I went to Conway Hall to see Anthony Beevor delivering his talk The Soviet Union And The Second World War. This was the first public talk I have been to since March 2020 and it seemed to be the first big post-lockdown event at the Ethical Society. It was held in the Main Hall whilst the Gilbert & Sullivan society reconvened in the Bertrand Russell Room and the Anti-University were in the Brockway Room. This event was promoted by Pushkin House, whose publicity describes their Bloomsbury location as being in “London’s literary district”.

Masks were not compulsory in the Hall and very few bothered with them, and there was no distancing either. About 150 were said to be present, with a further 170 watching the on-line stream of the event.

Anthony Beevor was introduced as “one of the leading historians of our generation” and it was noted his works have sold around 80 million copies in various editions. He is now working on a book about the Russian Revolution and Civil War. He’s just missed the centenary of those events ending, unless he’s going to argue they didn’t really end until 1923 or thereabouts, which would be fitting as the question of whether the overlapping conflicts of “World War 2” really started earlier than 1939 was considered near the end of this talk.

Beevor started off with some observations about Putin’s Russia and its concern with historical memory, in particular the changing perceptions and popularity of Stalin in opinion polls about figures from the past. It’s hardly surprising there should be some shifting as the generations that lived under him pass away, and it’s simply paralleling the shifting perception of Churchill in Britain. Winston achieved his modern canonical version with the 40th anniversary of the Finest Hour in 1980, having never been so revered during his life or the decades after. The awfulness of Stalinist crimes is no barrier to retrospective softening: it’s inevitable that the monsters of history become cartoonish as their world becomes remote and strange. How strongly do modern Britons feel repelled by the Tudor monarchs, with their religious persecutions and executions? Probably not as much as they ought to, if they were calculating and calibrating the emotional reaction according to relative population statistics. Stalin’s notorious alleged comparison between his killings and those of Ivan The Terrible might have simply been a premonition of how he would be regarded in 200 years time.

The total losses of Soviet population are now estimated at 24-26 million. It was known in 1945 that the figure was at least 20 million though Stalin preferred to set the official number at 7.5 million. 76% of total Wehrmacht losses were on the Eastern Front, and Beevor stated it was “obviously correct” that the Red Army “broke the back of the German Army”. Here we get on to a question that buzzed around the whole lecture: whether the USSR could have defeated the Axis powers without Allied assistance. Apparently there is an increasing section of the Russian public who believe this, but it’s also been a favourite idea for some westerners on the internet for years.

As with all counterfactual history, the question is meaningless without filling in a lot of detail that would otherwise leave it imponderable. Would the USSR have to fight Japan as well, if the latter was not preoccupied challenging the British and Americans? Are the British neutrally selling the goods of their Empire to the Germans, or have they been defeated and are collaborating for free? In our universe the Vichy French made bases in Syria and Madagascar available to the Axis, until the British quickly occupied them. Would a defeated Britain give up its airbases in the Middle East and India, and hand over the long-range bombers it had developed, so that Soviet industrial centres such as Chelyabinsk (“Tankograd”) could be brought in range of destruction by the Luftwaffe? That would be in line with Cold War plans for a UK-USSR conflict, or the Germans could reactivate Operation Pike, the Anglo-French plan of 1939 to bomb the Caucasus oil fields, instead of conquering them. And so on. What is sure is that the combination of the USSR with British Empire and the USA had greater resources and production capacity to make Axis defeat inevitable if it continued at the tempo and rates of attrition established by 1942. Those material factors matter more than any Great Men in charge.

