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Now You See Them ... Roger Moorhouse Revisits a Perceptive Article by John Erickson on the Nazi Invasion of the Soviet Union, First Published in History Today in 2001, Its Insights Born of a Brief Period of Russian Openness

Article excerpt

When the late John Erickson penned his article in 2001 the historical world was still basking in the afterglow of Gorbachevian glasnost, relishing the steady stream of publications and archival revelations that had finally shed light on some of the darker recesses of Russian history.

There was much to be revealed. For one thing, the Red Army had been voracious in 'acquiring' many archival holdings that had themselves been 'acquired' by the Germans during the Second World War. Thus, following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg all received back sections of their archives that had been looted many years before.

Russia's own archives were similarly bountiful. When the paranoid deep-freeze of Communist rule finally thawed in the early 1990s many authors and historians made hay among the newly-opened documents. Consequently there was a spate of revelations, reassessments and revisions throughout that decade. Perhaps the most noteworthy of them all was the contention, put forward by the Russian author Viktor Suvorov in his book Icebreaker, that Stalin had intended to attack Hitler in 1941 and that what Hitler launched against the Soviet dictator that summer was, effectively, a pre-emptive strike.

As Erickson correctly noted, the book was something of a 'literary bombshell; dividing public opinion in Russia and the wider academic community, with many instinctive anti-Soviets lending the book credence, while others dismissed it as a 'fairy tale'. In his article, Erickson gave a masterful, forensic dissection of Suvorov's thesis. He traced its precursors--which actually predated 1991--and showed how it had quickly developed a historiography all of its own, thereby giving it what he called the 'patina of respectability'.

Yet, for all the book's apparent plausibility, Erickson was not sparing in his criticisms. Its archival basis, he said, was weak as it was based primarily upon memoirs and military publications, thereby 'conveying the impression (but not the substance) of drawing on actual archives'.

Moreover, Icebreaker's fundamental premise was incorrect, he argued. Germany could hardly have launched a pre-emptive strike, he suggested, if there was precious little sense in the German High Command of being directly threatened by the Red Army. …