Twenty million Russians died during the Second World War – civilians and combatants – and Germany would not have been defeated without the Russian effort. Catherine Merridale’s book Ivan’s war is a look at the experience of the Russian soldier, what motivated him (sometimes her) to fight, and how the experience of soldiers was seen by the Soviet state after the war. It’s a fascinating book, mostly because at the beginning of it it seems utterly impossible that the Soviet side might have gone on to win. They have no weapons – they train with wooden rifles; the officer class is in disarray following the purges of the ’30s; most conscripts are barely trained and poorly equipped, and in the initial months of the war the Germans sweep seemingly unstoppably across their territory. Merridale is very interested in the motivations for the Soviet troops, pointing out that while US troops deliberately instigated a feeling of brotherhood within small units, Soviet troops were motivated by a far more complex set of feelings: dumb obedience, fear of the officers and commissars, a sense of patriotism, and pride in the Communist achievement all play their parts.
Watching The world at war recently, the scale of the Russian achievement in militarising is still breathtaking: one of the experts describes it as a process in which the western side of the Soviet Union was tipped up and all the industry moved to the East. (This section of The world at war may be aesthetically my favourite part, as it consists mainly of footage of Russian munitions women in headscarves, set to stirring Russian folk songs.)
Merridale deals very even-handedly with the phenomemon of mass rape by Soviet troops: while in no way shying away from the horrors of the rape of German (and other) women, she notes that Soviet troops had pushed very slowly over the German-occupied Russian territories, seeing at first hand what the Wehrmacht and SS had done to their own people. Atina Grossman on Russian rape:
Again and again in German recollection of what Russian occupiers told them, the vengeful memory summoned was not a parallel violation by a German raping a Russian woman, but of a horror on a different order: it was the image of a German soldier swinging a baby, torn from it’s mother’s breast, against a wall – the mother screams, the baby’s brains splatter against the wall, the soldier laughs.
These images may not have been authentic, or first-hand; propaganda from Moscow ensured that the crimes of the Germans were kept fresh in the minds of combat troops. A Soviet officer on the raping and pillaging in Berlin:
‘Millions of people had been brutalized and corrupted by the war,’ he wrote, ‘and by our propaganda – bellicose, jingoistic and false. I had believed such propaganda necessary on the eve of war, and all the more so for the war’s duration. I still believed it, but I had also come to understand that from seeds like these came poisoned fruit’.
For a lot of her witness testimony on the conduct of the Russians in Berlin, Catherine Merridale quotes from the anonymous diary of a ‘woman in Berlin’ who details with astonishing clarity the events during and just after the battle for Berlin. This is an amazing book, in which the author not only writes about being repeatedly raped by Russian troops (she then decides that the best way to deal with this is to find a ‘protector’ and marches up to offer herself to the first officer she can find), but somehow manages to occasionally inject humour into her account and find some of the ironies of her situation. The most unpleasant irony, of course, being that when her fiancé, Gerd, turns up from the front, he is appalled that the woman he was supposed to marry is now spoiled goods, and leaves her. There’s also a lot of really interesting detail of the time – one of the most interesting/amusing details being that the period between the Russians entering Berlin and the official German surrender is actually a very fat period in which the shopkeepers all bring out the food they have been hoarding, and everyone’s stocks of luxury food and alcohol are consumed in a decadent, nihilistic orgy – before the Russians arrive.
Another piece of witness testimony of the period, but a good deal weirder and less admirable, is Until the final hour, the diary of Traudl Junge, Hitler’s secretary up to the end, including in the bunker, on which the film Der Untergang was based. It’s an unsettling account of an unimaginable situation and way of life, but I found that Junge’s admiration for the Führer still shines through, as she admits in the epilogue: she wrote up the diaries in 1947 and 48, and she says it has taken her her whole life to understand what it was that she lived through and her own responsibility for participating in the Nazi period. I think it’s interesting that Traudl Junge was never a fanatical Nazi – she starts off wanting to be a ballet dancer, and drifts into secretarial work, and to becoming Hitler’s secretary, almost by accident. But her admiration for Hitler’s personal charm, and her rather star-struck namedropping of the top Nazis, is difficult to read – one has the sense that she sees the people surrounding Hitler as rather boorish, compared to his personal charm. Other than that, this is weirdly fascinating despite the pedestrian writing, full of details of Hitler’s personal life – either kitsch, bizarre or both – and really capturing the insanity of the last days of the bunker.
The more human side of the book comes with Junge’s reflections in old age about the real meaning of her involvement in the Nazi régime, and about her own personal responsibility. Her internal reassurance that she was too young to understand or to make any difference is shattered:
‘At that time I must often have walked past the commemorative plaque to Sophie Scholl in Franz-Josef-Strasse without noticing it. One day I did and I was terribly shocked when I realised that she was executed in 1943, just when I was beginning my own job with Hitler. Sophie Scholl had originally been a BDM member herself, a year younger than me, and she saw clearly that she was dealing with a criminal regime. All of a sudden I had no excuse any more.’
Merridale also ends her book with a discussion of how the Russian soldiers deal with what they have done, which I found very moving. Her conclusion that the Soviet emphasis on heroism and an accepted version of history has been damaging for many of the veterans to live through is important: to a certain extent I think we in Britain have a comparable accepted notion of the heroism of the second world war combatants, something which hasn’t necessarily been healthy either for our image as a country or for the people who actually lived through or fought in the war. Perhaps it’s the case that a healthier self-examination has been forced on the losing side, while the Spitfire ale version of events goes unquestioned, or less questioned, in the UK? (German speakers can see my brother-in-common-law opining on this phenomenon here, towards the end.)
Nonetheless, the pride that many of the Russian veterans voice: that they saved their motherland cannot seriously be disputed. Merridale’s book only underlines, in the end, what an astonishing and hard-won achievement that was.