26 SEPTEMBER 1998, Page 41

All expectations confounded

Norman Stone

RUSSIA'S WAR by Richard Overy Penguin, £20, pp. 394 In 1988, as the Soviet collapse was start- ing, you could see at Sheremtevo airport great plane-loads of exhausted emigrants — Central Asians, probably making for Turkey, Jews from the Caucasus, making for Israel, via Budapest. Whole families would be stretched out over their posses- sions, the men and women sunk and demoralised, the children sleeping wherev- er they lay. In each such group there would be an older man, sitting bolt upright, in uniform with, often, great rows of medals. Here we are, they mutely said, and look what you are doing to us. For the genera- tion that fought the Great Patriotic War, it had been downhill all the way ever since, and now the very state was collapsing. How, you might ask, did the Soviet Union survive the second world war, but not the Cold War?

One answer must be that the enemy was a different one. The United States certainly offered an alternative way of life, and one that, given Soviet penury, became increas- ingly attractive. Nazi Germany offered only slavery to most inhabitants of the USSR, if not extermination. In 1941, as Richard Overy's new book makes plain, nearly everyone expected the USSR to collapse. Its history in the 1930s had been murder- ous, and the army itself had lost a great many of its senior officers through purges and show-trials. When it invaded Finland in the winter of 1939-40, it had been humil- iatingly defeated time and again until brute force, and thaw, allowed it forward. No one expected that it would do any better against Nazi Germany, which had over- thrown France and Poland. Hitler was ooz- ingly confident that he could reach Moscow easily, and, even to the end of the War, there were Baltic Russians employed by the German Foreign Office to study how the captured Soviet territories might be exploited. Extermination of the Jews was first systematically carried out there, but arguments for a freeing of the non-Russian Soviet peoples also got almost nowhere with a Hitler and a Himmler determined on showing the Ostvolker who was boss. The Soviet peoples were galvanised into a national resistance by the Germans' own initial successes when they invaded in June 1941. These successes were indeed vast hundreds of thousands of captives, thou- sands of square miles taken, in the space of a few weeks. How did the Soviet peoples withstand all this, lose territory as far east as the southern Volga, and then, after the turn of 1942-43, push the German army gradually onto the defensive? This vast subject was, of course, much filmed, in the manner of the second world war, and as there are still many survivors to talk to the camera it makes for very good television.

Richard Overy masterminded a recent television series, and this is its accompany- ing book. Most such books have a rechauffe air to them. This does not: on the contrary, Overy is a first-class military historian, in his prime, taking on a prime subject with a book that is needed. He writes concisely, and says what he means to say. If I could fault the writing, it would be for the con- stant echo of A. J. P. Taylor; that man could manage continuous staccato short sentences, but lesser mortals need the odd relative clause to rotate the crops.

Overy cut his teeth on the German war- economy, and is this country's best-known expert on that. But he comments knowl- edgeably, not just on the German and Russian war-economies, but also on the strategy, because he can sludge-gulp his way through the enormous and almost innumerable volumes that the war generat- ed on the German side (there is an admirable official history). He has also had quite a bit of help in Moscow, so that unlike, say, Paul Carrell, he can give you the Soviet side of things adequately. The result is that he can explain those great bat- tles which made the world hold its breath — the collapses in 1941, the halt at Moscow, the disastrous Soviet counter- offensives of spring 1942, and the German plod through the southern Russian steppe towards the Caucasus. He is very good indeed on Kursk, the decisive battle in mid- 1943, and I know no clearer account of that struggle, in which, on both sides, 3,000 tanks slugged it out.

If the book has a fault, it is the inevitable one of being too dependent upon what still-Soviet archivists tell him. Of course, a great part of the truth in the old days was hidden, and the best Soviet historian, Alexandr Nekrich, had to emigrate to the United States before he could reveal why 1941 had seen so many calamities. Later on, the military historians in Moscow did recognise that there had been terrible mis- takes, even in the victorious year, 1943: an attempted amphibious landing in the Crimea did not even become an Anzio, because the tanks were all landed in water that seeped into their engines; parachute drops were always a failure worse than Arnhem. By the time Overy started off in Moscow, they would tell him other things, hitherto secret — for instance, what hap- pened with the 'punishment battalions' (two-thirds of the near-million men in them were killed clearing minefields with their feet) and how the former Soviet pris- oners-of-war, handed over by the British in 1945, were treated (brutally). Over such episodes as the Warsaw Rising of August 1944, when the Polish Resistance tried to seize Warsaw from the Germans before the Red army got there, he takes the Soviet line — that the Red army could not, physi- cally, do anything very much — whereas the suspicion lies very thick that Stalin was quite content to see anti-communist Poles get themselves slaughtered, and Warsaw destroyed, so that post-war communist rule could be properly established in Poland.

John Erickson's two volumes on this subject still stand, inevitably, as the British classics, but to understand what Erickson does with the subject you have to have a key and an initial lay-out. Those had been missing in English-language accounts; although Alan Clark's or Paul Carrell's were excellently readable, they were writ- ten from a German perspective (Carrell, a pseudonym, was, I believe, Ribbentrop's press spokesman). Now, we have an authoritative British account that under- stands both sides, without illusions.