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The ussr and total war : why didn't the soviet economy collapse in 1942?


  • Harrison, Mark


Germany’s campaign in Russia was intended to be the decisive factor in creating a new German empire in central and eastern Europe, a living space that could be restructured racially and economically in German interests as Hitler had defined them in Mein Kampf. When he launched his armies against the Soviet Union in 1941 the world had two good reasons to expect him to achieve a quick victory. One, for those with long memories, was the Russian economic performance in 1914–17: when faced with a small proportion of Germany’s military might, Russia had struggled to mobilise itself and eventually disintegrated. The disintegration was just as much economic as military and political; indeed, it could be argued that Russia’s economic disintegration had been the primary factor in both Russia’s military defeat and the Russian revolution. Another much fresher reason was that the Germans had just proved in battlefields from Scandinavia to the Mediterranean that they were the best soldiers in Europe. In the outcome these expectations were overturned. The Soviet economy did not disintegrate. The German army was overwhelmed by the scale and scope of Soviet resistance. The Soviet Union turned out to be the killing ground of Nazi ambitions. How did this come about? Production was decisive: the Allies outgunned the Axis because they outproduced them. Economic factors carried more weight in the Allied victory than military or political factors. For example, the Allies were not better soldiers. It is true that some of the Allies were more democratic, but being a democracy did not save the Czechs or the French and being a dictatorship did not defeat the Soviets. The Allies won the war because their economies supported a greater volume of war production and military personnel in larger numbers. This was true of the war as a whole, and it was also true on the eastern front where the Soviet economy, of a similar size to Germany’s but less developed and also seriously weakened by invasion, supplied more soldiers and weapons. In a recent essay on World War II, I asserted that “Ultimately, economics determined the outcome”.1 A friendly critic objected that this left no room for “a whole series of contingent factors — moral, political, technical, and organizational — [that] worked to a greater or lesser degree on national war efforts”.2 I accept this criticism in the following sense: determinism must make bad economics, for economics is about nothing if not choices. To take it into account I will proceed as follows. My paper begins by reviewing what is known about the outcomes of the choices that people made. Part 1 surveys the scale of Soviet war preparations and their possible motivations. Part 2 analyses the changing wartime availability and uses of Soviet resources. Then I will consider the context within which these choices were made and the outcomes were obtained, so part 3 offers a re–examination of the Soviet economy in comparison with the German economy. In part 4 I propose a framework for understanding the incentives that people faced in choosing to work with or against the national war effort. Part 5 applies this analysis to the risks facing the Soviet economy in 1942, and part 6 concludes.

Suggested Citation

  • Harrison, Mark, 2001. "The ussr and total war : why didn't the soviet economy collapse in 1942?," The Warwick Economics Research Paper Series (TWERPS) 603, University of Warwick, Department of Economics.
  • Handle: RePEc:wrk:warwec:603

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    Blog mentions

    As found by, the blog aggregator for Economics research:
    1. Seventy Years Ago: The Week the Tide Began to Turn by Mark Harrison
      by Mark Harrison in Mark Harrison's blog on 2012-05-28 18:00:17

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