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The War Nerd May 6, 2005
Why Canít I Enjoy the Eastern Front?
By Gary Brecher Browse author Email

The Eastern Front, WW II. Two huge empires fighting to the death on a battle line stretching from the Arctic Ocean to the Black Sea. The stats alone are awesome, the sheer scale of everything that happened.

Take the battle of Kursk: 1,300,000 Soviet troops with 20,000 cannon, 3500 tanks and 2400 planes facing 900,000 of the Wehrmacht's finest -- that is, the finest divisions of the finest land army since the Mongols went out of business -- who had a pretty fair arsenal of their own, 2700 panzers and 2000 aircraft. In one day of the Kursk campaign (July 12, 1943), thousands of Soviet and German tanks faced off and blasted each other point-blank, with each side losing over 300 tanks, while their air forces dueled in the skies.

This ought to be the ultimate in war. So why don't I enjoy it like I should?

There are a couple of reasons. One you can get from another key stat, civilian losses. Out of the 29 million Soviet citizens who died, 17 million were civilians. I'm no bleeding heart, but it's no fun imagining 17 million civilians getting shot, starved or frozen to death. Maybe it's because I keep imagining those Russian tennis babes getting killed. What kind of idiot would massacre girls who look like this Maria Sharapova? That's what I call a war crime.

To oversimplify a little, WW I was a horrible war to be a soldier in but not too bad for civilians. Ninety-five percent of the dead in WW I were soldiers. WW II was bad enough for soldiers, especially Soviet and German soldiers, but it was sheer Hell for any civilians who lived anywhere between Warsaw and Moscow.

Mobility -- that was the key difference between the civilian casualty rates in WW I and WW II. The more mobile a war, the harder it is on civilians. You can see that even in wars where both armies make a real effort to spare civvies.

Take our own Civil War. In the Eastern theater, with the Armies of the Potomac and Northern Virginia working each other over in a fairly small area west of Chesapeake Bay, civilians didn't get murdered in big numbers. When crops and farms were burnt in the Eastern theater (for example in the Shenandoah Valley), it was out of hard military necessity. But out in the Western theater, where war was a hit-and-run business, towns like Lawrence, Kansas were wiped out in an afternoon, with no man, woman or child spared. When you're only in town for a few hours, you have to win hearts and minds the fast way: by shooting them in the heart, or blowing their minds out the back of their heads.

WW I was an insanely static war, especially on the Western Front, with the armies locked into a face-off in huge trenchlines, away from civilian populations. Except for a few families unlucky enough to live in the battlezones of Northern France, it was easy for civilians to survive.

WW II on the Eastern Front was the opposite, the most mobile warfare since the Mongols, and just about as lethal for any civvies in the armies' path. If you lived in Poland or Belorussia, someone was going to kill you and your family, you just couldn't be sure who it would be. If those poor bastards had been able to see in 1941 what the next four years were going to be like, they'd have begged Dad to kill them all with a hatchet, then throw himself down the well, just to avoid the horrible suspense and get it over with.

Maybe it would be the Soviet commissars who killed you; they had a policy of killing all politically suspect civvies in regions that were about to fall to the Nazis. And to the NKVD, "politically suspect" could mean nearly anything; your hut was too solid, you owned one too many pig, you didn't name your first child after Stalin. Weirdly enough, in 1941 it was the Nazis who were uncovering -- literally -- "human rights violations" in Eastern Europe; as they advanced, they kept digging up fresh mass graves where the NKVD had dumped its prisoners as the Soviet Army retreated.

On the other hand, it was the Nazis who would kill you if you were a Jew -- or the ignorant Obergefreiter whose squad just rumbled into your village thought you looked like one. If you were a pretty Polish or Russian girl, you were likely to die too, after the German or Rumanian or Hungarian soldiers had raped you. The Wehrmacht also had a policy of summary execution for Communists, and a pretty flexible definition of what one was. And when in doubt, they killed.

The Germans killed for another Mongol-type reason: land clearance. The Mongols tended to kill people who were using up good grazing land, getting it all cluttered with houses and fences. The Germans thought about Slavs the same way, like gophers or some other varmint that was spoiling the land they planned on turning into thousands of blond, blue-eyed little clock-tower towns. Why not get the varmints out of the way while you had the ordnance on the spot? You'd be doing a favor for the planners from Berlin who were supposed to follow the armies, laying out the new towns. So they blasted the Belorussians and Ukrainians, even when the peasants came out on the roads with flowers, cheering the Wehrmacht columns.

