The Second World War is an ideational construct of the Western imaginary; one that bundles together a titanic great power struggle on the continent with a bunch of sideshows in the Atlantic, Mediterranean and the Western Pacific basins. The main turning point in the history of the twentieth century was not World War II but the Soviet-German war. It was above all the Red Army that fought, defeated and annihilated the Wehrmacht. It was the outcome of this struggle that decided who would join the Anglo-Saxon powers at the top table.
On the eve of Operation Barbarossa Western intelligence expected the USSR to knuckle over under the German onslaught. The Soviet Union was thought of as ‘modernizing’ but not modern; Soviet industry was seen as deficient in quality and productivity; the Soviet economy as grossly inefficient and disorderly; the Soviet workforce as lacking in skill and knowhow; Soviet administrative apparatus as shot through with red tape; and Soviet transport as characterized by severe bottlenecks. The Red Army was seen inferior to first class militaries and devastated by the great purges; perhaps good for defense but certainly not attack. And most importantly, there were definite questions about the stability of Stalin’s regime; whether it enjoyed support among the masses; or whether morale would collapse and take the regime down with it in the event of a Nazi invasion. In short, Soviet modernity continued to be seen as partial and incomplete in Western eyes.
Even after the Red Army parried Operation Barbarossa, Western intelligence agencies continued to worry about Soviet collapse or a separate Nazi-Soviet peace; especially given that perhaps more than a third of Soviet war potential was located in the in the Soviet territory now occupied by Germany. Indeed, it was not until the summer of 1943 that the Soviet Division of ‘the O.S.S. chairborne’ finally became confident of a Soviet victory and recognized the Red Army as the strongest land army in the world. The Division then began advocating for a ‘second front’ and for a modus vivendi between ‘the Big Three’ for the postwar world that would remain its idée fixe until 1945. However, it was already clear by the winter that Operation Barbarossa had failed and that the communist great power would ultimately prevail. Why then did the Division wait until the summer of 1943 to ‘call the war’?
We will come back to the question of Western perceptions of Soviet strength in a future essay. In what follows we will instead examine the balance of power in the early-1940s and offer some observations on the sources of Soviet strength.
Figure 1. The revealed balance of power in the early 1940s.
Figure 1 shows the armament production of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union as a percentage of US production. We know that Soviet war production was constrained by coal production and transport bottlenecks rather than plant capacity; which was the case in the United States. Yet, the average Soviet:US ratio in armament output was 1:1.4. So the US was decidedly stronger than the USSR but not by all that much. By comparison, the average German:Soviet ratio was 1:1.5. So the Soviet-German gap was roughly the same as the US-Soviet gap.
Put another way, this German:Soviet:US ‘balance of armament power’ ratio is 1:1.5:2.2; which is much more asymmetric than the Correlates of War Index ratio of 1:1.3:1.2. Our narrower balance of armament power ratio better captures the actual balance of power. For while one may quibble with the exact ratios, there is no denying the quantum power gaps between the US, the USSR, and Germany in 1941.
During the three full years of combat in the Soviet-German War, 1942-1944, the unoccupied Soviet Union produced 78,000 tanks and self-propelled field guns and 85,000 combat aircraft; National Socialist Germany produced 35,000 and 65,000 of these two war machines respectively. Table 1 reveals that despite the loss of substantial arable land, industrial base and skilled population to German occupation in 1941, the communist great power comfortably out produced Germany not only in tanks and warplanes but also in rifles, machine guns, and artillery.
Table 1: War production, 1942-1944.
|Soviet Union (‘000)
|Nazi Germany (‘000)
How was the Soviet Union in a position to produce such prodigious quantities of armament? Stalin had ordered the construction of massive excess capacity in the armament industry. But given the binding constraint of scarce skilled labor, capacity wasn’t enough. What was required was a productivity miracle.
