This morning's New York Times features a fascinating article about my own field of study, Soviet history. Since the end of the Cold War, the Russian archives have released a wealth of documents about the course of World War II on the Eastern Front--a conflict that the article quite reasonably describes as "the single most important chapter in modern military history." The documents released so far have completely changed our image of the war, but there simply aren't enough trained military historians to interpret all the new materials. The result is a "missed historiographical opportunity" of startling proportions.
Research in newly released Russian materials has already led to a number of exciting discoveries:
It's interesting to ask how this situation came about, however, and I'd add two bits of context to the picture. The first has to do with the isolation of military history from the rest of the discipline. Three years ago, when Joshua Sanborn wrote an essay for the journal Kritika called "What's New in Russian Military History and Why You Should Care," he began with some comments on the state of the field:
The sense of exclusion is felt acutely by many of my colleagues in military history, even the successful ones. One scholar who began his career in military history advised me--too late to make any difference in my choice of dissertation topic, but early enough to prompt years of anxiety--that studying the army had two major drawbacks. First, your classes fill up with young men who want to show you sketches of warplanes, and second, no one reads your work. At that point, I had had no luck getting funding to do research for a dissertation that foregrounded the notion of "militarization." After dropping that word from the title of my project, I received the next four grants for which I applied. From that point forward, I was careful to make clear to anyone who asked that I was not writing a dissertation that could be called "military history," even though the focus of my manuscript was military conscription. This caution is widely shared. In 1994, the American Historical Association found itself in the awkward position of awarding its Birdsall Prize in military history to a bright young historian named Leonard Smith, who admitted on the first page of his book on the French Army mutinies of 1917 that he "fretted endlessly about being tagged a 'military historian' as he wrote the text."
What's more, even seemingly parochial military history can have lessons to offer the discipline as a whole. Consider the three historiographical issues mentioned above. Perhaps I shouldn't admit this, but the military side of these questions doesn't especially interest me: I doubt that I'd want to read an account of "Operations Mars" that focused on the experiences of soldiers, the tactics and strategies of the contending sides, and the overall outcome of the campaign. Nevertheless, the fact that the Soviet regime concealed the entire campaign from history is fascinating and important: it tells us something about the workings of the Soviet government, about the Soviet discipline of history, and about the Soviet Union's post-war attempt to rally its population by playing up the heroic story of the Eastern Front.
There's one more important fact that readers of this article should know: Soviet military history isn't the only sub-discipline that's suffering from a dearth of researchers. Historians, political scientists, and politicians argued constantly about the workings of the Soviet regime during the Cold War--but, now that the Russian archives have opened, a majority of Western historians are investigating social and cultural questions. This means that we can now try to settle some long-lasting historical debates about Soviet high politics, but that a majority of historians are seeking out answers to other questions.
Is this a problem? That's open to debate, I think. In an ideal world, universities all over the world would be loaded with students dying to learn about Russia's past, to the point where we had enough historians to examine all the documents that are now emerging from the archives. That doesn't seem like a very realistic scenario, however.
It's not hard to explain why historians and history grad students tend to shy away from military and political history. It can be hard for Westerners to get access to all of the relevant archives even now: the military archives can be hard to visit, and plenty of files on Soviet high politics are located in archives that are largely inaccessible to Americans. (It's no coincidence that the best new English-language book on Soviet high politics under Stalin was co-written by a Russian, the eminent historian Oleg Khlevniuk.)
What's more, there are plenty of new documents to go around--they don't all have to do with high politics and military history. I chose to study the Soviet Communist party's treatment of its members' misconduct, rather than the inner workings of Stalin's inner circle or the tactics of the Red Army on the Eastern Front, because I just couldn't pass up the opportunity to research a largely unexplored question using completely new sources. Historians are only now beginning to document the history of post-war Stalinism and the Khrushchev era, and I'm excited to be part of this trend in historical work. If everyone in the field stepped back and tried to answer traditional questions about Soviet history--why didn't the Red Army help the Warsaw Uprising? what was the role of Stalin's top advisers in the Soviet system?--then couldn't critics legitimately complain that we were allowing past historians to set our agenda, rather than moving forward with new questions and new approaches?
The problem, in short, isn't that historians are failing to take advantage of new sources and documents. It's that there are too many unanswered questions in Soviet history and too few researchers to examine them all. It's a shame that some grad students are discouraged from working in military history and that the public is sometimes left with misleading and simplistic ideas about the Soviet past, but with luck, this situation will begin to change with time.Posted by Ed at February 21, 2004 12:24 PM