Military History

Blogging about the Battlefield since 2005

Review of “Europe At War 1941-1945” by Norman Davies

Posted by T. Kunikov on June 22, 2007

This is definitely a book that everyone should keep away from! Reading this book had to be akin to slow torture, mistake after mistake after mistake, with no end in sight, can only show what kind of laziness and ignorance is being allowed to be published these days.

Europe at War 1941-1945 by Norman Davies

  • Hardcover: 456 pages
  • Publisher: Macmillan (3 Nov 2006)
  • ISBN-10: 0333692853

In the end I have nothing but contempt for this so called “historian”, I would not recommend any of his books to anyone, period.

The idea behind the book was definitely a good one. To give the Western reader an understanding of the Eastern Front and juxtapose it with what was going on on the other side of the continent on the Western Front. He makes it clear that battles between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union were the decisive factors in the war in Europe but in the end that’s about all he does.

The amount of mistakes, omissions, twisted facts, etc, are simply mind boggling. Some might be simple mistakes but others reek of politics and undisguised attacks against the Soviet Union. Now I’m not saying that the Soviet Union might or might not be guilty in some of his accusations, but the more important fact is that these attacks have nothing to do with the premise and theme of his work which is to juxtapose both fronts in military terms!

Where shall we begin? Well, to set the tone of this book the author himself admits: “I am a professional historian. And I have spent much of my career as a specialist in Eastern Europe, particularly in the history of Poland and Russia.” (page 12) Thus he has paved the way for his own dismal failure as a historian, a self admitted ‘specialist’ in Eastern European history who hardly knows the language, as will be eventually shown/proven.

On page 48 Davies speaks of the Russo-Polish war after the Russian Revolution, there is no mention of the Polish attack against Russia, rather Russia was attacking Poland to use it as a stage to eventually attack Germany, this statement is once more repeated on page 137. There the stage is set for the rest of the book’s tone. Why no mention of the fact that the Poles with support from Ukrainians and others attacked the Russians while they were busy fighting a civil war? No, Davies ignores that little fact and moves on to the idea that the only reason the Red Army was fighting against the Poles was so that they could use Poland as a staging ground to eventually attack Germany!

On the very next page, in reference to early Soviet times, “Whole classes like the kulaks, or small landowners, were slated for elimination when agricultural land was collectivized. Whole generations were uprooted and sent for slave labour. And whole countries, like Ukraine, which had resisted, were laid waste.” Somehow I don’t remember Ukraine being ‘laid waste’ nor do I remember Ukraine being a ‘whole country’ since a good chunk now belonged to Poland. Also, kulaks were rich land owners, not ‘small’ ones. He also fails to mention that many Kulak families were forcefully migrated to a different part of the country, not something one could consider ‘nice’ but at the same time it isn’t the same as being “slated for elimination” or sent for “slave labour.”

On page 68 we see the Nazi “final solution” being compared to the “man made famines” which supposedly took place in the Soviet Union, among other activities like deportations, and repressions. At this point it was easy for me to see that Davies would rather like to have his reader understand that the Soviet Union was akin to Nazi Germany and their activities within WWII. What the book was supposed to be about, as mentioned in his introduction, was now a secondary matter to the primary thesis that the Soviet Empire was bad…oh so bad. By the way, there are no facts or sources given to support the idea that there were “man made famines” in fact today with the opening of the former Soviet archives there is more than enough information to show that the famine was NOT man-made but rather a result of a combination of factors which did include Stalin and the government in general. But, this does not mean that it was artificially created for one reason or another, that is pure fantasy. For those interested in this event my recommendation is to read Mark Tauger among other historians such as R. W. Davies and Stephen G. Wheatcroft.

A detail error, of which there are many, is on page 108: “With the 6th Army eliminated, the Germans were forced to retreat along the length of their southern lines. Army Group B raced back form the Caucasus to avoid being cut off.” It was Army Group A that was in the Caucasus not B, Army Group B encompassed the German 6th Army which was annihilated at Stalingrad.

The laziness of Davies is apparent on page 111, this so called “Russian expert” writes in regards to Kursk that “The Germans lost 70,000 men and 3,000 tanks. Numerically, the Soviets probably lost more.” The Germans did not lose 3,000 tanks nor 70,000 men. Although the mistake he might have made is including the follow on operations after Kursk, like Kutuzov, etc. which did result in more German losses. The Soviets probably lost more? There are over a dozen books on Kursk which he could have used to look up this simple number, laziness apparently won him over.

