Historians, scholars, and others who study the history of the Second World War would concur that the War on the Eastern Front was the largest and deadliest conflict in history, in terms of lives lost; for both the civilian populations and armed combatants. The latest research now suggests 27 million Soviet deaths alone – military and civilian. The scope and intensity of the fighting in such battles as Stalingrad, Kursk, Leningrad, and Moscow are legendary. Past histories of the ‘The Great Patriotic War’, as the former Soviet Union preferred, had been skewed from the predominance of German material on the subject combined with the very limited and ‘edited’ Soviet propaganda only heretofore allowed access by historians. Recent access granted historians of Soviet records and archives (since the demise of the Soviet Union) now provide a much more accurate picture of the Eastern Front war.
Why the War on the Eastern Front Matters
Seventy-five percent of all German casualties during the Second World War are attributed to the War on the Eastern Front. The war in Europe was not won as a result of ‘D-Day’, or the heroic Allied efforts at Bastogne, as our biased American popular culture would have us believe: “Despite the widespread perception in the West that the Normandy invasion was the event that defeated Nazi Germany, the real war had always taken place in the east as any look at relevant statistics indicates.” I whole-heartedly agree with Professor Fritz’s statement on this pervasive misnomer of history – a form of cultural bias in America; the result of the ‘Cold War’. Germany’s focus and manpower was to the east. The Allies won the war in Europe because Hitler and Nazi Germany began to lose the war on the Eastern Front after ‘Operation Barbarossa’ ground to a halt. The Eastern Front was the ‘eye of the storm’ for Germany’s multi-campaign failures. This is the essence of the Eastern Front and why its context is indeterminately significant to a complete understanding of the Second World War – militarily, politically, economically, and geographically.
To fully understand the Second World War and its main villain, Adolf Hitler’s Germany, it is essential to acquire a firm grasp of the history of the Eastern Front as it relates to the other theaters of war that involved Wehrmacht forces. The other countries and theaters of war which Germany sought to dominate were each ultimately affected by the ill-conceived invasion of the Soviet Union: ‘Operation Barbarossa’, on the 22nd of June 1941. Nazi Germany’s mismanagement of its aggression, beginning with the North African Campaign (1940 -1943), the Italian Campaign (1943 -1945), and finally the war in Western Europe (1944 – 1945), enabled the Allied forces to gain victories in each of these theaters of war. As Gerhard L. Weinberg offers in A World at Arms: A Global History of World War II, the campaign during the summer of 1941 was meant to be a brief one. It turned out anything but. The failures in the other theaters can all be attributed to Germany’s prolonged focus on the Eastern Front, an endeavor whose sheer enormity left itself spread too thin and ineffective elsewhere. Michael Burleigh agrees in his comprehensive book of 2000, The Third Reich: A New History: “The fortunes of war turned against Hitler, not just in Russia, where Stalingrad was an unmitigated disaster, impacting badly on domestic morale, but in North Africa, where Montgomery’s victory at El Alamein broke Eighth Army’s poor record against Rommel’s Afrika Korps.” Stephen G. Fritz in 2011’s Ostkreig: Hitler’s War of Extermination in the East notes that:
The quick victories in 1939-1940, moreover, promised more than they delivered. Both at Dunkirk and during the Battle of Britain, the Germans lacked the resources to compel the British to negotiate an end to the war, while, in North Africa and the Mediterranean, they were dependent on weak and unreliable allies. All this revealed German weakness, not strength.
Fritz, Burleigh, Bellamy, and Weinberg all agree that Hitler’s Wehrmacht was successful up to and including the early stages of ‘Operation Barbarossa’ of 1941, but the weaknesses inherent in Germany’s planning and war machine emerged thereafter.
Study of the Eastern Front is essential for anyone studying global military history from the Great War; 1914-1918, onward. Its continued influence and repercussions for the Soviet Union throughout the Cold War were felt in both the Korean and Vietnam Wars. It was in those wars whose communist underpinnings and sponsorships were a war ‘by proxy’ for the Soviets and Chinese.
The Eastern Front’s Relevance Today
As much of the world’s geo-political landscape was redrawn in the post-war era, the Soviet Union emerged unified and became a decades-long foe to the United States during the ‘Cold War’ until its break-up in 1991:
Even more than the forced industrialization and collectivization of the 1920s and 1930s, the great purge from 1937, the cold war and the space race, that most terrible of wars was the defining four years of Russian and Soviet history. Like the American Civil War, which fused the USA from a collection of individual states into a single nation, the Great Patriotic War made the Soviet Union a space-bound superpower.
Chris Bellamy notes in Absolute War: Soviet Russia in the Second World War that the key battles in the War on the Eastern Front were fought outside of Russia, with the exception of Moscow, Stalingrad, Kursk, and Leningrad “… in Ukraine, in Belarus, and in countries that are now part of Nato – in the Baltic states, in Poland, and in reunited Germany.” Bellamy theorizes that this “may” have led to the solidification of Russia at the expense of the Soviet Union in 1991: “The war was fought out of Russia, but much of it on non-Russian territory. Ultimately, that may have helped the Russian identity, at the expense of Soviet identity and unity, leading up to the break-up of what is now called former Soviet space.” I’m not certain that I fall in line with Bellamy’s theory…it’s thin. Moscow, Stalingrad, Kursk, and Leningrad were key battles of the Eastern Front. Could modern Russia have survived the Cold War because it was stronger than the other Soviet nations in 1940 as well as 1991? – Very possibly so.
