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Soviet archives: new gold mine for historians
STANFORD -- Thanks to glasnost, historians are chiseling a refined history of World War II, say three Stanford scholars who organized a conference in Europe recently to mark the 50th anniversary of Hitler's attack on the Soviet Union.
German troops, for example, were welcomed by Ukrainians when they first invaded that Soviet republic.
World War II-era Soviet intelligence and military reports, local Communist party reports on civilian activity and memoirs of historical figures who now feel free to publish are providing fresh raw material for historians, said David Holloway, a Stanford political scientist and a historian.
Twenty-one World War II historians from the United States, United Kingdom, Soviet Union and both parts of the now- united Germany sifted through some of this new material at a three- day conference in June at the Rockefeller Foundation's Study and Conference Center in Bellagio, Italy. The proceedings will be published in early 1992 by the U.S.-based journal The Soviet Union.
The conference was organized by Holloway, who is co- director of Stanford's Center for International Security and Arms Control; Norman Naimark, a historian who directs Stanford's Center for Russian and East European Studies; and Alexander Dallin, a political scientist and historian with expertise on Stalin and the Soviet Union during his rule.
"The conference made it clear we are entering a new and exciting phase in the historiography of the Soviet-German war," Naimark said, "with many new research opportunities for scholars to pursue.
"One of the things historians will be able to do now is understand how Soviet citizens reacted in the first days of the war. We've always had the Soviet government's interpretation that there was this great, immediate patriotic unity of Soviet citizens fighting the Germans. Only later did Soviet historians attribute the early punishment by the German army to Stalin's being caught by surprise."
Hitler probably did take Stalin by surprise with his "Operation Barbarossa" on June 22, 1941, Dallin said.
"The Soviets had the exact date of the invasion, and still Stalin kept saying this was just a British attempt to get them into the war," he said.
A majority of the historians who attended the conference no longer believe surprise was the only reason the Nazis were able to rout the Red Army in the early months, Holloway said.
"Stalin did commit a terrible blunder in not listening to his intelligence reports," he said, "but newly released material from the archives indicates there were other important factors."
Documents reported upon at the conference by three scholars indicated that the Soviet armed forces were "disorganized in 1941 and confused about the kind of war they were going to fight if the Germans attacked," Holloway said.
"Also, the Soviet industry was turning out backward equipment, and the political effects of oppression in the western Ukraine meant that when the German troops came in, they were welcomed with open arms at first."
Naimark cautioned that "further research is necessary on the social dimensions of the Soviet defense and resistance" before historians can come up with a dramatically revised account of the German-Soviet war.
Dallin is particularly interested in sorting out the role of Stalin's "suspicious and defensive personality" from failures in the Soviet defense and intelligence systems.
"Was it another Pearl Harbor?" Dallin asks. "Several books on Pearl Harbor, in effect, say that it is in the nature of a large-scale intelligence system that, even when you get correct intelligence, it gets lost amid a thousand other reports, some of which are contradictory. We can probably strike a better balance in our accounts now of the Soviets' surprise."
Historians are also debating the outcome of the war in light of current information about the collapse of the Soviet empire, Holloway said.
"Was it really a victory for the Soviet Union, and what was the cost of the victory?" he asked.
The answers, when they come, have "implications for the role of the army in society and for defense preparedness more generally."
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