Monday, December 15, 2014

Survivors of Stalingrad: Eyewitness Accounts from the 6th Army, 1942-1943 by Reinhold Busch

I'm not new to Second World War literature, and definitely familiar with the Eastern Front.  I've read countless books and reviewed dozens if not hundreds.  I've read Red Army, Wehrmacht, US Army, British, etc., memoirs, recollections, reminiscences, etc.  This is by far one of the least interesting accounts I've come across.  Even worse is that I can't credit the author for not encountering interesting events or people while serving on the Eastern Front because there is no author here but an editor, an historian specializing in 'health.'  Reinhold Busch selected what to include in this collection and the majority is sorely lacking in substance or interest.  Much here is the 'woe is me' type of reminiscence about an armed force finding itself in the depths of an enemy country, encircled and seemingly left to their own devices as Hitler and his propaganda spin the situation any way they can to avoid the truth, or simply omit any mention of it at all.  For my money, there are more interesting accounts of this battle.  In the end I can't say this is a collection I'd recommend.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

A German General on the Eastern Front: The Letters and Diaries of Gotthard Heinrici 1941-1942 by Johanne Hurter

I have regularly come across Heinrici's name when reading on the Eastern Front and I know he is considered one of the better commanders to come out of the Wehrmacht (where today pretty much every German commander is considered a genius compared to their allied counterparts).  What drew me to this volume was that the majority of the text was based on his letters and diary entries.  While there might have been some self-censorship going on, these sources would undoubtedly be more telling than his memoirs or reminiscences about the war.  Initially I was a bit surprised and skeptical at the brevity of the text, only some 146 pages, including about 60 pages that serve as an introduction to the text, written by Johanne Hurter, who originally unearthed this rich source material.  But I'm happy to say that this is a valuable and important source of information for those interested in better understanding the Wehrmacht's situation throughout 1941 and early 1942.

Those interested mainly in combat, tactics, and operational art will be somewhat disappointed.  There is little talk here of minute details about battles, attacks, defensive actions, orders, etc.  This text is made up of diary entries and letters written to the General's family/wife, thus they mainly relay Heinrici's hopes, despair, and reflections on the various situations he and his corps/army found themselves in.  Hurter's introduction is well written, concise, and draws the reader's attention to the more important bits of information readers will come across.  Much of what you'll find here has to do with Heinrici's thoughts on the Red Army soldier, Soviet partisans, Soviet citizens in occupied territory, Jews and their treatment, as well as his descriptions of life in the occupied territories of Poland, Ukraine, and Russia.

Some of the more interesting discussions and information came in the form of a diary entry on 30 April 1941, when Heinrici comments on the fact that 'it has been raining incessantly for two weeks' as he's located in Sidelce.  Unfortunately there are no other comments on the weather leading up to the invasion of the Soviet Union, but this does hint at the fact that an earlier, mid-May, invasion of the USSR would have been impossible due to the extra long rainy season of spring 1941.  This is something Heinrici himself readily forgets about or doesn't even consider when in later entries he talks about all the time lost due to the Balkan campaign and what difference those few weeks might have made on the road to Moscow.  Another contradiction can be found when Heinrici comments on the rigid nature of Soviet officers, who would not retreat on their own initiative and wound up in encirclement and as prisoners of war.  Simultaneously, he himself constantly comments on the ignorance of his higher command as repeated request for retreats were turned down during the winter of 1941/1942 when his 4th Army was under constant threat of encirclement (and he himself refused to take the initiative).  Finally, the reader will come across numerous instances of repetition, which might explain in part why the volume is as slim as it is since this is a somewhat abridged version of documents that most likely contained repetitive ideas, descriptions, etc. (even so I wish more entries were included, or at least those included were expanded).  For instance, Heinrici continually mentions his interpreter, a former Odessa native, who is fluent in German and lost the majority of his family to the Soviet regime for various reasons.  This interpreter became one of the most vicious and enthusiastic 'partisan hunters', killing/hanging Soviet partisans by the dozens throughout 1941.

