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The Guns of August
Barbara W. Tuchman, Robert K. Massie
Total War: From Stalingrad to Berlin - Michael Jones If you think all the epic stories from WWII have been told, Mr. Jones gives you a small sample of a vast repository of tragic stories from the eastern front in [b:Total War: From Stalingrad to Berlin|11187318|Total War From Stalingrad to Berlin|Michael Jones|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1335169905s/11187318.jpg|16112073]. I think it is fair to say, until recently, the western view of the eastern front probably considers the 2 theatres of war to be roughly equal in ferocity. I remember being skeptical about the claims of the "Great Patriotic War" sacrifices because the Soviets always lied or exaggerated. But now I am coming to appreciate how large a sacrifice they made. Without taking anything away from the western allies sacrifices, reading about the massive combat in the east gives a new appreciation for their soldiers' achievement on the eastern front. They were subjected to the most horrifying brutality and not hard to see why they visited the same back on the Germans.

At the start of the book, Jones paints the scene of Pavel Antokolsky with his son Vladimir at the Moscow Station. This scene was so moving as the father sends his son off to war. It makes the connection -- these people are no different from us. Vladimir will soon die in his first battle. Pavel’s poem to his son will be published and become known throughout the land. This vignette does so much to bring the tragedy of 2.7M Soviet soldiers lost in the first year down to a personal level.

Jones has two major themes in the book. The first is to highlight the individuals within the huge death tolls:

By early 1944 Russia was winning the war against Nazi Germany. Under the stress of intensive campaigning, and influenced by an ideology that emphasized the collective good above the welfare of the individual, it is clear that the Soviet Union needlessly threw away the lives of many of its soldiers. These men and women were not fighting as part of a robotic mass, however. Red Army soldiers’ voices testify to the desperate pain felt over the loss of each individual life.

Mr. Jones will follow a number of individuals throughout the war. He will bring stories you have heard about and many that will be new. The stories of the women fighters were a real highlight, although the women didn’t always get the respect they deserved.

On 6 February 1944 Soviet medical instructor Ariadna Dobrosmislova of the 308th Rifle Division spent a few days with a different unit. She had been awarded the Order of the Red Star for the defense of Stalingrad, where she had been badly wounded, and she had always been treated with courtesy by her fellow soldiers. She knew how to fight as well as tend the wounded, and took pride in polishing her Mosin-Nagant rifle — which she nicknamed ‘Boris’ — until it shone like a mirror, boasting that it was the cleanest gun in the company. But Dobrosmislova was shaken by her encounter:

‘In our own unit girls are regarded as girls,’ she wrote to her mother, — we are shown respect and attentiveness and most certainly never insulted in any way. When we briefly dispersed to another company I came up against attitudes to ‘soldier girls’ which were wounding to the point of tears. Some didn’t even regard us as females, calling us ‘ersatz women’ and other undeserved names. Others tell us that ‘after the war, no one will want to many you’ and ‘you will never be a wife or mother’. One lieutenant declared that in the army every girl becomes a whore. You can imagine how hurtful it is to hear such things! No one in our own unit had ever made such comments. I loathe these men — and the five days we spent in their company seemed like five years of penal servitude. .

Another person he follows is Lt Mikhail Borisov. He fights in many battles. The Lt seems to have a tough time on his birthday:

On the eastern bank of the River Oder, newly promoted Soviet lieutenant Mikhail Borisov was approaching his twenty-first birthday with some trepidation. Borisov’s 58th Motorized Rifle Brigade was stationed south of Kustrin. On 22 March 1942 and on the same date the following year the young artillery officer had been wounded in combat. On 22 March 1944 a celebration had been held to defy Borisov’s run of bad luck, with music and a group of singers from the Kiev Philharmonic. Festivities were interrupted by a German bombing raid. The shock waves knocked Borisov to the floor, leaving him concussed and buried in debris. On 22 March 1945 Borisov wondered whether he should ignore his birthday completely. But congratulations came in from nearby units, one artillery battery offering to put his position under friendly fire to keep up the tradition. So a modest table was laid and drinks put out. Suddenly a car drew up. It was the regimental commander, Colonel Shapovalov. Furious that no one was manning the lookout post on the roof of the building, he ordered Borisov up there. Five minutes later, the blast from an exploding German shell blew Borisov all the way down again. That evening his comrades gathered by his bedside — in a military hospital.

