Saturday, June 22, 2019

The Soviet Role in World War II - Antony Beevor

Author: Roberto Muehlenkamp
This article has nothing to do with the usual subjects of this site (well, a little). It’s about a 2017 lecture by British historian Antony Beevor at Hillsdale College, the subject of which was the Soviet Union’s contribution to the defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II.



Sir Antony Beevor is one of my favorite writers of non-fiction literature, and he tops the list as concerns World War II military history. I have read most of his books about WWII subjects – Stalingrad: The Fateful Siege, Berlin: The Downfall, 1945, D-Day: The Battle for Normandy, Ardennes 1944: Hitler’s Last Gamble. In his books Beevor comes across as an objective, neutral historian who has no axes to grind.

When listening to his aforementioned lecture, however, I got quite a different impression. The tone of the lecture reminded me of the verbal face slaps that Obama used to send Putin’s way while he was in office. I can understand that Beevor bears a grudge against Putin’s Russia, considering how he and his books have been treated there, and he’s certainly entitled to express that grudge. But I think he should not do that in his capacity as a historian, lest he damage his well-earned reputation as a dispassionate researcher and narrator.

After acknowledging that about three-quarters of all German military fatalities occurred on the Eastern Front or in Soviet captivity (though by reference to the German Military History Research Office, whose figures are from the somewhat dubious statistical study by Rüdiger Overmans), Beevor dedicated his lecture to downplaying the Soviet Union’s part in the destruction of Nazi Germany, focusing on futile Soviet bloodlettings like Operation Mars and on assistance granted to the Soviet Union by the Western Allies, e.g. by helping to feed the population in unoccupied Soviet territories (who according to Beevor would have starved but for American food shipments), supplying trucks that greatly improved the Soviet army’s mobility and bombing German cities (which led to the diversion of precious airpower and 88mm anti-aircraft/anti-tank guns from the Eastern Front).

Much of what Beevor said in the lecture is interesting and pertinent, and he is certainly right in pointing out the obvious, namely that Putin’s regime promotes a glorified and distorted image of the Soviet struggle against Nazi Germany. However, Beevor himself distorted facts in this lecture, namely with the following comparison (28:11-28:37 of the lecture’s video recording):
Although statistics are hard to compare between the Western and the Eastern Fronts, the average casualty rates per division per month appear to have been higher in Normandy, quite a lot higher in Normandy, than in the East. German losses on the Eastern Front averaged just under 1,000 per division per month. In Normandy the average figure was around 2,300 per division per month.

The quoted statement sort of hurt my family pride, which doesn’t like being (however subtly) told that my uncle Obergefreiter Ernst August Schmidt, who like the large majority of Germany’s military war dead fought and died on the Eastern Front, was up against less (living conditions and the elements aside) than his compatriots facing the Normandy invasion. That, of course, is my problem. However, Beevor’s statement also has some objective fallacies.

I’ll start with the one I consider the least serious. Beevor’s figures are not borne out by army casualty records of the German army high command (Oberkommando des Heeres - OKH) and the armed forces high command (Oberkommando der Wehrmacht - OKW), namely the 10-Day Casualty Reports per Theater of War from the OKH/Heeresarzt (Army Medical Officer) and the Monthly Casualty Reports from the OKW. Incomplete though these records are, there is no indication I know about that the proportion of unrecorded casualties was higher regarding one front than the other, so I think these records can be used to test Beevor’s above-quoted claim for substance.

Based on an accounting of German divisions by month and theater from September 1939 to May 1945, I calculated that the average number of German divisions per month on the Eastern and Western fronts in periods relevant for comparison purposes (i.e. following the Normandy landings, in which there was major combat on both fronts) was 144 divisions in the East vs. 70 in the West between June 1944 and April 1945 (the latter being the last month for which there are OKH figures). In the period between June 1944 and January 1945 (the last being the month in which the OKW records end), the average number of divisions per month was 135 in the East vs. 70 in the West. In the months June, July and August 1944 (the period covered in Beevor’s book about the battle for Normandy), the monthly average was 135 divisions in the East, 69 in the West. Allowing for a one-month backlog in casualty reporting I also considered the months July to September 1944, in which the monthly average was 133 divisions in the East vs. 68 in the West.

Taking these figures and the average number of monthly casualties in each period based on the mentioned OKH and OKW records, I arrived at the average casualty figures per division per month shown in the table below.



One can see that in the periods considered the number of German casualties per division and month was either just about equal in East and West or somewhat higher in the East than in the West.

