Streetwise Professor

June 29, 2009

Self Inflicted Wounds

Filed under: Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 6:34 am

Apropos the ongoing discussion of giving proper acknowledgement to Soviet accomplishments in the Second World War, consider this quotation from American historian David M. Glantz:

Who, then, is at fault for promoting this unbalanced view of the war?  Certainly, Western historians who wrote about the war from only the German perspective share part of the blame.   They argue with considerable jutification, however, tht they did so because only German sources were available to them. . . . [T]he most important factor in the creation of the existing perverted view is the collective failure of Soviet historians to provide Western (and Russian) readers and scholars with a credible account of the war.   Ideology, political motivation, and shibboleths born of the Cold War have combined to inhibit the work and warp the perspectives of many Soviet historians

. . . .

Unfortunately, the most general works and those most accessible to Western audiences tend to be the most biased, most highly politicized, and least accurate.   Until quite recently, official State organs routinely vetted even the most scholarly of these books for political and ideological correctness.   Even now, eleven years after the fall of the Soviet Union, political pressure and limited archival access prevents historians from researching or revealing many events subject to censorship in the past.

These sad realities have undercut the credibility of Soviet (Russian) historical works (fairly or unfairly); permitted German historiography and interpretation to prevail; and, coincidentally, damaged the credibility of those few Western writers who have incorporated Soviet historical materials into their accounts of the war.   These stark historical realities also explain why today sensational, unfair, and wildly inaccurate accounts of certain aspects of the war [e.g., the Suvorov hypothesis] so attract eh Western reading public and why debates still rage concerning the war’s direction and conduct.

Today, several formidable barriers continue to inhibit the exploitation of Soviet (Russian) sources and make a fundamental reassessment of the the war on the Eastern Front more difficult. . . .

The third barrier, that of credibility, is far more formidable, and, hence, more difficult to overcome.   To do so will require combined efforts of both Western and Russian historians accompanied by an unfettering of the binds on Russian archival materials, a process that has only just begun.   In short, the blinders and restrictions that inhibited the work of Soviet and Russian military scholars must be recognized and eliminated.   Only then can historians produce credible and sound histories of the war that accord the Soviet Union and the Soviet Army the credit they so richly deserve. [Emphasis added.   From the introduction of “Slaughterhouse: The Handbook of the Eastern Front”   (2005).]

In brief, Glantz argues that Soviet, and latterly Russian, authorities bear considerable culpability for Western ignorance about the war.

Alas, the Russian government has moved in the opposite direction since Glantz wrote these words in 2002.   It has been increasing restrictions on access to historical records, and moving towards the re-establishment of an official view of history, with the threat of sanctions formal or informal for those who challenge the official orthodoxy looming in the background.

Thus, as is so often the case, Russian means and Russian ends are at odds.   Officialdom complains of the distortion of historical depictions the Soviet war effort, and its essential contribution to victory over Hitler, but at the same time adopts policies calculated to interfere with the achievement of a more accurate understanding of the historical record.   The fetish for control ultimately undermines the achievement of the hoped-for ends.

Glantz is right.   However imperfectly, scholarly understanding is best achieved by competition and open access to relevant records.   The example of the response to the Suvorov hypothesis (that Barbarossa merely preempted Stalin’s plan to attack Germany) is an excellent example of this process in action.   “Official history” and highly restrictive–and preferential–access to historical records is an anathema to the scholarly historical enterprise.

The last sentence in the quoted section demonstrates quite clearly that Glantz is a firm believer that the Soviet Union was primarily responsible for vanquishing Hitler.   He has written numerous books setting out this view.   He cannot be dismissed, therefore, as a Russophobe, or a neocon Soviet basher.   His verdict on Soviet and latterly Russian culpability for the historical misconceptions that they lament so bitterly is not biased.   It is harsh, but just.   And as surely as night follows day, the course he recommends will not be followed, so the laments will continue.   Just another in a long line of self-inflicted wounds that will only further diminish the prospect for any improvement of understanding of Russia by the West.

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  1. Good scoop SWP. You beat me to the punch a bit. We all have to remind ourselves of that “little problem” we had for several decades. The Soviet Union was almost completely blocked off from the rest of the world. How could anyone have a meaningful academic discussion about the war with such a restriction in place? Still, it would be an interesting exercise to think of how the West would interpret the Soviet contribution to the war if all information was laid out on the table and was taught for at least a generation in Western schools. From the large amount of archives I know about, pre-USSR and post-USSR, it still seems that the interpetation could never be less dreadful than it already is. Maybe that’s why Russia is losing interest in revealing more details. It just won’t help matters. If they want more people in the West to realize how much they suffered, how many people died, and that they killed more Germans than us, I have no problem with that. But there’s a lot more baggage in the knapsack than that if you’re going to teach the whole story.

    Comment by Howard Roark — June 29, 2009 @ 3:00 pm

  2. Even if we had a total access pass to Russian records, we’d still have three problems:

    (1) Russians lie like rugs. Officially, at the highest levels, and pathologically. The leader of Russia is a proud KGB spy who spent his whole life learning how to lie. As a result, there’s really no such thing as “data” in Russia, just guesswork.

    (2) Russians hate foreigners and don’t want to be understood.

    (3) We’d like to think Russians fought Germans to win freedom, the way we did but they didn’t. They fought to REPLACE the Germans in stripping away freedom. They tried to cooperate with Germans as partners, and only fought when forced to do so. We left Europe as liberators, they stayed as oppressors.

    Given (1), of course, Russians lie and deceive about (2) and (3), as much to themselves as to us. So the only question is, will we allow ourselves to continue being played for fools?

    Comment by La Russophobe — June 29, 2009 @ 8:46 pm

  3. Phoby lies like a cheap toupee. Phoby gets pretty upset when reminded that the “Grand Alliance” failed to form in 1938-1939 mostly because Brit PM Chamberlain was too attached to his policy of “Germany and England as two pillars of European peace and buttresses against Communism”.

    As to Glantz’ point, he’s confused me. John Erickson was granted massive archival access over 30 years ago, so good that Glantz himself has said that his own extensively researched accounts add only details to Erickson’s work. And yet, the ppular image remains the one foisted on the West by prevaricating German generals.

    But even if the Soviets had been more open, I doubt it would have done any good. The Soviets published von Dirksen’s papers back in the early 1950s, with an appendix showing photocopies of von Dirksen’s cables from London, and the scholarly impact was zero. We were too far into the Cold War mentality for little things like facts and evidence to get in the way of Western determination to politicize the Eastern Front.

    Comment by rkka — June 30, 2009 @ 11:39 am

  4. Oh, and I do wonder when the Brits are going to publish the notes of the meetings between Sir Horace Wilson and Goering’s economic planner Wohltat.

    Or the notes of the interrogation of Hess.

    In the name of competition and open access to relevant records, of course.

    Comment by rkka — June 30, 2009 @ 11:50 am

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