Battlefield Germany

Last month a potentially controversial essay appeared in Germany’s Die Welt newspaper that is both substantively interesting in its own right and informative about historians’ interpretation of facts and the historical record more generally.

Polish-German WWII historian and Holocaust researcher Bogdan Musial[1] addresses the USSR’s little-acknowledged intended War of Extermination against the West that was to be fought out in Germany in his essay Kampfplatz Deutschland ["Battlefield Germany"] (Die Welt, 15 März 2008, pg. 7). His conclusions are unsettling for those who have studied Germany’s war against Russia during World War II, and particularly in light of Germany’s pretext for that war. Musial acknowledges this aspect of his research in observing Western (read, German) historians’ seeming avoidance of certain historical details and sources in an apparent attempt to avoid relativizing Germany’s war against the USSR. Of course this is one danger of investigating Soviet Russia’s intentions toward the West before WWII but, Musial notes, “it is highly doubtful that this [fear of relativizing Germany's war against Russia] justifies the falsification of historical facts.”[2]

Musial writes that Germany’s war against Russia has rightly been characterized, both by Soviet propaganda and Western historians, as a War of Extermination and Lebensraum but that both have neglected the USSR’s own war plans against the West.

The most recent documents discovered in the Moscow archives show that the USSR had begun arming itself for an ideological War of Extermination against the West at the end of the 1920s and particularly intensively after the so-called Black Friday (the beginning of the global Great Depression on October 25, 1929). Stalin and his comrades assumed that the crisis would result in an imperialistic war that would, in turn, create the conditions for a revolutionary war of aggression.

In January 1930 the soon-to-be Marshall Michail Tuchatshewski drew up the plans for the “War of Extermination” against the West, calling for massive deployment of tanks (50,000), airplanes (40,000), as well as the “massive use of chemical weapons”. The goal of this war of aggression was to spread communist dominance in Europe and the world through force of arms.

And Germany played a key role in the Bolsheviks’ plans for the World Revolution because of its industrial potential, the strength of its workforce, the future disciplined soldiers of the Revolution, and its geo-political position in the center of Europe. For the Bolsheviks, Germany was the key to their domination of Europe.[3]

In the essay, Musial quantifies the USSR’s preparation for its War of Extermination against the West with figures for each type of armament and for troop build-up (e.g. 2 million soldiers by 1939 — before Germany invaded Poland). But Musial also examines the broader effects of the Bolsheviks’ intense focus on preparing for this planned War of Extermination, essentially casting well-known events of Soviet history during this period in a somewhat new light.

But the fact is that, after 1930, the entire economy and society of the Soviet Union was subordinated to the single goal of the massive preparations for the Revolutionary War of Conquest. To achieve this the Soviet communists covered the whole land with unprecedented mass terror against all those who could potentially “sabotage” these preparations and endanger the country during the future war.

At the beginning of 1930, Stalin also greatly accelerated the process of forced collectivization and at the same time began a campaign of extermination against the farmers in order to break the broad resistance against this collectivization. At issue was securing unlimited access to agricultural output to finance the gigantic arms build-up. Hundreds of thousands of farmers and other counter-revolutionaries were interned or immediately shot in communist concentration camps. In 1930-31, Soviet communists dragged approximately 1.5 million people (mostly women and children) to the inhospitable reaches of the vast empire. . . .

In 1932-33 came the Great Famine, which can be shown to have been artificially precipitated by Stalin and his communist comrades. Approximately ten million people died of starvation during this period, approximately five or six million of them Ukrainians. The Great Famine was the greatest demographic tragedy in Europe during peace time since the Middle Ages. And the public in the West largely ignored these monstrous human catastrophes — worse still, in the West there were intellectuals passing as progressives who justified and trivialized these crimes against humanity.

In the 1930s, Stalin, his comrades, and the whole communist bureaucracy transformed the Soviet Union into a giant forced-labor camp all with the single purpose of preparing the country for a long-term War of Conquest.[4]

Musial outlines that despite this monumental effort, the output for the war preparations was of inferior quality causing massive losses in equipment and manpower during this preparation period, including through the poor training, nutrition, education, and leadership of the millions of conscripted soldiers who were often not willing soldiers of the communist Revolution. The poor quality of the equipment being produced and the poor working conditions and inferior training and education of the workers led to innumerable mistakes, accidents, and injuries, and these were largely perceived to be the result of sabotage.