Casualties include servicemen killed, wounded or missing, with the missing including those who were killed but whose death could not be ascertained at the time and those who were taken prisoner by the enemy. The next table, in which the numbers of men either dead or wounded per division and month in the relevant periods are compared, shows a clear predominance of East vs. West, with the number of dead and wounded per division and month in the periods June-August 1944 and June-September 1944 being almost 3 times higher in the East than in the West.



This suggests that the proportion of men killed as opposed to taken prisoner among the missing was also somewhat higher in the East than in the West, and it is well known that, as the Allied advance progressed and the situation became increasingly hopeless for the German armed forces, German troops tended to surrender in large numbers to the Western Allies, whereas in the East they would rather be killed than captured for fear of Soviet captivity. In April and May 1945, as is mentioned here, there was hardly any fighting in the West as German troops surrendered in masses without putting up much if any resistance, whereas in the East the fighting lost none of its intensity until the end (as is also pointed by German historian Christian Hartmann on pp. 104-105 of his book Unternehmen Barbarossa: der deutsche Krieg im Osten 1941-1945).

(The calculations behind the above two tables are too long to be reproduced here, but I’ll be glad to send them to anyone who asks for them, either in a comment to this blog or in an e-mail to cortagravatas@yahoo.com.)

So much for the consistency of Beevor’s figures, now for what is most problematic about his comparison.

Beevor seems to have compared average German casualty rates in the largest and arguably most intensive battle on the Western Front, the battle for Normandy from June to August 1944, with average German casualty rates along the whole Eastern Front throughout the 4-year conflict between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Such comparison might be appropriate if the Germans and the Soviets had waged major battles along the entire front in every month of that 4-year period, throwing everything they had at each other like the Germans and the Western Allies during the 1944 fighting in Normandy. But that was not so. On the Eastern Front periods of high-intensity combat, which rarely encompassed the entire front, alternated with comparatively quiet periods, in which not much was going on in certain sectors of the front or along the entire front, and in which the main enemies of combatants on either side were dulling boredom and the miserable conditions under which they lived. My uncle mentioned such periods in several of his letters home. "Here it is quiet like in peacetime, hopefully it will stay that way", he wrote from Poland on 11 December 1944. And on 28 December: "It is still quiet and boring. We are sleeping our youth and our reason away." Then in January 1945, after the Soviet Vistula-Oder Offensive had begun, it was as if the skies were falling down on him, as he wrote in his letter of 10.2.1945:
The whole misery started for us on 12.1. Ivan's first attack came at night, two more followed during the day, and of course we beat them off. In the evening we disengaged. From this day on we marched day and night until 21.1. On 21.1. we were suddenly loaded onto trucks, but the ride was not to last long. After 20 km we had to get out, prepare weapons, receive ammunition and get ready to attack. Thus our fate was sealed. The fight for the village of Plaza I don't want to describe to you. Only this much: My best comrade fell there, and we held the village for 3 days. On 25.1 Ivan attacked with 10 tanks and a regiment of infantry in our company area and broke through. I thought it couldn't get any worse, but it still got worse. In the evening Ivan caught us and we wandered into captivity until 27.1. First the pigs took away the distinctions, which in my case had multiplied: Iron Cross 2nd Class, Infantry Assault Badge, Close Quarters Combat Badge, Wounded Badge in Silver, War Merit Cross and a Croatian medal. Now I have no more documents about these, and if I'm unlucky I won't get any more either. I have been recommended for the Iron Cross 1st Class. Then they beat us, and then we had to work. In the evening we broke through again. On 27.1 was the climax: ground attack planes, artillery barrages, attacks by tanks and infantry. The evening brought deliverance for me and death for my second friend.

If Beevor had got his figures right (which according to my sources and calculations is not the case), his comparison between Normandy and the Eastern Front might be true, but it would not be a true and fair comparison. The difference between "true" and "true and fair" was explained as follows by a tax law professor when I was in law school: A sea captain enters in his logbook that "Sailor X was not drunk today". This may be a true statement, but it is not fair as it implies that the sailor´s soberness on that day was an exception to the rule.

Beevor's comparison implies that there was combat of similar scale and intensity as the Normandy battle in every period and place of the Nazi-Soviet conflict, and as this was not so, his comparison is not a fair one but a comparison between apples and oranges. Such misleading comparisons I would expect from the likes of Carlo Mattogno and Germar Rudolf, but not from Sir Antony Beevor. One might attribute this fallacy to negligence if it had come from a lesser talent, but a historian of Beevor’s caliber must have known what he was doing.

