WIH is excited to introduce military historian John Bradley. Mr. Bradley served as an infantry officer in the U.S. and Korea and as an infantry advisor in Viet Nam. Recipient of a Bronze Star Medal, among others, he began his history career by teaching seniors at West Point. We recently caught up with him to learn more about his 10-week class World War II: The German-Soviet War that begins on Thursday, September 12 at 10:00. (Image of Soviet Soldiers Celebrating in Berlin, 1945)
WIH Reporter: Can you share one of the least known facts about the war?
Bradley: I think that one of the least known facts is how Stalin demanded that the Allies repatriate all Russians in Western Europe—Soviet POWS held by the Germans, Soviet deserters who fought for the Germans, Russians who had escaped from the USSR and lived in free Europe, all Russian émigrés who left Russia after the Russian Revolution and still lived in Europe—and the Allies complied fully. Tragically, the Allies even used military force to return Soviet personnel and Russian people who did not want to return to the USSR to Soviet custody, and they did so even after the Soviets summarily killed hundreds immediately after they gained custody of them.
In addition, the Soviets did not return all Allied POWS held by the Germans whom they captured when overrunning East Germany in 1945, and the Allies did little to regain custody of their POWs.
WIH Reporter: In your course description, you have described the German-Soviet War as the “largest war in modern history”. Since this is the case, why is it that so few of us have grown up learning about this aspect of one of the four wars contained within World War II?
Bradley: I propose the first reason would be that the Allied air and ground victory over Hitler and Nazi Germany in Europe – from D-Day at Normandy – dominated World War II history in the US. Americans were more interested in what the US had done and what American leaders and men had done rather than what our allies, British and Soviet, had done. Victory in Europe even dominated the US victory over Japan in the Pacific in the US, the British victory over Japan in Burma in the UK, and the huge Sino-Japanese War.
The second reason would be that the Soviet Union became our primary enemy in 1946 and remained so until 1991. Americans focused on the Cold War and the possibility of nuclear war with the USSR, and they were not interested in what the Soviets had accomplished in WW II. Moreover, the Soviet takeover of Eastern Europe, the discovery that the Soviets had spied on us during WW II, and the growing knowledge about the savage Soviet dictatorship destroyed most positive feelings about what the Soviets had done in the past. I do not know of any people I knew who held good opinions of the Soviets during the Cold War.
The third reason would be that the history of the war is overwhelming in scope, in the numbers of people and military units, in the number of large actions, in the strange and difficult place names, and in the immense tactical detail—few American historians, professors, or high school teachers know enough about it to teach it.
Lastly, the German-Soviet War was an ugly war in which little quarter was given on either side, where the number of battle casualties numbs readers, and where ghastly atrocities mar the military achievements of both the Germans and the Soviets.
WIH Reporter: Perspective is everything—the Russians called the Eastern Front of World War II the Great Patriotic War while in Germany it was called the Eastern Front. What does this tell us about the mindset of these two world powers?
Bradley: For Germany this was a repeat of the Eastern Front of World War I. For Stalin, suffering disastrous defeats in 1941, he decided to revive Russian nationalism —something Lenin opposed—to somehow turn the war around: thus, the Great Patriotic War.
WIH Reporter: As a former infantry officer and now military historian, what were some of the main strategies used by each side to advance or defend their countries?
Bradley: To defeat the USSR in 1939, Hitler identified three major objectives: Leningrad, Moscow, and Kiev, but he did not designate Moscow, the critical one, as his main objective. To achieve the strategic objectives, the German commanders planned huge penetrations and tank-led turning movements supported by tactical air forces (Blitzkrieg) to break through the Soviet defense and then destroy the Red Army. The large turning movements in the center and south dominated the initial campaign and trapped and destroyed hundreds of thousands of Soviet soldiers at key places. Because of the wide distribution of forces, however, Hitler’s commanders did not have the combat power to seize any of the objectives.
The German commanders continued to use large envelopment and turning movements where possible in their 1942 campaigns.
