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Période soviétique et postsoviétique

Wendy Z. GOLDMAN, Donald FILTZER, Fortress Dark and Stern. The Soviet Home Front during World War II

Andreas Hilger
p. 813-815
Référence(s) :

Wendy Z. GOLDMAN, Donald FILTZER, Fortress Dark and Stern. The Soviet Home Front during World War II, Oxford : Oxford University Press, 2021, 494 p.

Texte intégral

1In several cases, personal dedications in academic books have already inspired historical research. By presenting historical and cultural self-positionings and interpretations of the authors, they can, for example, provide information about collective changes in academic self-images and networks or in broader gender and family relations. Either way, such dedications regularly go beyond a purely private dimension. The dedications of the authors of the given book not only pay tribute to their fathers – “soldiers both” – and other fighters against fascism and militarism in the Second World War. In doing so, they at least implicitly recall former Allied common interests that, due to Soviet and Russian historical-political self-aggrandisement on the one hand and to anti-Soviet crusades or sweeping criticism of Russia on the other hand, were and are often marginalized in memories of the Second World War. Indeed, the Soviet home front, which is the focus of the book, made an outstanding contribution to the Allied victory over Germany and Japan.

2It was long overdue to examine the background, organization, as well as concrete and direct experiences of the home front of state and society in the years 1941 to 1945. In addition to secondary literature, Goldman and Filtzer have made use of an impressive mass of Russian archival documents, primarily from collections on economic, labour, health and social policy during the war. Unfortunately, they do not provide adequate short descriptions of the documents in their footnotes. So, the reader is not able to range precisely especially surprising statements and interpretations. Thus, for all intents and purposes, various positive statements from the sources remain under propaganda suspicion.

3Longer-term effects of war-related adjustments, for example of changes in industrial production methods or in public health care, are sometimes hinted at in the study. They may inspire further research. In contrast, unfortunately, the book largely lacks the prehistory of the economic war efforts, i.e. an examination and determination of traditional Stalinist patterns of action and reaction that helped shape state activities and measures – and outcomes alike – in economic, labour, social and health policy during the war. Thus, an overall and balanced assessment of the general input of state and society, of the hurdles that were piled up and overcome and of general achievements, can become somewhat incomplete and imbalanced. It certainly was not only the health sector where crises during the war were “not solely the result of extreme wartime conditions” (291). The system’s strict orientation towards state concerns to the neglect of human costs, the constant focus on instruments of a coercive and command economy, the suppression of individual initiative, anxious aversion to take responsibility, as well as ethnic hierarchies made the system per se susceptible to disorganisation, makeshift solutions, drawbacks, and idling cycles. Basic systemic conditions and their inherent problems became more acute and clearer under the conditions of the German war of extermination against the USSR and its peoples. They became visible in many areas, as the study repeatedly demonstrates: from the evacuation of industrial plants and the provision of food for the population to the labour deployment of Central Asian citizens in Russian regions and so on. Significantly, even shortly before the German invasion, Stalin considered planning for possible emergency evacuations unnecessary. It took until mid-August 1941 before the decision was taken in Moscow to organise the construction of a new production base beyond German reach.

4Soviet civilians on the home front – whether locals or evacuated, fled, mobilised, deported or incarcerated – often suffered from unspeakably difficult living and working conditions. As a rule, however, they did not question the immediate war goal of defence against and victory over Hitler’s Germany. Here, a differentiated and more detailed discussion of the motivations of the combatants of the home front would have been desirable. They were not driven exclusively by fear of state coercion or by political conviction. Individual biographies, which the authors skillfully weave into their narrative, show the diversity of individual existential challenges and decisions without being condensed into an overall analysis of this aspect. All in all, the authors have been able to find only little evidence of direct resistance to Stalin’s regime and its measures in their sources on the home front. To what extent a more intensive evaluation of the archival legacies of Soviet security authorities would have fundamentally changed this picture remains to be seen. After all, around one million “defence workers” were convicted during the war, and millions more were persecuted under the harsh labour laws of 1940. Many others got away with similar offences (237-252).