Beevor noted that in 1941 there were expectations that the German invasion would reach a quick resolution, and he mentioned the case of a young SS officer, assigned to the first wave in June and believing he would be away on leave when it was all over in August. He disposed of some old and new canards. He explained that no historians any longer think that the Balkan campaign to suppress Yugoslavia and Greece was responsible for the delay in the launch and development of Barbarossa. The delay was due to logistical problems, although the campaign did encourage Stalin’s belief that Hitler’s priority was driving Britain out of the Mediterranean and capturing the Suez Canal. He also rejected the “conspiracy theories, mostly neo-Nazi” that the USSR was preparing to invade Germany in July 1941. He called this “rubbish”, a misunderstanding of some contingency planning documents. He did not touch on the phenomenon of books like Icebreaker and how they fit in the current Russian view of the past mentioned at the start.

He mentioned another factor that upset Stalin’s expectations: the availability of lots of French mechanized transport to the Wehrmacht after 1940, replacing its reliance on horse-drawn support lines. He did not review Stalin’s rejection of intelligence reports pointing at an imminent invasion. He did not state that Stalin “trusted Hitler” which is just as well. Given the history of British intelligence intrigues and plots over the previous 20 years, it is not so unreasonable that Stalin thought he was being played by Churchill; the glossing of this as “trusting Hitler” is unfair on the old brute on a point where his thinking seems to be defensible.

The horrors of the 1941 campaign, and the rapid escalation of threats and punishments in order to maintain discipline was described. Marshal Zhukov was of course not the hilarious character he appears in The Death Of Stalin but another servant of the system who could be inventive in coercion to ensure its survival. The revival of patriotism, and the experience of ordinary Russians such as the young Andrei Sakharov “feeling like a real Russian for the first time” (his words, apparently) was mentioned. The use of “blocking units” and other tactics to make front lines stay solid was cited, and Beevor stated that western armies could not have held on to the position at Stalingrad as the Red Army did. He added some commentary about the relative willingness of liberal democracies to run their armed forces as ruthlessly as dictatorships do. This missed the crucial issue: western armies (in particular Britain and France) had limited manpower available and simply could not afford to squander units. This becomes pertinent when he related the story of Operation Mars, performed as a diversion in parallel with the counter-attack at Stalingrad. He labelled Stalin’s attitude “cynical” for ordering the “heartless sacrifice” of an offensive with poor preparation and details deliberately leaked to German military intelligence. Perhaps there was a degree of wishful thinking involved as well. Western forces did launch their own underprepared, over-hopeful attacks that led to terrible losses: Dieppe and Arnhem. These weren’t on the scale of Soviet disasters but there were less units available for them.

He discussed Allied aid to the Soviet economy, focusing on Lend Lease and US aid (the British “Tanks For Russia” effort and Arctic convoys were not included). He reviewed the strategic bombing campaign as an alternative to a Second Front landing in France, which the USSR was calling for in 1942 and finally got in 1944. He asserted that the bombing campaign took German fighter and flak units away from the Eastern Front and enabled Soviet air supremacy, a line which Churchill also took in his memoirs. He did not consider that Soviet air strength also came from having superior fighter development, in the series leading up to the Yak-9. The Red Army and Air Force fought the war with greater technical ingenuity and planning than the Germans.

As we reached the end of the war Beevor mentioned that it was SMERSH who carried out the investigation in to the final location of Hitler’s body, and that their conclusions were kept secret from Marshal Zhukov for 20 years. Wrapping up he stated that historical research has benefitted from becoming a more collegial, international field, going beyond the “Saving Private Ryan fantasy” that western forces did everything, and also the “weaponisation of history” by conspiracy theorists.

There were questions from the floor, the most interesting raised “the front that didn’t happen” in the Far East, following Japan’s defeat by Zhukov at Khalkhin Gol in 1939. Beevor noted that western intelligence underestimated Soviet military power because they didn’t know about that conflict. He dismissed the importance of the spy Richard Sorge, pointing out that Stalin didn’t trust his claims until they were confirmed by signals intelligence. This discussion missed the fact that there was a front in the East: in August 1945, when Soviet forces went to war with Japan and brought about its rapid surrender, posing a credible threat to invade the northern islands before the Americans could start their invasion of the south.

The picture in the banner is of course an early version of the KV-1.

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