Ghosts of the Eastern Front

70 years ago today, Axis troops invaded the Soviet Union as part of Operation Barbarossa. Despite a rapid advance in the early months of the campaign, capturing millions of Soviet soldiers and decimating the Soviet air and tank corps, the invasion would eventually stall, in the middle of a freezing Russian winter, in the suburbs of Moscow.

This invasion turned the tables of the Second World War. On a socio-political level, the breaking of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact signified Hitler’s true intentions, a final nail in the coffin of Chamberlain’s Appeasement policy, which had been based on the misguided assumption that Hitler was a rational leader who would respect things such as treaties and state sovereignty. On a tactical level, it was the death of Blitzkrieg’s perceived invincibility: the German logistics chain strained over the vast expanses of Russia and Ukraine, the superiority of German panzers was shattered by the new Soviet T-34 medium and KV-1 heavy tanks, and the two powers became locked in an Eastern-front death grip, a battle which only one side could win.

As a history buff, the Eastern Front fascinates me, a Wagnerian opera of two forces locked in death-struggle over scorched earth. The battles remain some of the largest engagements in history. Something like 70% of the German military never saw an American or Brit, as they were tied up fighting Soviets in the East.

I found out about Sergey Larenkov a while ago, and his photo-collage project is extraordinary: he takes old photographs of World War II and overlaps them with photos he’s taken of the locations today, creating this ghostly memories of the war.  It’s particularly fascinating as an American: these are cities which were old when America was still a British colony, which were devastated during the war, and which were rebuilt again, anew, after the fighting had stopped. It’s a scale of warfare which has never been seen in the Western Hemisphere.

 For example, Soviet generals (with Marshal Zhukov, commander of the Red Army during the Battle of Berlin, at front) on the steps of a ruined Reichstag contrasted with modern tour groups.

 And Soviet infantry in front of the Imperial Hofberg Palace in Vienna.

This is one of my favorites, in how the Soviet infantry are walking in one direction, while the Russian pedestrians are walking another. The clothes, the poster of Stalin… a great contrast in how times change.

 Speaking of contrast: the Soviet infantry moving to Vienna’s city-center in 1945 aren’t passing any trees, but today, there’s one tall enough to loom over them. In some of these pictures, I would have done the overlap transitions differently, but this one I really like because of it.

A T-34/85 passing under Prague’s Powder Tower, with 1945-era infantry and 2010-era pedestrians watching it.

There’s a bunch more on Larankov’s Livejournal page, from the siege of Leningrad, defense of Moscow, and more recently, a set of occupation-era Paris. Seriously good stuff, go check it out.

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