By 1944, Soviet defense output nearly quadrupled to 3.9 times the 1940 level. But employment in the defense industry grew by a factor of only 1.6 (from 1.8 million to 2.9 million). The difference was accounted for by a veritable productivity miracle in the armament industry. In 1940-1944, output per worker in the Soviet armament industry trebled as mass production of field-tested armaments (the T-34 and the Sturmovik above all) was scaled up. Speer’s ‘armament miracle’ is much less impressive by comparison. By 1944, German output per worker grew to only 1.8 times its level in 1940.
The Soviet margin of superiority documented in Table 1—with a median of 1.5:1 across modern weapons—would not have obtained without the productivity miracle of the 1940s. Table 2 marshals the evidence for this claim. We see that had productivity stalled completely in Soviet armament production—as it did in agriculture and civilian industry; see Figure 2 above—Germany would’ve enjoyed an overwhelming preponderance in all armaments; with a median ratio of 1:1.9. Even if Soviet productivity had grown at the German pace, the ratios would’ve been squarely favorable to the Germans; with a median ratio of 1:1.3; a level sufficient to reverse the odds in the Soviet-German War.
Table 2: Armament ratios under different Soviet productivity growth hypotheses.
|Soviet war production assumed to grow at the German rate
|Assuming zero productivity growth in the Soviet Union
Figure 2 displays the Soviet margin of superiority under the three productivity hypotheses. Again, it is clear that a productivity miracle was necessary for the Soviet margin of superiority to hold.
Figure 2. Margin of Soviet superiority under different productivity hypotheses.
Our hypotheses on Soviet productivity are uniform across weapons. If we drill down to the level of major weapons, the importance of Soviet productivity growth becomes even more evident.
Midcentury mobile air-land warfare singled out the medium battle tank and the dive bomber as the principal weapons of war. Once good design solutions were tested on the battlefield, they had to be mass produced in large numbers to take advantage of economies of scale. The Germans settled on the Panzer III and IV for their Panzer armies and the Stuka for their dive bomber. The Soviets settled early on the T-34 as their main battle tank and the Il-2 Sturmovik as their dive bomber of choice. Both the T-34 and the Il-2 were superior to their German counterparts.
Table 3. Real unit cost of producing principal Soviet war machines.
Source: Harrison (1996)
||T-34 medium tank
||KV heavy tank
Table 3 shows that the real cost of producing the Sturmovik and the T-34 fell by half in just two years. The costs of producing the KV heavy tanks—required for infantry support and urban fighting—fell by two-thirds. The real constraint on production was not cost but scarce labor. Table 4 displays the average number of labor hours required to make each unit in 1941 and 1943.
|Table 4. Direct labor requirements of war production.
Source: Harrison (1996)
||1941 productivity level
||1943 productivity level
||Hours per unit
||Total hours (millions)
||Hours per unit
||Total hours (millions)
Table 4 really brings the relative cost of weapons and the critical role of productivity into sharp relief. To take the latter point first, had productivity stalled at the 1941 level, producing the same number of armaments would have required 2.8 billion hours of work instead of 1.6 billion. This was beyond the capacity of the skilled workforce.
More importantly, modern weapons (tanks and aircraft) were much more expensive than those that had dominated the battlefield in World War I (rifles, machine guns and artillery). Assuming the productivity levels of 1943, producing 10 millions rifles and 1.2 million machine guns took 500 million hours of work, about the same as producing just 85,000 combat aircraft. Tanks were expensive too. Each T-34 required 3,700 hours of work; an order of magnitude greater than a machine gun. What this meant for force structure can be determined by the following calculation.
A Soviet rifle division in July 1943 had around 10,000 men armed with rifles, 200 field guns and mortars, and 50 machine guns or anti-aircraft guns. Producing the weapons for the standard rifle division thus required 266,450 hours of work. A Soviet tank corps in July 1943 had 230 tanks in addition to 10,000 men and 160 guns. Arming this standard armored formation required 1,069,000 hours of work. Given the tightness of the skilled labor constraint, this meant that the Soviets faced a tradeoff of four rifle divisions for each tank corps. The air-ground tradeoff was even more daunting. For the price of arming an entire rifle division, the Soviets could obtain a squadron of just 45 dive bombers.
