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The Soviet general staff at war, 1941-1945…
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The Soviet general staff at war, 1941-1945

by Sergei Matveevich Shtemenko

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S. M. Shtemenko's memoirs of life in the Soviet General Staff frin 1941-1945 is riveting work, but what a strange book. If you're fond of operational history, it's a terrific read. Shtemenko was the Director of Operations for the General Staff at the end of World War II, having worked his way up through the command staff during the course of the war. He provides a detailed discussion of the planning of several major operations. The best of which are those where he was an integral participant, particularly at Kursk, Operation Bagration and the Baltic. The Vistula-Oder campaign and the Berlin Operation are much sketchier.

The middle three quarters of the book are an excellent recounting of the war from the Soviet perspective. However, to reach that point you first have to traverse the opening chapters which recount history as seen through a heavy reality distortion field. For instance, after Hitler invades Poland, the Soviet Army rushes in to liberate western Byelorussia and the western Ukraine to protect them from Hitler. You remember those regions don't you. No? Well they were commonly referred to as eastern Poland. No mention is made of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, and he glosses over the Finnish-Soviet "Winter" War launched by Stalin.

The disaster of the first year of war is hardly discussed at all. Partly this is because Shtemenko was just a junior staff officer at the time. His reminiscences of this period mostly focus on life of the junior staff and what it was like to live and work in the Soviet subway system. Of course, it is also difficult to portray the Soviet General Staff in a good light during this time. The army was teetering on collapse. Mistake after mistake was being made. Lives where thrown away in futile attempts to halt the progress of the German army.

The end also suffers from heavy handed propaganda. Since the book was written in 1970, the book takes every opportunity to present Americans as incompetent barbarians who resorted to the atomic bomb against Japan because they didn't know how to properly use tank armies. Of course he doesn't mention how you defeat a navy with tanks, or how you get a massive tank army onto some place like Iwo Jima. It's a clever bit of misdirection which almost certainly made his Soviet readers nod in agreement. He ignores the issue of how you would launch the sort of massive amphibious operation it would take to defeat Japan. This is almost funny when you consider how their only experiences with amphibious assaults were mostly bungled affairs.

Shtemenko can't really be faulted for his selective memory and obvious biases. This is a personal memoir. It isn't intended as a comprehensive and unbiased history of the war. It must be read as one man's vision of the war as seen from his own personal perspective. Taken in that light, the book is a gripping insider's view of how you go about controlling a military machine as massive as the Red Army. It's a wonderful source book for historians, both professional and amateur. Far from being limited in its value by its obvious flaws, the book is important exactly for those flaws. It casts a light not only on the history of the era, but on the distorting lens with which it is viewed inside the former Soviet Union.

If you are a military history buff, particularly one who is interested in the Soviet-German war, I would highly recommend Shtemenko's "The Soviet General Staff at War." ( )
1 vote fredbacon | Feb 7, 2009 |
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