Stalin, the Russians, and Their War, 1941-1945 (Book Review)

Reviewed by David R. Stone
By Marius Broekmeyer
University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, Wis., 2004

Stalin, the Russians, and Their War, the English translation of Marius Broekmeyer’s Dutch original, attempts to portray the human side of the Soviet experience of World War II. His goal is to restore those individual and personal aspects of Soviet history suppressed by 50 years of censorship intended to create a homogeneous, heroic and dehumanized picture of Soviet resistance to Nazi aggression.

In general, the book is quite similar to Studs Terkel’s The Good War: a collection of personal reminiscences about the war from a variety of viewpoints. Relying largely on memoirs and articles from the Russian popular press, it is unsystematic, unscientific and incomplete, but it never claims to be anything else. The best description of the book is the one Broekmeyer presents himself: “I give snatches; I describe episodes; I make—as it were—snapshots in time; I reflect personal recollections, thoughts, experiences, and views of specific individuals. Experienced at time A in place B, written down at time C, and published at time D.”

Nonetheless, the differences from Terkel’s book are profound. Terkel titled his book The Good War in part ironically; as any reader of this magazine can attest, there was a dark side of the American experience in World War II. From the Japanese internment camps to the segregated military to the cynicism of “Great Power” diplomacy, there is plenty of muck to be raked. What Broekmeyer does is show by comparison how good America’s war really was. The United States had a responsible and democratically elected government waging war against cruel and aggressive dictatorships. For the Soviet Union’s war with Nazi Germany, the picture is not nearly as clear. There is a reasonable debate as to which side was more vicious and brutal, which criminal regime displayed more wanton indifference to human suffering.

Broekmeyer takes us on a guided tour through hell. There is no dark corner of Soviet life that we do not see. He freely concedes that he focuses on the “negative aspects” of World War II, the stories that could not be told before the fall of the Soviet Union. It is “impossible to give a balanced view,” he claims, of wartime life in the Soviet Union, and so he does not try. We read instead of millions of soldiers’ lives thrown away, of corpses unburied even today, of starvation and disease, of relentless and bloody political repression.

The book’s strengths are its weaknesses. It is unparalleled in its ability to get across to Western audiences, generally unfamiliar with the scope and horror of the war on the Eastern Front, a sense of how terrible the conflict was for the Soviet people. It lacks analysis and perspective, but its chief goal is emotional impact.

That lack of analysis and perspective, however, weakens the book’s worth as history. Historians weigh evidence, check sources, consider context and evaluate bias for a reason: because the benefits in accuracy and understanding make up for the loss in immediacy.

Broekmeyer’s emphasis on horror means that the book does not teach the reader very much, except that the war was horrible. This is especially true when Broekmeyer explores the murky subject of Stalin’s plans on the eve of Operation Barbarossa. The mysteries and complications of Soviet policy in 1941 demand a careful, critical and systematic approach. Broekmeyer instead gives us anecdotes and impressions.

Finally, this book suffers in translation from Dutch. The January 1941 Soviet wargames dealt with, according to the book, the northwestern and southwestern “battle scenes,” documented by an erroneous endnote. “Command” is routinely translated as “commando,” and there is an odd story about the activities of a Russian Orthodox “pope.” It’s strange to read of soldiers drowning themselves on the way from “Stalingrad to the Volga,” when Stalingrad lies on the Volga.

Finally, the list of references that closes the book is in alphabetical order not in English, nor in Russian, but in Dutch transcription of Russian. To the general reader this will make little difference, but it weakens the book’s worth as a research tool.

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