24 June 2012
The Feats of the Soviet Arms Production: How Did They Do It?
In 1942, the grimmest year of the Second World War, the Soviet Union could produce only a quarter of steel and coal produced in Germany. The size of the Soviet industrial workforce at that time was one half of the pre-war high of 12 million. At its low after the Axis summer offensive it temporarily fell to just 5.5 million. The size of the German industrial labor pool at the same point in time was 11.5 million, down slightly from the pre-war force of 13.6 million workers.*
Through 1944 the German industrial workforce was always at least 2-3 million larger than the Soviet workforce. This even before counting the many millions of foreign laborers in Germany and the workers in German-occupied Europe. It was only in early 1945, when the Soviet Army smashed to the Oder, that the size of the German industrial workforce shrunk bellow that of the Soviet Union.
Despite this the Soviet Union outperformed Germany in production of most every category of weapons, save ships, and did so for every year of the war, including 1942. In that year the USSR produced 25.000 aircraft to Germany's 15.000, 24.000 tanks to Germany's 9.000, and over 49.000 pieces of medium and heavy artillery to Germany's 12.000. How was the Soviet industry able to perform this outstanding feat?
One possible answer could be the support in raw materials, transport vehicles and technology provided to it by the USA under the Lend-Lease act, but this fails to explain the performance of the Soviet industry in 1941 and 1942, before Lend-Lease had had any meaningful impact. Another explanation could be the slightly lesser level of mobilization of German industry for the needs of the war effort before 1943/44. This, however, fails to explain how come the Soviet Union was able to outproduce Germany even in the pre-war years when Germany had a higher portion of its industry labor for the needs of rearmament than did the Soviet Union. Finally it could be claimed the difference had something to do with the Allied bombing of German cities, but actually there is little evidence of Allied strategic bombing succeeding in disrupting German production before late 1944. So while all these arguments help answer the question, even taken all together they do not provide a fully satisfactory answer.
It must be then that, at churning out vast quantities of weaponry, Soviet armaments industry was, for whatever reason, simply better than its German counterpart. Though it may sound counter-intuitive to some, laborer for laborer the Soviet, fully state-run, industry was hands down more efficient at supplying its military than its German counterpart that was ostensibly state-run to a lesser degree.
On the other hand, this may not be surprising at all. We may recall that in the decades-long American-Soviet arms race post-1945 the Soviet Union over and over again demonstrated the ability to produce weapons system nearly as, or just as, sophisticated as those produced by the Americans, but to do so at the fraction of the price per unit. This in turn enabled it to field far greater numbers of conventional military hardware (except ships and aircraft) than even the industrial powerhouse that is the United States.
From here, however, we should not jump to the conclusion that Soviet arms industry was therefore efficient as such. The Soviet industry was efficient in the sense that every additional piece of military equipment that was ordered burdened the Soviet state budget only by the smallest amount of rubles. That is not to say, however, that it was similarly unburdensome for the Soviet society to build these weapons in such quantities.
On the contrary, the harsh labor discipline and the near-complete forgoing of production of consumer goods of the Stalin-era, were obviously taxing for the society. So were the consequences of mismanagement that is inescapable in a centrally planned economy, which put a ceiling on growth so as to keep the standard of living in the Soviet Union from ever catching up to even 40% of that enjoyed by Americans. The costliest aspect of the Soviet mode of production, however, has to be the callous and inhumane way in which its industrial base was expanded during the first two five-year plans. That is by the application of colonial methods of ruthless and violent exploitation against its own countryside.
In reality then the Soviet way of building massive production runs of tanks, artillery and aircraft was perhaps the most insanely expensive way of doing so if we take into account not just their price-tag for the state's finances, but also their cost for the society at large. It was an impressive feat taken in isolation, but it required far more deprivation, injury and death than should have ever been necessary. As with any WWII accomplishment of the Soviet state the conclusion is it should have been possible to accomplish the same in a far less harrowing and cheaper manner.
*Richard Overy, The Dictators: Hitler's Germany and Stalin's Russia (London: Penguin, 2005), 497-498