Tuesday, February 23, 2010

A small step in the right direction

When you call a book the Greatest Battle, you would expect that the book would tell the story of, well, a battle. I suppose if you want to get metaphorical this book is about a sort of struggle, but not a military one. Rather it is about the Russian's people struggle to get a war won while Stalin was leading the country. The lopsided emphasis of the narrative makes the subtitle Stalin, Hitler, and the Desperate Struggle for Moscow That Changed the Course of World War II, all the more inappropriate.

The conflict between Stalin and Hitler is less known in the West than the much smaller war fought in North Africa, Italy and Normandy. This is too bad, as the Red Army was essential to breaking the break of Germany (Lend Lease and the bombing campaign were also vital, but also lack the heroic luster of democratic soldiers fighting totalitarian soldiers.) This book is not the one to learn how the Russians succeeded, but to learn about how, thanks to Stalin's policies, they nearly failed.

Author Andrew Nagorski is principally about how a series of bad decisions nearly gave the victory to Germany. Stalin ignored intelligence indicating an attack was coming. He purged senior and mid-level military leadership, making it difficult for large units to function. He put in place political commissar units that killed soldiers that tried to retreat. There is very little about the actual fighting in his story. General Zhukov makes a few appearances, but Nagorski is mostly concerned with Stalin.

You won't get much information about the actual fighting and you don't get much information about the Nazis or Hitler either. The latter is excusable in that anyone reading a history book is going to be well versed in Nazi atrocities. They may not know about the einsatzgruppen, which Nagorski does detail. It does, though, make the titles misleading.

The number of popular books written about the Eastern front is pitifully small compared to that of the Western front. For that fact alone, this one has value. It just isn't what it could be.

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