In 1941, the Soviets had a shallow fixed defensive line all along their western border built around some strong points. After disastrous defeats, the Soviets improved their defensive lines by digging extensive trench lines, adding back up defensive lines, bringing up more artillery, adding large minefields, and deploying large reserves behind their defensive positions. As a result, they held Leningrad, Moscow, and eventually Stalingrad and Kursk.
When the Soviets went on the offensive, they copied the Germans and with their large army groups conducted huge turning movements.
The German commanders responded to the Soviet thrusts by conducting flexible mobile defenses until Hitler constantly ordered them to defend in place and not give up any ground. That proved to be disastrous for the Germans as they withdrew or were pushed back toward Germany in 1944 and 1945.
WIH Reporter: We are all aware of why Hitler is infamous. Can you expound on the impact of Joseph Stalin and will you touch on this in your class?
Bradley: Joseph Stalin was more barbarous than Hitler, but less so than Mao Tse-tung. Stalin caused the deaths of about 4,000,000 Ukrainians and 2,000,000 others by systematic, perpetuated famine in 1932 – 33, killed 690,000 Russians in the Great Terror 1937-38, and murdered tens of thousands in concentration camps from 1918 – 1930. During the Great Terror, he decapitated the leadership of the Red Army: killed 3 of 5 Soviet marshals, 13 of 15 army generals, 8 of 9 admirals, 50 of 57 army corps generals, 154 of 186 division generals, 16 of 16 army commissars, and 25 of 28 army corps commanders.
Stalin killed people randomly, killed people and groups he did not like or trust, killed people who knew about his past, killed army officers who might argue with him, and after war began, killed several generals who he decided were responsible for early defeats and ordered the Katyn Massacre of Poles. During WWII, he deported hundreds of thousands of minorities to the east because he did not trust them, causing untold deaths. I will cover all of this information and more in the course.
WIH Reporter: What do you hope students will learn from your class?
Bradley: A sound understanding of the war and its large and important campaigns. The importance of sound and judicious national war leadership as well as battle leadership.The importance of the Red Army’s defeat of the Wehrmacht to World War II in Europe.The war destroyed one terrible dictator and his regime only to elevate a more terrible dictator and his regime to be a world power.
WIH Reporter: Since you are new to WIH, we are interested in the books that you are reading or have read that you would recommend to others?
Bradley: For a first read about the war, I would recommend The West Point Atlas of American Wars. Though dated and based heavily on German sources and written by combat experienced World War II veterans, it provides an excellent, condensed operational narrative of the war with superb correlated maps.
For a less operational summary and generally an easier read, the newer The History of the Second World War, Europe and the Mediterranean, also a West Point product, provides sound information. The authors were combat experienced US Army, US Air Force, and US Navy officers and contemporaries of mine.
For amazing breadth and depth, David Glantz’ encyclopedic books, are worth reading. Be warned, however, they are not for the fainthearted. Glantz, a US Army officer, a Russian linguist and Soviet historian, has spent his whole life working on this war.
The memoirs of German veterans are very interesting and revealing, particularly Heinz Guderian’s Panzer Leader and Eric von Manstein’s Lost Victories. Georgii Zhukov’s two-volume Marshal of Victory is valuable, but the dedicated, life-long Communist general included large doses of Communist propaganda in his work. Typical of most memoir writers, he does not deal with his disasters or the massive atrocities he fostered. But Zhukov was a huge player in the war and provides much valuable information. There are several US Army historical studies of the war, written in great part by German officers, which include some excellent maps that provide very detailed tactical accounts of some operations.
For an understanding of the German high command and its background, Walter Goerlitz’s The German General Staff is a wonderful read. For an understanding of Hitler, Alan Bullock’s Hitler, A Study in Tyranny, provides a vital, contemporary view. And, William Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich is an essential source and provides a fascinating contemporary view of the Nazi era.
World War II: The German-Soviet War begins on Thursday, September 12 at 10:00 and meets for 10 weeks.