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review 2018-10-10 06:05
As comprehensive a history of the battle of Kursk as is possible
Kursk: The Battle of Prokhorovka - Christopher A. Lawrence

It is possible to write an all-encompassing history of a subject, particularly when that subject is the largest battle in human history? This is the question that Christopher Lawrence's mammoth book on the battle of Kursk seeks to address. It is a massive tome of a book, coming in at a little under 1700 pages of multi-columned text generously supplemented by maps and statistical tables, all of which reflect the nearly quarter-century of labor the author and his associates put into compiling every available bit of data. This Lawrence then employs to parse the chaotic events of July and August 1943 in order to construct a comprehensive description of the battle. This is no small feat, and on its own deserves respect.


Lawrence's efforts are tinged with a degree of irony, for one of the points that emerges early on is that, for all its scale, the battle was in some respects anticlimactic. As he explains, the battle of Stalingrad forced a fundamental reconsideration of Germany's strategic goals on the Eastern Front, as it was uncomfortably apparent that with the destruction of the Sixth Army Germany no longer had the forces necessary to defeat the Soviet Union. With the prospect of a second front in France looming, German planners knew that 1943 would be the last year in which they could design a campaign without worrying about splitting finite resources with their comrades in the west. Yet the best that could be hoped for now was a stabilization of the front and consolidation of Germany's gains. An outright Soviet defeat was simply not possible anymore.


The strained German resources helped determine Germany's focus on the Kursk salient, as collapsing it would help the Germans to consolidate their lines. This was also obvious to Soviet leaders, who began concentrating their forces in the area as well. Thus when the Germans launched their offensive on July 5, their territorial gains were not followed up by the breakthrough that had characterized previous Wehrmacht offensives. Moreover, once the Soviets counter-attacked a week later, it was the German armies which suffered massive casualties and which were forced to retreat, signalling an end to the last major strategic offensive on the Eastern Front and the surrendering of the initiative to the Soviets.


Lawrence relates this in a book rich with detail. While incorporating the strategic dimension and quoting freely from personal accounts collected in the decades that followed the war, his focus is primarily operational, as he recounts the movement of units and their engagement in combat. Nor is his account focused on the ground war along, as his chapters on the fighting in the skies above explain the impact of the air campaign upon the battle for both sides. Throughout he engages in asides that offer brief biographical portraits of the main figures and consideration of longstanding issues about the weapons and their roles in deciding victory. Though the sheer mass of it can be daunting, this is an absolute must-read for anyone with a desire to learn about this battle in nearly every detail, with an analysis of the fighting that will factor into every subsequent study of the conflict. Just be sure to lift it with your legs.

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url 2018-08-31 17:37
Podcast #117 is up!
The Industrialisation of Soviet Russia, Volume 7: The Soviet Economy and the Approach of War, 1937–1939 - Professor Mark Harrison,Stephen G. Wheatcroft,Oleg Khlevniuk,Robert William Davies

My latest podcast is up on the New Books Network website! In it I interview Mark Harrison and Stephen Wheatcroft about the book they co-authored with R.W. Davies and Oleg Khlevniuk on the Soviet economy in the late 1930s (which I reviewed here). Enjoy!

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review 2018-08-23 16:29
An economy shaped by terror and war
The Industrialisation of Soviet Russia, Volume 7: The Soviet Economy and the Approach of War, 1937–1939 - Professor Mark Harrison,Stephen G. Wheatcroft,Oleg Khlevniuk,Robert William Davies

During the late 1930s life in the Soviet Union was defined by terror, as a series of purges orchestrated by Joseph Stalin and carried out by his secret police apparatus gutted the nation. More than a million people, from Communist Party leaders to government officials to wealthy peasants, were arrested and either imprisoned or executed. While the purges secured Stalin's domination of the country, it came at the cost of innumerable lives destroyed and the county's development hobbled in ways that nearly proved fatal during the Second World War.

The disruptive impact of the purges on the Soviet economy is a major theme of the final volume of the "Industrialisation of Soviet Russia" series. In it its authors — R. W. Davies, Mark Harrison, Oleg Khlevniuk, and Stephen Wheatcroft — analyze the effects of the arrest on a Soviet economy still processing the collectivization of Soviet agriculture and the efforts to develop the industrial sector. Though the commissars and other managers arrested may have lacked the stature of the Part leaders of the marshals of the Red Army, their removal measurably slowed the growth of the Soviet economy. In some areas this slowing actually had the effect of feeding the purges, as the decline in growth and the failure to achieve the targets set by economic planners was attributed to sabotage, requiring the identification and arrest of suitable scapegoats.

Yet the purpose of the authors' book is not to describe the impact of the purges on the Soviet economy, but the Soviet Union's overall economic development during this period. As they note, the purges played less of a role in agriculture, where factors such as the weather were more important in determining output. Even more important than environmental conditions, though, was the international political scene. Here the authors place their analysis of the Soviet economic policy into a broader context, showing how the wars in Spain and China, as well as the increasing tensions within central and eastern Europe forced economic planners to readjust their plans to focus more on developing light industry and increasing the production of consumer goods. The result was an economy that by the start of 1939 was already gearing up for war, with even the purges ended in the face of the growing threat.

