War in the East

Thursday, December 6th, 2012

The books generally say that biological warfare is ineffective, Gregory Cochran notes — but then they would say that, wouldn’t they?

There is reason to think it has worked, and it may have made a difference.

Once upon a time, it was spring 1942, and the Germans were on a roll. Timoshenko had attacked from an already-established bridgehead across the Donets (the Izium salient) with about 750,000 men. He made a bad choice, since the Germans had already begun concentrating their forces for a planned southern offensive. After some initial Soviet gains, the Germans brought in Luftwaffe reinforcements and achieved air superiority. The 1st Panzer army counterattacked and cut off much of the Russian forces, who lost a quarter of a million prisoners (according to Beevor), many dead and wounded, and most of their armor. There was a huge hole in the front, and the Germans advanced towards Stalingrad.

We know of course that this offensive eventually turned into a disaster in which the German Sixth Army was lost. But nobody knew that then. The Germans were moving forward with little to stop them: they were scary SOBs. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. The Soviet leadership was frightened, enough so that they sent out a general backs-to-the-wall, no-retreat order that told the real scale of losses. That was the Soviet mood in the summer of 42.

That’s the historical background. Now for the clues. First, Ken Alibek was a bioweapons scientist back in the USSR. In his book, Biohazard, he tells how, as a student, he was given the assignment of explaining a mysterious pattern of tularemia epidemics back in the war. To him, it looked artificial, whereupon his instructor said something to the effect of “you never thought that, you never said that. Do you want a job?” Second, Antony Beevor mentions the mysteriously poor health of German troops at Stalingrad — well before being surrounded (p210-211). Third, the fact that there were large tularemia epidemics in the Soviet Union during the war — particularly in the ‘oblasts temporarily occupied by the Fascist invaders’, described in History and Incidence of Tularemia in the Soviet Union, by Robert Pollitzer.

Fourth, personal communications from a friend who once worked at Los Alamos. Back in the 90?s, after the fall of the Soviet Union, there was a time when you could hire a whole team of decent ex-Soviet physicists for the price of a single American. My friend was having a drink with one of his Russian contractors, son of a famous ace, who started talking about how his dad had dropped tularemia here, here, and here near Leningrad (sketching it out on a napkin) during the Great Patriotic War. Not that many people spontaneously bring up stories like that in dinner conversation…

Fifth, the huge Soviet investment in biowarfare throughout the Cold War is a hint: they really, truly, believed in it, and what better reason could there be than decisive past successes? In much the same way, our lavish funding of the NSA strongly suggested that cryptanalysis and sigint must have paid off handsomely for the Allies in WWII — far more so than publicly acknowledged, until the revelations about Enigma in the 1970s and later.

We know that tularemia is an effective biological agent: many countries have worked with it, including the Soviet Union. If the Russians had had this capability in the summer of ’42 (and they had sufficient technology: basically just fermentation), it is hard to imagine them not using it. I mean, we’re talking about Stalin. You think he had moral qualms? But we too would have used germ warfare if our situation had been desperate.

In my picture, it probably wasn’t used in 1941 because of surprise, the fast-moving front, crushing German air superiority (after the initial airfield strikes), and winter. I think that the Soviets were probably hesitant in 1942, since detection would have probably led to German efforts along the same lines, doubly dangerous because Germany was the world leader in bacteriology in those days, and because Moscow was within easy reach of the Luftwaffe. Tularemia, though, is easy to misdiagnose, and the Germans didn’t have much experience with it. Moreover, Germans in Stalingrad never had a chance to be fully debriefed back in Germany. Risky in the long run, but you first have to survive in the short run.

Bruce Charlton has a bit to add.


  1. Slovenian Guest says:

    Great find from the linked West Hunter thread: The World Will Hold Its Breath: Reinterpreting Operation Barbarossa.

  2. Isegoria says:

    “In fact, the German army stood on the threshold of a shattering victory in August 1941. Only Hitler’s decision to send the panzers of Army Group Center away from Moscow and into the Ukraine robbed the Wehrmacht of a victory that would have changed the world for generations.”

    The World Will Hold Its Breath: Reinterpreting Operation Barbarossa.

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