book report: No Simple Victory by Norman Davies (2006)
I think Norman Davies has succeeded in his objective in this book, No Simple Victory, with this reader to show in this World War 2 tome that the western theater was a side show to the main theater in the USSR. Regarding Belarus and the western Ukraine he writes,
They saw both the most intense warfare and the worst civilian horrors: the deportations, the Soviet and German occupations, the scourging of the Lebensraum and the Holocaust...They provided the ground over which the war's two biggest campaigns - Barbarossa and Bagration - were fought. It is no accident that Belarus lost a higher proportion of its civilian population than any other country in Europe, and that the Ukraine loast the highest absolute number. The history of these countries deserves to be better publicized. p. 20Germany invaded the Ukraine years after Stalin committed genocide against that country with his induced famine there (my blog about that here). Germany also invaded after Stalin's great purge, when he had rid the army of most of its officers with arbitrary charges and accusations resulting in execution for most. Yet Russia had vast distances, many bodies, lots of factories and raw materials, and an insane dictator who had no regard for other human beings and made sure no other leader below him did either. The Western fighting only accounted for less than 25% of German army casualties (p. 25). With Bagration and Barbarossa campaigns resulting in two million deaths between them and the fabled Battle of the Bulge causing 38,000 deaths, it's not hard to imagine the logarithmic difference between the fronts.
Davies suggests that the Nazi's undoing in the East was partly due to their racist commitments. Ukraine, especially, had no love lost for the USSR, when the Wermacht overran them, but instead of enlisting their willing aid, they imprisoned and killed them because of their Slavic, instead of Aryan, category, making them sub-human in Hitler'swarped view. On the other hand, he thinks Stalin's insanity helped the USSR. He writes of the USSR,
No society has ever been subjected to such traumatic self-immolation. And one wonders what effect Stalin's mass murders might have had on the Soviet Union's ability to fight the war that was coming. One suspects that a foreign war, against a genuine enemy, came as a great psychological relief. It can be no accident that the Red Army would produce both the greatest number of dersters and the greatest number of men who threw themselves into certain death with cheers on their lips. p.50He also reminds us that the political army kept the terror levels high in their ranks, even executing soldiers who expressed doubt too loudly. Similarly, all liberated prisoners of war were treated as traitors who were either sent to the gulags (see my earlier book report on them) or executed.
My knowledge of the the invasion of Poland is so limited. I assumed it was easy, but Davies writes, "The result was not the hopeless walkover that is often portrayed. Indeed, the Poles performed rather better than the British and the French were to do when Hitler turned west in the following year." p.77 Poland had a very competent army and the French, their professed ally had an army bigger than Germany's, but the Poles were asked by their allies to not mobilize their forces in order to not provoke Hitler. Yet they rallied and were able to held onto Warsaw for two weeks, then the Soviets invaded from the East and the odds, without help promised within 15 days by England and France, plummeted but they held on for 3 more weeks before admitting defeat. Their escaped units fought equally well in the West with the Allies in Africa, Italy, and France later on.
In the liturgical calendar of Christendom, Herod's slaughter of the innocents (Matthew 2:13-23) is remembered on December 29th. Regarding World War 2 Davies writes, "And no one is more innocent that children. Here lies the deepest 'pity of war". The conflict of 1939-45 destroyed not thousands but millions of children: innocents systematically starved; innocents incinerated by firestorm attack; innocents packed into cattle wagons; innocents gassed in the death camps. The story must be told and retold. For, as time passes, historical reality is harder and harder to believe." p.424 How such horror can happen may not be easily accepted, but our humanity is so broken, capable of great sacrificial love in the image of our maker and such demonic depravity in the same vessel.
I keep reading history of the most tragic proportions over my Christmas break every year. But the Christmas story is also full of tragedy amidst victory, just like the Easter story. Eventually, righteousness prevails, because God, the standard of righteousness, can't be defeated and the battle depends on Him and not on such weak vessels. Thank God.