The Great Terror of the 1930s had its roots in the war preparations that were not proceeding according to plan and the set-backs that were suffered as a result. This Terror developed its own momentum and consumed little by little all areas of the State and society. Deep reaching purges within the Red Army, the Party, the State, the economy, and the security apparatus followed in 1937-38. As before, however, those most affected were the farmers who were degraded as slaves to the communist bureaucracy.[5]

What we have in Musial’s essay, essentially, is a reinterpretation of the events of the 1930s in Soviet Russia around a “new” central theme — that everything that occurred came in the context of a rushed military build up for a specifically planned War of Extermination against the West. In effect, according to Musial, the Soviet propaganda — by which the current state of Russia still stands — of the “peace loving” Soviet Union is a myth. A Soviet Union fully engaged in preparations for an ideological War of Extermination is the reality.

The Bolsheviks viewed the victory of the Communist Revolution in Russia as the first step toward the world revolution, and they were serious about that. Sources available today in the Russian archives, which have been partially published, leave no room for doubt about that but these sources are not well known in the West, much less well received. . . .[6]

In some ways this is a revisionist history. It is true that a decent undergraduate course in WWII history or the history of the Holocaust will expose students to primary documents and Nazi Propaganda that claim that Germany’s intentions in Russia are to fight Bolshevism and protect the West against the coming War of Conquest and the destruction of the European way of life by the Bolsheviks. The claim of a right to Lebensraum (“living space”) for Germany and Germans as a justification for aggression against Russia is also prominent in the rhetoric of the day and is largely taken to be the real intent behind Nazi expansion in the East. Claims of holding the line against Bolshevism are understood to be a pretext for aggression. This understanding could be challenged by Musial’s conclusions, although he acknowledges Goebbels’s 1941 journal entry two months after Germany invaded Russia in 1941 that Germany was not fully aware of the advanced nature of the Soviet Union’s preparations for war.

Musial is proceeding with this thesis based on sources found in the archives in Russia, some of which have already been published, as he notes in the article. He is so sure about his reinterpretation of the events in Soviet Russia from 1929 to 1941 that he goes so far as to state that these documents and sources in the Russian archives “leave no room for doubt” that the Bolsheviks were planning a War of Extermination against the West, as bolded in the blockquote above.

Musial’s project does not appear to be to relativize Germany’s own war of aggression against Russia. But he points out that fear of appearing to relativize it silences Western historians on the topic and causes them to hold to the “party line” about Soviet Russia’s peaceful intentions.

It is no wonder that the present Western research largely mirrors the Soviet propaganda about the supposedly defensive, even “peaceful”, foreign policy of the Soviet Union. The war strategy of the Soviet Union of the time is still described as “offensive defense” or “preemptive defense”, which is an artificial term of Soviet propaganda for which numerous Western researchers, myself included, have fallen. But the comprehensive and extremely exciting review of relevant documents in the Moscow Archives has caused me to revise my own opinion informed by the Western research and to research further.[7]

The remarkable thing about this not unpersuasive attempt to recast the events in Soviet Russia from 1929 to 1941 in the context of all out preparation for a full-fledged War of Extermination against the West to be fought out on German soil is that WWII is so close to us historically. We are talking about events that occurred during the lifetime of individuals who are still living and for which an immense historical record exists. And yet, it appears to be possible that substantial aspects of the conflict are still subject to legitimate and potentially provocative and far-reaching reinterpretation.

The historical record provides minute detail about the war on all sides involved, including copious records relating even to the atrocities committed by the Nazis in the destruction of the European Jews. To be sure, there are some well acknowledged gaps in the historical record, such as a specific document linking Hitler himself to the extermination of the Jews — which has been one factor in the development of a functionalist (vs. intentionalist) approach to the Holocaust. In this sense, it is perhaps not actually remarkable at all that reinterpretations of the events of the period should continue even after thousands of books have been written about every aspect of WWII and the Holocaust.

But the exercise here shows that even an extraordinarily full historical record can still give way to such varying interpretations and reinterpretations. We also learn that no matter how well established a historical narrative seems, including one that has broad consensus among professionals, new documents and other sources can invite or even force a revision of that history. The contours of such a history — of any history — are therefore flexible and the narrative is at the mercy of the inferences drawn by the one examining the record. To be sure, the record will only be able to conceivably support certain inferences but a varying range will still exist for purposes of the narrative to be constructed from the record.

I will be interested to see what becomes of Musial’s arguments as presented in his brief newspaper essay, which was a run-up to the release of his book on the subject on March 17, 2008. He claims that the sources in the Moscow Archives leave no room for doubt about the Soviet Union’s planned War of Extermination against the West. If that is the case, then we can anticipate new books on the subject and perhaps some healthy debate about what that means for the overall narrative of WWII history.