While I don't want to give more away from what these pages contain, I will say this is one of the most revealing and interesting accounts I have come across from the German point of view of the war on the Eastern Front.  This is without a doubt a highly recommended read that once more raises questions about Wehrmacht complicity in the Holocaust, as well as what German officers thought, knew, and tolerated from themselves and their soldiers.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Marshal of Victory: The Autobiography of General Georgy Zhukov by Georgy Zhukov, Geoffrey Roberts

Those interested in a semi-censored look at the Great Patriotic War through the eyes of one of the leading commanders to come out of the Red Army would do well to invest in Zhukov's memoirs, which are presented here with an introduction by Geoffrey Roberts. Roberts has written numerous works on the Soviet Union and in part on the Second World War and does an excellent job detailing an introduction to this second edition of Zhukov's memoirs. Additionally, two 'essays' are included following the two volumes of Zhukov's memoirs detailing his thoughts on Stalin and events 'After the Death of Stalin.'

Zhukov's attempts to publish his memoirs met with many obstacles, first was his demotion under Stalin and the entire freeze around publications on the war while Stalin lived, which was followed by his eventual ousting by Khrushchev as well. It was only in the late 1960s, two decades after the end of the Second World War, that Zhukov's censored memoirs were published. Soon after another edition was released, and that second edition what has been translated here (originally done in the 1980s). To date there are over a dozen editions of Zhukov's memoirs in Russian with various censored sections being included each time a new edition is released. I would have greatly appreciated if the newest, or one of the latter editions, was re-translated with additions highlighted or italicized (as it was done in Russian). While Roberts explains in his introduction that much of what was cut out was done so with Zhukov's authorization, due to repetition or needless description, it would still have been beneficial to see a full translation of something western readers have been denied thus far.

As for the two volumes presented here, they are an excellent addition to any WWII library. Undoubtedly you'll encounter more than enough Soviet-era propaganda, but nonetheless, the insights presented here are worth wading through Zhukov's appeals to party and state on a regular basis. Whatever you might think of Zhukov as a man, he more than proved himself as a competent commander and was on the 'front lines' in most of the major operations conducted by the Red Army throughout the entirety of the Great Patriotic War.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Generalissimo Stalin: The Myth of Stalin as a Great Military Strategist by Boris Gorbachevsky

Boris Gorbachevsky's "Generalissimo Stalin" offers a bit of a mixed bag for readers.  The author, a veteran who went through the war and wrote his memoirs (translated under the title "Through the Maelstrom"), presents a rather polemical text for the reader.  The best parts of the book, for me, among the 300+ pages are the author's personal experiences, as well as the various interactions he had with veterans and survivors of the war.  Much of the narrative revolves around the battles for Rzhev, where the author fought, and where to this day there are still many questions left unanswered about the numerous operations that took place from 1941-1942 and the losses sustained by the Red Army.  The author relates interesting anecdotes, reminiscences, and recollections that make for a valuable addition to literature on the Eastern Front and the Soviet Union.  Then, there are stories that seem more apocryphal than true, but in the end I lean toward believing them as accurate since having read on the Second World War for over a decade I stopped being surprised and impressed with the amount of suffering, heroism, stupidity, and ignorance that was displayed by millions of men and women on a daily basis.

One of the more interesting chapters deals with Aleksandr Korneichuk's play "The Front."  This was written in August of 1942 and served as a warning to those of the "old guard", veterans from the Civil War, that the modern requirements of this war needed young, energetic commanders to take the reigns.  The play served as a validation of Stalin's scapegoating and shifted the blame for the defeats of 1941 and early 1942 onto the shoulders of commanders and away from Stalin himself.  The chapters that deal with the Yalta Conference lean on conjecture more than factual data and there are various generalizations made that have become a cornerstone of propaganda against Stalin and the Soviet state of the time, whether deserved or not.

