on January 14, 2000
Russia at War: 1941-1945 by Alexander Werth is one of the most incredible history books in existence. Eyewitness accounts of the aftermath of barbaric Nazi occupation and interviews with survivors of German captivity are haunting and unforgettable. With its maps, contemporary press clippings and excerpts from memoirs by Nazi and Russian officers the book appears to be an invaluable repository of second world war facts put in concise, popularly accessible form. To a modern day revisionist, Cold War warrior or russphobe, some of Alexander Werth's accounts may seem to be overly pro-Soviet (or rather too unsympathetic to the Nazis - the complaint one hears most frequently) and the style with which he described certain events as insensitive and even callous (like his stunning narration of the last days of the German army at Stalingrad), however to most people reading Alexander Werth's Russia at War will uncover a new honest perspective both on the events leading to the WWII and on the actual meaning of the allied Victory at its conclusion. This fascinating book is so well written, that comparing it to other books on the same subject is difficult and perhaps unfair to their authors, one can compare reading Russia at War: 1941-1945 by Alexander Werth to playing an addictive (computer) game: once started, it is almost impossible to stop.
on March 20, 2001
At the opening of the D Day museum a few years ago, historian Steven Ambrose made an incredible statement during his remarks. He said the democracies of the United States, Britain, and France (yes France) defeated Nazi Germany. Well...yes, in a way, but....
Of course that statement completely overlooks the horrific sacrifice the people of the Soviet Union made to battle Germany in WWII. If it can't be said that the Allies could never have defeated Nazi Germany without the Soviet Union, it certainly can be said that the casualties on the Western front would have been much much higher (particularly for the United States).
For Ambrose, a noted WWII historian, to committ such an oversight is inexcusable. For the average American, it is perhaps understandable. The American perception of the Soviet contribution to the defeat of Nazi Germany has been downplayed at best, grossly distorted at worst, particularly during the Cold War. Werth's massive (but very readable) tome, written during the height of the Cold War, should be required reading for anyone interested in this subject. And who wouldn't be? This is history on a massive scale. The largest armies ever seen battling to the death on a front extending for thousands of miles. A titanic clash of ideologies. Incredible blundering by political leaders on both sides. Incredible bravery on the part of ordinary soldiers (and civilians). And Werth keeps the pace moving, blending an incredibly intricate war into a very readible history.
Even this book's shortcomings (the description of the Battle of Leningrad left me strangely unmoved) are more than compensated for by its many achievements (I have never read a better description of the desparation during the Battle of Stalingrad).
If you are not familiar with this aspect of WWII history, you owe it to yourself to begin with this book.
on July 29, 2000
Alexander Werth has sometimes been accused of being a Soviet-apologist. But in his superb history of the Eastern Front, it is the Russian (and Belorussian, Siberian, Ukrainian, etc)*people* who are the true heroes. Published in 1964, the work is undeniably free of the Russophobia of an accelerating Cold War period, probably due to its focus on the human drama and trauma of the War. The Russian people endured horrific loss and suffering, no small part of which was brought on by the policies of Stalin himself. But because Stalin was savvy enough to appeal to Slavic pride and national loyalty -- even to simultaneously procuring the blessings of the Orthodox Church and resurrecting the pagan image of Mother Russia -- ordinary Russians were willing to give everything for their "People's Sacred War". This massive book (nearly 1100 pages) is extremely "readable", being divided into numerous small chapters of 10 - 20 page length. Poignant first-person interviews with combatants and civilians, survivors of battle and siege, give the reader appreciation for what the Russians accomplished, and admiration for them as a people. The author has three other books, out of print but worthy of reading, "Russia: Hopes and Fears", "Russia: The Post War Years", and "Russia Under Krushchev".
I have read a fair bit about World War II over the years, including Eastern Front narratives by Alan Clark, Anthony Beevor, William Shirer (which was not limited to the Eastern Front) and others. Of all of them, Werth's history is my favorite. It manages to capture, in a single volume, the breadth and scope of this enormous conflict in a way that no one else has quite been able to do, in my humble opinion. Werth examines all aspects of what the German invasion meant to the Soviet Union, whether diplomatically, militarily, economically, culturally, politically or ideologically. Of course, there is a limit to the depth of coverage in each of these areas, but each is treated to the extent necessary to provide a good overview of Soviet life during the war years.
Werth picks up with the European diplomatic scene in 1939, as the post-purge Soviet regime begins to appreciate the dangers posed by the growing German military threat. The account of the various diplomatic missions and exchanges is relatively well detailed, albeit not so well as Shirer's (which is, in any event, from a completely different perspective). Werth leans a little heavily on Pravda excerpts and the official Soviet history, but that's understandable given the shroud of secrecy that stifled the free flow of information. Werth provides insights into Soviet thinking of the day, both among the leadership and the citizenry, that paint a different picture from what many have learned about Soviet motivations for entering into the non-aggression pact with Germany. While there was some of the traditional "evil empire" mentality as to Poland, the measure was largely self-preservative due to Britain's diplomatic ineptitude during those crucial years.
