He stands larger than life, a gun grasped firmly in one hand, his strong jaw pointing slightly upward as he fixes his determined gaze somewhere off to the left. Ivan. The WW II Soviet soldier. Any visitor to the Soviet Union has seen him cast in bronze at war memorials or seen him in WWII era placards. To readers of WWII memoirs from German soldiers, he is the faceless infantryman who yells Uhrrah! en mass and launches himself with selfless sacrifice in endless waves against withering German fire (1,2). In war, soldiers are always turned into icons -- carefully polished symbols of patriotism and heroism ... (or evil if you are talking about the enemy). But real soldiers are individuals with reals hopes, desires, fears and heartbreak not bronze statues--even Ivan. In this incredibly well-researched book, Catherine Merridale (3) seeks to find the real Ivans and tell their stories.
The bulk of the book is organized chronologically: from the disastrous Winter War in Finland to the victorious invasion of Germany. The book as a whole however is organized to answer three basic questions: Why did men fight, what did they think of their experience at the time and how did the war change them?
To understand these men (ok, there are few women, but mainly men), Merridale first introduces us to their world. These men and their parents were generations that had experienced violence on an unprecedented scale(5). The civil war of 1918-1921, besides creating chaos and killing many, also created desperate shortages. In its wake were epidemics and a terrible famine. That famine turned out to be minor compared to the famine of 1932-1933 when 7 million died. Then there was the restructuring of society after the civil war: collectivization, totalitarianism, and gulags for the land-owners, business-owners and intelligentsia. But the young soldiers also grew up in a state that sought to remake souls--to remake youth into heroic communists. This last point is very important. Those born from 1921 on, were born into a state that saw as one of its great missions the education of youth and the lifting of people out of poverty. To be a "good Communist" was to devote oneself to the betterment of society, to be upstanding, moral, and clean, and to do heroic deeds. At the same time, the experience and views of the men were anything but uniform. Many men came from regions that did not support Russia--the Western Ukraine and the Balkans for example. Others served in punishment battalions as a way to do penance for their family's capitalist crimes--or for more mundane crimes. The idea of a unified country standing together against the Germans is a myth of the Soviet state(6). One of the strengths of Merridale's book is that she tells the stories and experiences of men from many different walks of life. Many were your idealist Muscovite, others were village boys, some were from Russia and others were not. Their experiences as soldiers were also diverse: she tells the stories of men who fought on the front lines on the ground and in the tanks, of men who ended up behind the lines and worked as partisans, of men who survived the punishment battalions, of Jewish men, of ardent Communists, of non-political men, and of a few women.
Why did men fight? When Merridale first posed this question, my reaction was, "Well, duh, they were conscripted and would be shot if they didn't fight." She argues however that terror-tactics produce a very poor solider--the normal response being to hide in one's foxhole or to be incapable of firing. British, German, and American armies create the will to fight by promoting very strong bonds within small groups--after a few battles and losses, the men fight with passion for their close comrades who, through the crucible of fire, have become closer than family to them. Making them feel they are fighting a good cause is good for morale, but does not create the kind of heroic fighting necessary to win wars. What Merridale notes right off the bat is that the Red Army was not organized this way. The traditional military structure had been replaced with an ideological structure. This was an army where men were supposed to fight for the international proletarian and to die for their fellow soldier, whoever he may be, because of comradely friendliness. If one's takes this propaganda at face value, the men seem like mindless robots. Of course dying for the international proletarian is a fine idea if you are agitating in on a street corner; in the heat of battle, nobody is going to rush the enemy for that! Secondly, Soviet battle groups experienced severe losses in battles. Loss of 80-90% of men in a combat group was very common(4). Thus for both political and death rate reasons, strong bonds between small groups of men were discouraged.(8) So the question remains what motivated these men to rush the lines and pull the trigger? The simple answer is that an army run by political officers and not military officers is a pathetic army. The Red Army up to 1942 had huge desertion and panic rates. In the winter war against Finland, 50% of men were captured, missing or killed. As the Germans rolled over Russia, men fled en masse and refused orders to fire. Even the Germans were surprised by the chaos, notes Merridale. Thus much of the first half of the book is about is was like to be in a losing chaotic army--and how does a man react when he can see with his own eyes how terribly mismanaged the war is and how cheaply lives are treated. The feeling clearly changes in the 2nd half of the book and the 2nd half of the war. The army is reorganized under more traditional military not political leadership. Training and tactics improve. Men develop new resolve. Letters from the 2nd half of the war are characterized by determination, resolve and hatred for Fritz.