Historiography: War on the Eastern Front Written Today
The history of the War on the Eastern Front offers a richer tapestry since the demise of the former Soviet Union. New histories continue to be written as a result of that geo-political transformation in 1991 from noted authors in the academic community as well as those outside of academia. Chris Bellamy provides an exceptional contextual history of the Eastern Front war in Absolute War: Soviet Russia in the Second World War from 2007. Stephen G. Fritz in Ostkrieg: Hitler’s War of Extermination from 2011 is another brilliant offering from the academic community. Fritz notes that little was written previously in the English-language covering the War on the Eastern Front. I agree with Fritz and had written an in-depth research paper on this very topic for a previous course. My thesis contends that this lack of published work dedicated to the critical importance of this theater was due to cultural bias in America and Cold War attitudes which permeated our society from 1946 onward.
Both works from Bellamy and Fritz flourish thanks in-part to extensive bibliographies of primary and secondary materials – heretofore unavailable. Michael Burleigh’s The Third Reich: A New History from 2000 provides an updated and modern look at the Third Reich in context – again with an updated and comprehensive bibliography more focused however on German history. This course’s main text by Gerhard L. Weinberg, A World at Arms: A Global History of World War II was republished in 2005 as a ‘Second Edition’ which benefits from new data.
I have found Bellamy’s Absolute War to be the most coveted resource on this topic; and as such, is the least biased and objective work on the Eastern Front (I have omitted A World at Arms which is offered as a ‘complete history’ of the Second World War). A product of ‘academic history’, Absolute War reads much like ‘popular history’ and benefits from the author’s contextual historical focus. Interestingly, Bellamy’s Absolute War and Fritz’s Ostkrieg have interpreted similar new data which is reflected in their contributions; and, both books are representative of the very latest historiography to be published on subject of the Eastern Front conflict.
What the Scholars are Saying Anew
The new research has uncovered data which shows the casualty rates to be dramatically greater than previously thought. The logical question asked by Bellamy, Fritz, and the others is why did Hitler not stop after Barbarossa? Why did he not seek a settlement at various points after Stalingrad? These new statistics are painting an even more horrific picture for both sides. Fritz has offered that it was in fact criminal for the German military leaders in continuing to obey the directives sent down by Hitler: “Even before the invasion of the Soviet Union, the army leadership raised no objections to the flood of criminal orders emanating from the Fuhrer and the OKW.”
Bellamy in Absolute War echoes the thoughts of the other authors in that had Hitler not chosen to invade the Soviet Union, the alternative may have turned out far worse. Bellamy, in discussing ‘what might have been’, had Stalin not been in power suggests no matter whom was in power over the Soviet Union Hitler would have still sought war:
Hitler might have been as determined to destroy any other Soviet Russian leader or government. Had he not, had Tukhachevskiy perhaps survived to overthrow Stalin and come to some accommodation with Hitler, then Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union might have presented a united front against the free world. What might have happened then is perhaps even more terrible to contemplate.
The German and Soviet ‘alliance scenario’ has been a popular question asked by these authors and others.
Burleigh, in The Third Reich details the sociological waste laid to Germany after the war and the ravage it placed on its citizens in the years that followed. This was a similar topic for Bellamy – the extreme consequences war on the Eastern Front has left on the demographics of Soviet citizenry in the decades which followed the war. The history now written on the Eastern Theater provides a truer picture of the dramatic after-effects of war; which, for this reason becomes an even more compelling case for its study and circumspection. Weinberg, in his ‘magnum opus’ A World at War, asks few new questions but rather offers a suggestion of hope for a world that has been at war since recorded history: “It had become all too obvious that another world war would be the last. A combination of care and luck, inventiveness and insight might enable humanity to harness its capacities for constructive purposes. The great conflagration stood as a warning for all.”
Bellamy, Chris. Absolute War: Soviet Russia in the Second World War. New York: Vintage Books, 2007.
Burleigh, Michael. The Third Reich: A New History. New York: Hill and Wang, 2000.
Fritz, Stephen G. Ostkrieg: Hitler’s War of Extermination in the East. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 2011.
Weinberg, Gerhard L. A World at Arms: A Global History of World War II. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.
 Chris Bellamy, Absolute War: Soviet Russia in the Second World War (New York: Vintage Books, 2007) 2.
 Stephen G. Fritz, Ostkrieg: Hitler’s War of Extermination in the East (Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 2011) Inside flap.
 Ibid., 469.
 Gerhard L. Weinberg, A World at Arms: A Global History of World War II (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005) 266.
 Burleigh, Michael, The Third Reich: A New History (New York: Hill and Wang, 2000) 759.
 Stephen G. Fritz, Ostkrieg: Hitler’s War of Extermination in the East (Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 2011) 484.
 Chris Bellamy, Absolute War: Soviet Russia in the Second World War (New York: Vintage Books, 2007) 6.
 Stephen G. Fritz, Ostkrieg: Hitler’s War of Extermination in the East (Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 2011) 480
 Chris Bellamy, Absolute War: Soviet Russia in the Second World War (New York: Vintage Books, 2007) 687.
 Gerhard L. Weinberg, A World at Arms: A Global History of World War II (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005) 920.