The military narratives are sweeping in the their scope, and stay generally at the strategic perspective. Major segments of the book focus on large sectors of the front, such as Leningrad, Moscow and Stalingrad. Troop strengths are frequently measured in armies and hundreds of thousands of men, with only occasional glimpses at the lot of the foot soldier. Werth does this through various "close-ups" to add much needed color and flavor to what might otherwise be a fairly sterile presentation. During some of these, Werth recounts his own personal experiences "on the ground," meeting with both peasants and generals alike (including Chuikov and Malenkov, for example).
Overall, I found this history to be quite objective. Although this is a Russocentric view of the war, it is by no means an apology for the Soviet regime. Werth takes all parties equally to task where appropriate for their bad decisions, but at the same time he is not colored (as we Americans so often are) by an anti-Soviet bias in discussing the successes of the Red Army and its leadership. He is unflinching in his descriptions of Soviet weaknesses and failures, and spends some time discussing the origins of the Stalin personality cult and the myth of his "military genius." While Werth is not as hard on Stalin as some historians have been, he stops far short of adulation. If anything, I think Werth's treatment of Stalin amply conveyed his intense pragmatism, which often expressed itself in brutality toward his opponents, both real and imagined. Take, for example, Stalin's embrace of nationalist propaganda during 1942, only to resume the party's ideological norms in 1943 after the tide had been turned at Stalingrad. Another example is the regime's courting of the various peoples of the Caucasus in 1942, followed by the mass deportations of 1943. Werth also makes no bones about the regime's (and by implication, Stalin's) crass propagandizing of the Soviet people. His portrayal of Stalin is, in a word, objective.
In short, if you want a grand overview of what the Eastern Front was all about, from the perspective of a people that sustained the brunt of the German onslaught, you will find it here. Is it a perfect history? No, of course not, but it's certainly a good one.
on September 18, 2001
I read this book years ago when it came out and recently reread it. It is still as compelling as it was on the first read. Yes Werth was a man of the left and his sympathies lie with the soviet union, but the sense one gets of his leftism is not Stalinism but of a left that harks back to the great men of the left--Jaures comes to mind.
I also think that this book is necessary not only to inform people about what Harrison Salisbury called "The Unknown War" and but also to ensure that history will not be able to rewrite the events of WWII in an Orwellian fashion.
I would certainly concur with William Shirer, the author of "The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich" that "Russia at War" is "magnificent... the best book we probably shall ever have in English on Russia at War." The book was first published in 1964; Alexander Werth was a war correspondent who "got up close to the action" and was fluent both in German, as well as Russian, having been born in St. Petersburg. He was relatively free to travel throughout the county, and to speak directly to Russians of all social strata, and all ranks in the armed forces. The book is over a 1000 pages, and thus not for the casual "fun read" crowd. It is not primarily a military history, replete with unit designations and movements. Instead Werth tends to deal with the military action with the broader brush; he also deals with the political motivation of the leadership on both sides, as well as the global perspectives on the war. As the author says in the introduction: "This book, therefore, is much less a military story of the war than its human story and, to a lesser extent, its political story." He goes on to list an impressive group of contacts that gave him a good cross-section of Russian opinion.
He commences in 1939, with the Finnish-Russian war, and the conflict in the West after the invasion of Poland. Naturally there was much political maneuvering to avoid the Russo-German aspect of WW II, and when it finally came, although it had been much anticipated, it was startling how unprepared the Soviet forces were. Werth quotes the novelist Simonov: "It seemed that everyone had been expecting the war for a long time and yet, at the last moment, it came like a bolt out of the blue; it was apparently impossible to prepare oneself in advance for such an enormous misfortune." The Russians had 600,000 soldiers captured in the Kiev encirclement alone; only three in every one hundred would survive the war. Perhaps due to the fighting in the Balkans the Germans invaded later than planned; in June instead of May, and although General Heinz Guderian famously stood on a hill and could see the spires of the Kremlin, divisions of Asiatic Soviet troops threw the Germans back, and Moscow never fell. The agony of Leningrad, however, was more severe, although it never fell, perhaps a million people starved to death during the 900 day siege, which was covered in depth in Harrison Salisbury's book. Werth says the psychological turning point of the war was the epic battle for Stalingrad, where the German 6th Army was surrounded by a counterattack of over a million men. Werth was on the battlefield there, before the Russians had the chance to collect all the Germans, and noted an emaciated German soldier squatting over a cesspool, and the skeletons of horses devoid of meat, and wished that Hitler "smirking at he stood on the steps of the Madeleine in Paris" could see what had become of his army. The author says that the military turning point was the Battle of Kursk, in the summer of 1943, when 3000 Russian and German tanks slugged it out. I was at Kursk in 1990, and what struck me most was how very little the place was commemorated, as compared to Normandy.
