New Directions in Military History, 1900-1950: Questions of Total War and Colonial War

By von Hagen, Mark | Kritika, Fall 2011 | Go to article overview
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New Directions in Military History, 1900-1950: Questions of Total War and Colonial War


von Hagen, Mark, Kritika


In this essay I survey some, though by no means all, recent publications and projects in the military history of Russia and the Soviet Union in the first half of the 20th century. The major wars of the Soviet and Russian army since World War II--the Afghan war and the Chechen war--have been treated by individual historians but are probably more effectively captured in journalist accounts, fiction, and film. I also propose a rather catholic understanding of military history; I review books that certainly can be identified with an older type of military history that treats wars from the standpoint of armies and commanders and that guides readers through decisions about campaigns and the travails of military supply, especially in weapons and ammunition. But I also want to include new books about army and society more broadly, whether conscription, refugees, prisoners of war, or other manifestations of the "collateral damage" of modern combat. I want to draw attention to a relatively new subfield, that of history and memory, where wars figure prominently in the official and popular images and narratives of a very violent 20th century. Several of the authors to be discussed choose to situate "their" wars in either a total war or colonial war model, thereby tying their own scholarship to a broader community of historians who are studying colonialism in other parts of the world and trying to evaluate the impact of especially the two world wars on state systems, societies, and cultures. These welcome trends situate Russian and Soviet military history in transnational and comparative history.

One of these welcome trends has been the recovery of "lost" wars, starting with the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5. In a situation strangely parallel to that of the 1917 revolutions and World War I (more on this soon), the Russo-Japanese War has been approached primarily as the backdrop to Russia's first great revolutionary upheaval of the 20th century. For example, John Bushnell, in his pathbreaking account of soldier rebellion during the failed revolution, does not dwell much on the war itself, since most of the mutinous soldiers and sailors were not in the Far East. (1) The fortunate coincidence of the greater accessibility of Russian archives during the 1990s, particularly the Russian State Military History Archive, and the pending centenary of the war inspired five scholars who are veterans of military history conferences--Bruce W. Menning, David Schimmelpenninck van der Oye, David Wolff, Shinji Yokote, and John W. Steinberg--to convene a large international group of specialists to rethink the Russo-Japanese War as "World War Zero." (2) The list of authors includes historians from Japan, Russia, the United States, Britain, and elsewhere and presents the most thorough reconsideration of the war to date, above all arguing for a truly global perspective on this global war. Not only was it truly international in terms of the belligerent states involved, but this was also the first "total war"--namely, modern, industrial mass warfare between two modernizing states. The record shows, however, that the armies were not quite ready for the challenges of total war (nor would they be later).

One of the editors has subsequently published his own book, which situates the Russo-Japanese War in the context of military reform and the obstacles to reform posed by the autocracy and its elite culture. John Steinberg's All the Tsar's Men makes a persuasive argument that the army had plenty of competent, intelligent officers and intellectuals who grew increasingly aware of Russia's shortcomings vis-a-vis Germany after the Franco-Prussian War, but that the "Old Guard" of the upper aristocracy and the tsar himself thwarted efforts to remedy this situation. (3) The failure to reform the army, Steinberg argues, contributed greatly to the disastrous performance of the Imperial Army in both the Russo-Japanese War and World War I and ultimately to the fall of the autocracy.

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