In this context one might also ask whether the number of casualties per division per month is even a meaningful comparison criterion. It presupposes that division strengths were about equal on both sides of the comparison, which was not necessarily (or hardly ever) the case in the German army throughout the fighting on either front. The (purely hypothetical) calculation in the table below shows why Beevor’s comparison criterion is meaningless. The number of divisions in this fictive scenario is twice as high in the lower than in the upper line, but as each division in the lower line is only half as strong as a division in the upper line, the number of troops in both cases is equal. The same number of monthly losses (10,000) incurred by both forces means 2,000 losses per division in the upper and 1,000 per division in the lower case, but the casualty ratio for both forces is exactly the same: 13.33 %.



A true and fair comparison of German casualty rates in East and West would have been one between Operation Overlord and a battle of similar scale, duration and intensity on the Eastern Front, the most appropriate comparator being Operation Bagration, which took place at about the same time and was also mentioned by Beevor in his lecture. The table below, a compilation of various estimates about German strength and casualties in Overlord and Bagration (including Beevor’s own casualty estimate for Overlord) shows that according to most estimates (including those of military historians Zetterling for Overlord, Glantz & House and Frieser for Bagration) the average daily ratio of German casualties was about the same in both battles.



This, incidentally, is in line with Beevor’s assessment on page 522 of his book about the Normandy battle (2012 paperback edition by Penguin Books), where he wrote that "despite the sneers of Soviet propagandists, the battle for Normandy was certainly comparable to that on the Eastern Front".

Following the unfortunate comparison of figures in his lecture, Beevor remarked that German soldiers who had experienced both fronts were shaken by the fighting in north-west France. (28:38-23:45 of the video recording). That may be so, but what does it mean? Being at the receiving end of, say, the unprecedented carpet bombing that started Operation Cobra, or of Allied artillery and airpower decimating the German troops caught in the Falaise Pocket, was easily the worst war experience for German soldiers going through such hell. But then, the same applies to German soldiers encircled at Stalingrad, or to those who were later caught up in, say, the Cherkassy Pocket, the Minsk encirclement, the Budapest breakout attempt, the Heiligenbeil Pocket or the Halbe encirclement (the last of these is impressively narrated by Beevor in Berlin: The Downfall, 1945). So here we have another misleading comparison in Beevor’s lecture.

Toward the end of his lecture (starting at 35:20 of the recording), Beevor approvingly quoted an observation by Soviet nuclear physicist and dissident Andrei Sakharov, who stated that "although Stalin killed more people, Hitler had to be defeated first". Beevor added that "a Nazi victory over the Soviet Union in 1941 would have been so terrible that there is no other answer", and that "the mass starvation and enslavement which the Nazis planned for the population of the occupied territories up until the Archangel – Astrakhan line could have dwarfed even the horrors of the Holocaust".

While the claim that Stalin had more people killed than Hitler is disputable in light of post-Soviet archival research, I can agree with Beevor’s statement about the possible consequences of a Nazi victory over the USSR.

However, that statement brings up questions that I think Beevor failed to address in his lecture, though they are as pertinent as any to the subject matter thereof: Which was the essential force that prevented the horror of Nazi Germany’s victory when such victory was within reach, in 1941 and then again in 1942? I think the answer is obvious: the army and the people of the USSR. And if that force had failed, could any other have stopped (let alone defeated) Hitler? Could an invasion of Normandy have succeeded, or even taken place at all? Most probably not.

Moreover Beevor's remark that mass starvation on a larger scale following a Nazi victory could have "dwarfed" the horrors of the Holocaust would probably not be well received, and rightly so, by survivors and historians of the Nazi genocide of Europe’s Jews, one of whom made the point that "No gradation of human suffering is possible."

I hope that Sir Antony Beevor will not deliver more lectures like the one discussed above. I also hope that he will continue writing books as good as those I have read.

9 comments:

Unknown said...

Hitler did kill more
prior to the collapse of the USSR and the archival revelations, some historians estimated that the numbers killed by Stalin's regime were 20 million or higher
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Excess_mortality_in_the_Soviet_Union_under_Joseph_Stalin

Adolf Hitler is one of the most well-known—and reviled—figures in history. As the leader of Nazi Germany, he orchestrated both World War II and the Holocaust, events that led to the deaths of at least 40,000,000
https://www.britannica.com/list/9-things-you-might-not-know-about-adolf-hitler

Vic N said...

great discussion

Dominik said...

Without USSR and Stalin's decisions there would be no WWII. They participated in the same kind of crimes and there is a moral equivalence between USSR and Third Reich.

JJ said...

no? Hitler would still try to take over the world

Beezertheturnip said...