As it stands, Germany’s “attack on the USSR ended in the total defeat of Hitler’s Germany but the Soviet Union was able to expand its dominion to the banks of the Elbe – and adorn itself with the aura of the “Liberator” from the “fascist” reign of terror, which it has cultivated to this day.”[8]

It remains to be seen whether the historical record can accommodate the revisions Musial sees in his Moscow sources, and if so we will again be confronted with the flexibility of the historical record — what can and can’t actually be known about even such recent and well documented historical events as World War II.

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All translations from German are my own — and they are quick and dirty so if you find a blatant mistranslation, feel free to let me know.

[1] His recent research on the Holocaust includes Bogdan Musial (ed.), “Aktion Reinhardt”. Der Völkermord an den Juden im Generalgouvernement 1941-1944. Fibre Verlag, Osnabrück 2004.

[2] Dass jedoch dies die Verfälschung der historischen Fakten rechtfertigt, ist stark zu bezweifeln.

[3] Die neuesten Aktenfunde in den Moskauer Archiven belegen nämlich, dass die Sowjetunion seit dem Ende der 20er-Jahre, besonders intensiv nach dem sogenannten Schwarzen Freitag (Beginn der Weltwirtschaftskrise, 25. Oktober 1929), zum ideologisch bedingten Vernichtungskrieg gegen den Westen massiv aufrüstete. Stalin und seine Genossen gingen davon aus, dass die Krise bald in einen “imperialistischen Krieg” münden würde, der wiederum die Voraussetzungen für den revolutionären Angriffskrieg schaffen würde.

Im Januar 1930 entwarf der spätere Marschall Michail Tuchatschewski die Konzeption des “Vernichtungskriegs” gegen den Westen, die einen massenhaften Einsatz von Panzern (50 000), Flugzeugen (40 000) sowie den “massiven Einsatz von chemischen Kampfmitteln” vorsah. Das Ziel des Angriffskrieges war, die kommunistische Herrschaft in Europa und der Welt mit Waffengewalt zu verbreiten.

Und Deutschland kam in den Plänen der Bolschewiki für die Weltrevolution die Schlüsselrolle zu, und zwar aufgrund seines Industriepotenzials, der Stärke seiner Arbeiterschaft, der künftigen disziplinierten Soldaten der Revolution sowie der geopolitischen Lage im Zentrum Europas. Für die Bolschewiki war Deutschland der Schlüssel zur Beherrschung Europas.

[4] Tatsache ist aber, dass ab 1930 die gesamte Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft der Sowjetunion dem einen Ziel, den massiven Vorbereitungen zum revolutionären Eroberungskrieg, untergeordnet wurde. Um das durchzusetzen, überzogen die sowjetischen Kommunisten das ganze Land mit beispiellosem Massenterror gegen diejenigen, die diese Vorbereitungen “sabotieren” und im künftigen Krieg das eigene Hinterland gefährden könnten.

Anfang 1930 ließ Stalin auch die Zwangskollektivierung entscheidend beschleunigen und zugleich einen Vernichtungsfeldzug gegen die Bauern beginnen, um den breiten Widerstand gegen die Kollektivierung zu brechen. Es ging darum, sich uneingeschränkten Zugriff auf die bäuerlichen Erträge zu sichern, um damit die gigantische Aufrüstung zu finanzieren. In die kommunistischen Konzentrationslager wurden Hunderttausende Bauern und andere konterrevolutionäre Elemente eingewiesen oder gleich erschossen. Etwa 1,5 Millionen Menschen (meistens Kinder und Frauen) verschleppten die sowjetischen Kommunisten in den Jahren 1930/31 in die unwirtlichen Tiefen des Riesenreiches. Hunderttausende von ihnen starben in der Verbannung an Hunger, Kälte, Krankheiten und Entkräftung. Die meisten Opfer waren Kinder. In manchen Verbannungsorten betrug die Kindersterblichkeit im Frühjahr 1930 und 1931 um zehn Prozent im Monat.

In den Jahren 1932 und 1933 folgte der Große Hunger, den Stalin und seine kommunistischen Genossen nachweisbar künstlich hervorgerufen hatten. Etwa zehn Millionen Menschen starben damals, davon etwa fünf bis sechs Millionen Ukrainer. Der Große Hunger war die größte demografische Tragödie in Europa in Friedenszeiten seit dem Mittelalter. Und die westliche Öffentlichkeit ignorierte diese ungeheuerliche menschliche Katastrophe weitgehend, schlimmer noch, es gab im Westen genug als fortschrittliche geltende Intellektuelle, die diese Massenverbrechen rechtfertigten und verharmlosten.