As mentioned, the volume is written as a polemical work, and in most cases, it's arguing against the memory of Stalin and the Great Patriotic War that was crafted during the war itself and in the post-war period and remains, in many ways, evident even today.  Some of the other subjects covered are the last days of the war and the Battle for Berlin, the meeting on the Elbe between US and Soviet forces, the uprising in Prague by the 1st Division of Vlasov's Army, and the allied contribution to the war.  Often the author engages in mock conversations with the reader, including the introduction of rhetorical questions.  This style will be familiar to those who've read Russian volumes on the Stalinist period, which fuses history, reminiscences, hypotheticals, etc., together.  In some ways Gorbachevsky himself is guilty of propagating Soviet era myths in that he consistently ridicules the narrative developed under Stalin's leadership and after, but himself praises the exceptional environment Red Army soldiers found themselves in and were able to overcome.  He falls into the trope that says the Red Army and Soviet population won the war in spite of Stalin rather than thanks to him.  This idea was developed under Khrushchev, who did his best to place all blame on Stalin's shoulders and focus more on the party and people for the Soviet victory in the war.  Additionally, after explaining how weak western knowledge is in regards to the Eastern Front, mainly based on German recollections due to the limits the Soviets placed on what could be written about the war, the author then goes on to quote and lean on German sources to support many of his points.

There are quite a few weaknesses evident throughout this work.  First, there is a clear lack of citations and sources, something amateurish efforts in the west are also guilty of, but from my readings in Russian it's somewhat more rampant there, even with historians.  This is a double edged sword because it means there is interesting information presented but not well sourced, or  simply not sourced at all.  Secondly, Gorbachevsky references controversial authors like Mark Solonin whose theories about why the Red Army was defeated so categorically in 1941 have been proven to be fallacious (he argues it was because Soviet soldiers had no desire to fight for a regime that had so severely abused its population; good luck proving that since the majority of Soviet prisoners of war taken in 1941 were dead after the first winter).  There are also a few inconsistencies and minor errors, as when the author argues that the name 'Great Patriotic War' was only applied to the war in November of 1944, when it was actually used on the second day of the war, June 23, 1941.  For all of the above reasons, I would say this is a work for those familiar with the Eastern Front.  Those without in-depth knowledge will undoubtedly be lost by all the names, dates, events, authors, and arguments presented and might walk away with a skewed view of a subject that needs objectivity more than anything else, especially today.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Stalin: Volume I: Paradoxes of Power, 1878-1928 by Stephen Kotkin

In 'Stalin', historian Stephen Kotkin tries his best to balance a biography of Stalin with the environment Stalin found himself living in.  Kotkin details the politics of the Russian Empire and her neighbor, the newly created Germany under Bismarck, as well as the industrialization (including the rise and popularity of socialist and Marxist thought) and Russificiation that Georgia and the Russian Empire in general underwent.  All would play important roles in how a young Stalin was raised and educated and how he formed his worldview.  In general, Kotkin uses Stalin as a tool to showcase a world and environment that existed at the time and helped craft the man Stalin would become in the future.  Simultaneously he describes and analyzes the people and events that affected Stalin's youth and adolescence and slowly positioned him for a future no one could have predicted was on the horizon.  Due to the above, much of this volume does not solely focus on Stalin but on the personalities he interacted with (Lenin, Trotsky, Miliukov, Martov, etc.) or those important enough to alter the direction of European politics (Bismarck, Wilhelm II, Witte, Nicholas II, etc.).

I think the title 'Stalin' is a misnomer here since a significant portion of this work focuses on many other topics/subjects and often enough Stalin is nowhere to be found.  In many ways the large swath of territory covered is useful and even needed in understanding how Stalin's life unfolded and how it fit into the greater pattern of European history.  But, unfortunately, that also makes this first volume a bit less interesting for me personally as we only see Stalin's evolution through 1928.  My understanding is that the following volumes will have a lot more concentration on Stalin.  Yet understanding the historical events Stalin lived through and witnessed will undoubtedly help explain his later actions and reasoning as head of the Soviet Union.  Through Stalin's eyes I hope future volumes will showcase the actions of a man who lived through much and made those experiences part of his core.