This volume brings to an end a series that has its origins in Edward Hallett Carr's The Bolshevik Revolution first published nearly seven decades ago. It is a fitting point at which to conclude it, for as the authors explain in their final chapter, it was during this period that the basis of the economy that would defeat Nazi Germany and establish the Soviet Union as a superpower for the 45 years afterward was established. To understand how this was accomplished and the terrible cost paid for it by the Soviet people this book like its predecessor volumes is indispensable reading.

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review 2018-08-04 02:47
The human side of an epic battle
Stalingrad: The Fateful Siege, 1942-1943 - Antony Beevor

Though the Second World War was decided in battles waged over several years and in multiple regions, the most important front of the war was the one in eastern Europe. There the German war machine which had conquered so much of Europe with seemingly little effort was ground down in an extended clash against the Soviet Union. Millions of soldiers not just Germans and Russians, but Hungarians, Romanians, Bulgarians, Croats, Italians, and others fought and died on an unprecedented scale, with the slaughter ending only with the final defeat of the Nazi regime in the ruins of Berlin.


While numerous battles defined the course of events, the decisive clash on the Eastern Front came in the autumn of 1942 in the city of Stalingrad. There the German Sixth Army fought a grinding campaign to conquer the industrial center, only to be encircled by a surprise Soviet counter-offensive in November. Debilitated by the twin forces of battle and winter, tens of thousands of troops surrendered in February 1943, inflicting the greatest defeat yet suffered by the Third Reich. One of the strengths of Antony Beevor's history of the battle is in its detailing of the experiences of the men who fought and died on both sides. Drawing upon letters, diaries, and other records, he describes the nearly unimaginable conditions they faced during their long months of struggle against each other. To this he adds a perceptive explanation of both the events leading up to the battle and how is was that the sides sustained such a debilitating effort, both on the national and personal level.


By clearly detailing its events and recounting the lives of the soldiers who fought in it, Beevor has written an excellent history of the battle that is a must-read for anyone seeking to understand it. And yet the book falls short in one important respect. For while Beevor conveys well the human side of the conflict, it doesn't quite capture its truly epic nature. Scale is missing, as the war-defining nature of the event lost amid the stories of the men and the details of the campaign. While the effort to do so would result in a very different book, perhaps only then might it be possible to fully appreciate the importance of the titanic struggle waged there, both for the people involved and for the broader war itself.

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review 2018-07-30 20:00
Industrializing agriculture in the Soviet Union
The Industrialisation of Soviet Russia, Volume 1: The Socialist Offensive: The Collectivisation of Soviet Agriculture, 1929-1930 - Robert William Davies

Over the course of the interwar era, the Soviet Union sought to bring their economy fully into the 20th century through a massive campaign of industrialization. Not only were considerable resources directed to expand the industrial sector, but its products were then employed to modernize agricultural production, which was in many ways still wedded to practices dating back to the prewar tsarist perios. How the Soviet leadership sought to do that is the subject of R. W. Davies's book, the first of several volumes devoted to detailing the efforts to the Soviet leadership to reshape their economy according to their ideological vision and how they responded to the challenges they faced in doing so.


Key to this effort was the collectivization of Soviet agriculture. As Davies explains, efforts to exert greater control in the years immediately after the Russian Revolution were frustrated by the disruptions of the civil war that followed. In response, under Lenin's direction the Soviet leadership allowed peasants to sell some of their surplus. The most successful of these, known as the kulaks, prospered during the 1920s and were the main beneficiaries of Soviet efforts to introduce tractors and industrial products to agriculture. As the decade came to an end, however, the ability of the Soviet government to use industrial goods to pay for surpluses declined, increasing the costs of supporting the growing industrial workforce.

Davies sees the 1928 harvest as the tipping point for the push towards collectivization. With the cost of grain increasing, a growing majority in the Soviet leadership spearheaded by Joseph Stalin embraced collectivizing the peasant farms as a means of exerting control. Until that point the Communist Party presence in the rural areas was limited, with traditional peasant institutions such as the mir bring the dominant form of peasant governance. Under Stalin's direction this changed, with kulaks targeted as opponents of the regime and the land reorganized. Though this effort was publicly hailed as a success, Davies highlights the resistance that soon gave the Soviet leadership pause. By 1930 the initial campaign was at an end, with collectivization considerably advanced but still incomplete in the minds of Stalin and his subordinates.


All of this Davies details with an economics-based analysis that is supported by an abundance of statistics. While this doesn't always make for the most scintillating reading, it nonetheless offers a convincingly detailed analysis of the issues facing the Soviet economy and the effects of the policy upon the countryside. Nor does Davies neglect the peasants themselves, as he uses the available sources to penetrate through the propaganda to get at their true attitudes and reactions. Taken together, it makes for a book that is not for the fainthearted but one that is nonetheless informative reading for anyone seeking to understand one of the critical events of not just Russian history but the history of the modern world as a whole.

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