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 have been “edited” by other hands, thus casting doubt on their authenticity. Moreover, Soviet writers have to temper what they write to the prevailing political winds. Much of what was published under Khrushchev was designed not only to criticize Stalin, but also to inflate Khrushchev’s military reputation. After Khrushchev’s fall the anti-Stalin campaign was halted, and criticisms that had been voiced in the early 1960s—for example, of the military purge—could no longer be made at the end of the decade.

Nevertheless, the Soviet writings are a rich and informative source. Erickson has an unrivaled mastery of this material, and he has been able to supplement it by interviewing some of the leading wartime commanders. He has also made use of captured German records, notably the files of Fremde Heere Ost, the General Staff’s intelligence organization for the Eastern Front. On this basis Erickson has written the most authoritative study so far of the Soviet High Command’s conduct of the war. This is not a history of the Soviet people at war, or even of the Red Army as a whole. Scarcely anyone below the rank of colonel is mentioned by name, not because Erickson is unaware of the hardships of the troops or of their importance in the war, but because his vantage point is that of the senior commanders.

Erickson writes about “Stalin’s War with Germany,” not about the “Great Patriotic War” which is the common Soviet name, and it is Stalin’s malign genius that dominates these pages. The Red Army in 1941 was very much his creation. It was armed with the weapons that his industrialization drive had made possible, and its high command was the product of the military purge in which he had inflicted greater losses on the Red Army’s senior commanders than Hitler was to do in the war. When the Winter War with Finland exposed the failings and weaknesses of the Red Army, a new and relatively inexperienced command group had to try to set things right during 1940 and 1941, in an atmosphere of continuing fear and confusion.


This command group faced a new and dreadful test when the German armies attacked on June 22, 1941. By the end of November Moscow itself was under threat, and several million Soviet troops had been killed or taken prisoner. The Soviet authorities had lost control of 45 percent of the population, 47 percent of the grain production, and 60 percent of the coal, iron, steel, and aluminum output of the country.

Stalin bears much of the responsibility for these disasters, for he ignored the many warnings he received of Hitler’s plan to attack. It is true that the intelligence directorate of the General Staff (the GRU) presented some of this information to him as coming from “dubious sources” who wished to provoke a clash between Germany and the Soviet Union. But this was because Stalin wanted it presented in that way: “the stream of information which flowed in from a multitude of sources Stalin could dam, divert, or choke as he pleased; what he wished hidden, he could and did, in the phrase of present Soviet criticism, ‘wall up in a safe.’ ” At another point Erickson suggests that there was a “legitimately wide” margin of doubt about Hitler’s intention, and implies that it was not only Stalin’s self-deception, but also German efforts to deceive him, that accounted for the German success in achieving surprise. Erickson does not, however, elaborate on this, and the evidence he presents points overwhelmingly to Stalin’s culpable negligence.

The early months of the war showed up the incompetence of many of the Red Army’s leaders, not only among those who had been promoted rapidly as a result of the purge, but also among those former civil-war commanders who had never really reconciled themselves to the idea of mechanized warfare. But the war soon “selected our cadres,” as one Soviet commander put it. Already by the beginning of 1942 there was beginning to emerge from the fighting at Moscow a small but very capable command group, of which Zhukov was the leading figure, with K.K. Rokossovskii and I.S. Koniev among its early members.

The Red Army’s commanders were hemmed in by secret police and Party controls. Within weeks of the German attack Stalin had brought back the system of “dual command” in which military commissars (political officers) shared command with the Red Army officers at all levels. This inevitably complicated the officer’s life, especially since Lev Mekhlis, the head of the Main Political Administration to which the commissars were subordinate, was a brutal and ignorant man, and deeply suspicious of the Red Army’s commanders. The system of “dual command” was a sign of Stalin’s distrust of the Red Army, and it was not abandoned until October 1942, when the Soviet counteroffensive at Stalingrad was being planned. Stalin was now placing greater reliance on the competence of his commanders, and was willing to make concessions to the military’s professional amour propre. The term “officer,” which had been taboo because of its prerevolutionary connotations, was reintroduced, along with shoulder-boards modeled on those worn in the Imperial Russian Army.

