Deathride: Hitler vs. Stalin, 1941–1945
By John Mosier. 456 pp.
Simon and Schuster, 2010. $30.
Reviewed by Alexander Hill
Deathride is a history of the Eastern Front during World War II. John Mosier—who has gained a reputation for writing revisionist history—and his publisher both claim it offers a new idea: that Nazi Germany and its allies came ever so close to victory in the East. While questioning conventional wisdom often leads to fresh takes on history, it does not in and of itself make good history. Any challenge to the works of others has to be based on sound evidence, which is often sadly lacking in Deathride and in many of the works Mosier cites to justify his arguments. Mosier certainly writes well: Deathride is a flowing and lively read. This is clearly one reason why his previous books, including The Myth of the Great War and The Blitzkrieg Myth, have been popular. But in trying to create a good read, Mosier—a professor of English, not history, at Loyola University New Orleans—sacrifices standards that are sacred to many professional historians.
Mosier argues that “until July 1943 the prospect of [a German] victory was tantalizingly close”—this even though the battles of Moscow (1941–1942), Stalingrad (1942–1943), and Kursk (1943) are all regularly described in the literature as “turning points” that shifted the war in the Eastern Front in favor of the Allies. Mosier conveniently ignores a huge chunk of the literature, including, for example, R. H. S. Stolfi’s Hitler’s Panzers East. He also makes minimal use of Russian-language sources—all but dismissing them despite their wealth of valuable material for the serious historian. That Stalin and the Red Army squandered human life in the pursuit of victory is hardly debatable, but Mosier distorts the evidence in what appears to be some sort of revisionist reverie. The introduction alone is riddled with misrepresentations of history and historical work in order to present Deathride as groundbreaking. For example, he cites extremely weak sources to suggest that the death toll for the Red Army was 7 million in 1942 and nearly 7.5 million in 1943. The best data we have, even if imperfect, indicate the Red Army during the whole war saw about ?9 million fatalities.
The remainder of the book continues in a similar vein. It is well-written sensationalism that ignores the historical literature when Mosier sees fit and is based on the flimsiest research. At one point, for example, Mosier notes the relative absence of “insurgents, guerrillas, or partisan activities” in the (incomplete) stenographic record of Hitler’s military conferences and in “the accounts of the surviving generals” as evidence of the insignificance of Soviet partisan activity on the Eastern Front. This ignores the fact that, as early as August 18, 1942, such activity was sufficiently serious to warrant Führer Directive 46, which notes how partisan activity had reached “intolerable proportions” in the East in recent months!
I cannot recommend John Mosier’s Deathride as anything but an example of poor history. For an up-to-date, readable, and well-researched single-volume assessment of the war in the East, I would endorse Evan Mawdsley’s Thunder in the East.
Alexander Hill is an associate professor of military history at the University of Calgary, Canada, and author of The War Behind the Eastern Front: The Soviet Partisan Movement in North-West Russia 1941–1944 and The Great Patriotic War of the Soviet Union, 1941–1945: A Documentary Reader.