Stalin, seine Genossen und der gesamte kommunistische Bürokratieapparat verwandelten in den 30er-Jahren die Sowjetunion in ein gigantisches Zwangsarbeitslager, und das alles nur zu dem einen Zweck, das Land auf einen langjährigen revolutionären Eroberungskrieg vorzubereiten.

[5] Der große Terror der Dreißigerjahre hat seine Wurzeln in den nicht wie geplant verlaufenden Kriegsvorbereitungen und den dabei erlittenen Rückschlägen. Er entwickelte Eigendynamik und erfasste nach und nach alle Bereiche von Staat und Gesellschaft. Tief greifende Säuberungen innerhalb der Roten Armee, des Partei-, Staats-, Wirtschafts- und Sicherheitsapparats folgten in den Jahren 1937 und 1938. Am meisten betroffen war jedoch nach wie vor die bäuerliche Bevölkerung, die zu Sklaven des kommunistischen Bürokratieapparates degradiert wurde.

[6] Den Sieg der kommunistischen Revolution in Russland betrachteten die bolschewistischen Anführer als den ersten Schritt zur Weltrevolution, und sie meinten das sehr ernst. Die heute zugänglichen Quellen aus den russischen Archiven, die teilweise veröffentlicht sind, lassen keinen Zweifel darüber, allerdings sind diese im Westen wenig bekannt, geschweige denn rezipiert.

[7] Es verwundert daher nicht, dass die heutige westliche Forschung die sowjetische Propaganda von der angeblich defensiven, ja “friedliebenden” Außenpolitik der Sowjetunion weitgehend widerspiegelt. Die damalige sowjetische militärische Kriegstaktik wird nach wie vor als “offensive” beziehungsweise “Vorwärtsverteidigung” beschrieben, ein Kunstgriff der sowjetischen Propaganda, auf den zahlreiche westliche Forscher und Autoren hereinfielen, ich selbst nicht ausgenommen. Erst die umfassende und äußerst spannende Lektüre einschlägiger Dokumente in den Moskauer Archiven hat mich veranlasst, meine durch die westliche Forschung und kommunistische Propaganda geformte Meinung zu revidieren und weiterzuforschen.

[8] Der Überfall auf die UdSSR endete für Hitlers Deutschland mit der totalen Niederlage, die Sowjetunion konnte aber ihre Herrschaft bis an die Elbe ausbreiten – und sich dazu noch mit dem Nimbus des Befreiers von der “faschistischen” Terrorherrschaft schmücken, der bis heute gepflegt wird.

Comments

  1. Impressive post, John. I don’t really have much to add, but I greatly appreciated it.

  2. Wow.

    It’s true that the (fully justified) spectre of Naziism has overshadowed much of 1930’s European history. Thanks for this.

  3. Shorter Musial: Hitler was right that the Eastern hordes were coming.

  4. Neal Kramer says:

    Anti-communism has always had in its very soul the fear that the Soviet Union’s ultimate goal was world domination. Whether Stalin and his closest advisers had specific plans for moving in all directions raises some interesting questions. The USSR, for example, was a strong supporter of Chiang Kai-shek against the forces of democracy in pre-WWII China and never very friendly with Mao.

    But with German right-wing historians the specter of Soviet domination is always raised as a justification for their continuing fascination with Fascism. The German far right would love to resuscitate Hitler, separate him from the Holocaust (or just deny it), and use his “success” to recreate post Weimar German domination. You never have to look very far in some parts of the Vaterland to find people who long for dark summer nights in the Volksstadion with all the flags, the torches, and the Sieg Heil’s.

    Caveat scholars!

  5. I am sure that in their fondest dreams from 1929-1941 the Stalinists evisioned themselves marching across Europe and creating a Marxist-Lenisist paradise.

    However my understanding of this period was that Stalin was paranoid and busy rooting his supposed enemies out of the armed forces and other parts of the government. He was pretty successful at killing of some of his ablest talent to the point that by 1941 the Soviet army and society was in poor shape and no position to really attack the rest of Europe.

  6. Marshall Tukhachevsky, for instance, cited in the third quote above as the planner of the great war against the west, was executed in the 1937 purges.

    A great novel about this period is The Case of Comrade Tulayev, by Victor Serge.