That's what gets me down: those poor suckers thinking their saviors had arrived. You can't blame them. After Stalin, anybody else must have looked good. Especially to the Ukrainians, who'd been purposely starved to death in the early 1930s by the millions when Stalin collectivized their farms.

It's weird how nobody remembers those millions of dead Ukrainians. It's like they just don't count. Everybody remembers all the poor Londoners killed in the Blitz. You know how many English civvies died in WW II? Less than 60,000! According to my calculator, that means almost 300 Soviets died for every Brit who got bombed. But all my life I've been reading about them "cowering" in the subway stations as the bombs fell. I never heard a word about the millions of Ukrainians who died in Stalin's famine, and I sure as Hell never realized that 29 million Soviets died in WW II. Until I got serious about learning war on my own, all I ever heard was the "Battle of Britain" and D-Day, which were sideshows to the real war, back there in the snow in Russia.

Mobile warfare creates its own famine as it moves. It's a matter of logistics. If your army is in the trenches a few miles from Paris, the way the Franco-British army was in WW II, you can set up stable supply lines so your soldiers don't have to forage. The French poilu in WW I lived on endless tin cans of tuna and beans, carted out from Paris by tired old horses and even tireder old trucks.

But when the armies are fighting on a front hundreds of miles wide and thousands of miles long, with huge chunks of land changing hands every day, that sort of resupply is impossible. So the armies go back to the old ways, "living off the land." Which means, basically, getting food from the peasants at bayonet point. It's standard military practice, but it's not pretty: a squad breaks down your farmhouse door, grabs your baby son and starts sawing at his throat with a knife, screaming at you to tell them where your hoarded food is. Since those few sacks of grain and maybe a ham or two is all you've got to survive the winter, you don't much want to tell them. But then they start really cutting deep into Junior's throat, he's screaming, and you tell.

They dig up the hoard, and as likely as not they shoot you all anyway for making them go through all that trouble. If they don't, you have to figure out a way to survive the Russian winter with no food.

To go back to America's Civil War again, Sherman's sweep through the Georgia breadbasket turned the war mobile in a big way and introduced living off the land, and the "freebooter" to American warfare. The further his army moved into enemy territory, the less the rules of war that they were still observing up in Northern Virginia seemed to apply. Looting was taken for granted; if you had a pig or a chicken, consider it gone when his men showed. Burning was a real possibility; they burned all the "big houses" (plantation mansions) in Georgia, and when they reached South Carolina, the state that started the whole mess, they burned everything, from shack to mansion.

And I've always wondered if that other rule of war, the one against rape, sort of got forgotten on the way to Columbia, S.C. too. That scene in Gone with the Wind, where what's-her-name shoots the grinning freebooter coming up the stairs -- I wonder how often that happened and the belle upstairs didn't have a pistol handy. They wouldn't have talked about it -- the US in the 1860s had to be the most tight-assed, straight-laced place in the history of the world. But I suspect it was more than hams and chickens those bluebellies were grabbing on their way to the sea.

Another complication of mobile warfare for civvies is the fact that your home town might change hands several times. This happened to thousands of towns and villages in Eastern Europe in WW II. If you got along too well with the Wehrmacht, you weren't going to have an easy time when the Soviet Army rolled into town. If you lived in a strategic city like Kharkov (taken by the Wehrmacht in Autumn '41, recaptured by the Soviets in winter '43, retaken by the Wehrmacht in Spring '43 and re-recaptured once and for all by the Soviets in Summer '43), you were going to have a difficult time explaining to one side or the other why you were still alive and hadn't done the patriotic thing by dying under enemy occupation. We're talking about millions of civilians dragged into the GULAG for the crime of surviving the Nazis. It just sort of gets me down to think of.

The other reason the Eastern Front depresses me is simpler: the results. All it did was bleed the two coolest armies in Europe, the only really interesting armies on the continent. The USSR won, but left its best people dead on the field. The Germans lost for all time, vanished from history forever. And by massacring all those civilians, that asshole Hitler ruined the whole idea that there was a heroic life in war. I don't even understand what that moron thought he was doing. All these neo-Nazi idiots -- losers who wouldn't even have been let into the Wehrmacht -- talk about "the white race" -- well, wasn't every single person Hitler killed white? Talk about black-on-black crime! The Nazis were the ultimate in white-on-white massacre.

All it did was give war a bad name. All that was left when the Germans and Russians had bled each other to death was the Anglos, us and the Brits. All was left to believe in after 1945 was business, making money, that whole stupid boring white-bread way of life. My life.

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Gary Brecher
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Email Gary at, but, more importantly, buy his book.

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