Saturday, March 1, 2014

Recommended reading on the Eastern Front

Every year countless books dealing with WWII are published worldwide. Many cover the fighting in the East between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. This conflict was the largest land campaign of the war and claimed the lives of millions of people. There is no shortage of great battles for authors to write about such as the battles of Moscow, Stalingrad, Kursk etc

However with so many books available there is the problem of quantity vs quality. How many books have accurate information from both sides? How many present new information?
Unfortunately many books that I’ve read have serious mistakes because they rely mostly on other books for their information and not on the relevant archives. This is understandable since researching the archives is very costly both in terms of time and money.

What i look for in a book is clearheaded analysis and lots of statistical data from both sides. Based on this what are the books that I can recommend?
First let’s have a look at the ones that I found lacking.

Two of the most popular Eastern Front histories are ‘When Titans Clashed: How the Red Army Stopped Hitler’ by David Glantz and Jonathan House and ‘Russia's War: A History of the Soviet Effort: 1941-1945’ by Richard Overy. Having read them I can say that they have serious mistakes since they rely on Soviet sources for information on German strength and loss statistics. This leads to exaggerations that could have been avoided had the authors used the reports available from the German archives.
In addition there are other mistakes scattered throughout both books. For example Overy writes in chapter ‘The Citadel: Kursk 1943’ that the T-34 got a 3-man turret in 1943. He’s off by a year. This might seem like a small mistake but it undermines his argument that the Soviet forces won the battle not through numerical superiority but because they upgraded their equipment and tactics.

‘When Titans clashed’ is guilty of perpetuating several WWII myths. For example the chapter ‘An army in disarray, 1937-1939’ exaggerates the effects of the purges on the Red Army.  Despite its flaws ‘Russia’s war’ points out in chapter ‘The darkness descends’ that during the period 1936-38 41.218 officers were dismissed, not executed (or even all arrested). By May 1940 11.596 officers had been reinstated. The book says ‘Of the 179.000 officers employed in 1938 only 3.7 per cent were still formally discharged by 1940’. It is true that the higher ranks suffered disproportionately but many of these officers (such as Marshall Tukhachevsky) were lackeys of the regime and had not gained their position by merit. In chapter ‘The Red Army’ the T-26 tank is called ‘aging’ and ‘obsolete’ even though its operational characteristics were similar or superior to the German tank types Pz I, Pz II, Pz 35, Pz 38 and Pz III. Why was this tank ‘obsolete’? Its main problem was the 2-man turret and by that standard the mythic T-34 was also ‘obsolete’ since it only got a 3-man turret in 1944.
Having said that let’s take a look at some very interesting books:

This is the best single volume history of the Eastern Front bar none. The author is a professor at the University of Glasgow and he has written several books on WWII.

‘Thunder in the East’ covers the entire conflict from 1941 to 1945 and there is a detailed examination of all the important aspects such as German-Soviet relations prior to operation Barbarossa, the Soviet military plans in early 1941 and their intelligence assessments, the actual military operations plus war production and diplomacy.
Mawdsley takes an objective look at Soviet prewar policy, their massive armaments program and their support of Nazi Germany in 1939.  Unlike other authors he is not afraid to look into the state of Soviet planning for offensive operations in the period 1940-41. The rest of the book has solid analysis of the military operations and detailed statistics for the Soviet side.

The only negative remarks I have are that the author has presented a lot of detailed data for the Soviet side but not for the Germans and he also hasn’t covered the signals intelligence side (a common problem for EF histories).
2). Earl F. Ziemke’s ‘Moscow to Stalingrad: Decision in the East’ and Stalingrad to Berlin: the German defeat in the East’ (both available online from the US Army Center of Military History).


Ziemke was a historian for the US Army’s Office of the Chief of Military History and later became a professor at the University of Georgia. He specialized on the Eastern Front. His two books are well written, filled with interesting information plus he’s one of the few Eastern Front historians to include information from the intelligence assessments of the Fremde Heere Ost/Foreign Armies East organization. To his credit Ziemke pointed out several problems with Soviet era WWII historiography such as the coverage of operation Mars.
The only negative thing that can be said about Ziemke’s books is that he is too reliant on the German archives for information on the Soviet forces. Then again at the time he wrote his books ‘Soviet Casualties and Combat Losses in the Twentieth Century’ hadn’t been published.

