Saturday Single No. 18

Originally posted June 23, 2007

Being kind of a history buff, I am fascinated by certain historical periods in specific places. I find myself drawn, for example, to the time and place of the Vikings: Scandinavia in the years from, oh, 800 to 1066. The Civil War era and the opening of the Great Plains that followed it fascinate me too, as does life in rural Mississippi in the 1920s and 1930s.

But the first historical era – events in a certain time and place – that I really examined to any great degree was World War II in Europe and the Holocaust. Triggered mostly, I imagine, by having seen some of the locales where those events took place and by knowing people who lived through them, I read about the war and the Holocaust voraciously in the mid- to late 1970s. I still pick up a new volume about those events now and then. Right now, I’m reading 1945: The War That Never Ended by Gregor Dallas. The book is an account of the final year of World War II in Europe that postulates that the events of World War II continued to resound in world history and politics longer after the end of hostilities than anyone realized. It’s a reasonable hypothesis, and about midway through the book, I can’t disagree with him.

And while I was pondering World War II yesterday, I happened to glance at the calendar and realized that yesterday was the anniversary of one of the truly world-changing events of the Twentieth Century. It was on June 22, 1941, that Adolf Hitler sent the Wehrmacht, the German army, across the line that separated the territory occupied by Germany from that occupied by the Soviet Union. The invasion – which took place along a front about nine hundred miles wide – caught the Soviets off-guard. (Why it did is one of the fascinating questions about the war; prevailing theory seems to be that Soviet leader Josef Stalin wanted so badly to avoid war with Germany that he ignored a multitude of signs that the invasion was imminent. And in a nation ruled by one cruel and vicious man, if the leader does not believe a specific thing will take place, no one else is allowed to prepare for that event.)

The invasion, which the Germans called “Operation Barbarossa” after an early German king, triggered one of the world’s great tragedies inside the greater tragedy of World War II. During the war, the Soviet Union had its most populous areas conquered and occupied, and more than twenty million Soviet citizens died, the vast majority of them civilians. (I do not know if that total includes the more than two million Jewish citizens of the Soviet Union who died in the Holocaust.)

The death and destruction the Nazis caused in the Soviet Union would be enough, but that’s only part of what I had in mind when I called the German invasion “world-changing.” I used that term mostly because the invasion of the Soviet-held territory that started sixty-six years ago yesterday ensured the downfall of Adolf Hitler and his Nazi henchmen and thus influenced much of the shape of today’s world.

We rarely think of World War II today. Maybe we pass a memorial in a city park or see a bit of a Veteran’s Day ceremony on television, but when we do think of it, we see it as an organic whole, albeit in several acts: The Germans started it in Europe, the Japanese started it in Asia, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, we sent troops to England and the Pacific, we and the British invaded Europe and knocked down Hitler with the help of the Russians, and then we dropped two A-bombs on Japan. Final Curtain.

But as it was going on, for those who lived during those times, it was not nearly that simple. For many long years there was no guarantee of victory for those opposing Hitler and Germany. For most of 1940 and half of 1941, Britain stood alone, preparing for a German invasion across the English Channel. Why Hitler did not invade Britain is a question that has been discussed, parsed, chopped and sprinkled for the past sixty years. I imagine there’s a reason somewhere in the archives, but that’s not important here. My point is that the instant Hitler turned away from Britain and invaded Soviet-held territory, he lost the war. That didn’t happen right away, of course, but the failed invasion doomed the Nazis. Eventually, with the Allied invasion of France, Hitler was fighting on two fronts and the Germans’ own mistakes began to catch up to them. The Soviets – despite all the mistakes of their own leadership – eventually stopped the Germans and began what one book I read called “the long walk to Berlin.”

Again, that’s a bare bones outline, with an ending that was not at all visible until long after the fighting started. And it’s difficult to sort through the tales of armies and commanders and arrows on maps to find the individual soldiers. Some movies and books have done a good job of that: Saving Private Ryan on the screen and Band Of Brothers as a book and an HBO series come to mind.

But one of the most moving accounts of a front-line soldier in the war in Europe was a little-noticed song on Al Stewart’s 1974 album Past, Present and Future. That song, “Roads to Moscow,” tells in first person the tale of a Soviet soldier, a Russian who lived through the German invasion and made that “long walk to Berlin” only to be sent at the end to a Soviet labor camp because he had the bad luck to have been captured by the Germans for a day. (That was the fate of almost any Soviet soldier who was ever captured; those who somehow survived German prison camps were almost all sent to Soviet labor camps after the war. A pretty good analysis of Stewart’s historical allusions [was] available here.)

Stewart’s song wanders hauntingly through the soldier’s narrative. It draws the listener in and allows him or her to feel not only the horror of war but the difficulty of accepting events that make no sense – for war makes as little sense as does the remanding of one’s own people to labor camps – and the numbness that comes when events of that type pile on top of each other time after time. That’s why “Roads to Moscow,” which begins with the world-changing events of sixty-six years ago yesterday, is this week’s Saturday Single.

Al Stewart – “Roads to Moscow” [1974]

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