Sunday, November 17, 2013

The Red Army and the "Great Patriotic War" (1941-45)

The Red Army and Stalin's "Great Patriotic War" 
("Вели́кая Оте́чественная война́" according to Russian Wikipedia)

In pursuing my senior research project this semester about the German invasion of the Soviet Union and the mentality of the men on the ground (foot soldiers, artillerymen, Panzer units, etc.), I have come across various interesting tropes and stereotypes about Russian Red Army soldiers, their motivations, and their structure. Beyond the well-known Nazi racial hierarchy (of which the Slavs were just one rung up the ladder from the Jews), there appears various institutional and cultural differences that together with propaganda and the general brutalization of an ideological war, combined to make the war in the Soviet Union one of the most brutal and ideologically charged battlegrounds of the war. (See Omer Bartov, The Eastern Front)
In studying the ideological biases of the common German soldier, (Landser) there exists a large variety of tropes, themes and linguistic hot-words that carry a highly ideological or historically significant weight; i.e. partisan warfare; dehumanization; brutalization; Russian Atrocity stories; German reprisals; etc. All of these themes are interesting in their own right, and have been studied intensively from the German perspective. As my paper broadly attempts to ask the question of "what motivated individual soldiers, and how inundated were they with Nazi ideology regarding these tropes?", I thought that I would delve into a summary glance at the work done for the Landsers' Red Army counterparts. 
German soldiers' stereotypes about "Ivan" (the least offensive nickname given to Red Army combatants) abound, but the most interesting pertain to exactly what I am studying in the German Wehrmacht: what was driving these soldiers' to battle and to do what they did? The German troops vary in their perceptions, but mostly land on a dichotomous view that the typical Russian soldier was a lazy, unmotivated, (mostly) sub-human bum who would just assume run away from the battle as fight in it, and who had no loyalty or ties to the "Jewish-Bolshevik regime" figureheaded by Stalin. The other figure that emerges is the political commissar of the Soviet Party, who is an ideological backbone for the troops, commanding absolute respect and terror as Stalin's representatives on the front lines. Later in the war these commissars and the other officers of the Red Army would be responsible for shooting droves of their own men if they retreated even a step - which led to thousands of self-inflicted Russian deaths.  These two figures are representative of most German soldiers' perception of the Russian Red Army, but are obviously a very one-sided understanding of the Red Army from an entirely antagonistic point of view. Meanwhile, public discourse in Russia and the former Soviet Republics has largely been silent as regards critical analysis of the war with the Nazis. It has broadly (from what I can find) remained the official party story of a "Patriotic war" against the evil Nazis, and critical scholarship regarding the Red Army's atrocities in the war has been largely dismissed or argued against with the same justifications that the Nazis used for the mass murder of Russian civilians. The historical research of Rodger Reese, who did a study of the Red Army's motivations in 2011, sheds more light on the issue, and he concludes that there were (no surprises) many different motivations of Russian soldiers, in most cases the same spread of motivations that are ascribed to German and indeed any other military force in modern history. This also raises questions about propaganda and public memory in general, but of course in the former Soviet Republics in general. (This has already come up extensively regarding Ukrainian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Estonian Nationals and their involvement in Holocaust Perpetration, but regarding the national "heroes" and mythical status that surrounds military units, it has gone largely unnoticed in the public eye (from what I can find online, anyways). 
Some takeaway points of this overly lengthy and verbose post are:

  1. The questions that have been applied to German and other Western forces during the Second World War are only now being able to be asked of the Soviet Red Army, with interesting and exciting implications for the future of historical research into Stalin's Russia in the years to come. 
  1. Stereotypes made by the German troops (which were largely accepted by Western powers after the war) are not enough to explain and properly treat the motivations of Red Army soldiers. 
  1. The Red Army was if anything, a much more complex and interesting conglomeration of different ethnicities and people groups that were tugged and torn to pieces in what Timothy Snyder has deemed the Bloodlands (also a great book. If you need reading over winter break, consider it a great overview of the horrors that took place in the nations between Russia and Germany that were repeatedly brutalized in the 20th century).
  1. the interpretation of history within the tunnel vision of "victor's justice," or a "Great Patriotic War" can lead to some extremely distorted views of history, and should serve as an exemplar to those people who want to continually interpret history through the lens of their own self-aggrandizement (ahem -'Murica)
  1. Finally - Historians were really happy  continue to be slap-happy about the mass of sources now available in the formerly locked-down Archives of the Soviet Bloc.

This was only tangentially related to my senior research, but if you are interested in hearing me present the (mostly) completed project, I will be doing so along with my senior research class on December 6th between 2 and 6pm (I'll probably be around 4:30). 

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