Book Review: Alexander Werth – Moscow War Diary

Review of “Moscow War Diary” (A. Werth)
Werth, Alexander – Moscow War Diary (1942)
Category: history, Soviet Union, WW2; Rating: 4/5

Soviet Resilience under Fire

On 22nd June 1941, the armed columns of Nazi Germany began rolling into Russia, heralding the start of the Great Patriotic War. For Alexander Werth, a correspondent for the British Sunday Times paper who had spent his childhood in imperial Russia, this was a deeply emotional event, stirring him ‘perhaps more deeply than any event since the war began’. Spurred by these sentiments and realizing that with the bulk of the Wehrmacht diverted to the USSR, how ‘the Russian people would resist Hitler’ would determine the outcome of this ‘totalitarian war’, he decided to go to Moscow. There, he observed how the military and the material, the media and the morale, aspects of the war interacted, wrote articles about it for readers in Britain (and occasionally the USSR) and recorded his impressions in a diary at ground zero that he edited for readability and published early 1942.

Werth considered the attitudes of some of his fellow journalists towards this war as just another ‘big story’ detestable. ‘Even more irritating, for its cold-hearted non-belligerent objectivity’ – for instance, the intention of an American journalist, Angelina, to remain in Moscow even should the Germans capture it, justifying it with, “You bet I’ll stay here; don’t you think it’ll be a swell story? Who’s to stop me? Aren’t we nootrals?” [sic]. He also lambasted another American journalist, Ingersoll, for whom the ‘war is an opportunity for a scoop’, as opposed to the ‘millions of Russians’ for whom it is a ‘matter of life and death’ .

He considers the Fourth Estate has a responsibility to promote Allied understanding – ‘whatever may be the…snags in future Anglo-Russian relations, we’ve got to support Russia; we’ve got to do away with the suspicions…’ . And at the end of book, after a succinct defense of the Soviet system and of Russian culture, an appeal for a post-war rapprochement between Britain and the USSR, and a call for the punishment of Germany, he bluntly states that that ‘all this would not mean much if in 1942 Russia were allowed to run short of equipment’ . This is telling – in other words, Werth does not consider himself a neutral and objective observer; he sees himself as a kind of combatant too, crucial for forming the kinds of bonds of trust that would allow the Allies to pool their resources, coordinate their actions and so bring the war to a more rapid close.

The publication date is very significant, for 1942 was the crucial year in which final victory could have been sealed by either side. Although the entry of the USA gave the Allies huge material preponderance over the Nazis during 1942, in practice the US would take time to get mobilized. Meanwhile, Germany had occupied much of the western USSR, including the Ukrainian breadbasket (albeit whose real importance to Soviet food security should not be overstated ), surrounded or occupied the industrial centers of Leningrad and the Donbass, and threatened to cut off the supply of Soviet oil from Azerbaijan. The ratio of Soviet to German GDP had tumbled from 1.1 in 1940 to 0.7 in 1942. As material stocks accumulated in the prewar period dwindled and military production was, despite all the difficulties, ramped up to several multiples of the German figure, the civilian stocks plummeted to dangerously low levels that could potentially fatally undermine the Soviet system to sustain war. According to Harrison’s model, during wartime the population splits into productive ‘mice’ and sabotaging ‘rats’ (e.g. black marketers, collaborators, etc). Initially, the payoff to rats is bigger, but as the number of rats increases that payoff decreases – when the payoffs to mice and rats again reach equilibrium, the state is close to collapse. Potentially, this could have happened in the USSR – after all, that had been the fate of tsarist Russia, and the Soviet regime certainly had no shortage of malcontents and wreckers (ex-kulaks, former White army officers, Trotskyites, etc – who were purged by Stalin, an action praised by Werth as necessary to Soviet stability ).

However, several key factors prevented that from happening – the efficacy of Soviet propaganda, support for the regime and the harshness of punishment for rats; the inefficiency of German propaganda and their cruel as well as appallingly stupid treatment of Slavic peoples in the ‘war of annihilation’; the extraordinary Soviet success in mass mobilization, in which the Soviet Union heeded Stalin’s call to become a ‘single armed camp’; the Soviet exploitation of their newly built-up industrial strength behind the Urals to decisively outproduce a Germany that pursued huge, useless investments in projects like the V-2 rockets and the Ahnenerbe, held ideological prejudices against employing women in armaments production, and above all indulged in the ‘polycratic chaos’ of rivaling ministries and sub-empires which, driven by self-interest, could never hammer out a war-winning grand strategy like the Allies; and Lend-Lease, which although small relative to overall Soviet production, nonetheless alleviated shortages of several key war-making components (rare metals, aviation fools, canned food) and helped plug the possibly narrow gap that separated Soviet society from collapse. Let’s examine each of these in turn.

Spymania and xenophobia were a feature of Soviet society, in which caution and watchfulness were encouraged to thwart the foreign forces seeking to sabotage the Soviet Union and its achievements – which incidentally caused Werth, a foreign journalist and before his flight to Britain after the Revolution, an incorrigible member of the St.-Petersburg bourgeoisie, no little amount of bother. Stalin was admired as a competent ‘captain of state’, a paternal bashka (thinker). Rumors of (retrospectively justified) Nazi atrocities, executions of POW’s and the dissemination of Hitler’s long-term plans for the subjugation of the Slavic peoples stirred popular anger and a willingness to fight to the end against the Germans – one woman remarked, in defense of the Stalinist regime, “What other regime can there be other than a German concentration camp? Our country has toiled for twenty years, in appallingly difficult conditions, but now we have achieved a standard of comfort and prosperity…the general level of education and culture and economic wellbeing has improved so very much…” A kolkhoz chairman expressed similar views – the Soviets had vastly improved the country, the Germans had invaded and wrecked it (“Damn the Germans! But for this war we’d be living in a world of ever-increasing plenty for everyone! ) and there was a determination to repay them ‘tenfold’. As Werth put it, those who insist the Russians were forced to fight by the GPU were idiots – there was a genuine groundswell of support for the regime for the most part and its promises of socialist democracy.

