The history of war is the history of alliances. In the late 1930s and early 1940s, two very different kinds were on prominent display: the desperate switching to and fro of Josef Stalin, who first joined with Hitler and then Hitler's enemies; and the Anglo-American alliance based on ties of ancestry and shared ideals. Two recent books explore the military, political, and diplomatic maneuvers radiating from these alliances of the Second World War.
The perennial question—who was the worse tyrant, Stalin or Hitler?—is not answered by The Greatest Battle: Stalin, Hitler, and the Desperate Struggle for Moscow That Changed the Course of World War II by Andrew Nagorski. Nagorski, a senior editor at Newsweek International, depicts both men as cruelty personified and every bit as prone to strategic error as they were to evil. His book goes far, though, in explaining why the Battle of Moscow (lasting from September 30, 1941 to April 20, 1942) is the least celebrated part of the "Great Patriotic War" that rendered Hitler, like Napoleon before him, unable to conquer Russia.
"Operation Barbarossa," as the Nazis called their invasion of the Soviet Union, exacted a blood sacrifice from the Russian people. The battles at Stalingrad and Leningrad are most often remembered as the great moments of resistance, not what Nagorski calls "the largest single battle" of World War II, the Battle of Moscow. That is because it was inconclusive, and, as Nagorski writes, "marked by humiliations and defeats from its earliest days all the way through to its lengthy aftermath."
When the panzer divisions first crossed the Soviet Union's western border on June 22, 1941, they smashed to bits the 22-month-old non-aggression pact between Hitler and Stalin. The Russians were unprepared, permitting General Heinz Guderian's forces to advance some 450 miles into Soviet territory in the operation's first month. This penetration demoralized the Russian people, but it was not much of a surprise to their leaders, since it was the result of Stalin's refusal to mount a defense.
The Kremlin had detailed warnings of German war plans from British intelligence, but Stalin dismissed them as lies borne of Western ill-will toward Soviet communism. From his ace spy in Japan, Richard Sorge, Stalin received similar tips. These he dismissed as impertinence. After Sorge turned out to be correct, his foresight only made him seem to Stalin too close to the Germans and a possible traitor.
Stalin's passivity was strange given that at the signing of the Hitler-Stalin Pact in 1939, he told the Germans: "Of course, we are not forgetting that your ultimate aim is to attack us." One can hardly make sense of his perverse negligence before the German assault at such a dire moment for the regime. Nikita Khruschev, serving the dictator at the time, described "a different Stalin, a bag of bones in a gray tunic."
But the larger reason that the tanks rolled in nearly unopposed could not be clearer: the Soviet state apparatus was preoccupied with repression, not defense. In 1941 the great purge had not yet ended. Some 40,000 men had recently been ejected from the Red Army as suspected Tsarists or agents of anti-Soviet powers. Tens of thousands of them, including much of the high command, had been shot to death.
Besides the rooting out of "enemies of the state," there was the ongoing subjugation of peoples in the lands that the USSR had acquired through the Hitler-Stalin Pact. The NKVD, or state security, was in the middle of mass deportations of Lithuanians, Latvians, and Estonians when the signs of a coming German strike became clear. The deportations continued. More than 25,000 Polish army officers and other Poles were ordered to be killed, lest they one day rise up against Soviet rule. When Operation Barbarossa was launched, the NKVD's first instinct "was to accelerate its work," causing many Balts and Ukrainians to believe "that the German invaders were liberating them from Stalin's reign of terror," Nagorski explains.
They were mistaken. Under Nazi doctrine, all who would come under German control in the east—the Asiatic, the Slav, the Mongol, the Jew—were Untermenschen and to be treated accordingly. The Wehrmacht pillaged local populations, starved POWs, massacred the Jews at Babi Yar, and ordered the assassination of all ideological cadres of the Red Army—under the famous Commissar Decree, they were not to be taken into custody alive under any circumstances.
As the enemy neared the capital, Muscovites panicked, belying official accounts that their resolve never wavered. Apparatchiks in the midst of evacuation were attacked by ordinary workers who sensed a breakdown of authority. Nagorski tells of factory takeovers and anarchy, a near-revolution against the Revolution. Stalin, however, having regained his bearings, made a key decision: not to retreat with other officials to a safer spot but to stand his ground in Moscow. He appealed to its defenders not as Bolsheviks, but as patriots, and they responded. Troops were hastily redeployed from the Soviet Far East to assist the forces being pounded by the Germans.
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What really began to turn the tide, though, were Hitler's mistakes. As his army drove eastward, he unaccountably slowed the whole effort down, pushing Operation Barbarossa into winter. "General Mud and General Cold are helping the Russian side," wrote the Soviet journalist Vassily Grossman. The German high command cared not whether its soldiers or tanks had proper provisions. Panzers started stalling out in the subzero weather, with neither antifreeze to revive them nor chains with which to tow them from the front lines.
