Field Marshal Stalin

The Road to Stalingrad Vol. 1, Stalin's War with Germany

by John Erickson
Westview Press, 594 pp., $40.00

The Road to Berlin: Continuing the History of Stalin's War with Germany

by John Erickson
Westview Press, 877 pp., $42.50

Not long after the red banner of victory had been raised above the Reichstag in May 1945, Stalin began to propound his own version of how the war with Germany had been won. First he claimed that victory should not be attributed solely to the valor of the Red Army, since it was his policies of collectivization and industrialization that had created the political and economic basis for the war effort. Then he consigned the most famous of the Soviet marshals, Georgi Zhukov, to an obscure post, and allowed the other senior commanders little credit for the Soviet victory. As the military’s part in the history of the war declined, so Stalin’s grew. The shattering defeats of 1941 were now presented as part of a Stalinist strategy of active defense. By the end of the 1940s Stalin was being hailed as a strategic genius and the greatest commander of all time.

This travesty of history, which insulted so many of those who had fought in the war, did not long outlive Stalin himself. Revisions soon began to appear, first in military publications and then in literary and historical works. Khrushchev gave this revisionism great impetus with his “secret speech” to the 20th Party Congress in 1956, when he spoke bitterly of Stalin’s attempt to appropriate to himself all the glory for the victory over Germany. He criticized Stalin harshly for his brutal purge of the Red Army’s command in the years 1937 to 1941, and for his failure to heed the warnings of the impending German attack. He portrayed him as a military ignoramus: “Stalin planned operations on a globe. Yes, comrades, he used to take the globe and trace the frontline on it.”

Khrushchev’s campaign against Stalin opened the way to more truthful accounts of the war. By the mid-1970s more than fifteen thousand Soviet books had been published on the war, and the flow has not ceased since then. These books have been written for various purposes: to boost reputations, to create heroic myths, to study the conduct of military operations. But perhaps the most important motive of all—and the one that makes it possible for historians to use Soviet sources—has been the desire to set the record straight, to tell as much of the truth as possible about an experience, at once terrible and heroic, that left no one in the Soviet Union untouched.

Among the most interesting of these writings are the memoirs of the Red Army’s commanders and studies by professional military historians of the war’s campaigns and battles. It is largely on these that John Erickson has drawn in his history of the war, the first part of which was published in 1975 and now is reissued to coincide with the appearance of the second volume. In spite of the relative openness of the post-Stalin years, these sources are not without their problems. Like memoirists everywhere, Soviet writers may write to settle old scores or enhance their own reputations. In some cases memoirs…

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