Although Kotkin has worked in numerous archives, both in the US and Russia, he himself states that he sometimes went through primary source material based on secondary readings.  Thus it's a bit difficult to separate original research from what's already available (although not necessarily in English as Kotkin utilizes sources in German, Russian, etc.).  While this might not be the most original biographical look at Stalin, it certainly is, at the very least, an impressive synthesis of available literature incorporated into an interesting narrative of the world Stalin found himself inhabiting.  In many ways the events described and analyzed by Kotkin deserve, and in some instances, already have, multi-volume works written about them (WWI, the Russian Revolution (February and October), etc.  But Kotkin's work has a readability many others will lack and while at times depth of analysis might be missing (or in some cases depth in general considering the amount of information covered), this first volume is still in many ways essential reading for those interested in Stalin, the late Russian Empire, the Russian Revolution and the creation/formation of what became the Soviet Union.

Some of the highlights for me were the descriptions of Stalin's role in the October Revolution and the way in which the Bolsheviks were able to seize power.  The utter chaos following the February Revolution and the inability of Kerensky and the Provisional Government to get anything worthwhile accomplished inevitably led to the eventual storming of the Winter Palace in a bloodless coup.  The ensuing attempts by Lenin and the Bolsheviks, at times working in tandem with the other parties (Mensheviks, Right and Left SRs, etc.) to end the war and bring about some type of peace with Germany and stability on the homefront, are described in detail as is the half-hearted attempt by the Left SRs in their assassination of the German ambassador to force Germany to renew hostilities with Russia - post-Brest-Litovsk - and discredit the Bolsheviks.  Kotkin covers numerous events and personalities that are usually left out of popular histories and are reserved for academic monographs.  Yet, as previously mentioned, while some coverage lacks the depth certain events deserve, that is also in part due to the impact they had or will have on the future role Stalin assumes.  Thus the First World War, which Stalin never participated in, is wholly overshadowed by the February and October Revolutions, where Stalin began to play a greater role in the Bolshevik hierarchy.  In effect, the events Kotkin has chosen to highlight and concentrate on were picked for their future impact on Stalin and the Soviet Union.  Without a doubt this is a highly recommended volume for all the reasons mentioned above.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Verdun: The Longest Battle of the Great War by Paul Jankowski

Many of the reviews on amazon for this book seem to have missed the forest for the trees.  Most were expecting a detailed history of the battle of Verdun.  That is, as per the usual military history of a single, significant battle, a rather limited history leading up to the battle should have been presented, and then the battle itself detailed, studied, and analyzed, followed up by its impact on the war and the lessons derived from it to this day.

However, Jankowski has presented a rather different version of a history of Verdun.  That is, he's created a history of the 'idea' that the Battle of Verdun represented during the war, immediately after, and up to the present.  The author offers no linear narrative going through the beginning, middle, and end of this battle since in reality no such plans existed.  Chapters jump around in regards to time, place, events, etc.  The battle, in some sense, evolved on its own and the chaos that followed had to be put into a narrative of its own by those reporting on it and post-war histories and memoirs.  The creation of that story, the memory/memories of Verdun, is what Jankowski is tracking, in some sense, and expanding on the myths that the battle left in its wake.

Thus, the ever changing narrative about why the battle began, what both sides wanted to achieve through their offensive (the Germans) at Verdun, and their tenacious defense (French) of an area that for all intents and purposes contained no real significance for either party is the core of this monograph.  If the Germans had gained ground it would not have resulted in the war of movement that they were aiming for, and if the French had retreated, another city would have fallen to the Germans with no real change to the overall war effort.  And yet this deadly embrace, mainly between the Germans and French, lasted for close to ten months.  With this text, you can track the various ideas that each side went through when trying to explain what was happening around Verdun to those back home as they tried to put a logical spin on why tens of thousands of soldiers were becoming casualties on a daily basis - there had to be a reason!

