7.6.06

VICTORY IS AN ORPHAN. Combine the intensity of the Teutonic Knights against the Golden Horde, the attrition mentality of Grant and Lee, and the industrial methods of waging war that Longstreet anticipated, and you get Ivan's War, the subject of Book Review No. 17. The focus of the book is on the development of the Red Army, which was taken badly by surprise in the opening phases of Fall Barbarossa yet stood its ground on the approaches to Moscow and ultimately rebounded to take Berlin. The campaigns and battles themselves are secondary to the lessons the commanders and the soldiers learned.

Despite the legendary defense of Moscow and the encirclement of the Sixth German Army at Stalingrad under winter conditions, the Eastern Front had in common with the American Civil War the use of winter -- or at least stolen moments of the winter -- to regroup and refit. (The Germans were unable to complete their drives on Moscow or to the Volga before the snows, and the Soviet offensives in the summers of 1943 and 1944 ran out of resources as the days grew colder.) Both armies were, by war's end, worn out, although the Soviet soldiers were as victory approached were better-equipped and better-fed than the Germans facing them.

The experiences of the Soviet Army and the country during and after the war are instructive for students of contemporary conflict. Marxist-Leninist ideologies long anticipated (the Ribbentrop-Molotov agreement notwithstanding) a clash between communism and the most reactionary form of capitalism. Thus did the political commissars who accompanied the Red Army exhort their charges, although author Catherine Merridale's interviews with veterans suggests those exhortations had little effect. And the doctrine of false consciousness can only be so effective against the visible evidence of prosperity in Romania and later in Germany, compared to the visible poverty of the Soviet Union, a lifetime of indoctrination to the contrary. Ideological struggle appears to be a weak reed on which to base a policy. The book suggests that some Soviet soldiers were less than excited about continuing the campaign beyond the borders of the Soviet Union.

The Soviet victory was not an unambiguous success, either in Germany, where a low-level German insurgency continued east of the Elbe for several years, or in those portions of the old Russian Empire I knew of as the "captive nations," where Soviet power was not consolidated until 1949. Sachsenhausen under new management was orders of magnitude more notorious than Abu Ghraib under new management.

The Soviet Union's treatment of its returning veterans was similarly shabby. I doubt whether a Soviet version of the G.I. Bill of Rights would have done anything to create a bourgeois proletariat, let alone something resembling a middle class, in the Soviet Union, because the objective conditions for mass prosperity were not present. Scientific socialism, however, failed to provide prosthetics for the war's amputees, who Ms Merridale describes as having to improvise their own crutches and wheeled carts. (Let me pause in this narrative to recommend Wounded Warriors, a citizen's effort recommended by Lexington Green.) Ultimately, Stalin was able to marginalize the very commanders who made the victory happen, and the ordinary soldiers' dreams of a kinder, gentler socialism vanished in yet more purges.

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