Поликарпов Михаил Аркадьевич: другие произведения.

Rusty myths

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  • Аннотация:
    Перевод (версия) материала "Покушение на священные миражи". // Опубликовано в журнале New Times в 2004 г. http://www.newtimes.ru/eng/detail.asp?art_id=954 // Русский оригинал лежит тут - http://www.newtimes.ru/artical.asp?n=3023&art_id=4621

  Two different perceptions of the Great Patriotic war persist in Russians" minds
  Now, 60 years after World War II, Russians still remember and relive its bitter and glorious milestones. In this article I would like to focus on some myths that are thrust on us by the mass media and literature when they explain various events of the war. In recent years we have learned and are learning new facts and are adding them to our perception of the war that Russians call the Great Patriotic War.
  Soviet historians used to explain the misfortunes of the earlier phase of the war by the treacherousness of the German attack on the Soviet Union, as well as by the alleged preponderance of the Wehrmacht in materiel and manpower. In a book intended for youngsters which I too read as a kid, the contending parties were compared to chess players and one of them (the Soviet Union) had only a half of pieces on the board. Try to win with that! Comparing the numbers of tanks and combat vehicles, the history books did not specify in their charts and tables the number of machines produced in the 1930s. Instead they simply stated: "As well as considerable quantities of tanks (aircraft) of obsolete models".
  The memoirs of Soviet generals accused Stalin, directly or by implication, of having overlooked the German preparations for attacking the Soviet Union. To emphasize the disparity of the forces it was stated: "We fought all of Europe".
  The prevailing conviction was that all the war disasters had happened at the initial phases, although subsequently quite a few operations ended in failure, too. They are known, but not to the general public.
  Tossing about
  When perestroika started, the question of 40,000 repressed Red army officers was raised. Their repression was said to have enfeebled the army greatly and been a contributing factor to the defeats in 1941. A heated discussion took place in the press and among historians regarding Stalin"s part in the defeats at the start of the war and in its victorious conclusion. In fact they raised the question: "Was the victory won thanks to Stalin or in spite of him?"
  Glasnost brought other so-called "discoveries", too. The stunning numbers of Soviet army men (about five million) taken prisoner by the Germans gave birth to the version that, unhappy with Stalin"s dictatorship, Soviet troops offered weak resistance at the outbreak of the war and allegedly whole units were surrendering together with their commanding officers. But hopes that the aggressor would bring liberation from the hateful regime soon faded and within a few months it became an all-people"s war. And this helped to arrest the advance of the Wehrmacht and to inflict the first defeat on it in 1941. This argument disregarded the fact that considerable numbers of Soviet soldiers got captured after 1941.
  The competence not only of Stalin, but of other Soviet generals was questioned, above all Zhukov is seen now as almost worse than Stalin in being merciless to his own soldiers. "One of assessments was that "he heaped up bodies".
  At the same time the view was still held that the Soviet materiel of WWII manufacture was superior to that of the German"s in quality. To doubt that was considered indecent. Moreover, it was emphasized that the Soviet war industry output was much higher than that of Germany and its European allies. It was never mentioned aloud that in the course of the war the Soviet troops had sustained much heavier losses than the Wehrmacht. This suggested a lower effectiveness of the Soviet troops compared to the Germans. Indeed, there was more materiel, it was better, the soldiers were fighting for their country valiantly and ably, but somehow the enemy were losing less men.
  Then one researcher, Boris Sokolov came out with an unusual explanation. At the end of the 1980s and early 1990s, he expressed the opinion that the Soviet war industry in no way could have surpassed the German one in the manufacture of tanks and aircraft. He said that our statistics for war manufacture had been falsified and all figures had been padded many times over. According to Sokolov, the Soviet army was much stronger in men and officers than the Wehrmacht, but had less materiel. The theory being obviously absurd, its author never brought it up again. Now Sokolov is remembered for the very indiscriminate way in which he interpreted facts and figures to suit his version. Germany"s materiel production was comparatively small because it kept its population"s standards of living rather high and undertook the conversion of its industry to war needs very late, only in 1944. As for the Soviet Union surrounded as it was by hostile states, it had been, in fact, a besieged camp and so had a very high level of militarization of its industry. Thus the words: "All for the front, all for victory!" were not just a vague slogan.
