- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 29, 2010

DEATHRIDE: HITLER VS. STALIN: THE EASTERN FRONT, 1941-1945

By John Mosier

Simon & Schuster, $30, 470 pages

Reviewed by Joseph C. Goulden

One of the grand myths of World War II has a beleaguered Josef Stalin inspiring the gallant Soviet Red army to hold a superior German army at bay for years and eventually prevail despite the refusal of his Western allies, the United States and Great Britain, to open a “second front” to relieve battlefield pressures on him.

Echoing propaganda themes set by Stalin, many historians credit the “heroic Soviet soldier” with single-handedly keeping the Germans at bay during the first years of the war, shedding their blood to stop Hitler from seizing Moscow and Leningrad, and then driving the Wehrmacht all the way back to Berlin.

Stalin’s interpretation was set forth in a series of wartime speeches later incorporated into a 1945 book, “The Great Patriotic War.” As John Mosier writes, “His version of the war was perfectly pitched. After recoiling from the treacherous and unprovoked Hitlerite attack, the Red army managed to prevent the invaders from reaching Moscow. The great battle before the gates of Moscow was the first in a series of staggering defeats, in which the Hitlerites were driven out of the homeland… by the roused patriotic fury of the Russian people, whose strength was reinforced by the goals of socialism and inspired by the example of Stalin himself….”

Mr. Mosier, one of the more entertainingly contrarian military historians writing today, convincingly dashes these myths - and more - in an important and groundbreaking book about the Eastern front. A reviewer of one of his earlier books writes that Mr. Mosier “tosses military history hand grenades on almost every page…” Such grenades certainly resonate throughout “Deathride,” which looks beyond Soviet propaganda claims to present a truly eye-opening account of the campaign. Mr. Mosier teaches history at Loyola University in New Orleans.

Mr. Mosier accepts that Stalin’s prewar purges stripped the Red army of its leadership and left it ill-prepared for the German invasion in June 1941. (Another factor was that Stalin scoffed at intelligence reports, many emanating from his own spies, that Hitler planned to break their 1939 treaty and invade.) And that many Russian soldiers fought valiantly, despite the lack of leadership and equipment, is beyond doubt. (See most notably Catherine Merridale’s 2006 work, “Ivan’s War.”)

But the price paid in blood was horrific. The Red army suffered casualties at the rate of 5-to-1 over the Germans. Conventional wisdom holds that those losses could be endured because of Russia’s vastly superior numbers, but as Mr. Mosier points out, the Russian population was only twice that of Germany, and despite its own heavy losses in 1941, the Wehrmacht in 1942 had more men in uniform than the previous year.

The Germans captured almost 2 million Soviet soldiers in the first months of the war. “No one had any idea how many Russians had been killed,” Mr. Mosier writes. “Essentially, there were two Soviet prisoners of war for every three German soldiers going into battle.”

Stalin, meanwhile, was offering incredibly inflated German casualty claims - “In four and a half months of war Germany has lost four and a half million soldiers. Germany is bleeding white.” The exact converse was true. As the war wound down in the spring of 1945, Russian losses continued to be so heavy that the Red army desperately conscripted all men between the ages of 14 and 60 and prepared to form all-female combat units.

As Sir Winston Churchill wryly commented about Stalin’s penchant for lying, “The Bolsheviks have discovered that truth does not matter as long as there is reiteration….” If a lie is “repeated often enough and loudly enough, [it] becomes accepted by the people.”

In another swipe at conventional wisdom, Mr. Mosier contends that capturing Moscow and Leningrad were not priority items for Hitler, for neither city had strategic value. His primary goal was seizing the oil fields near the Caspian Sea. Indeed, he contends, Hitler well might have succeeded had not the Allied invasion of North Africa caused him to withdraw key units from the Eastern front to protect his southern flanks. Otherwise, he thinks, both cities would have fallen.

Both during and after the war, pro-Soviet “historians” made much of the decision by Franklin D. Roosevelt and Churchill not to strike at Western Europe until June 1944, thereby forcing Stalin to contend with Hitler on his own. More sober-headed writers accept that the decision was a strategic one - that the Allies were not prepared to invade Europe earlier. Nevertheless, the delay gave Stalin’s apologists grounds for approving his post-1945 seizure of vast parts of Eastern Europe as deserved spoils of war. In any event, Mr. Mosier points out, World War II was a two-front war from the outset, and the Russians took a drubbing.

Mr. Mosier goes perhaps a step too far in his conclusion, in which he argues that the wartime losses contributed heavily to the eventual collapse of communism and the Soviet Union. The USSR was in a primitive stage of development when war broke out, and much of its physical infrastructure was laid to waste by the fighting. Stalin’s relocation of industry to the Ural Mountains, while surely a wartime necessity, could not be reversed easily once the war ended. Not until a 1980 census did the Soviets admit that the war left “a severe deficit of males aged 55 and over.”

The Soviet “experiment” likely was doomed from its inception, although decades lapsed before its collapse. As Mr. Mosier puts it, however, “Whatever chances the Soviet state had to achieve its dreams of prosperity and equality for its citizens, a realized utopia based on socialist principles, those visions perished along with tens of millions of Russians in the Great Patriotic War.”

Joseph C. Goulden is a Washington writer.