Streetwise Professor

January 19, 2009

The Eastern Front, Then and Now

Filed under: Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 10:10 pm

I’m currently reading Norman Stone’s The Eastern Front: 1914-1917, still the standard reference in English on the subject more than 30 years after its publication.  Although the book is of interest on purely historical grounds, it also resonates with current events.

One quote stands out in this regard: “Ancient truths of Russian administration were thereby illustrated [by the conflict between the general staff (Stavka) and the front line commanders]: centralisation brought inefficiency, decentralisation brought anarchy.”  Post-Soviet history in a nutshell, no?  Also something being re-enacted in front of our eyes with an inefficient, centralized Russia confronting a decentralized, anarchic Little Russia (i.e, the Ukraine.)  

Another fascinating parallel between the Tsarist era and the “modern” one is found in Stone’s analysis of the deficiencies with NCOs in the Tsarist military:

There was also a problem, perhaps more serious, with N.C.O.s.  As Dragomirov said, ‘this vital ink in the chain of command was missing’.  N.C.O.s were appointed ad hoc, shared the men’s facilities–there was no sergeants’ mess, certainly none of its ethos–and were usually among the first to go Bolshevik. . . . It was partly the blindness of the old regime that was responsible for this, for officers could not imagine that an N.C.O. could appear in less than ten years of service.  It was also a consequence of the social development of Russia, where the N.C.O.-type had not emerged to the same extent as in western countries. . . . [In western European countries] there was a smudgy copy of the officer-class, which did excellent service in turning a mass-army into a serviceable military unit.  IN Russia, this caste was much weaker: in 1903 there existed only 12,109 long serving soldiers in the army, in place of the 23,943 there should have been–two per company, where the Germans had twelve.

Russia lacked officers, and lacked still more N.C.O.s who could link them with the men.  

 The lack of a distinct, professional NCO cadre, with morale built on traditions and a self-conscious understanding of its role, is widely acknowledged as one of the major deficiencies of the modern Russian military.  Dedovshchina  is just one of the symptoms of the absence of professional NCOs.

I’ll mention just one more parallel, though there are many more.  The book goes into detail about the brutal infighting between the Minister of Defense, Sukhomlinov, and his acolytes on the one hand, and the old guard of military officers on the other.  Sukhomlinov was a reformer, and his proposals outraged the old soldiers.  The seething discontent throughout the officer corps at the proposed reforms of current Defense Minister Anatoliy Serdyukov is more than a little similar to the conflict between major elements of the officer corps and Sukhomlinov in the years running up to WWI, and the early period of the war.  

Serdyukov better hope that the past is not prologue as Sukhomlinov was eventually tried for treason.  

All in all, very interesting.  Depressing, but interesting.  Everything about WWI is pretty depressing, and the Eastern Front is no exception.  Indeed, the appalling casualties and abject incompetence of the high commands on both sides–especially the Russian and Austrian, but even the vaunted Ludendorff made more than a few blunders–if anything make reading about this theater even more dispiriting than studying the horrid Western Front.  And that’s saying something.

In parallel to Stone, I’m reading de Custine.  Many, many, many historical echoes there as well.  I’m pondering how to put them all in a post or two.  Should be quite provocative.

I can emphasize one thing that stands out in de Custine’s treatment of Nicholean Russia that definitely resonates today–the pervasive dishonesty that flourished in an autocratic system with no real checks and balances.  Much more to follow, hopefully–if life permits (teaching begins in earnest on Wednesday, and time may be at a premium.  Had to happen some time;-)

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  1. Could I bother you for a recommendation of a book or two about the western front?

    Comment by Brian R. Murphy — January 20, 2009 @ 8:29 am

  2. Brian–

    I’ll give it some more thought, but a couple things come to mind. John Keegan’s The First World War is an excellent overall book on the war, with an emphasis on the Western Front. Keegan’s chapter on the Somme in his older Face of Battle is also excellent. Winston Groom’s book on Ypres 1914-1918 is well written. Alaistar Horne’s book about Verdun is old, but very good. Even older is Churchill’s history, World Crisis. It is somewhat dated, but it is Churchill, who was a wonderful writer and a direct participant both as a politician, and as a field officer on the front after he left the government.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — January 20, 2009 @ 4:48 pm

  3. Niall Ferguson’s “Pity of War” has some interesting and unconventional interpretations of the (whole) war, and is very readable. (Also probably his last good book, before he transformed into a populist neocon with a major hard-on for reviving nineteenth-century Anglo-Saxon imperialism).

    Comment by Da Russophile — January 20, 2009 @ 9:07 pm

  4. Gee, DR, that’s why I’ve started to like him;-) LOL.

    Only kidding.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — January 20, 2009 @ 9:49 pm

  5. The recommendations are much appreciated.

    Comment by Brian R. Murphy — January 23, 2009 @ 4:37 pm

  6. All true. That is why the duumvirate will make way for a man of strong will.

    Comment by So? — January 23, 2009 @ 10:07 pm

  7. So?–

    Are you suggesting that the “man of strong will” will not be Putin? Any nominations?


    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — January 24, 2009 @ 11:00 am

  8. Professor,

    No idea. Did anyone foresee Bronstein and Dzhugashvili?

    Comment by So? — January 24, 2009 @ 6:49 pm

  9. So?–

    I was just intrigued by your answer because the conventional wisdom is that Putin will soon solve the diumvirate problem by shoving Medvedev aside, and your comment suggested that someone other than Putin (i.e., someone outside the current diumvirate) would assert himself. Very much a possibility. And if it happens, it would probably not be someone from the underground, like a Trotsky or Stalin, but a shadowy figure from the security services.


    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — January 24, 2009 @ 9:42 pm

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