5Earlier, in 1941, it seems questionable whether the majority of the population of the Baltic regions wanted to be “rescued” from German occupation. Illusory peasant hopes for better times under German occupation also indicate that the home front in unoccupied areas could be fragile (13, 15, 26). One will not want to deduce a resistance movement from these figures and observations, but rather the need to break down more precisely the driving forces of the home front actors with their grey areas between political conviction, fear of repressions, private feelings of hatred or revenge, individual will to survive or simple lack of alternatives.

  • 1 See, among others, Tanja Penter, Kohle für Stalin und Hitler. Arbeiten und Leben im Donbass 1929 bi (...)

6Conversely, the numbers mentioned also testify to the unbroken repressive character of the regime. This aspect is also dealt with in a rather subordinate way in the book. A more compact discussion of the use of Gulag prisoners and the forced labour of deported peoples come up relatively late. Forced labour of foreign prisoners of war and civilian deportees, which already played a role during the war, is largely left out.1

7These more general points of criticism notwithstanding, the authors have succeeded in providing a broad, sometimes almost epic description of the Soviet home front for many aspects and dimensions of evacuation and flight, relocation of industries, supply and health, labour deployment and reconstruction in the liberated areas. In many cases, the authors indeed bring the state’s organisational and mobilisation measures and society’s performance and suffering together: “The efforts of individuals would have lacked any collective power without the mobilising initiative of the state. And none of the state’s vast mobilising initiatives would have been possible without the efforts of ordinary people” (2, 7). Particularly striking are chapters or passages on, among others, transport and arrival, on health care, on labour mobilisation, on the supply system between privileges and the black market, and on the return to the liberated, destroyed areas.

8Within days of the invasion, Moscow established an Evacuation Council and a Manpower Distribution Committee. By the end of 1941, some 12 million people had been brought to safety from the onslaught of the Wehrmacht, and millions more by autumn 1942. Estimates go as high as 25 million evacuees. Over 2,000 companies were relocated to areas that the German war machine could not reach (6). The study describes in detail the immense difficulties that resulted from the fact that the evacuations had to be carried out in a very short time, in the confusion of the general retreat, parallel to military mobilisation and armament measures, without detailed preparation and without a sufficient material basis. For the people affected, this meant forced separation from relatives, uncertainty, long transports, diseases and epidemics and persistent lack of supplies. The transit stations and destinations were often not prepared for the masses of people. As late as 1942, one tank factory provided its evacuated new workers with only a good 170 earth bunkers for 11,000 people instead of the required settlement for 40,000 (79). The time pressure under which relocated facilities were dismantled and put back into operation additionally led to frictions, losses and prolonged burdens for the workforces. All workers of the home front, evacuated or not, male and female, older and young, shared experiences and pressures of enormous, long lasting demands. All people, evacuated or not, shared experiences and consequences of fragile supply, priorities of military production, and had to cope with unknown fates or losses of family members.

9By interweaving general descriptions and individual experiences, the authors repeatedly succeed in creating a dense picture of the events, in which challenges, burdens and achievements become impressively clear. The work vividly describes the Herculean tasks that the entire home front faced during the war. The home front held, despite immense pressure and despite high material and human costs and losses. It was partly held together, according to the authors, by “sheer will” and a common enemy (93, 127). In the long run, the systemic constraints, mechanisms and constructions were not significantly touched or even sustainably mitigated by the joint state-social effort – this finding is also part of the epic history of the Soviet war against the German aggression 1941 to 1945.

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1 See, among others, Tanja Penter, Kohle für Stalin und Hitler. Arbeiten und Leben im Donbass 1929 bis 1953, Essen, 2010; S.G. Sidorov, Trud voennoplennykh v SSSR 1939-1956 gg. [Prisoners of war work in the USSR, 1939-1956], Volgograd 2001.

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Andreas Hilger, « Wendy Z. GOLDMAN, Donald FILTZER, Fortress Dark and Stern. The Soviet Home Front during World War II »Cahiers du monde russe, 63/3-4 | 2022, 813-815.

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Andreas Hilger, « Wendy Z. GOLDMAN, Donald FILTZER, Fortress Dark and Stern. The Soviet Home Front during World War II »Cahiers du monde russe [En ligne], 63/3-4 | 2022, mis en ligne le 02 décembre 2022, consulté le 03 décembre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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