Life under the Soviet system was seldom forgiving of mistakes, even innocent ones:

Colonel Dmitry Loza recalled how the November 1944 edition of the front-line newspaper Sovetskiy Voin — Soviet Fighting Man — was eagerly awaited by the tank crews of V Armoured Corps, fighting in Hungary with the Second Ukrainian Front. The edition had been rushed through to carry the text of Stalin’s speech on the anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution. The Soviet leader’s title was boldly displayed, but through an oversight of both the proofreader and editor the letter ‘I’ was omitted from_the word glavno-komanduyuschiy, rendering ‘Supreme High Commander’ more colloquially as ‘Shitter-in-Chief. The editor was arrested by the NKVD and consigned to a penal battalion. .

The second major theme of the book is painting a more honest picture of the Soviet army. The cruelty in the final assault on Germany is a result of both witnessing the atrocities of the Germans in Russia and because, for years, the soldiers had been urged to wreak vengeance on the Germans.

There was little attempt in my unit to curb our troops’ behaviour. It was no big deal if a soldier raped a woman, or even a girl. On the contrary, men boasted to each other how many women they had taken. It was almost considered ‘heroic’ or ‘courageous’ to have had a whole series of women. And if someone was murdered, well, ‘it was war’.
Alcohol played its part. The German military deliberately left great stores of it in front of advancing Red Army troops, thereby doing no favours to their own civilian population. ‘It is impossible not to get drunk here,’ a Soviet soldier wrote home from East Prussia in early February 1945. ‘And what is happening around us is not easy to describe — if you drink, it is easier to deal with.’

The explosion of violence as the Red Army crossed into Germany — often fueled by alcohol — was stirred up by Soviet propaganda. ‘Hate the enemy! Kill the enemy!’ war journalist Ilya Ehrenburg had exhorted from the summer of 1942 onwards. This prolific fifty-four-year-old Jewish communist wrote regularly for Pravda, Izvetsia and the army newspaper Red Star, and his articles and leaflets reached millions of Soviet soldiers. And these soldiers loved him. ‘Our Ilya’, they called him. Ehrenburg was the Red Army’s prophet of vengeance: ‘The Germans are not human beings,’ he wrote in 1942. ‘From now on the word “German” is a most terrible oath .. . We shall kill. If you have not killed at least one German a day you have wasted that day ... Kill the German — that is your grandmother’s request. Kill the German — that is your child’s prayer. Kill the German, your Motherland demands it. Do not miss, show no mercy, kill.’ .

Yet Mr. Jones second theme was also that some in the Soviet army did not wreak vengeance wantonly. Both as a matter of humanity and practicality, the first weeks of terror visited by the Russians on the Germans were tempered and reduced.

Nikolai Inozemtsev was proud of his army’s performance in Königsberg. But he said of the atrocities he had witnessed in East Prussia: ‘Each rape debases our army and every soldier in it.’ Inozemtsev had seen a flurry of orders prohibiting arson, robbery and harm to German civilians. But he was struck by the power of Soviet war journalist Ilya Ehrenburg’s ‘revenge’ articles, which had embedded themselves in the consciousness of ordinary Red Army soldiers. He wrote: ‘It will require much energy from our commanders and officers to erase the effect of this. On 14 April 1945, two days before the Red Army launched its attack on the German capital, an article in Pravda appeared openly criticizing Ilya Ehrenburg, the prophet of revenge. It accused him of presenting an oversimplified view of the war, and of failing to distinguish between ardent supporters of the Nazi regime and ordinary German civilians. The article was written with Stalin’s approval, and reflected a change of direction by the Soviet regime. The Russians had committed terrible atrocities in East Prussia, Silesia and Pomerania that had damaged their cause and strengthened the German will to resist. The Red Army would now make a real effort to treat German civilians and POWs with proper respect. .

One of the most heartrending chapters dealt with the discovery and liberation of concentration camps, especially Auschwitz. The letters and interviews with participants at those sites are moving. This is an excellent book, a must for the permanent WWII shelf. 5 Stars.