Book Review: Deathride: Hitler vs. Stalin - The Eastern Front, 1941-1945

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by John Mosier

New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010. Pp. iv, 470. Maps, notes, index. $11.95 paper . ISBN: 978-1416573487

Carl Sagan once said that extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof.  In Deathride: Hitler vs. Stalin, The Eastern Front, 1941-1945, John Mosier makes some extraordinary claims about the titanic struggle between Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia.  Mosier, a professor of English at Loyola University is no stranger to controversy.  Though not a military
historian by training, he has written a number of revisionist (Some would say contrarian) military histories, including The Myth of the Great War: A New Military History of World War I, The Blitzkrieg Myth: How Hitler and the Allies Misread the Strategic Realities of World War II, and Cross of Iron: The Rise and Fall of the German War Machine, 1918-1945.  In Deathride, Mosier trains his guns on the conventional wisdom about the Eastern front, and reaches some provocative conclusions.

Mosier examines Soviet dispositions on the eve of Barbarossa and concludes that they were offensive in nature.  He argues that Stalin was preparing to attack Germany, but Hitler beat him to the punch.  This is the only one of the shells Mosier sends downrange, and it isn’t the biggest.  He later argues that the Soviets were taking unsustainable losses, and would have been beaten without massive Western material aid, and especially without the landing of Allied armies in the Mediterranean to draw German troops from Russia.  He further argues that the Red Army did not show anything like the kind of qualitative improvement that most histories claim, and that the Germans mostly remained masters of the battlefield until nearly the end of the war.

Does Mosier provide the extraordinary proof that his claims would seem to require?  Some of his arguments hold up better than others.  The claim that the Soviets would have run out of men seems plausible enough.  According to Mosier, Russia’s population at the start of the war was nearly twice that of Germany, 170 million against 85 million.  Though these figures omit Hitler’s allies, the Russians simply could not sustain a loss rate of greater than two to one in Germany’s favor - and in practice the Germans often achieved a kill ratio much better than that.  So far, so good.   But some of Mosier’s claims seem more tenuous.  He more or less lays the entire blame for the calamity at Stalingrad on the hapless Friedrich Paulus, who, he says, should have retreated to save his army, ignoring the fact that Hitler insisted that Paulus not retreat and that Stalingrad be held.  He also calls Paulus’ decision to surrender a “betrayal”, on the grounds that few of his men survived captivity.  But no help was coming, the Luftwaffe could not supply the encircled Germans, and the condition of Paulus’ men was pitiful.  At that point, both surrender and resistance led to the grave. 

Even after Stalingrad, Mosier still believes the Germans were basically winning the war with Russia.  The lethality of the German Army was increasing, as new and heavier tanks became available, while the Russians were suffering unsustainable losses, and would eventually have run out of men.  Mosier asserts that the real turning point came at Kursk, when Hitler made the decision to take the best panzer and panzer grenadier units from Manstein’s army to send them west to meet expected Allied landings in the Mediterranean.   After that, the German army was gradually weakened as more and more of its most elite troops were sent to shore up the Western and Southern fronts.

Mosier also credits Hitler with having better strategic judgment than his generals.   The Germans generals were focused on the seizure of major cities like Leningrad and Moscow, while Hitler attached greater importance to the seizure of critical resource such as oil and grain without which the Russians could simply not continue the war.  This may be the most controversial of Mosier’s claims, though he does point out that Hitler made some serious strategic misjudgments, especially later in the war.

Mosier brings to the discussion of the Eastern front something that is vital when dealing with any aspect of Soviet history, and that is a deep skepticism about the veracity of all official Soviet sources.  The central fact about the Communists is that all of them were liars.  They lied to everyone, including each other and themselves, and they lied about everything.   Mosier claims that Stalin created a faux history of the war with Germany that became widely believed both inside and outside Russia, and which has never been properly debunked.

Deathride lacks a bibliography, though it does have extensive footnotes.  It hasn’t got much in the way of maps, either.  This is a very unconventional and unorthodox military history, but it is a page turner.   Mosier writes well.   He makes a good case that because of the wasteful tactics that Stalin demanded, Russia was probably a lot more vulnerable to defeat by attrition than is generally thought, and he makes a decent case that the increasing pressure on the Mediterranean Front and the threat of a cross channel invasion played a significant role on the Eastern Front, and thus that the Russians could not have beaten the Germans on their own, whatever claims they made afterwards.  Mosier, however, may not be giving the Red Army proper credit for the defense of Moscow and the victory at Stalingrad.  Whatever battlefield reverses the Red Army suffered, whatever wasteful folly Stalin demanded, Moscow remained in Soviet hands, and the German Sixth Army somehow ended up dead or captured.

Whatever one thinks of Mosier’s conclusions, Deathride is a highly readable book that will give the reader a lot to think about and talk about afterwards.

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Our Reviewer: A military history buff and veteran wargamer, Burke G Sheppard's previous reviews for StrategyPage include Fire and Fury: The Allied Bombing of Germany, 1942-1945 and Ministry of Defeat: The British in Iraq 2003-2009

Reviewer: Burke G Sheppard   


Buy it at Amazon.com




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