Then speaking of 1943 Davies mentions on page 114 that “…no less than eighteen ‘Soviet fronts’ (or army groups) were rolling forward along a 1,000-km front line adjacent to the Dnieper.” Checking the OoB of the Red Army, throughout 1943 there were 12-13 fronts, not 18. Considering fronts usually had hundreds of thousands of men, this is a rather large exaggeration on the size and strength of the Red Army on the Eastern Front.

In terms of 1945, on page 125, “The Soviets were not taking prisoners in combat. Male German civilians were murdered. German women were being gang-raped to order. Any German soldier who had the chance of surrendering to the British or the Americans was doing so.” This is pure fantasy the fact of the matter is that German POWs being taken by the Red Army by the hundreds of thousands in 1945 and while there might have been instances of some units not taking any prisoners during combat, the same was done by the Germans.

When speaking of Vlasov, the first thing Davies writes on page 169 is: “And the turncoat General Andrei Vlasov gradually overcame opposition to the formation of a near million-strong auxiliary army under German command.” I’m not exactly sure how to interpret this statement. There were many auxiliary formations of Russians and former Soviets within the German Wehrmacht BUT they were not under Vlasov’s control. It is believed that close to a million or more Soviets served the German Wehrmacht in one capacity or another, but Vlasov’s troops, solely, never reached a million-strong force.

Math skills are apparently not Davies’ strong point. “…barely 5 percent of Soviet territory was occupied by the German invasion, leaving well over 90 percent unoccupied.” reads page 174. The reality is that around 9% was in German hands plus around a third of the population and most of the industry as well. But, citing those facts would discredit Davies’ idea that the Soviets could afford the losses they suffered.

When it comes to Warsaw, it should be clear to most if not all that the radio calls supposedly heard by those in Warsaw did not come from the Red Army radio, or Moscow radio, etc. Davies of course writes, “Moscow Radio had urged the Varsovians to rise.” on page 189. The details about this aren’t really out there in Western literature, but hopefully soon enough, at the least, an article will appear about this from Russian/former Soviet sources.

On page 211 the reader is presented with the statement that “Well over 10 million Ukrainians were killed in the 1930s, if not by the policy of forced collectivization, then by the terror-famine of 1932-1933.” A HUGE exaggeration, from the most recent data it is evident that under 3 million were excess deaths in the Ukraine ranging from even before 1930. Even the number of less than 3 million is large by any standards, especially when we are discussing life. Why is there this need to exaggerate on behalf of Stalin and the Soviet system? Hard to explain, especially today when the real numbers are easily available in Russian or English, sadly this ‘Russian expert’ isn’t that much an expert after all.

A wild claim is made on page 216 “Yet within ten days of the start of Barbarossa a further 5 million were mobilized. There was no way that these crowds of recruits could be properly trained and equipped. As a result, one of the Red Army’s characteristics was to maintain a minority of first-class units accompanied by a vast array of half-fed, half-clothed, half-trained troops in second and third-line formations.” Any sources? None. Personally, after studying the Eastern Front for a decade this is the first I’ve heard of such a thing. An exaggeration to say the least and ignorance at best.

On the next page Davies says that Soviet units even when understrength, were apparently “on a par with their adversaries.” Somehow I fail to see how a rifle division with 8,000 men or less is “on a par” with a German infantry division which usually fielded 17,000 men. To make things clear on the eve of the war a Red Army rifle division was to have 14,483 men while a German infantry division contained 17,000. Soon, after the start of the war, rifle divisions were reduced in strength to around 9-10,000 men. Depending on which part of the front they occupied and which future operations they were earmarked for they would either have close to a full compliment of strength of be left as is, in Stalingrad, to show the intensity of the fighting, divisions numbered hundreds of men. Now, “on par with their adversaries”? I don’t think so.

On page 231 Davies talks about Penal battalions who, if they halted or hesitated, were shot from behind, “…they had no hope of release – only the hope of being seriously wounded, or of living to be killed another day.” This is horribly inaccurate. For those interested, I recommend “Penalty Strike” by Alexander Pyl’cyn, which has been translated into English. Those in penal battalions/companies were periodically released when their sentences were up or they were wounded in battle, sometimes if they had performed a heroic deed they were released as well. Usual sentences were around 3 months in a penal unit, some were released after a mere week if they had performed courageously in an offensive operation. At times those NKVD zagradotradi which were supposed to watch these formations so that they did not retreat without orders joined in the fighting themselves or were not even present as the unit(s) in question were trusted (these NKVD units did not only stand behind penal units, something Davies does not mention).

Another of those minor mistakes was on page 249: “As from 1942, regiments or divisions that had performed well were given the designation of ‘guards’…” in fact that happened in 1941 after the battle for Yelnya.

