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 …