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Russia at War

ISSUE:  Summer 1942

Napoleon’s Invasion of Russia, 1812. By Eugene Tarle. Oxford University Press. $3.00. Moscow War Diary. By Alexander Werth. Alfred A. Knopf. $3.00.

Long before the 1917 Bolshevik revolution Eugene Tarle was a historian of world renown, author of nu-merous books on European and Russian history, and member of several foreign scientific institutions. Unlike many Russian scholars who fled from Russia after the revolution, he remained and continued to work actively. His career under the Soviet regime was full of ups and downs. At times, he was acclaimed as the greatest Russian historian. But there were periods when he was violently attacked by the Soviet press as a non-Marxist and bourgeois patriot, and when Soviet encyclopedias ignored his existence. When internationalism in the Soviet Union gave way to Russian nationalism, Tarle was again heralded as the greatest Russian historian, and the latest edition of the official Soviet Encyclopedia speaks of his “Napoleon’s Invasion of Russia, 1812” as “the best book on Napoleon.” It totally ignores, however, his exhaustive biographical study of Napoleon, written in 1936, which though nationalistic is not nationalistic enough for present day Moscow.

“Napoleon’s Invasion of Russia, 1812” is mainly based on contemporary Russian and French documentary material, letters, diaries, and notes, part of which had never been published. Even a layman, innocent of military knowledge, will be thrilled by the vivid and human story of one of the most dramatic chapters of Napoleon’s life. But what makes Tarle’s book so significant at this moment is its amazing parallel to Hitler’s invasion of Russia, 1941,

Russia had a pact with Napoleon. Czar Alexander attempted to avoid a war at almost any cost. Yet Napoleon, after many successful campaigns in Europe, without a declaration of war, attacked Russia in June 1812 and speedily advanced on the Minsk-Smolensk-Vyazma-Mozhaisk road to Moscow. He expected the Russians to succumb quickly. He was met, instead, with the fierce resistance of the entire Russian people and with a “scorched earth” policy. The hitherto invincible Grand Army knew defeat for the first time. Lack of supplies and severe frost brought agony to the French soldiers. The conquered and subjugated peoples of Europe, with the exception of the 19th century “Quislings,” loathed Napoleon and considered him an enemy of mankind. Existence in Europe was extremely stifling. Napoleon’s ultimate aim was to conquer England and his invasion of Russia was only a means to that end. His method in Russia was, like everywhere else, to attack like lightning and “overawe his foes by an appearance of invincibility.” It was important to Napoleon, Tarle continues, that the world should believe, though he attacked first, that the enemy was responsible for the start of the war.

These historic parallels to the present situation are striking enough. But Tarle’s details and terminology are so amazingly reminiscent of 1941-42 that one is inclined to suspect a “modernization” of the story. Tarle could not have done that, however, for the manuscript of his Russian original went to print in February 1988, when he could not have foreseen the details of Hitler’s campaigns. I paged through the Russian original to make sure that the translator did not succumb to the temptation to modernize. He did not. There are only some paragraphs added in the text of the American edition stressing the role of the peasants and plain people in fighting Napoleon.

At the beginning of Napoleon’s campaign, the intriguing Russian courtiers and generals, the corrupt officials and profit-seeking merchants, as well as the dissatisfied peasant-serfs did not represent a picture of complete unanimity. But Napoleon’s quick advance to and occupation of Moscow changed the spirit of the Russian people completely. “In this terrible moment all classes merged in one common emotion,” says Tarle. “Better death than submission to the invading ‘ravisher.’ Peasants, lower bourgeoisie, merchants, nobility—all vied with one another in their eagerness to fight Napoleon to the death. . . . The enslavement of the entire people by the alien conqueror became the first consideration. The guerilla movement . . . achieved its tremendous success only through the active, voluntary, and zealous assistance of the Russian peasantry. . . . The entire war against the invader was from start to finish a national war. . . . The war of 1812 was a war of survival in the full sense of the word. . . . It was the hand of the Russian people that inflicted the irreparable, mortal blows.” Their hardships were many. They starved and froze because unscrupulous officials stole the funds for food, fodder and clothing. The care for the wounded was worthless. And yet, even according to French reports, the Russians fought fiercely and bravely. They were thirsty for fighting and disregarded their wounds. The Russian people, oppressed by Czarism, wanted freedom; but “they associated their liberation from serfdom with the liberation of their Fatherland from the invading army.”