On page 260, “The Red Army was slow to form dedicated armoured formations. The first tank corps was created in March 1942 from two armoured brigades.” Apparently he forgot about the 29 Mechanized Corps in 1941 which on paper were to contain over 36,000 men and 1,000 tanks.

Page 272, speaking of Soviet POWs coming back from German POW camps, “However, the ordeal of Soviet POW’s did not end when the war ended. Stalin ordered their repatriation, then charged them with reason for disobeying Order 270. Over a million were sent back to the USSR. The officers were promptly shot. The rank and file were dispatched to a slower death in the GULag.” Horribly inaccurate. Such blatant disregard for accuracy, I’m simply speechless!!

The facts are as follows:
At the end of 1941 first special (i.e.“filtration”) camps were set for
– returning POWs and troops that were encircled by the German Army,
– civilian collaborators and
– civilians of draft age who have resided on the territory occupied by the Germans.
According to an article published in “Свободная мысль” (“Free Thought”) magazine (1997, №9, page 96) by two “Memorial” researchers, A. Kokurin and N. Petrov, by March 1st , 1944, a total 312,594 Soviet POWs and former Red Army servicemen who were “encircled” by the Germans were checked by NKVD. Of those:– back to military service: 223,272 (71.4%)
– to work in defence industry: 5,716 (1.8%)
– to continue service in NKVD convoy troops 4,337 (1.4%),
– to hospitals for treatment 1,529 (0.5%),
– died while in “filtration” camps 1,779 (0.6%),
– sent to “penal” battalions 8,255 (2.6%),
– arrested 11,283 (3.6%).
The remaining 56,403 POWs (18.1%) were still in special camps as of March 1st, 1944.

An article in “Военно-исторический журнал” (“Military-Historical Magazine”), 1997, №5. page 32, by A. Mejen’kov corroborates the above: a total of 317,594 POWs went through special camps between October 1941 and March 1944. Their “fate” is very similar (with minor discrepancies, if any) to the “fate” of those described above by two “Memoraial” researchers.

Accordingly, as of March 1944, 256,200 servicemen were checked by NKVD in special camps. Of those:

– “cleared” 234,863 (91.7%),
– sent to “penal” battalions 8,255 (3.2%),
– arrested 11,283 (4.4%),
– died 1,799 (0.7%)

In November 1944 “ГКО” (State Defence Committee”) issued a decree stating that until the end of the war POWs freed from captivity were to be sent to reserve military formations bypassing special camps. In such a way over 83,000 officers were re-incorporated into the service. Later on after NKVD clearance 56,160 were decommissioned, over 10,000 sent back to the Red Army, 15,241 were demoted, but continued to serve in the Red Army.

Upon analyzing several other sources the author(s) conclude(s) that over 90% of POWs were cleared, about 4% were arrested and the other 4% were sent to the “penal” battalions.

On May 11, 1945 a directive was issued regarding setting up 100 special camps to check the repatriated Soviet DPs (displaced persons). By March 1, 1946 a total of 4,199,802 Soviet DPs (POWs and civilians) were re-patriated. Of those:

– sent home: civilians 2,146,126 (80.68% of all repatriated civilians), POWs 281,780 (18.31% of all repatriated POWs),
– drafted (for civilians)/sent back (for POWs) to the Red Army: civilians 141,962 (5.34%), POWs 659,190 (42.82%),
– sent to “work battalions” (*): civilians 263,647 (9.91%), POWs 344,448 (22.37%),
– transferred to NKVD: civilians 46,740 (1.76%), POWs 226,127 (14.69%).
– still in camps or employed by the Red Army and military administration abroad: civilians 61.538 (2,31%), POWs 27.930 (1,81%)

(*) used for reconstruction work in the USSR


On page 290 Davies proclaims that Stalin had been “the general secretary of the party, and hence the dictator of party and state since 1922.” Definitely wrong since Lenin was still alive in 1922, it was in the late 20’s that Stalin had most of the power, and not until he had eliminated Zinoviev, Kamenev, Bukharin, etc, was he the sole ‘ruler’ which happened in the mid-late 1930’s.

Once more on page 290 Davies says “Yet by Soviet standards it was really quite small, representing less than 5 per cent of the whole.” Speaking of the territory occupied by Germany, once more, in reality it was over 9%, not to speak of all the other variables which should have been included in this calculation.

On page 302, it was apparently Chuikov’s “52nd Army” that was guarding Stalingrad. In reality it was the 62nd Army.

Also claims that Stalingrad’s civilian population was largely evacuated, how to explain the 40,000 dead in one night of German bombing of the city?