During the first months of the war the Red Army lost most of its equipment, but during 1942 Soviet factories, many of which had been evacuated to the east, began to produce tanks, guns, and airplanes in large numbers. Soviet military power was not merely a matter of numbers, however, for the Red Army’s commanders had to learn how to combine men and machines into an effective fighting force. Erickson notes that by 1943 two distinct armies were being created—an army of quality, consisting of the newly formed tank armies and the Guards formations (the title “Guards” was given to the best units), and an army of quantity to back this up. Both armies were united in the vast operations of the last two years of the war. In January 1945 Marshals Zhukov and Koniev between them commanded almost 2.25 million men, 6,500 tanks, 4,772 aircraft, and 32,142 guns and mortars for the offensive into the Reich along the Warsaw–Berlin axis.

After the initial shock of the German attack, Stalin took into his own hands the power to direct all aspects of the war effort. He headed both the State Defense Committee, which consisted of a small group of party leaders, and the Stavka, the headquarters of the supreme command. The key military directives were issued in the Stavka’s name, and it sent out its “representatives” to direct and coordinate activities at the front.


Stalin normally received three reports a day on the military situation. The most important briefing began just before midnight when the chief of the General Staff or the head of the Operations Directorate, accompanied by other senior officers as necessary, took their maps and folders to the Kremlin, where Stalin asked sharp and detailed questions and issued orders. It was through such nighttime conferences that Stalin learned about the progress of the war and gave his orders. Except for a brief ride on the Mozhaisk Highway during the battle at Moscow, he never went to the front. Nor did he visit the factories that were feverishly producing arms and equipment. For most of the population he was a remote leader, even though his “punitive organs” were ever present. But for the Red Army’s commanders Stalin was never far away. He used the telephone to check on the situation at the front, issue orders, consult his commanders, and berate them for not achieving the goals he had set.

Ruthless discipline extended all the way down to the ranks. Stalin tried to ensure that the Red Army would be more frightened to retreat than to advance. Holding detachments, drawn from the internal security forces, were set up to police the Red Army troops and make sure they did not abandon the front lines. Penal batallions were used to clear mine fields. Troops who got lost were often treated as deserters, while those who broke out of German encirclement were regarded as potential German spies. At the end of the war Red Army prisoners were released from German captivity only to find themselves sent to Soviet camps.

Stalin emerges from these pages as a devious, ruthless, and morbidly suspicious man, but also as an able war leader, who held the Soviet Union together through a series of disasters. Soviet memoirs tend to confirm the impression, given by such Western observers as Averell Harriman, that Stalin was well informed, with an acute mind and an impressive grasp of detail. Khrushchev’s picture of Stalin planning operations on a globe is pure invention. But Stalin’s strategic judgment was far from infallible. His military strategy was, Erickson writes, “basically an admixture of attrition and offensiveness, much of the latter ill-judged and even reckless.” In the early months of 1942, buoyed up by the Red Army’s success in stopping the Wehrmacht at the gates of Moscow, he launched an ill-advised, poorly coordinated, and unsuccessful offensive. A year later, after the victory at Stalingrad, he repeated the mistake of dispersing rather than concentrating his forces, and as a consequence failed to recapture the Donbas industrial region. In the summer of 1943, however, Stalin was prevailed upon by his military advisers to show restraint and have confidence in his own forces. The Red Army was able to prepare for Hitler’s Operation Citadel and, in the largest clash of armored forces the world has ever seen, won a decisive victory at the battle of Kursk. It was this battle, more than any other, that marked the turning point of World War II. In 1944 the Wehrmacht was driven from Soviet territory.