Here were two belligerents trying to make war in the dead of winter with callous disregard for the fate of their own fighters, alive or dead. In the midst of this bleakness Stalin began to receive aid offers from the capitalist powers. He was slow to respond, mistrusting the British and the Americans as he had earlier mistrusted the Germans. It was, however, a matter of survival, so he switched sides. As Nagorski notes, he instantly showed himself "more combative than appreciative" of the democracies' helping hand.
President Roosevelt's desire to assist Russia—and to send the aid unconditionally—deeply divided American political leaders, even in his own administration. George Kennan and Charles Bohlen were at the scene of the chaos as junior foreign service officers at the U.S. embassy in Moscow. They knew the nature of the regime. Both were of the opinion that, as Kennan wrote, it had "no claim on Western sympathies." Agreeing with them were a former president, Herbert Hoover, and a future one, then-Senator Harry Truman. Those on the other side of the question included FDR's top aide, Harry Hopkins, and Colonel Philip Faymonville, a pro-Soviet U.S. military attaché who had been the favorite of a previous American ambassador, the notorious fellow-traveler Joseph Davies.
Many "antis" simply believed the fall of Moscow was imminent. Others had qualms about the U.S. allying with a regime that so ruthlessly suppressed religious faith. Averill Harriman raised the latter issue with Stalin, who hardly bothered to respond. A telling detail that Nagorski throws in: Roosevelt coached Moscow's ambassador to Washington, telling him to publicize the putative Soviet commitment to freedom of worship, for, in the President's words, doing so "might have a very fine educational effect before the next lend-lease bill comes up in Congress."
According to a German account cited by Nagorski, Hitler himself suspected that the vast material resources of the democracies could "eventually wear down German might." By 1944, legions of Red Army troops traveled in American trucks, fired American-made ammunition, ate rations made from Canadian wheat, and wore uniforms of American cloth. The Russians eked out a defense of their capital and other cities. By the end of the "Great Patriotic War," some 7.5 million Russian soldiers and 12 million civilians were dead. And this was victory.
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While Josef Stalin was a thorny ally, the Anglo-American collaboration at the heart of the anti-Nazi effort was no picnic, either. This hardly comes through in most of the feature films, documentaries, "Greatest Generation"-esque books, and other popular treatments of the war that regularly appear today. But the Allies face off against one another on nearly every page of Mark Perry's dual biography, Partners in Command: George Marshall and Dwight Eisenhower in War and Peace. As Perry shows, notwithstanding the kinship between the mother country and its former colony, the wartime "special relationship" was riven with strategic, logistical, and personnel disagreements.
What is most striking is America's and Britain's competing visions of the war: the Yanks were gearing up to grapple directly with the forces of the Third Reich—to land a massive armada in northern France followed by tanks pushing their way to the German border. They were cold to Prime Minister Winston Churchill's idea of going up through the south, through Europe's "soft underbelly," with "pinprick attacks" that would lop off the Wehrmacht piece by piece.
The direct approach—the brainchild of U.S. Army Chief of Staff George Marshall—was only partially aimed at liberating France, Belgium, Holland, and the other Nazi-occupied lands. Its other goal was to draw German forces away from Operation Barbarossa, giving the beleaguered Red Army a new lease on life. For as the Russian people reeled before the German war machine in 1941 and 1942, Marshall worried that the newly acquired ally would reverse course yet again to stop fighting Hitler. The possibility that Stalin would sue for a separate peace with der Führer loomed. And so Marshall and his lieutenants, chief among them General Dwight Eisenhower, were bent on opening a western front to relieve the pressure on the Red Army, stave off surrender, and keep Moscow in the Allied effort.
Churchill and the chief of the Imperial General Staff, Sir Alan Brooke, were not convinced that invading France was either necessary or able to divert the Germans away from Russia as the Americans hoped. Neither U.S. troops nor their commanders were seasoned enough to pull off a massive invasion of northwestern Europe anyway, they argued. They did everything they could to have the cross-Channel attack cancelled, then to postpone it, then to reduce its scope when it could no longer be avoided. As Perry repeatedly notes, the British were especially worried about their limited number of troops, and they had terrible memories of the large losses they had sustained in the First World War at the Somme and the Marne. Presumably the disastrous retreat from the French coast at Dunkirk early in this war was not far from their minds, either.
At the Allied strategy conferences, the British critique of America's lack of readiness hit home. Thus the Yanks found themselves acceding to smaller-scale attacks on the "soft underbelly"—the treacherous and bloody amphibious landings in North Africa, Sicily, and the mainland of Italy—with the understanding that the Allies would invade France as soon as it was feasible. General Eisenhower, a minor Army functionary at the outset of the conflict, rose to lead all U.S., U.K., Canadian, French, and Polish troops making those landings in southern Europe and then the "Operation Overlord" landing, finally, at Normandy.
