Saturday, May 21, 2005


By Constantine Pleshakov

Houghton Mifflin, $26, 326 pages, illus.


This June Russians will mark the 64th anniversary of Adolf Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union. Led into the war, and ultimately through it, by Joseph Stalin, the man heralded by Soviet propaganda as the genius “of all times and all nations,” the peoples of the Soviet Union soon experienced a catastrophe worthy of their leader’s moniker.

The German attack came as a complete surprise to Stalin, who spent the spring of 1941 bending over backwards to avoid “provoking” an attack by Hitler, with whom he had signed a non-aggression pact in 1939. Despite plentiful warnings from his own spy network and Winston Churchill, among others, of an imminent German invasion, he failed to take precautions that might have saved tens of millions of Soviet lives.

By the second day of the invasion, writes Constantine Pleshakov in “Stalin’s Folly,” a Red Army soldier was dying every two seconds. In the first 20 days of the war, 600,000 Soviet troops were killed. Most of the book is dedicated to an almost hour-by-hour account of the Soviet reaction, especially Stalin’s, to the German invasion. Mr. Pleshakov’s account is interesting, rich in detail and utterly depressing, as any description of so much misery, especially that caused by criminal negligence, must be.

The author’s accounts of Stalin’s slaughter of the Red Army officer corps in 1937-1939 and biographical sketches of Soviet leaders — including the missed opportunity to overthrow Stalin at his weakest point — read like pages from a thriller. Passages about the Soviet Union’s highest military and political leaders are sprinkled with eyewitness accounts from the victims of their decisions.

Readers with a general interest in the German-Russian conflict will enjoy this book for the insights of a native Russian into how the beginning of the war affected his countrymen’s psychology, traditions and collective memory. But take the author’s premise that the catastrophe of 1941 was increased by Stalin’s own preparations to unleash the Red Army on Hitler with a large dose of salt.

Mr. Pleshakov himself encourages readers to do the same, admitting that the documents supporting his argument have never been found. He believes Stalin probably ordered his generals to attack German-held territory at a meeting on June 21, less than 24 hours before the German invasion, although he admits again that no records of the meeting exist — or have not yet been discovered. He is honest about the flaws in his theory, which is commendable, even while he clings to it.

Mr. Pleshakov basically takes us down the same path blazed by Viktor Suvorov, the ex-Soviet intelligence officer who postulated in his 1993 “Icebreaker” that Hitler barely beat Stalin to the punch in 1941. That view is popular among Nazi sympathizers and Stalin haters and was actually a pretext pushed by Hitler on his generals for invading the Soviet Union.

The problem is that heavyweight historians say it is based more on a wishful interpretation of events than hard documents or other kinds of evidence. For one thing, Mr. Pleshakov, similar to Mr. Suvorov, places much stock on a memo sent from Field Marshal Georgy Zhukov to Stalin outlining the plan for a preemptive strike.

But historian David Glantz, who has been combing Soviet archives for years and has written extensively on the German-Russian war, says the memo is the product of typical staff work, similar to U.S. planners’ outlines of how to conduct a war with Canada in the 1930s. By itself, it is hardly proof of a Stalinist conspiracy.

Even Stalin, say Mr. Glantz and other historians, knew the post-purge Red Army, which was barely able to deal with tiny Finland in 1939, was in no shape to attack the best military in the world in 1941, as events proved. Although a reform of the Red Army’s leadership was underway to repair damage from the purge, the summer of 1942 was seen as the earliest an offensive war could be launched.

Several nagging details also cast doubt the book’s attempt to reach beyond being merely entertaining and informative into serious history. Describing the German military’s prowess on the eve of war, Mr. Pleshakov claims twice that it conquered France in less than three weeks. Actually, France, with British help, managed to hang on for six weeks. Although Russians tend to minimize the efforts of the Western allies in light of their own Herculean achievements, anyone writing (or editing) a book about World War II should know that.

Mr. Pleshakov writes, “we are left to wonder” why Hitler failed to capture Moscow in August. Actually, we have little to wonder about. Historians have trodden this ground for decades. Mr. Pleshakov attributes it solely to the sacrifice of millions of Soviet soldiers. No one would deny that the Soviet soldier’s tenacity and refusal to surrender even in the most hopeless cases played a key role in delaying the Germans. But they had help from a most unlikely source: Hitler himself.

In July, the fuehrer diverted the Panzer divisions that were only 200 miles west of Moscow to strengthen the German attacks on Leningrad and Ukraine. For almost three weeks in August, the German advance on Moscow came almost to a standstill. When the attack resumed, it was hampered by mud, stiffened Russian resistance, and finally snow, stalling only 20 miles from the Soviet capital. This pause, from August 4-24 “may well have spared Stalin defeat in 1941,” writes the eminent British military historian, John Keegan, in his history of the war. Other historians, including Sir Basil Liddell Hart, have concluded the same.

Ron Laurenzo is a writer living in Maryland.

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