspondent described Ehrenburg in 1944 as “completely civilian type with a baggy brown overcoat, civilian fur cap and a cigar, traveling in a mudsplashed jeep, round-shouldered, speaking in a low voice, and not making the slightest attempt to conceal the fact that he was a completely civilian type.” Yet this “completely civilian type” has shown in the evening of his life a greater measure of courage than most of his younger colleagues; perhaps because as an old man he feels quite safe.
There is a revealing passage in the concluding section of Ehrenburg’s Memoirs just published in Novy Mir: “There are times when people are free to think about their personal fate, their biography. We lived in an epoch, in which the best people thought about history.” Mr. Ehrenburg at seventy-four seems to be preoccupied with what posterity will make of him, and no one should blame him.