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Stalin's Folly: The Tragic First Ten Days of World War II on the Eastern Front

posted by zaina19 on June, 2005 as ANALYSIS / OPINION

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From: MSN NicknameEagle_wng  (Original Message)    Sent: 6/3/2005 1:36 AM

Houghton Mifflin

Stalin's Folly: The Tragic First Ten Days of World War II on the Eastern Front
By Constantine Pleshakov
Houghton Mifflin
326 Pages. $26

Wishing the War Away

 June 3 - 9, 2005

Hitler ordered his forces to invade, but it was Stalin who left the Soviet Union unprepared. Constantine Pleshakov reassigns blame for one of the bloodiest routs in history.

By Richard Lourie
Published: June 3, 2005

To celebrate the Soviet victory in World War II is also to celebrate its victor, Josef Stalin. But 60 years after the fact, questions remain about Stalin's role in that victory. How much damage had his recent purge of Red Army officers done to the Soviet Union's military strength? Why did he seem to still trust Adolf Hitler in June 1941 when his spies were informing him of imminent invasion? And just how badly did he act in the first days of the war? These questions are at the core of Constantine Pleshakov's slender epic.

Pleshakov's explanation for Stalin's apparently erratic behavior in the buildup to the war is fresh and straightforward: Stalin was planning a preemptive strike against Germany but thought he had at least a year's time because he could not bring himself to believe that Hitler would attack the Soviet Union before Britain had fallen. "Hitler and his generals are not so foolish as to start a two-front war," he said. "The Germans broke their neck on this in World War I. Hitler would never risk such a thing."

Stalin's reasoning was intelligent, rooted in history and completely wrong. Perhaps he did not realize the extent of Hitler's madness, or perhaps his need for time blinded him to contrary evidence. How could Hitler betray him before he had the chance to betray Hitler?

The problem is that it just isn't clear how real Stalin's plan for a preemptive strike was to Stalin himself. "The preemptive war remained a researched option, not a definitive plan," Pleshakov writes. Later, in his notes, he gets more specific: "What is missing from this narrative? My answer would be ... the details of the preemptive strike plans of 1940-1941." Since Pleshakov cannot show much convincing evidence for the plan he claims was central to Stalin's thinking, his book is off to a shaky start.

He does much better when describing the opening days of the war itself -- the slaughter, panic and confusion. The Red Army had, for security reasons, opted for cable communications over wireless but in "something approaching criminal negligence, the telegraph lines had been left unprotected on the night of June 21." With their easy disablement by the German forces, intelligence could not be shared. Armies vanished. The Commissariat of Defense lost contact with 10 of 26 special trains that had been sent west. The slaughter was horrific. "In the Baltics, the Soviet army lost roughly 5,000 men per day. In Ukraine it was 16,000, in Byelorussia 23,000. On average, a soldier died every two seconds." Some units had only enough weapons for a third of their soldiers. Planes ran out of ammunition and took to ramming German aircraft in the air. Much of the Soviet air force had been destroyed on the ground in the early hours of the war. Preparations for defense, evacuation and retreat -- treasonous concepts -- were nonexistent.

Pleshakov is revisionist on Stalin's mood and behavior in those opening days. "It used to be claimed that he either sank into depression or never abandoned the helm," he writes. "Neither is true: he kept the helm precariously unstable. He was absent from his Kremlin office for just two days, June 29 and June 30." However, Pleshakov contradicts himself later when, in a section about the period from June 23 to June 25, he says of Stalin that, "unable to come to terms with the staggering retreat in the west, he sank into depression, which was occasionally interrupted by fits of uncontrollable rage."

Backup for Pleshakov's revised version of Stalin remaining at the helm can be found in the visitors' book from his Kremlin office, discovered in the Politburo archive in the early 1990s. The only question, of course, is the authenticity of that document. Stalin would have been aware of the need to improve his performance record during those days and was known for saying that paper would put up with anything written on it. He was clearly touchy on the subject of military preparedness, heatedly telling Winston Churchill in 1944: "Only the aggressors can be prepared. Are all of us to be aggressors?"


The devastating death toll of the German invasion left Moscow's defense in the hands of ill-equipped and poorly trained draftees.
Pleshakov is particularly adroit at finding the little details that bring a time and place to life, like the unusual abundance of forest mushrooms in the fall of 1940 which "every adult in that superstitious land knew ... meant just one thing: war." He invokes the tall wheat and rye of the first summer of war like a motif in a Russian folk lament and notes how dry it was that year, which meant German armor could ford waterways more easily; the weather was still on the side of the invader. He also unearths some of the odder cruelties of warfare like the following habit of Luftwaffe airmen: "Sometimes, having run out of bullets and bombs, a pilot flew his plane so low to the ground that he could crush the Russians with its tires. Survivors of those attacks bore improbably wide blue bruises across their backs."

His sketches of the generals around Stalin are quick but vivid, capturing the frustration of military men forced to balance their best interests with best intentions. One, Konstantin Rokossovsky, had been restored to command directly from a prison torture cell. Pleshakov is not afraid, however, of giving Stalin his due for "outstanding managerial skills" and for quickly relinquishing control to the generals and reviving a meritocracy in the armed forces. In his opinion, the purge of the officer class in the late 1930s did something even worse than leave the Army unprepared -- it made a military coup impossible. "The Great Terror saved the dictator and his system; instead of collapsing in the summer of 1941, as it should have, it survived for another fifty years."

Pleshakov's considerable strengths as a writer are at times undercut by peculiar weaknesses. Capable of bringing a battle to life, he nevertheless lets himself fall into the trap of using military jargon, which renders the passion and horror of war as abstract as chess notation: "The Third Army, commanded by V. I. Kuznetsov, was the northernmost; the Fourth Army, led by A. A. Korobkov, sat in the south. P. M. Filatov's semifictional Thirteenth, still in the making, was deployed in the rear. As soon as the German panzer groups started enveloping the Tenth at Belostok, the Third and Fourth knew they were in trouble."

Similarly, while some of his comparisons are striking, others fall just short of idiocy: "Marx was one of the most prolific writers of his age, but he was hardly the Stephen King of political philosophy, since he lacked King's clarity." And though Pleshakov's writing is usually clear and direct, he occasionally uses an expression like "Who is walking?" when what is obviously meant is "Who goes there?" leading one to wonder exactly what language Pleshakov writes in and whether Houghton Mifflin still employs editors.

Its faults aside, "Stalin's Folly" succeeds in reminding us that not all of the dictator's victims were put up against the wall or, as secret police chief Lavrenty Beria said, "ground into camp dust." They also included those young soldiers dying every other second as a result of his incompetence in those 10 days that shook the Soviet world.

Richard Lourie is the author of the novel "The Autobiography of Joseph Stalin" and "Sakharov: A Biography."

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