Poland now became a major source of disagreement between Stalin and his Western allies. Stalin was determined to hold onto the territory he had occupied in 1939, when he and Hitler had divided the country between them, and to ensure that a Polish government subservient to Moscow would be installed. In August and September 1944 the Red Army waited on the eastern bank of the Vistula, within sight of Warsaw, while the Germans crushed the uprising that had been staged by the Armija Krajowa, the resistance movement loyal to the Polish government in London. Erickson, who talked about this to Marshal Rokossovskii, the Soviet commander of the 1st Belorussian Front, inclines to the view that the failure to aid the Poles resulted more from the military difficulties the Red Army was facing on that front than from a deliberate intention to let the Germans destroy Stalin’s political opponents.

Once the survival of the Soviet state was no longer in doubt, Stalin turned his attention increasingly to the postwar settlement. He worked on the assumption that the more territory the Red Army occupied, the greater would be his say in the fate of Europe. He spurred his armies forward to take the great Central European capitals, Budapest, Vienna, Prague, and Berlin. When he learned of Eisenhower’s intention to strike at the south of Germany and not at Berlin, he immediately held a command conference to make the final dispositions for a great offensive against the “lair of the Fascist beast.”

The Red Army’s soldiers advanced into Germany with vengeance in their hearts. The first-echelon troops were presentably turned out, and under the control of their officers. But the “loutish, drunken, indisciplined, murderous” men of the second echelon, many of whom had just been taken from German slave camps and given a uniform and machine pistol, were intent on rape and pillage. Already brutalized by their own sufferings, they moved like a plague through the cities they liberated.

The main part of Erickson’s history consists of a narrative account of military operations and command decisions. The immense detail of this narrative creates a very powerful effect in some parts of the work, notably in the description of approaching disaster in 1941, and in the chapter on the final assault on Berlin. But too often the effect of this detail is merely numbing, and the military operations in particular are hard to follow. This is partly because there are no maps in the first volume, and inadequate maps in the second. But in a more fundamental way the problem arises from Erickson’s reluctance to reflect on what he is describing, or to adopt a more analytical approach. Too often the reader is left to wade through details without a clear indication of their significance, or of their contribution to a more general point.

In the prefaces to the two volumes Erickson raises interesting general questions, but then fails to address them in the main body of the text. The most surprising omission is his failure to say very much about the evolution of military doctrine during the course of the war, even though he mentions this as an important issue in the preface to the first volume. He devotes no more than a few sentences to Soviet deliberations about the most effective way to employ the tanks that Soviet industry produced in such large numbers from 1942 on. Nor does he give any attention to the studies that the Soviet General Staff did on Soviet operations during the war, or to the conclusions that it drew from these.

Similarly, Erickson has little to say about the attitudes of the troops, why they fought, and whether the Russians fought differently from the other nationalities. He does provide a good account of the anti-Soviet Russian Liberation Army, which was set up by one of Stalin’s favorite commanders, Lieutenant-General A.A. Vlasov, after he had been captured by the Germans, and drew its troops from among the Soviet prisoners in German camps. But even here his interest is primarily in the use the Nazis made—or rather did not make—of the Vlasov movement.

Erickson writes in the first volume that his study “is an attempt to probe how the Soviet system functioned under conditions of maximum stress,” and certainly the war was, as Stalin later said, a test of the system. But what was the “system,” and what was it about it that enabled it to withstand the test? Was Stalin right to claim that collectivization and industrialization had made victory possible, or was victory achieved in spite of these policies? Erickson does not take up these questions, and indeed to answer them a different kind of study, which would take more account of social, economic, and political factors, would be needed.

In spite of Erickson’s reluctance even to attempt to answer questions that he himself raises, this is an immensely impressive work, on an epic scale. The tone that he strikes is convincing in its recognition both of the heroism and suffering, and of the cruelty and savagery, of the war with Germany. He makes it clear that the wartime alliance, which is sometimes invested with a retrospective harmony, was never without its problems. He also shows that although Stalin was determined to win the war, he was equally concerned to safeguard his own power at home.

Stalin had to rely very heavily on the Red Army’s commanders in the war, and came to respect their professional competence. But he kept them under strict Party and secret police control, and never allowed them to convert their military glory into political power. He made his own political supremacy blindingly clear after the war when he propounded his version of the history of the war, and assigned the Red Army’s commanders a minor role in it.

This Issue

November 22, 1984