So for those interested in a detailed history of the Battle of Verdun, you'd best look elsewhere.  For those who are interested in understanding how a battle with no real significance, aside from casualties sustained and inflicted, became one of the foundations of the history of the First World War, this is the book for you.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The Soviet Occupation of Germany: Hunger, Mass Violence and the Struggle for Peace, 1945-1947 by Filip Slaveski

In many ways "The Soviet Occupation of Germany" is a very interesting study into the Red Army's advance into Nazi Germany in 1945 and the ensuing occupation through 1947.  The first section of the book tackles the occupation in terms of crimes while the second focuses on food rationing, politics, and the beginnings of the Cold War tension that regularly utilized Germany and Berlin as a battleground.

This is a slim monograph, numbering some 150 pages of text, and that in and of itself should say something.  This is a good introduction which offers a lot of interesting analysis but it is far from a definitive study.  What Filip Slaveski does well is showcase the multifaceted nature of the Soviet occupation of Germany.  When looking at the Red Army, he discusses the numerous confrontations between occupation troops and SVAG (the organization put in charge of keeping order) that occurred, which at times spilled into the streets with brawls, street fights, and gunfire. Considering that often times army command and SVAG command overlapped (as Zhukov held positions in both organizations, as did Katukov), the limits that each organization had to work with become apparent.  Officers usually wanted to protect their men from trouble.  When some Red Army were caught, be it in the act of rape, robbery, or murder, officers had to consider how far they could go in terms of punishment.  Some continued to protect their men as they feared repercussions from the rest of their troops; not looking after one's men when there's no war could lead to a quick end of your duties and life.  The limited amount of men initially assigned to SVAG also meant that most mundane instances of crime were not investigated.  And, unfortunately, in some instances SVAG men themselves abused Red Army men and the locals under their jurisdiction.

Although crimes continued to occur in occupied East Germany their number was slowly reduced as waves of demobilized Red Army men left for the Soviet Union and SVAG commanders were able to implement sterner measures to keep remaining troops in barracks and under control while out in the countryside or in cities.  Additionally, due to the nature of the war itself, many of the crimes being committed could not be assigned to any one party.  Slave laborers from the east, concentration camp victims, deserters, and Polish soldiers (among a slew of others) were also concentrated or stayed within the borders of East Germany (under Soviet occupation) and at times terrorized the locals, seeking revenge on a populace they undoubtedly held guilty for their suffering during the war.  There were also reports of Germans dressing up in Red Army uniforms and committing crimes (to what extent this is true or a way for Soviet officials to hide their soldiers' guilt is up for debate).

The above discussions, forming parts of the first half of this book, were really the most enlightening for me.  In regards to the second half, I was most interested in reading about the interaction(s) between the British and Americans and the Soviets.  Slaveski discusses how quickly the Soviets tried to take apart German industry and ship it to the west and details that this was a result of the initial discussions at the Yalta conference that dictated such actions were part of reparations to the Soviet Union and could be done before Germany was once more reunited, at least economically, and machinery/factories were once more needed for production within Germany.  Thus the Soviets believed they had until the meeting at Potsdam to secure as much as they could in terms of German industry to ship to the east.  The same applied to German forced labor, which American officials believed could be diverted to the east as the dismantling of industry by the Soviets would leave hundreds of thousands without adequate job prospects.  Unfortunately, these initial ideas proved hard to sustain as FDR's death led to the Truman administration, which regularly sided with the British against the Soviets and attempted to make previous agreements void by finding or creating loopholes (i.e.when the Soviets asked for already agreed upon military machinery/factories to be shipped from West Germany to the them, the Americans and British would claim they were not solely military and could be used in a peacetime economy, something that was never truly clarified when the agreement(s) were first created about what could/would be shipped to the Soviets as a part of reparations).  Thus, as flexible as the Soviet administration could be or tried to be, they were nonetheless a single actor in a play that featured numerous actors with their own interests and ideals.  I would say this is an excellent look at the initial Soviet occupation of German and I hope that future historians will continue to explore this topic in more depth and detail.