"I have to say that the war has changed me a lot. War does not make people tender. On the contrary, it makes them reserved, rather coarse, and very cruel."(7)
Part of the drive to understand the man in the Red Army in 1938-1945, it must be said, is to understand what happened in 1945 in Budapest and worse yet in East Prussia. War makes one cruel and innured to death and brutality, but there are many records of officers being alarmed and startled by what happened(9). War atrocities are nothing new. All wars are have instances where women and girls are gang-raped and then shot or where a large group of civilians are killed and mutilated. What was different about Budapest and East Prussia was the magnitude, extent, and commonness of these types of outrageous brutalities. The solidier that did not participate was the exception not the rule. The reports from civilians all over these regions are chillingly similar: a white hot fury descended upon them that went house to house exacting revenge. This seemed to be a spasm of brutality. Merridale spends a whole chapter, with the lovely title of Despoil the Corpse, to understand what caused men spread across different battle groups and across large geographic regions, to do this. This was not an isolated event in one battle group. She attributes it to the terrible strain of war and loss into which was mixed hateful propaganda, implicit and explicit encouragement from above, and inadequate commitment to discipline from officers. After they soliders passed farther into Germany, their behavior was less horrible. Most women were raped, but not gang-raped to death and rape in front of one's family was less common. Children and old people where not generally killed, and certainly not mutilated. Merridale says that in her interviews with veterans they were exasperated with this focus on rapes of German women. They spent years fighting in horrible conditions--that is what defined their experience. Yes, the brutalities were terrible but they had already become so inured to death and cruelty. The rapes and rampage of 1945 was, from the perspective of the war as a whole, a brief and not particularly memorable part of their experience.
This book is a must read for those interested in WWII--the overwhelming majority of which was fought on the Eastern Front. You won't learn about tactics, about troop movements, or about equipment. After reading this book however, you will see the person behind those nameless Red Army faces. This book also helps us grasp the enormity of sacrifice and suffering. 27 million died in the war of which 8 million were Red Army soldiers, but I think the losses are better summed up by another shocking statistic: 90% of men who turned 18 in 1939 (born in 1921) died as solders in the war.(10)
1,2. Some example memoirs that I've read recently are In Mortal Combat by Bidermann and Blood Red Snow
3. Merridale, from England, is a Soviet historian. Her previous book, Night of Stone, was about how Soviet people dealt with death in the pre- and post-WWII eras. She focused on the deaths and disappearances of people arrested and sent to Gulags (millions and millions). How does a nation of people deal with death when they are forbidden to grieve?
4. Evgyny Bessorov was a platoon leader in the Soviet Army and wrote the memoir, Tank Rider. In basically every major battle, he lost all but a handful of men in is platoon. Then he would get a hodge-podge of replacements for the next battle.
5. 15 million died in the 2 decades before WWII.
6. Merridale and Bessorov mention many cases where the soldiers were not greeted warmly by the civilian population. Bessorov says they almost starved when they were sent as recruits to dig potatoes since the villagers refused to share food. In some instances, peasants rose in rebellion against the Red Army as in Kursk when the army tried to remove them from the front lines.
7. Written in 1945 by a soldier. pg 381
8. The exception seems to be the tank soliders who formed very tight bonds as they had to work as a well-oiled team. They also had very high death rates. According to Merridale, of 403,272 trained, 310,000 died. Interestingly in Tank Rider, Bessorov repeatedly talks of the tanks drivers being scared and holding back.
9. Both Beevor and Merridale give examples of reports from officers and political officers.
10. p 338