After Kursk, Werth follows the Soviet forces to the Brandenburg gate in Berlin. Along the way the casualties and "payback" were horrendous. He covers well the Russian partisans, who fought behind Germans lines, and endured savage reprisals. His coverage of the reasons why the Soviets stopped on the Vistula River, while the Polish partisans rose in Warsaw, and were slaughtered, was balanced. Other controversial aspects of the war Werth presented with the facts of the time, such as the Katyn forest massacre, where the elite of the Polish officer corps were executed. There were reasons and facts that supported the theory that the Germans did it, likewise for the Soviets. We now know that it was the Soviets, in an effort to control the post-war Polish government.
Other reviewers have criticized Werth's pro-Soviet reporting. To some degree I suppose these criticisms as true, but I tend to see the issue of Werth's empathy for a people enduring one of the worst calamities of all time. Between 20 and 30 million Russians died in "The Great Patriotic War," the ramifications in today's world still abound, and this is the sine qua non account of this tragedy.
on February 5, 2000
This incredible book is both a historic overview of the world war and the events that preceded it, and a collection of poignant, compelling, eyewitness accounts of that epic war from the perspective of an English journalist in Stalinist Russia. For me personally this book became a true discovery - I had known very little about the war on the Eastern front prior to reading this book (and all the limited knowledge I had was obtained from usual sources tainted with russophobia, cold-war propaganda and then colored with prejudice). I was stunned by the scale of the conflict, passions behind and enormity of Nazi crimes in Russia. Some of lesser known details of Nazi behaviour in Russia are so bizarre that one cannot stop wondering on how weird (besides being evil) the Nazis were - for example, they designed, manufactured and employed special "agricultural" machinery for destroying crops and so starving rural inhabitants of the occupied Soviet Union; or the Nazi "invention" of special railroad engine that demolished and mangled railroad track: Destruction of Biblical proportions that is bureaucratized, institutionalized and also placed on industrial, "scientific" scale. Disturbing stuff. Werth's account of the Siege of Leningrad and personal stories of the people he interviewed are both extraordinary and very sad. You will not regret buying this book.
on May 15, 2002
This book is by far the most objective book on WWII available in English and written by a Westerner. I was born in Russia and as most Russians was frustrated by the Western interpretation of the WWII and esp. Russia at WWII. Werth, fluent in Russian and born in Russia but who lived and worked in the UK, has this truly unique quality to present this war from two prospectives - Western and Russian. His Western objectivism is combined with a real understanding of what the Great Patriotic war meant for the USSR and its people.
Alexander Werth is a brilliant narrator and he makes such a complex, factual, at times horrific history book, easy to read and understand.
on May 18, 2014
Alexander Werth's history of Russia during World War II is one that shows an interesting perspective. Werth was a journalist who lived in Russia throughout the war and had many more opportunities to see places and talk with important people than the vast majority of other journalists. He visited Stalingrad shortly after the battle there and was one of the first journalists to see the liberated concentration camp at Majdanek. His personal connection adds a lot to his history.
Unfortunately, there are a few aspects of this book that make it less than ideal for someone interested in this topic. Werth has a tendency to focus on two things: the suffering of the Russian people and reports from the Soviet government. The actual military campaigns of the war are generally just summarized and given a cursory, high-level treatment. The important figures of the time are not described very much; all he says about people like Stalin and Zhukov is what they said and did that was in the Soviet news.
The final issue that I have with this book is Werth's excessively pro-Russian and anti-Polish bias. He is skeptical of things that few modern historians are skeptical of, e.g. Russian responsibility for the massacre in Katyn forest, the importance of Lend Lease aid. He also parrots Stalin's justification for annexing Poland, that it was necessary for Russian self-preservation. Recent scholarship covers these topics more fairly, and the opening of Soviet archives in recent decades has been especially helpful to historians seeking the truth.
on December 21, 2009
I read this, as a teenager, a couple of years after it came out in 1964 and was enthralled by it. At the time, there were very few books available about the eastern front - all of them from the German POV(ie Paul Carrel)- Russia at War was the first extensively using russian sources. That, plus Werth's racy, I was there style and eye for detail (40 years later, I still remember the kids using frozen german corpses as tobaggens outside Stalingrad) makes it one the essential books about world war II. It's a terrific combination of history and memoir.
Reading it again, I notice the political bias far more clearly. Werth blames western appeasement for Stalin's non-aggression pact with Hitler and believes dropping the A-bomb on Hiroshima had more to do with intimidating russia than ending the pacific war He makes a good case however, for the soviet failure to liberate WarsaW as due to a successful german resistance than because of Stalin's desire to have the germans crush the polish home army. On the Katyn massacre, Werth reluctantly concludes Stalin did it. Werth seems less a Stalinist than pro-russian. I remember, after the 68 Czech invasion, Werth turned bitterly anti-soviet in his writing.
One footnote. Werth includes in his accout of the Korsun encirclemnt battle in Jan.'44, an absolutley hair raising accout of the slaughter of german troops by cavalry and tanks that I have never seen in any other account. Did it really happen or was Werth's informant exaggerating?