Page 314 describes the Warsaw uprising, and Soviet activities during it, as ‘de facto Nazi-Soviet cooperation’…of course it was, since the Germans invaded the Soviet Union Stalin had been doing nothing but cooperating with the Nazis…pure drivel. Evidence offered? None.

Again, on page 340 when the Red Army crossed the border it went on a killing spree, “The punishment for males was to be shot. The punishment for females was to be gang-raped.”…indeed, no sources are provided. While both did occur to various degrees, they were not “sprees.” And many were punished for stealing, killing, or raping in the Red Army as orders came down to curb such behavior.

On pages 342 and 343 Davies compares Nazi Germany’s wartime looting to Soviet soldiers taking watches and bicycles.

A horror for me was reading page 409 where Davies recreates Akhmatova’s poem ‘Courage’ in Russian while making 7 spelling mistakes in the original Russian. This author is a disgrace.

Well, from my reading of the book these are just the mistakes I saw, I’m not an expert on the Western armies and states and I’m sure more mistakes will be found if someone was to read it from that POV. So, my advice…stay away, save your time and money.

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4 Responses to “Review of “Europe At War 1941-1945” by Norman Davies”

  1. Jeff said

    Nice work!

  2. timotheus said

    The Red Army was an army of world revolution – at the time of the Polish-Russo War it was led by Trotsky, and its aim was to export the soviet model of governing to other countries. The Budyenny marching song included the verse “we’re marching on Warsaw / lets take Berlin too”. The polish attack was a pre- emptive strike, much akin to the Israeli Arab War of 1967. See:
    http://www.ipedia.net/information/Polish-Soviet+War
    quote: “Pilsudski’s reaction to intelligence about theBolshevik military build-up was a decision to attack the Red Army before it was ready to attack him. In keeping with his long range plans, he also signed an alliance treaty and a military convention with the head of the East Ukrainian government, General Semyon V. Petlyura”.

    Next, about the “cleansing” of the Ukraine and “kulaks”. Kulaks were not rich farmers, but ANY farmers who opposed the new soviet system were labeled as kulaks and killed, or shipped to new concentration camps. This took place in the Ukraine as well as the rest of Russia. These people were not “migrated”; whole families of them, men, women and children were sent to concentration camps with slave labor (see Kolyma and Gulag), which is certainly “not nice”. Moron. See:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kulak

    Quote: “However, often those declared to be kulaks were not especially prosperous. The average value of goods confiscated from kulak’s during policy of “dekulakization” in the beginning of 1930s was only $90-$210 per household [1]. Both peasants and Soviet officials were often uncertain as to what constituted a kulak, and the term was often used to label anyone had more property than was considered “normal” according to subjective criteria.”

    Vlasov DId succeed in organizing an anti communist force under his command called the ROA (russian liberation army). See:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Russian_Liberation_Army

    This ROA was apart from ad hoc units organized locally by the Wehrmacht, and other national forces like the Kalmuk units.

    The Soviet penal units are very well documented by now. These units were thrown first into enemy fire and were used to “clear” enemy minefields by walking across them. Zhukov said as much to Eisenhower: “If we come to a minefield, our infantry attacks exactly as it were not there.”
    This is discussed in the great Axis History Forum (of which I am a member – highly recommended); see
    http://forum.axishistory.com/viewtopic.php?t=26531&postdays=0&postorder=asc&start=0
    With these methods, the life expectancy of a penal unit member was 1 operation… Of course SOME were released. And you quoting an ex Soviet general is akin to quoting an ex Gestapo officer that would say well, there wasnt torture, we somehow went overboard. Think people would believe that (mythical) Gestapo man vs all the evidence?

    Note from Administration: This comment has been edited to remove harsh language. Normally, I would have deleted it, but I wanted to allow the author of the post in question a chance to view it and respond.

  3. timotheus said

    The Soviet army did have shooting and gang rape sprees. I advise interested parties to research the net. Information very easy to find.

    The Soviet POWs captured by the Germans and returned to the Soviet Union were ALL placed in NKVD (secret police) prisons. The majority were “cleared” as the author quotes a pro soviet propaganda rag, but notice that the quote does not state the timeframe (i.e. how LONG it took for these people to be cleared. We are talking YEARS in slave labor and concentration camps here, some were let go only after Khruschev took over).

  4. szopen said

    Soviets attacked Poland in 1919. You are repeating old Soviet propaganda, that Poland attacked Russia with help of Ukrainians, forgetting that 1920 Kiev Offensive was just another offensive in a war started by Soviet “operation Vistula”.

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