Even as Ike took his place as supreme allied commander in Europe, and as such had to gain the respect of Britons like Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, he himself had a commanding officer: the head of the principal ally's army, George Marshall. Chief of Staff Marshall rarely left the Pentagon during the conflict. From there he imposed his concept of "unity of command," and the plan for "Operation Overlord," on his American subordinates and eventually on the recalcitrant Allies.
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It took years for the British commanders—rivalrous, indomitable, and all too ready to undercut Ike—to come around. In fact, they never completely did. On the very eve of "Overlord," Sir Alan Brooke was still pressing British strategic views and personnel choices as "a reminder to the world," writes Perry, "that His Majesty's army still controlled the globe's battlefields."
Marshall pondered why Churchill and his advisors cleaved so stubbornly to their meandering road to military victory. At an Allied conference in 1943, an exasperated Marshall, Perry explains, tried to draw them out "on whether, in making their arguments, they were more concerned with holding on to their colonies after the war than they were with actually winning the war." (In any case, the war proved a death knell for British and continental colonialism.) The author suggests that it was at this juncture that President Roosevelt—previously depicted as sitting on the fence in the Anglo-American struggle—came down on the side of supporting his chief military advisor and "Overlord."
Marshall was, as Churchill had said, "the organizer of victory," arming his protégé with the biggest military force ever assembled. It was Ike who had to execute. That the Allies fell in line behind Eisenhower at all seems to have owed as much to Marshall's intercessions on his behalf as to Ike's military and political skills, which were formidable. Then, too, the admiration that both American generals felt for Churchill, and the Prime Minister's strong personal rapport with Eisenhower, were important in easing the partnership through its worst crises.
Eisenhower had that combination of tenacity and equanimity which both Marshall and he believed successful coalition warfare required. You had to be able to take the limeys' guff and keep on going. The Anglophobic among the U.S. officer corps—such as Generals Mark Clark and John Porter Lucas—failed to fit that mold. Their attitude could be costly, as at Anzio.
Although Eisenhower was certain that landing in western Italy was a bad idea, he approved the Anzio operation to oblige Churchill. It did turn out badly, partly due to Lucas' unwillingness to communicate with the British commanders with whom he was supposed to be fighting. Poor coordination between the 35,000 U.S. and U.K. troops on the beaches caused the Allies to get pinned down there, wasting American and British air assets and suffering brutal losses before a new U.S. commander, General Lucien Truscott, would be installed. Truscott used French and Polish forces to beat the Nazis back and move Allied troops in position to liberate Rome.
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Despite several near defeats and botched amphibious landings, with attendant loss of life, what the German Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg called America's "pitiless industry" had its effect over time. Mistakes were overcome by a torrent of Allied firepower. Not only that, it turned out that the British "pinprick" strategy was beneficial. The Allies had been beaten at the battle of Kasserine Pass in Tunisia, with 6,000 Americans dead, wounded, or captured. Yet according to Perry, "Stalingrad was Kasserine's ‘victory' because it stripped badly needed German resources from the eastern front." The very effect the Americans were looking for in France—saving the Red Army by diverting and overtaxing the Wehrmacht—was achieved in Europe's "soft underbelly."
These were not profitless quarrels. All the endless pitting of opinion against opinion, mind against mind, produced victory. The momentum created by the Normandy invasion of June 6, 1944, soon brought the liberation of Paris and the battles in Germany that ended the war. Yet if the British had had their way, none of it would have happened. By the same token, because the Luftwaffe planes that engaged in aerial combat in Tunisia could not fly in two places at once, Allied aid shipments arrived unmolested in Murmansk, to the relief of ill-fed, freezing, and poorly-armed Russian fighters. If the Americans had gotten their way, those deliveries might not have gotten through—bringing the Nazis that much closer to finishing off the Red Army.
In hindsight, we know that the German defeat in the East was crucial to the outcome of the Second World War. The free world owes the Russian people a debt of gratitude. The temporary alliance of democracy with dictatorship—so risky, and so unpalatable to many Americans—turned out to be worth it. For the same reason, it was wise to have made the foiling of "Operation Barbarossa" a priority among Allied war aims.
Another major (and correct) American assessment concerned the future. Marshall and company believed that while it was essential to resupply the Russians so they would keep fighting, there was a danger. As Mark Perry writes, the Americans foresaw that the lifeline being extended to the Soviet Union might enable the Red Army to "weather the incessant battering it was taking from Hitler's panzers, recover lost ground, and gain control of most of Europe." Amid the war's smoldering ruins, this scenario began to take shape. The fractious but functional relationship that Marshall and Eisenhower forged with the United Kingdom and other free nations would have its work cut out for it.