I grew up in the shadow of WWII and I probably will never be able to completely rid off it until the end of my life. Every time when I read another book I hope that it is the last one and I will finally loose interest in this war since I do not expect to learn anything new that I did not learn from previous hundreds if not thousands of books, documentaries and interviews. However again and again some new book or documentary attracts me and I wind up spending time only to find out that I did not find out anything new.
This book is somewhat unusual because it is not so much about new information as about new view at existing information about this war which, in my opinion, is much more consistent with data then traditional view. The traditional view is that Hitler’s Germany after failing in air war against Britain just switched its aggression from West to East and invaded Soviet Union which, while preparing for the war, nevertheless was not ready and therefore was badly bitten during the first two years of war. The reasons for this beating in traditional view was decimation of Soviet officer corps by Stalin’s purges, Stalin’s incompetence, and technological obsolesce of Soviet weapons.
This book makes a pretty convincing argument that Soviet officer corps despite purges was not completely destroyed and by the time of invasion was pretty much back in their previous positions and ready to fight. There are quite a few big names of Soviet military leaders who made a great career by mid 30s, found themselves in prison in the late 30s, and then were back in command by the time of German invasions on June 22d 1941. For anyone familiar with the logic of Soviet system it sounds quite plausible. One fascinated example of this was a chief of gulag who was intermediately prisoner and then back in his position as chief more then once. An individual was nothing so at one point Stalin decided that engineers would work more diligently if not distracted by families and freedom and whole design bureaus were denounced as enemies and imprisoned while keep working on the newest military equipment.
Also book’s argument that Soviet military equipment was superior then Germany’s is also very convincing. Due to results of WWI German military industry was paralyzed until 1933 and American superior technology designs had no military use in demilitarized, pacifistic, and isolationist democracies, but were easily available for Soviets to buy and use. Few people know for instance that the best tank design of WWII – soviet T-34 was based on American’s designed transmission. The impressive comparative data for military equipment provided in the book supports this argument pretty well.
So what then cause a dramatic defeat of Soviet armies in the summer of 1941? According to the book it was dedication to the doctrine of blitzkrieg, only contrary to usual history it was not only German, but also Soviet dedication to this doctrine. According to this doctrine the winner of military conflict is the side, which concentrates its resources as close to front line as possible in secret, and then attacks suddenly, decisively, and without hesitation, applies mechanized forces for deep penetration and encircling of enemy forces. The negative side of this strategy is that concentration of resources for attack makes them very vulnerable if enemy attacks first. According to the book this is exactly what happened to the soviets. Both Dictators Stalin and Hitler concentrated their forces on the border for sudden attack. Both completely rejected idea of defensive actions at the beginning of conflict. It just happened that Hitler completed preparation and struck first leading to tremendous losses for the Soviet Union, but eventual defeat for the Hitler.
In addition to pretty detailed analysis of troops and resources concentration and multiple reports from contemporaries, the book provides a very interesting analysis of other 3 blitzkrieg conflicts from 1939 to 1945 with participation of Soviet Union. These were attacks against Japan in 1939 and later in 1945 when in both cases Soviets achieved victory using blitzkrieg methods against another aggressive military which subscribed to the same doctrine. The third was against Finland in 1940 where Soviet blitzkrieg encountered well thought through and well prepared defense by much smaller forces. The soviets won, but only after difficult winter fight and with tremendous losses.
Finally one small detail is that while both Stalin and Hitler obviously were aggressors, the book implies that Hitler’s attack against Soviet Union was prompted by Stalin actions during Molotov’s visit to Berlin in 1940. During this visit the supposedly final division of the world between two totalitarians failed because of extreme demands of Stalin which if met would leave Germany under constant thread to loose access to strategic resources such as oil in Romania and metals in Scandinavia. This failure to agree left Hitler with no better option then preempt soviet first strike with his own despite less then full preparedness of Germany for significant expansion of war and inevitable war on two fronts.
One can only wander how much less losses people in the Soviet Union would suffer if Stalin choose Finish like strategy of absorbing first strike using well prepared deep defensive positions with following up counteroffensive against weakened opponent. Eventually Stalin come to accept this strategy in 1943 in Kursk battle, but only after loosing two summer campaigns in 1941 and 1942. On other hand who knows what losses the world would suffer if the WWII not ended in annihilation of one totalitarian regime and significant weakening of another despite of its victory. If victorious with small losses, Soviet Union would not only dominate all Europe, but quite possible would go on to the world wide conquest especially if America would remained disarmed and isolationist as it was before Pearl Harbor. I do not think that communism would win, but the struggle and losses could be much worse that it had been.