  7. Jonathan Green says:

    John, this week’s Spiegel has an interview with Rolf-Dieter Müller, the lead historian on the project to document the military history of the Wehrmacht in WWII, which is about to release its tenth and last volume after some 30 years of work. The reporter asked specifically about the notion of WWII as a preventive war against Soviet invasion; the historian said that 30 years of research and new access to Russian archives had rendered that belief untenable.

  8. re # 4, interesting perspective you have about Germany, Neal.

    re # 5, bbell, you might be interested in reading the original post here, which outlines one historian’s thesis that Stalin’s paranoia in the 1930s was grounded in his fears that the severe deficiencies in his country’s ability to actually produce quality armaments and motivated soldiers, a project that the historian Musial alleges was Soviet Russia’s main focus in the hopes of launching a War of Extermination against the West, and that his purges were an attempt to eliminate whatever subterfuge or sabotage was believed to be the reason for Soviet Russia’s material incompetence.

    re # 7, Jonathan, that is exactly the point. I am guessing you only had time to skim my post here, based on your comment. This post was neither promoting nor defending Musial’s thesis about the USSR’s alleged intended War of Extermination. This post was about historical narrative and its relationship to primary sources — and the inferences upon which any narrative must depend.

    It is correct, as Müller points out, that Western and particularly German historians dismiss the notion of taking Nazi propaganda about protecting the West against Bolshevism as a justification for invading Russia. This is what I was taught in undergraduate history classes; this is what you were taught in undergraduate history classes.

    But interestingly, both Musial and Müller claim that the resources available through the “new access to Russian archives” leave no room for doubt about their respective theses. Musial claims that the sources in the Moscow archives reveal clearly that the main focus of the Soviet economy and society during the 1930s was an effort of rapid armament to launch a War of Extermination against the West to be fought out in Germany. As you note, Müller and other Western and German historians dispute Germany’s invasion of Russia as a preventive war. Both of these approaches are constructed through appeal to the historical record — both even refer to the newly accessible Russian archives for their authority.

    I should note that on a certain level I don’t see Musial’s and Müller’s claims as necessarily diametrically opposed as your comment seems to assume. I didn’t understand Musial’s thesis, at least as expressed in the newspaper article, to mean that WWII was a preventive war against Russia. In fact, Musial points out that when Germany invaded Russia in 1941 it was not aware of the level of preparations the USSR had completed for its own planned invasion.

    Musial’s aim seems to be to examine whether Soviet propaganda at the time and in retrospect (which party line the current Russia still espouses) about its peaceful foreign policy is accurate. Musial notes that most Western historians simply parody the age-old Soviet propaganda. So this goes to the USSR’s reputation and doesn’t say much, if anything (at least in the newspaper article) about Germany’s own motivations for attacking Russia.

    Perhaps we both need to read the book to see whether Musial is really actually saying anything about Germany’s own intentions in invading Russia but from the newspaper article, that didn’t appear to be the case.

    But as we see from # 4, apparently, challenging the USSR’s reputation as a peaceful neighbor and liberator provokes accusations of Naziism.

  9. The best part? Both Musial and Müller are Mormon.

  10. Kristine says:

    John,

    First of all, thanks for summarizing this article so thoughtfully; it’s a very helpful service for those of us whose German is mostly a bizarre mix of 80s teen slang and late 19th-century lyric poetry :)

    I think your questions about the moral weight of historical narrative are very provocative. One of (many!) things to love about German Studies is the nearly universal recognition by its practitioners that there is a deep moral and ethical component in the study of this history, and often of the literature that precedes and follows it. In other contexts, it’s easier to bracket questions of guilt and innocence, right and wrong; in the study of German history, the impossibility and, indeed, the immorality of a pretense to some sort of scholarly detachment is obvious.

    And, although you haven’t spelled it out, it’s not too hard to see how such questions could be relevant to the study of Mormon history. We, too, are dealing mostly with a recent and relatively well-documented past and with complicated, hopelessly mixed senses of guilt and persecution when we come to events like the martyrdom of Joseph and Hyrum, conflicts in Missouri and Nauvoo, Mountain Meadows Massacre, and the Utah War. An obvious very recent example of how these questions play in contemporary Mormon thinking is the reaction to Helen Whitney’s documentary–particularly the question of how much time should have been devoted to the Mountain Meadows Massacre. It seemed clear that one of the major questions we were grappling with was precisely this one of how much the experience of persecution and the fear of invasion could excuse, or at least explain, the shift from victim to aggressor. Of course the parallels are far from exact, but at some very broad level, the questions are not entirely dissimilar.

  11. Thanks for that insight Kristine — very instructive.

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