A relatively minor point, but I feel it should be made. You said, about midway through the article

"This suggests that the proportion of men killed as opposed to taken prisoner among the missing was also somewhat higher in the East than in the West, and it is well known that, as the Allied advance progressed and the situation became increasingly hopeless for the German armed forces, German troops tended to surrender in large numbers to the Western Allies, whereas in the East they would rather be killed than captured for fear of Soviet captivity. "

While true, it does not encompass the whole of the surrender to killed ratio imbalance. A large proportion of pre-war ending surrendering soldiers were predominantly "pocketed" troops, who were cut off from from retreat and resupply. That tended to happen more frequently on the Western front than the Eastern, owing to a number of factors, including but not limited to superior "western" rates of motorization and mechanization, generally better developed road and rail networks enabling extremely rapid advances should the logistical nodes remain intact, ability of usage of seapower to lift supplies and on occasion even troops, and considerably better aerial intelligence over in the West to detect troop masses and maneuver appropriately. These all lead to more frequent pocketing and more likelihood of surrender, even if the Soviets were not more feared as captors (which of course they were)

NOTE: I realized something I wanted to add immediately after I finished my comment, and could not figure out how to edit it, so I deleted and am reposting it here with the addition.

The only major countervailing factor I can think of in favor of more tactical encirclements for the Soviets is that of density. While overall troop counts on the Eastern Front were of course much larger than that on the Western Front, for almost the entirety of the war, the length of contested front-line on the Eastern Front was huger by an even larger factor. That meant that formations tended to be more dispersed and consequently weak or even gap points almost inevitably developed far more rapidly and comprehensively over in places like the Ukraine or Belorussia than they did in say, France or especially Italy.

Nicholas Terry said...

@Beezertheturnip: pockets in 1944 were more extensive in the east than the west; the higher proportion of surrendering troops in the west did so not just when pocketed, but also routinely. This stemmed from things like Wehrmacht policy to assign Poles on the 'Deutsche Volksliste' who were conscripted to OKW theatres; large numbers deserted; and to the relocation of battalions of Osttruppen and Ostlegionen to the west, but also from the perception of German soldiers that surrendering to the western Allies was far safer than surrendering to the Soviets.

The Germans suffered several Falaise-like pockets in the east during the first half of 1944, i.e. Cherkassy, the Hube pocket and withdrawal from the Crimea, which generally extricated division staffs at high cost, much as in Falaise. But the summer offensives resulted in multiple very large pockets - Bagration, Brody and the 2nd Iasi-Kishinev offensive. The turn of the year brought another encirclement at Budapest.

Roberto Muehlenkamp said...

@Beezertheturnip:
You make good points, but did the Western Allies do all that much pocketing?

IIRC they only managed to pocket large numbers of German troops in April 1945 in the Ruhr Pocket, but by then the Germans in the West didn't feel much like fighting anymore. There were < 10,000 German military fatalities vs. > 300,000 prisoners of war in the Ruhr Pocket. Many German soldiers in the Ruhr Pocket walked for miles on end before they found an American no to preoccupid with other duties to accept their surrender. For comparison, in the Battle of Halbe on the Eastern Front from 24 April to 1 May 1945, over 30,000 German soldiers, out of a much smaller number encircled, were killed fighting the Red Army.

Before March 1945, if I'm not mistaken, the only major encirlement that the Western Allies achieved was the Falaise Pocket. And even there a substantial portion of those encircled got away.

Nicholas Terry said...

On both fronts, substantial German losses were incurred during 1944-45 because of the 'Fester Plaetze' fortress order.

In the West, these were effectively sieges or stormings of fortresses, but the troops were cut off and encircled nonetheless. Examples:
-Cotentin peninsula/Cherbourg - 30,000 captured
-Toulon (242 ID) - 17,000 prisoners)
-Marseille (244 ID) - 11,000 prisoners
-Saint Malo - 10,000 prisoners
-Brest (parts of 3 divs) - 38,000 prisoners
-Le Havre (245 ID) - 11,300 prisoners
-Boulogne - 9,500 prisoners
-Calais + Cap Gris Nez - 9,000 prisoners
-Walcheren Island (70 ID)
(numbers from corresponding Wiki articles)
Metz and Aachen were also fortresses, but were more intensively defended, with fewer prisoners.

There were certainly a few smaller pockets or units overrun during the main Allied advance through Belgium and Northern France away from the coast, and heavy losses to rear-area units due to the advance. The liberation of Paris cost the Germans 3,200 dead and 12,800 prisoners.

Nicholas Terry said...

The largest pocket during the rapid advance was the Mons pocket, where about 25,000 prisoners were taken (p.684 here)
https://www.ibiblio.org/hyperwar/USA/USA-E-Breakout/USA-E-Breakout-32.html