It is a widely held point of view that history is usually written – or at least distorted – by the victors. The history of the war on the Eastern Front between the Red Army and Wehrmacht, in the English speaking world is almost unique in that it does not conform to this belief.
In the years that followed the end of the Second World War, western interest inevitably focused on the campaigns in which British and American soldiers fought and died. There was a steady stream of accounts of the fighting in North Africa and Italy, Normandy and Asia; as time went by, the encounters in which the Western Allies had come off second-best, such as Belgium and France in 1940, were also covered. Whilst many of these accounts attempted to reinterpret those defeats as preludes to a greater victory, writers also focused on the skill and power of the German forces. It was the beginning of the creation of the legendary Wehrmacht, a formidable opponent that was – at first – superior to all in its path. The ultimate victory of the Western Allies was therefore all the more impressive.
During the 1950s, the first English-language accounts of the Eastern Front began to appear. By this time, the political landscape had changed dramatically. The Soviet Union, a former ally, was now the opponent of the West in the Cold War, and the former enemy, Germany, was beginning the process of rearmament to help oppose the new foe beyond the Iron Curtain. Many of the German officers who had served on the Eastern Front were now emerging from imprisonment – many of those held in the Soviet Union were not released until 1955 – and their memoirs sought to portray the war with three particular distortions. Firstly, the German officer corps was generally infallibly correct in its decision-making, and German failures were largely due to the interference of Adolf Hitler; secondly, the German armed forces were almost universally superior to the Red Army, but were overwhelmed by sheer weight of numbers and the difficulty of waging war in such a primitive landscape as the Soviet Union; and thirdly, war crimes were not committed by ordinary combatants – rather, they were attributed to various Nazi bodies operating in the rear zones. Even the formations of the Waffen-SS were portrayed in this manner – the divisions that fought in the east were elite formations fighting to protect Europe from Bolshevism, not at all related to other parts of the SS that were responsible for the Holocaust and the concentration camps.
Soviet accounts of the Eastern Front faced a number of difficulties in being accepted by the Western World; the most obvious barrier was language. Most of the Soviet leaders in the closing years of the war went on to hold military posts after the end of the fighting, and their memoirs didn’t appear until they finally retired – as a result, many of their former opponents had already published their accounts, and these had been accepted by western readers as a generally accurate version of events. And, just like the German accounts, those written by Soviet officers were also distorted. Whilst the memoirs of German officers followed the themes outlined above, those of Soviet wartime commanders were subject to a far more rigorous requirement to conform to Soviet Cold War dogma; consequently, they contain frequent passages singing the praises of the Soviet state, and the heroism of individuals is usually portrayed in the context of self-sacrifice for the Communist ideal. Furthermore, politics in the Soviet Union after the war required those who aspired to high office to demonstrate impeccable credentials earned in the Great Patriotic War. It is perhaps ironic that the battle on the Eastern Front that was most strongly influenced by Soviet accounts was the German attempt to crush the Kursk salient in 1943, and greater access to Soviet archives has highlighted that the widely accepted view of this as the greatest tank battle in history in which the striking power of the panzer divisions was dealt an irreparable blow is a considerable distortion of reality.
The reality of the war in the east was very different. After a disastrous start, the Red Army had to learn how to win in the most difficult of circumstances and under immense pressure from its foe. This painful evolution saw many setbacks and errors, exacerbated by ongoing heavy losses of experienced men, but by the beginning of 1944, the ‘stumbling colossus’, as David Glantz described the Soviet forces at the outset of the war, was gone. In its place was a far more efficient military machine, equipped with effective weaponry and led by competent officers at all levels. Its opponent was also far from the military force that crossed the frontier in June 1944 – short of fuel, tanks, and replacements, the Wehrmacht was hugely overstretched. When the Soviet offensives rolled across Western Ukraine in early 1944, the contrast between the growing competence of the Red Army and the decline of its opponent was exposed in full. The operations that unfolded around Kirovograd, Korsun, and across the Southern Bug and Dniester Rivers showed that the Soviet forces still had lessons to learn, but there could be little doubt about the final outcome of the war: the moment of reckoning for the Third Reich was at hand.