THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Book Review

Shattering some of the Stalin-Hitler myths

‘Deathride’ revises much about tyrants

‘‘Deathride’’ looks at the relationship between Josef Stalin (pictured) and Adolf Hitler and how it contributed to Germany’s defeat in World War II. ‘‘Deathride’’ looks at the relationship between Josef Stalin (pictured) and Adolf Hitler and how it contributed to Germany’s defeat in World War II. (AP/File)
By David M. Shribman
July 8, 2010

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We think we understand the great German-Russian conflict of the Eastern Front of World War II. We think it was the great grudge match of the tyrants, Stalin and Hitler. We think Stalin panicked in June 1941 when his Nazi ally turned on him. We think Hitler was beaten by the same Russian winter that defeated Napoleon a century earlier. We think Stalin was steadfast in refusing to consider surrender. We think the Soviets prevailed in the greatest tank battle ever, at Kursk.

Maybe not. At least that is what the historian John Mosier, who in an earlier volume shattered the myths surrounding Hitler’s Blitzkrieg, is telling us in “Deathride: Hitler vs. Stalin — The Eastern Front, 1941-1945.’’ It is a dramatic departure from the conventional wisdom and is itself a dramatic chronicle of the most brutal theater in the most brutal war in one of history’s most brutal centuries. But the real theme is even bigger than the Eastern Front, which itself stretched from the Baltic to the Black Sea.

Mosier is arguing that World War II was fought for economics, not for political or ideological reasons. That is not a new thesis, to be sure, but his is a creative approach, holding that not only the motivations but also the maneuvers of the war were almost entirely economic in nature.

Hitler, for example, wanted Poland because it was a net exporter of goods to Germany. The Allies then tried to block iron ore shipments from Scandinavia, hoping to deny the Nazis the materials required to build tanks and planes. And the whole bloody thing was a war on an economic, not a political, front. The Allies, which included the Soviet Union by war’s end, simply out produced Germany, and in fact the Third Reich was defeated by two nations that weren’t even their adversaries when the war began, the United States and the Soviet Union.

This is a clear-eyed, compelling description of a battle that has been described many times, but seldom with such an ironic eye. This monstrous war, conducted against the backdrop of the tyrants’ purges and their mechanical approaches to civilian death, was conducted in a great killing field of ethnic groups, including the Poles and other Slavic peoples, many of whom fared little better under Stalin than they did under Hitler. And these persecuted Eastern Europeans were themselves no friends of the Jews, who were virtually exterminated in this charnel house.

What emerges from these pages is a struggle between vicious Soviet bunglers with a craven leadership willing to sacrifice millions to survive versus vicious German technocrats with a leadership that didn’t anticipate the dangers of military over-extension and the advantages its rival possessed by fighting a defensive war in a primitive land with unlimited cannon fodder. That said, Mosier believes that Stalin was closer than anyone (including Stalin himself) knew to running out of men, some of whom by 1943 were getting only two days of training.

Now back to those myths that lay shattered on Mosier’s pages. Stalin wasn’t immobilized by Hitler’s perfidy in 1941, only stuck in a 1914 reverie that permitted him to believe he had weeks to mobilize and to think a diplomatic resolution was plausible. The Nazis were defeated in Russia more by Father Fall than by General Winter — that is, not when the land was full of ice but when the roads were full of mud. Stalin would have entertained an armistice but fought on mostly because Hitler wouldn’t consider one. And as for Kursk, that wasn’t the clear-cut victory that Soviet propagandists claimed.

Wars have a chilling bottom line, and Mosier’s is this: The war in the East was Hitler’s to lose and he did. Several times on the verge of victory, the Germans were not defeated by a superior rival, only by superior will or at least the willingness to pay the price of victory. Stalin won the war “only because he was willing to sacrifice approximately 27 million Russians.’’ Horrifying conclusion, horrifying battle, horrifying victory.

David M. Shribman, executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, was for a decade the Globe’s Washington bureau chief. He can be reached at dshribman@post-gazette.com.

DEATHRIDE: Hitler vs. Stalin — The Eastern Front, 1941-1945

By John Mosier

Simon and Schuster,

480 pp., $30