3). I have already covered ‘Kursk 1943: A Statistical analysis’ and ‘Stopped at Stalingrad’. Both are excellent.
4). The air war histories of Christer Bergström are considered to be among the best sources for the operations of the Luftwaffe and the Red Air force in the East. They have analysis of the operations, strength and loss statistics for both sides and lots of very interesting pictures:


5). Krivosheev’s ‘Soviet Casualties and Combat Losses in the Twentieth Century’ is the ‘official’ Russian source for Red Army strength and loss statistics during WWII.

The book doesn’t have analysis of the battles, it just consists of countless tables with information on casualties, production etc. Data is broken down by year, quarter and by operation. If you want to ‘scientifically’ analyze the Eastern Front battles, then you need this book.

6). ‘Europe at War 1939-1945: No Simple Victory’ by Norman Davies is not a history of the Eastern Front but a book critical of standard WWII historiography.

The author points out several inconvenient facts such as going to war to protect Poland from Germany but then doing nothing while it’s taken over by the Soviets, fighting for ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’ while one of the Allies was the undemocratic Soviet regime etc. This book will make you think, which is why I added it in the list.

7). ‘The Nazi War Against Soviet Partisans, 1941-1944’ by Matthew Cooper is a short history of the Soviet partisan movement, its evolution in the period 1941-44 and its impact on the actual war.

Soviet historians claimed that the partisans played a big role in the actual fighting by blowing up countless supply trains and killing scores of German troops. Cooper however is critical of the partisan groups and points out that their contribution to the war was limited. There were several important problems that limited their effectiveness, such as the lack of trained men, lack of supplies, Moscow’s efforts to control all the partisan operations and the fact that partisans preferred to stay in their remote areas instead of attacking enemy troops.

The Germans were able to keep the partisans under control through passive (strongpoints along major routes, routine patrols, watch towers, clearing the sides of the roads in forested regions for up to 9 miles, arming supply trains) and active (SS and police occupation units, airpower, anti-partisan offensives by military units) measures. The author considers the former to have been successful but not the latter.
8). ‘The Chief Culprit: Stalin's Grand Design to Start World War II’ by Victor Suvorov (Vladimir Rezun) is a controversial book.

Rezun was a Soviet military intelligence officer who defected to the West in the 1970’s. Since then he has written several books on WWII. The most famous was ‘Icebreaker: Who Started the Second World War?’ and it caused quite a stir in the 1980’s since it claimed that in 1941 Stalin was preparing to attack Germany. The controversy was so great that two books were written with the expressed purpose of debunking his claims, ‘Stumbling Colossus: The Red Army on the Eve of World War’ by David Glantz and ‘Grand Delusion: Stalin and the German Invasion of Russia’ by Gabriel Gorodetsky. ‘The Chief Culprit’ is an expanded version of ‘Icebreaker’ based on new information. Despite the controversy i think it deserves a read.
9). The book ‘Accounting for War: Soviet Production, Employment, and the Defence Burden, 1940-1945’ by Mark Harrison (professor at Warwick) has some valuable information on Soviet war production, not only armaments but all kinds of products.


Unfortunately there are only a few tables with interesting information as most of the book is taken up by the author’s effort to create a mathematical input-output model of the Soviet economy.

Apart from books there are some articles that I would like to recommend:
From the ‘Journal of Slavic Military Studies’:

Analyzing World War II eastern front battles

Summer 1941

The role of lendlease in Soviet military efforts, 1941–1945

Did Stalin intend to attack Hitler?

From the ‘Journal of Contemporary History’:
Foreign Armies East and German Military Intelligence in Russia 1941-45

From the ‘International History Review’:


  1. The book on soviet casualties and losses (I bought it) does not include Rhzew/Mars. That puts a question mark against the whole book .

    The casualties seem to be remarkably low in the last year of the war and again I wonder if those are the correct numbers.


    1. Well 1944 casualties were lower than 1943 (but still impressive) which was not unexpected. Krivosheev admits that his figures for 1941 are off by about 1 mln.

  2. I have read 7 books on the Eastern Front WWII and the best one I read was Russia at War 1941 - 1945 by Alexander Werth. This book is not on your list. Have you read it?

    1. I haven’t but according to Werth’s wikipedia page that book was written in 1964. New books have been written with access to recently declassified archives.

  3. There's a German book, "Taktik im Russlandfeldzug", a mid-1950's work by a former lessons learned officer at the OKH (or OKW, don't remember). It's unimpressive in regard to statistics reliability, but impressive in regard to tactical lessons learned up to divisional level. Its perspective and wealth of details are unparalleled afaik.