Alexander Werth’s report from Soviet Russia at war, in “Moscow War Diary,” shows that the Soviet Union was unanimous in its resistance to Hitler the very moment the first Nazi soldier set foot on Russian soil. Werth, who arrived in Moscow two weeks after Hitler’s invasion, found “a country with no other thoughts but the war and the determination to win the war.” He found that the Russians knew that they were “defending something, their country, their regime. . . .” An old peasant said to him: “. . . I was in the last war; our soldiers were good soldiers, but they weren’t so certain then what they were fighting for.” Now the Russians know well what they are fighting for. No Russian Werth spoke to—old regime people or Red Army men, workers or peasants, old women or young boys—had the slightest doubt that if Hitler wins, it is the end of them and of Russia.

Werth was born forty-one years ago in St. Petersburg of an English mother and a Russian father. He left for England after the 1917 revolution, and returned to Russia in July 1941 as a British newspaperman. He was brought up in Russian liberal bourgeois traditions, and was at first anti-Soviet. He was always interested in Russia, and read Soviet magazines and newspapers. He remained at heart a Russian nationalist and welcomed the victory of Stalinism—the essence of which to him means Russian nationalism—over Trotzkyism, which to him means internationalism and world revolution. Stalin, according to Werth, had known for years that war with Hitler was coming and that an “internationalist Russia could stand up to it less than a nationalist Russia.” Werth thinks that everything Stalin had done during these last years—help to Spain, liquidation of old Bolsheviks, the rewriting of history, occupation of foreign territory—was done with the sole purpose of preparing Russia for war and arousing the necessary patriotism. He fully approves of it because he finds the Russian slogans of today— “The Second 1812,” “The Second Fatherland War,” “For Fatherland, Honour and Freedom”—much more inspiring than any slogans about socialism or internationalism.

Werth is very anti-Communist and if anything worries him, it is that the Comintern may play a role in the future. But he did not find any trace of the Comintern in Russia of 1941. The spirit he did find there, was the spirit and language of 1812. Werth hates Germans, all Germans, and makes no discrimination whatsoever among Nazi Germans, Volga Germans, Communist Germans, democratic Germans. He goes so far as to translate the Russian word for German into “Hun,” a word which the Russians do not use. What he saw during his visit at the front did not soften his feelings. He saw the ruins of a village. “Here was once a village, razed to the ground. . . . There wasn’t . . . a fragment of a house, not a single plank standing. . . .” In a city recaptured from the Germans he found “all that was left was piles of ashes and chimney stacks. . . . Almost all the able-bodied men and women were formed into forced labor-battalions and driven to the German rear. . . .”

Better than almost any other foreigner, Werth is able to judge what the Russians have built and what they have to defend. He returned to Russia after twenty-four years with a love for the Russian people and with nostalgic reminiscences of Russian hospitality and summers spent among pine and birch trees. Where he had known ignorance and backwardness, he found widespread education and industrial progress. Books, theatres, concerts, sports were in the days of his youth the property of a small privileged class. Now they belonged to and were enjoyed by everyone. He was impressed by the scientific agricultural methods in collective farms, by the excellent care of the wounded, by the newly-developed skill of the Russians in mechanics.

Werth has great hopes for Russia’s national future. “Britain becoming more ‘socialist’ (in the wide sense of the word) and Russia adopting more and more of these democratic liberties which her people would welcome and which they will expect from a full peace-time application of the Stalin Constitution,” with the two in close co-operation, is what Werth would want to see in the future. “If, after the war,” he says, “America co-operates with Europe in every way, then the next hundred years may become the golden age of civilization, of the human race. If she sinks back into isolationism and selfish capitalism, then Europe . . . will have to carry on alone. . . . But with Britain and Russia as the pillars of this new Europe, it can be done.”


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