  The dream of reason produces monsters
  Another reason for the Red Army"s defeat in 1941 was offered in several books by the Soviet defector spy Viktor Suvorov (Rezun). His explanation was that in the 1930s we had been building a purely invasion army capable only of going on the offensive and not knowing defence. The author also attempted to blame Stalin for unleashing World War II, alleging that he, first, had helped Hitler come to power, secondly, had been plotting to seize Europe for a long time and, thirdly, had planned to attack the Reich in the summer of 1944 so as to carry out his plans. Hitler, thus, had only struck a pre-emptive blow.
  Suvorov"s books came just at the right time. They enjoyed a certain popularity and even produced a group of "Rezunist" authors who were in business of unmasking Stalin"s "plans to invade Europe".
  The military aspect of Rezun"s concept was ridiculed by numerous historians and military experts (including in the West) because of its ignorance and absurdity, but it went over with a broad Russian readership, mostly with liberal minded intellectuals who sought to make a clean break with the Communist past.
  Among other things, Suvorov revels in the numerical comparison of the German and Soviet tanks at the start of the hostilities. The West"s leading historians point out the inconsistency of such an analysis and note Suvorov"s all too evident juggling of the facts: he compared the overall list of combat vehicles of one party with the number of front-line tanks of the other party. It is known that on the eve of the war 44 percent of all old makes of Soviet tanks were in need to be repaired and 29 percent needed complete overhaul. That is, only a quarter of the total number of tanks were operational. That was rather a strange condition for the tanks that, to believe Suvorov, were set to conquer Europe to be in. Among other things, it is evident to many today that in the summer of 1941 the Red Army was not ready for offensive operations of any kind because the troops had not been deployed, the tank divisions existed on paper only, and the motor transport was yet to be mobilized from the farms (thus dooming the harvest). Most importantly, there is no proof at all that the Soviet Union had any plans of invading Europe.
  In the 1930s, the USSR built the Stalin Line, a chain of fortified areas extending from the Black Sea to the Baltics; on the Karelian Isthmus it provided a shield for Leningrad. It was a Soviet version of the Maginot Line, Mannerheim Line and other reinforced concrete border fortifications. In 1939, after the state border was moved westward, the construction of the Molotov Line was undertaken along it, but the war came before the project was completed. So in 1941 the Red Army tried to hold the enemy advance at the partially dismantled Stalin Line.
  The Red Army on the eve of the war
  I think that to avoid getting lost in the fog of false theories one must understand what kind of army the USSR had built up in the 1930s before its re-equipment was undertaken in 1939-40. Although the air force was as important and sometimes even more decisive than the tanks Russian accounts prefer to put the accent on tanks when comparing the technical characteristics. But that criterion is all wrong! It has come into common usage, probably, because it is deceptively easier to grasp the virtues of the armoured vehicles, as well as because we had a preponderance. For this reason I will commence with the tanks. The Red Army"s basic tank was the slow T-26 which was clad in bullet-proof armour and intended for interaction with the infantry. There was quite a number of BT tanks capable of making rapid raids. Certainly economic considerations figured heavily in choosing that model for manufacture: the machine was equipped with a discarded aircraft engine. That is, that costly component of the tank was got almost for free: in the 1930s, the army supply philosophy was "More for less". Later, during the Great Patriotic War, other standards for military equipment were established and are operational to this day: it must be simple, reliable, and repairable.
  The Soviet Union did have more military equipment, but it was far from having the unsurpassed quality that was proclaimed by the Soviet jingoistic publications - and by Suvorov. In 1941 the Soviet T-34 tank looked better than Germany"s T-IV which had a 75 mm short-barrelled gun. However, besides the extra centimetres of thickness of the armour plate and the greater gun capacity listed in reference books, the German T-IV had such important features as a higher rate and accuracy of the gun. It should be added that the earlier T-34 models had a very narrow field of vision and no radios. That enabled the T-IV to win tank battles with the stronger (as we believed) T-34. Of more importance was the fact that at the start of the war the Germans did not consider tanks to be an anti-tank weapon and sought other solutions to the problem. For instance, in July of 1942 the Soviet counter-offensive at Voronezh was repelled, in fact, with the help of the Luftwaffe.
  While the Wehrmacht put emphasis on aircraft and tanks, the Red Army preferred tanks and artillery. At the same time, for example, the quality of Soviet 45 mm armour piercing ammunition was below standard specifications and the shells could not penetrate the front plating of German basic tanks. The gun itself earned the name "Good-bye, Motherland". It was a product of a chronic disease of the Soviet industry whose test specimens usually differed in quality from those off the production line.