What compelled both Hitler and Stalin to maximize the production of combat aircraft and tanks and push for wholesale mechanization was the technological-economic conjuncture. In other words, what forced their hand was the internal logic of mobile air-land warfare. The arrival of large numbers of internal combustion engines to the battlefield introduced unprecedented mobility, tempo and depth to the modern battlefield and thereby summoned the ancient gods of the war of movement. It will be argued in a future post that this transformation was not appreciated in the West and lead to catastrophe in 1940. Moreover, it will be argued, that what was essentially a technological transformation came to be associated with the myth of the German Blitzkrieg, whereas in fact the operational art of mobile air-land warfare attained its highest form not in the Wehrmacht but in the Red Army. But for now we must return to economics.
The Soviet armament miracle of the early-1940s was, of course, dependent on an earlier miracle in heavy industry. Basically, it was impossible to produce tens of thousands of tanks and combat aircraft if one did not have a massive base of industries upstream from war production; ie, heavy industry. This heavy-industrial base did not exist in 1928. It came into being during the First Five Year Plan, when the Soviet Union went on an unprecedented buying spree for Western technology, followed by an even more unprecedented construction spree. Suddenly, thousands of gigantic factories mushroomed over the Soviet Union; many of them in factory towns ‘out east’, beyond the Urals—to give to Soviet Union strategic depth against a possible future attack from the west. But even as late as 1933 it was not in fact clear that the leveraged bet would pay off. For it was not enough to erect gigantic factories. Millions had to learn how to master industrial work. What was required was a productivity miracle; for Stakhanovism to truly succeed.
The smashing success of forced-pace industrialization became evident when the results of the Second Plan came in. Figure 3 displays the economic miracle of the mid-1930s. Soviet per capita GNP grew by as astounding 9.2 percent a year during the Second Plan (1933-1937).
Figure 3. Soviet GNP.
Almost all of this growth was concentrated in industry. Industrial growth averaged 13.4 percent in the same period; 9.2 percent in 1929-1940. But Soviet industrialization was weighted towards heavy industry. The critical machinery and machine tools sector (‘mother machines’) grew at 21.5 percent in 1929-40 and a breathtaking 31.7 percent during the Second Plan.
There is disagreement between scholars on industrial productivity growth during the Second Plan, 1933-1937. Industrial employment grew by 24 percent, from 9.3 million to 11.6 million. Estimates for industrial output growth range from Nutter’s 86 percent to Hodgman’s 116 percent. Putting these two together yields an estimated range of 62-92 percent for output per worker. That translates to an annual rate of productivity growth of 10-14 percent during the Second Five Year Plan. The truth must be closer to the upper bound since per capita output growth (industrial and nonindustrial) averaged 9.2 percent in this period. In either case, there was indeed a productivity miracle. Output per worker grew at double digits through the Second Plan.
Both miracles were necessary prerequisites of Soviet victory against Nazi Germany. They spoke to the success of an alternate modernity; of ‘Stalinism as a civilization’. Yet both were largely missed by Western observers. Even today, beyond a vanishingly small group of historians, Westerners remain unaware of the Soviet achievement. We pretend that dashing Americans saved the world from Nazism; that the Western Allies played a major role in defeating the Wehrmacht; and that Stalin and Hitler are somehow morally equivalent. All of these fictions persist because of the rigidity of the discourse of Western self-congratulation.
Glantz, David M., and Jonathan M. House. When Titans Clashed: How the Red Army Stopped Hitler. University Press of Kansas, 2015.
Davies, Robert William, Mark Harrison, and Stephen G. Wheatcroft, eds. The Economic Transformation of the Soviet Union, 1913-1945. Cambridge University Press, 1994.
Harrison, Mark. Accounting for War: Soviet Production, Employment, and the Defence Burden, 1940-1945. Cambridge University Press, 1996.
Harrison, Mark, ed. The Economics of World War II: Six Great Powers in International Comparison. Cambridge University Press, 1998.