Supporting the above was a constant drumbeat of propaganda. At the simpler end, these consisted of crude but effective propaganda posters (“Crush the fascist reptile!” ) and uplifting martial songs. More fundamentally, the Soviet state changed it ideological outlook. Anti-clericalism was brushed away, to win the support of devout Orthodox believers and Western observers horrified by state-promoted atheism. Pan-Slavic themes were re-embraced , such as showing Eisenstein’s films about Alexander Nevsky (a Duke of Novgorod who beat the Teutonic Knights at the Battle of Lake Peipus in 1240, but whose socialist credentials are dubious), playing Shostakovich’s music (the dramatic 7th ‘Leningrad’ Symphony) and acting out plays like A Life for the Tsar (renamed Ivan Susanin, for its 17th century peasant hero who sacrifices his life to lead the invading Poles into a swamp). Though the Soviet papers took a bland and upbeat tone, as Werth insists, they included real information buried beneath their big columns and between the lines – this would have served the double purpose of helping preclude popular panic, but succeeding in informing vital decision-makers. Military chaplains were reintroduced and harsh, hierarchic discipline brought back into the Red Army, to the point of establishing penal battalions (shtrafbats) for gross dereliction of duty or unauthorized retreat (Werth doesn’t mention it, as it is unlikely to make a good impression on its audience – nonetheless, counter-intuitively, there is evidence that most soldiers supported these measures). In summary, there was ‘no longer a dividing line between “Soviet” and “Russian”’ – it was a ‘national regime’.

Meanwhile, German atrocities were a massive disincentive to becoming a rat. Contrary to the Cold War myths promulgated by the German generals after the war, the Wehrmacht was an active participant in them. There is a grlimp into this by Werth’s observation of a letter sent by a ‘Hausfrau of a bitch’ to a soldier asking him to seize a fur coat for her from Russia, amongst other things. German propaganda was generally ineffective, due to the disconnect between its ostensibly ‘good’ intentions (at least from some perspectives, e.g. liquidating the Jewish-Bolshevik cabal that ruled over Russia) to the reality of its massacres and criminal mistreatment of POW’s. In any case the Soviets had made sure to try to gather in all radios except those pre-tuned to only receive only Soviet frequencies. Soviet propaganda, which initially tried to differentiate between good and bad Germans, adopted a uniformly hardline, hostile position to them by August as popular resentment against them and military defeats stung more deeply. Werth himself frequently demonized Germans as a people in his diary, although this is justifiable in the context of the time he was writing in.

Werth does not dwell at length on the Soviet military-industrial complex and the evacuation of many manufacturing plants to the near impregnable Urals, where a basic industrial infrastructure had been foresightedly built up under Stalin. Together with Lend-Lease, which plugged many vital holes in the Soviet civilian and military sectors, and the full-scale mobilization of ethnicities and women, it played a vital role in assuring victory – Werth notes how supportive a ‘Mongol’ soldier (actually, probably a Central Asian) was for the war effort and how women were organized into patrols to watch out for ‘parachutists’ and exhorted to go work in the depopulated collective farms (women also fought successfully in segregated aviation and sniper units, as well as forming a large contingent of medics and other support units ). Werth himself contributed somewhat to improving Western images of the Soviet Union (he complained of unfair coverage, Russophobia, and criticized France and Britain for their lack of cooperation with the USSR before the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact), and as such in his own small way contributed to making Lend-Lease smooth and successful – as noted previously, he saw very much saw himself as an information warrior for the Allies. He expressed a pollyannish belief that Russia would eventually implement the Stalin Constitution, evolve a Soviet democracy, and maintain postwar friendship with Britain.

Werth does, of course, criticize the Soviet Union and military operations from time to time (to be convincing, one has to acknowledge contrary points of view before attacking them), although they are always qualified and explained away – but not always convincingly. Contrary to his assertions, the tactical performance and logistics of the Soviet Union in 1941 and 1942 (these years accounted for two thirds of Soviet ‘irrecoverable losses, according to Krivosheev), and ‘radio communications were rudimentary’, radar generally unavailable and officers trained only to ‘undertake frontal assaults’. Werth also spent what appeared to me to be an inordinately large amount of time going to theater, music, and other cultural performances in wartime Moscow in 1941.

Werth viewed the struggle as a Manichean battle between Allied good and Nazi evil, and this, coupled with his own emotional stakes in the conflict, colored his objectivity. He saw journalists as a type of soldier too, bound to keep up morale by withholding deleterious information, or if necessary, releasing it in a low-key, gradual and qualified way. The margin for victory in 1942 was excessively narrow, and it is entirely possible than it was information control that prevented Soviet panic and a mass conversion into ‘rats’. Werth himself was an example of this, emphasizing the positive and maintaining a confident note throughout the book, and which was reflected in his journalistic pieces of the period that affected public opinion in Britain and to a smaller extent, in Russia (he published a few pieces in Russian). It is an intriguing, ground-zero portrayal of how it is sometimes necessary for journalists to ditch pure objectivity to serve a greater and juster cause.

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