Install

Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Red Army Historian John Erickson Dead

NEW YORK -- John Erickson, one of the foremost scholars on the development of the Red Army and its role in World War II, died on Feb. 10 in a hospital in Edinburgh, Scotland. He was 72.

He had come down with a bad case of the flu and then contracted an infection, from which he died, said a friend, David Glantz.

Erickson mined exceptional personal contacts in the Soviet hierarchy and thousands of original Soviet and German documents to tell of the development of the Soviet military after the Bolshevik Revolution and the epic victory it won on the Eastern Front of World War II.

The historian A.J.P. Taylor called his two volumes on the Russian-German war -- "The Road to Stalingrad," 1975, and "The Road to Berlin," 1983, both published by Harper -- "in a class by themselves, books of the first importance."

Another compliment came from Soviet generals who asked him to autograph their copies.

Taylor's approach was to collect enormous amounts of material, which initially might have seemed like mountains of propaganda. But by comparing fact against fact, including many from German sources, then adding in hundreds of personal interviews and checking against maps, he was able to create a strikingly new context. His resultant judgments were considered so perspicacious that many assumed he must have been a spy, a role he said he was offered but turned down.

His first book, "The Soviet High Command: A Military-Political History" (St. Martin's, 1962) has been perhaps even more influential among professional historians. In great detail, it traced the Red Army through Stalin's purges to the preparations for World war II.

He was born in Newcastle, England, on April 17, 1929, to Norwegian parents. His father was a ship worker who served in convoys from Arkhangelsk to Murmansk during World War II.

He studied history at Oxford and Cambridge and served in British intelligence during World War II in the Balkans, where he had his first meeting with the Soviet military when he encountered Russian troops. He and a tank commander played chess.

He taught at Oxford, St. Andrews and Manchester universities before joining the University of Edinburgh in 1967, where he became director of the university's Center for Defense Studies.

Erickson made his first trip to the Soviet Union in 1963, when he was research assistant to Cornelius Ryan, author of the popular history of D-Day, "The Longest Day." At the time, Nikita Khrushchev was opening windows to the West and had decided to help the historian.

Erickson's fluency in Russian and smart questions impressed his hosts, but they refused to answer his queries about brutality by Russian troops in Berlin. They suggested he was prejudiced against them.

"I went white with anger," he said. He then told them that his wife, the former Ljubica Petrovic, had been liberated by Russians and that, as a historian, he had no prejudices.

The Russians verified the story about his wife and were impressed by his history of the Red Army, which surpassed any single book published in Russian. They gave him the information.

In addition to his wife, he is survived by his daughter, Amanda, and son, Mark.

Erickson became so friendly with the Red Army brass on his various visits that, he said, "the difficulty was to get them to stop talking." Yury Gagarin once took him for a ride in his sports car.

"He may have flown a rocket into space, but he couldn't drive a car," Erickson said. They crashed into a bus.

Erickson advised the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the British Defense Ministry and the United Nations.