May 18 2019

Barbarossa by Alan Clark

So I asked the friend whose copy of Barbarossa I had acquired what the virtues were of an account published in 1965. He replied that Clark wrote clearly and was particularly good on the politicking among the German generals, and between the German high command and the leaders in the field.

Barbarossa by Alan Clark

Thus encouraged, I picked up the book, but I have set it down now that the author has reached the end of 1941, and I do not think I am likely to pick it up again. The main reason is that I have read a lot of German, Russian, and East European history by now, and I am not learning enough that is new to hold my interest. As a description of the German invasion of Russia, it’s perfectly serviceable for someone new to the subject. Even then, though, I would be hesitant to recommend Clark’s book for the simple reason that much more is known about the subject now than in the mid-1960s when Clark was writing. Roughly twenty years after the German surrender, when Clark was writing, Soviet archives were entirely closed to Western researchers. One of the reasons that Clark is good on German infighting — and he is, my friend was right — is that he had sources to draw on, whereas there was far more guesswork about Soviet actions and motivations.

Other things have also become known. Clark writes, “The third source from which the [Soviet high command] derived information concerning its enemy’s plans was its Swiss agent ‘Lucy.’ Lucy’s identity has never been established, but his—or her—importance was crucial.” (p. 151) In the intervening time, Lucy’s identity has been established, although as with any good spy story, some things remain uncertain even at this great remove. Nevertheless, historical scholarship has advanced quite a bit in the last half century, and Clark is not such a great stylist that I would recommend him over a more recent account, nor is his book so foundational as to be important for understanding the historiography.

In short, if the subject were mostly unknown to me, I would seek out a more recent history, one that can draw on Soviet records as well as sources about German actions. For my personal tastes, I would also seek out one that is more than just accounts of which units went where, with what intentions and what results. The subjects thought suitable for history have also expanded considerably since 1965, and that is much to the good. Ivan’s War, by Catherine Merridale, is an extraordinary account of how Soviet soldiers experienced the Eastern Front, just an amazing book. From some of Clark’s asides, I am not sure he would have considered Ivan’s War proper history, but then I recall that he was just a twentysomething when he wrote Barbarossa, and an Etonian at that. His Barbarossa does what it says on the tin, but it’s been superseded.

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