  Our aircraft were not as good as the German ones, but the outcome of the battles at the initial phase of the war was due to our military leadership failing to understand the nature of the war, inadequate training and primitive communications, logistics and medical care.
  Time flows fast but men change slowly. Bitter as the truth is, one must recognize certain genetic traits of the Red (later Soviet) Army. It was, as a rule, a huge and cumbersome army that tended to underestimate its enemy. The soldiers were valiant and tough but ill-trained. The army learned to fight only in the course of a war at a tremendous cost of human lives. Its officer cadre gains experience by that time, and there appear men who understand the nature and methods of warfare. Everything proceeds as the Russian proverb says: "The Russians are slow to harness but fast to ride". This description may be just one more myth but it at least helps to explain the nature of several wars, starting with the Northern War of Peter the Great right up to the Great Patriotic War. We have this problem to this day.
  Germany"s armed forces were not the largest ones to take part in WWII but the Wehrmacht we were facing was, all in all, the most efficient army in that war.
  Why the Wehrmacht was defeated
  A witty British historian remarked that the German generals who had lost the war took revenge in their memoirs. They placed the blame for many defeats specifically on Hitler, who had no military background but thrust his opinions on the experienced generals.
  Very often a battle was just "one battalion short of victory": the Russians had too many soldiers. The German lines got overwhelmed by endless waves of infantry and T-34s. As they repelled those hordes, the German soldiers succeeded in stabilizing the frontline -- a hundred or two kilometres off to the West every time. The reader was supposed to be deeply impressed by the NKVD troops as well as by... the Mongol and Turkmen divisions. But were there any Mongols in the Red Army? There were some but very few: those who had come to the USSR to study or work, and a small number of prison inmates. "Mongols" in the German propaganda was a scare word just as the SS-men were used in Soviet propaganda or Arabs in the Chechen conflict.
  It has been noted that the Germans and the Soviets used different motivation models. The German one was built around a certain "ideal warrior" who destroyed enemies by the dozens. Wittmann was the ideal tankman, Rudel was a similar superhero for the bomber pilots, and Hartman (and a host of other aces) was for the fighter pilots. The pilots" success was connected with the number of fighter aircraft he had shot down or tanks destroyed... Each soldier was to measure himself up to the "ideal warrior". German tankmen even arranged competitions by betting on who would destroy more enemy tanks.
  The Soviet model was based on the concept of the heroic deed (Kosmodemyanskaya, Matrosov, Gastello), the heroism of a specific soldier in a specific battle, often against heavy odds, and often ending with his death. Today there are some doubts about the circumstances of some classical heroic deeds of Soviet soldiers in the Great Patriotic War.
  But some elements were similar. For instance, Soviet infantrymen fought German tanks by showering them with Molotov cocktails, while German soldiers destroyed Russian tanks by affixing magnetic mines. Soviet soldiers threw themselves under the tanks with bundles of hand grenades, their German counterparts climbed on the tanks and threw hand grenades down the hatches.
  From scheme to reality
  The well-known philosopher Merab Mamardashvili noted once that the Marxist "five phases" of mankind"s development (primitive society, slave owning society, feudal society, capitalism and socialism), absurd as the scheme sounds was as an awfully convenient way to thrust all the history of mankind into the brain of a person who has grown unaccustomed to thinking. Moreover, its history easily fitted into this scheme. I think it was intended to be memorized by people who had studied history in the past and then forgotten it all happily, except, of course, the most outstanding events and the dates which television focuses attention on from time to time.
  For instance, the average man now has only a sketchy idea of the Great Patriotic War. He remembers, as a rule, the battles of Moscow, Stalingrad, the battle of the Kursk Bulge and the capture of Berlin. Such important ones as Operation Bagration, not to mention lesser ones, are beyond them. For instance, here it is believed that the battle of the Kursk Bulge was the greatest one in 1943, although the Battle of the Dnieper was greater, and its daily casualty lists were the biggest for the whole war. Everybody has heard of Prokhorovka, but the Lyutezh Bridgehead is known to only a few.
  Since there was a lot of media coverage of the battle of the Kursk Bulge on occasion of the 60th anniversary of the battle, I would like to deal specifically with some of its aspects. In 1943 the Germans had achieved a preponderance in tanks that brought about the phenomenon called "tigerphobia". As a result of it, the modernized medium tanks T-IV were mistaken for Tigers (T-VIs). The Ferdinand self-propelled guns of low vulnerability had silhouettes resembling other types of assault pieces. The Germans had made a similar mistake in 1941: German soldiers" memoirs and reports called Soviet KVs and T-35 models "52-ton tanks" though only the KV-2 tank fitted with a 152 mm gun actually weighed that.
  Though a T-VI had fallen into Russian experts" hands some six months before the battle of the Kursk Bulge, no adequate tank to counter it was produced in good time. It is strange because different reports were published about how the first Tiger had been captured at Leningrad. The circumstances and heroes were different... Because of the quality lag, Soviet tank losses in 1943 were apparently the biggest in all the war (after 1941).
  The statistics for war casualties is another matter. "Patriots" say that our casualties for the whole war were comparable to Germany"s while the "denouncers" believe that our losses were ten times higher. Both parties are juggling the figures.
  When one compares war reports, one gets the impression that the Wehrmacht and the Red Army fought two different wars. For instance, according to Soviet reports, the Germans lost 948 aircraft while we lost only 566 in the first four days of the Battle of the Kursk Bulge. The Germans asserted that in those four days they had destroyed 923 enemy aircraft and only lost 60 (sixty!) their own. Somehow I find it difficult to believe that the Luftwaffe"s losses were ten times less than ours... Each of the two warring sides tended also to exaggerate the number of enemy tanks destroyed. Our Soviet soldiers were said to have destroyed great numbers of Tigers.
  Actually there were very few of them. In the press and TV programmes devoted to the 60th anniversary of the Battle of the Kursk Bulge we were repeatedly told about the heroism of Sergeant Mikhail Borisov. On July 11, 1943 he manned the only remaining 76 mm antitank gun and single-handedly destroyed seven Tigers. A later analysis established that the tanks he had destroyed were probably T-IVs (they were excellent, too), but in the history of the Great Patriotic War he is a fearless Tiger destroyer.
  That was not the only account about a lone artillery man knocking out several Tigers in a single engagement. In his memoirs, commander of the 1st tank division Mikhail Katukov recalled a leaflet dated July 7, 1943 that told about the feat of Captain Mironenko who commanded the 461st artillery battalion. When the crew manning a gun were all killed, he took over and fired point-blank at the advancing Tigers. He got six but as he was aiming at a seventh, a shell exploded next to him and he died.
  In "classical" Soviet historical accounts describing the failure of the German advance in the summer of 1943, the engagement at the south end of the bulge is seen as the culmination point of the battle at Prokhorovka: after the shattering defeat in that tank encounter, the Germans halted their advance. Of late this description of the battle has come into question for not corresponding to reality. The point is that Manstein was advancing successfully (and continued to do so after Prokhorovka). The obvious failure of the Germany"s Operation Citadel took place at the northern end of the bulge where on July 11-12 Soviet troops launched a counter-offensive against the German Group Centre and this spelled the end of the planned Nazi offensive. The Central Front Commander Konstantin Rokossovsky was the "forgotten" hero of the Bulge.
  In their memoirs the German generals make almost no mention of the Prokhorovka tank engagement. For a few days after it they simply pressed on. The attempted counter-attack by the 5th Guards Tank Army failed, with Soviet losses much exceeding the German side"s. The special commission led by Georgy Malenkov found the Battle of Prokhorovka "an example of a poorly executed operation". The picturesque description of the battle in Rotmistrov"s memoirs contains a lot of errors, and I cannot but feel that that those lines were written not by the general himself but by a hired hand. Nevertheless, this summer most of the mass media repeated the official myth of the Prokhorovka Battle as the culmination of the Battle of the Bulge and of the defeat of Germans in that engagement.
  What about veterans" memoirs? Can we be certain that the recollections of the rank-and-file combatants reflect reality? The view of a soldier is limited to the range of his rifle sight. As for the rest, he recounts army stories or the official myths which he sometimes believes in. So, for instance, it is pointless to listen to yet another version of who - Germans or Russians - destroyed more tanks at Prokhorovka if it is told by a man who did not count them...
  Of course, many people believe that the Great Patriotic War is the last thing uniting us, and so its heroes (true and imagined) must not be touched! This is our common misfortune. As long as our official historical accounts contain false myths of proved groundlessness, an "underground" history will live on and alternate versions will sometimes assume fantastic proportions. Much worse is the fact that our society is already split by its different perceptions of that war: some put emphasis on the very fact of the Victory while others say that wars must not be waged in that manner and that it was a Pyrrhic victory.
  Apparently, our society needs to discard false patriotism and to see things as they really are, to sort that war out by creating a new, not canonical but objective version.
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