Friday, August 22, 2014

A History of War in 100 Battles by Richard Overy

Richard Overy has previously put out some decent monographs, so I'm not sure why he decided on this project.  To be perfectly honest, if you're new to history in general, or military history more specifically, you will find a lot of interesting events, personalities, and battles discussed from the past 2000+ years.  The problem, as with all such attempts, is that there is no justice done to any of these battles, personalities, or events in the few pages devoted to each of the battles discussed.  Serious historians, academics, students of history, and those familiar with military history specifically can readily skip this brief romp through 100 battles.  There is nothing new, original, or worthwhile to find amidst these pages.  Each 'chapter' reads like a high school essay with in-depth context and analysis replaced by the equivalent of modern news channel sound bites.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

The Last Empire: The Final Days of the Soviet Union by Serhii Plokhy

In "The Last Empire" Serhii Polokhy aims to tell the story of the dissolution of the Soviet Union during the last six months of 1991.  The major players here are Gorbachev, Yeltsin, Bush, Kravchuk, and with limited appearances by Nazarbayev.  The narrative presented ere is well constructed and tackles many interesting developments and events during the main six months the author has decided to concentrate on.

The main points the author continually stresses are that the Cold War was not won by the United States, as proclaimed by Bush sr. and those that came after him, but was ended through with a mutual agreement from both the Soviets and Americans at least two years prior to the collapse of the USSR.  Bush, in fact, tried to keep Gorbachev in power as he felt he could deal with him and those around him in regards to progress on limiting nuclear arms, as well as dealing with various international issues (Afghanistan, Cuba, Israel-Palestine).  This false idea of an American 'victory', according to the author, has gone far in undermining future American efforts on the international arena.  In effect, Plokhy links the Wolfowitz Doctrine that came out as a result of the collapse of the Soviet Union to the eventual invasion of Iraq, in 2003, in a preventive war on the part of the United States.  A bit of a stretch, but there are still links that came be made in regards to how flawed developments and memory of the collapse of the USSR has led to incorrect policy decisions on the part of US administrations.

Coming back to the USSR, the author being an expert on the nationalities issue, stresses the role of Kravchuk and Ukraine in the development of the collapse, at times too heavily and shows something of a bias in that direction.  Not to get mired in the details, suffice it to say that this is an in-depth study that goes a long way in trying to explain how the collapse of the Soviet Union came about as quickly as it did, but in many ways it is still a stepping stone on the way to a definitive study.  My biggest complaint would be that there is little explanation offered or evidence examined in regards to how the populations of the various republics discussed felt about the Soviet Union and the ensuing end of the USSR.  While it's important to keep in mind that the decision to end the existence of the Soviet Union was made by three men (the heads of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus) and forced onto a fourth (Gorbachev), Plokhy continually claims that this was a popular decision support from the ground up.   And while referendums are taken, votes are cast, minds are quickly changed in a 180 degree fashion in a matter of weeks or months, the main emphasis here remains on the 'great men' and not the 'grass roots' level.  That 'from the bottom' approach is missing here, and hopefully future studies will be able to fill that important and sorely needed blank spot.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

A Tale of Two Soldiers: The Unexpected Friendship between a WWII American Jewish Sniper and a German Military Pilot by Max Gendelman

"A Tale of Two Soldiers" is a slim volume detailing the friendship that grew out of a chance encounter between an Jewish American prisoner of war and a German Luftwaffe pilot. The Second World War period takes up about 70 pages total, with the introduction and author's childhood taking up an initial 30 pages, and the continued friendship between the two the final 100 pages. So for those expecting a lot of information on the war itself, you might be somewhat disappointed. The author's recollections seem to be filled with great detail when it comes to his friendship with Karl rather than the actions he was involved in during the war itself or his time as a prisoner of war (and I encountered one minor mistake when Karl discussed how his father survived 'the Battle of Stalingrad in WWI', an impossible feat as 'Stalingrad' didn't exist in WWI nor were German soldiers, during WWI, anywhere near the city that was eventually renamed Stalingrad). In part, the latter is unfortunately the fault of whomever stole the notes he kept of his experiences while he was enjoying Paris after the end of the war.

To say that Max Gendelman lived an interesting life would be to do a disservice to what he went through and experienced. He became a sniper in the United States Army and briefly served in the post D-Day invasion of France. By December of 1944 he found himself in the 99th Infantry Division standing in the way of Hitler's last major offensive in the west, what became known as the Battle of the Bulge. The initial chaos and confusion resulted in massive casualties to US forces standing in the way of three German armies and Max was forced to retreat, along with tens of thousands of others. After a few days of trying to avoid the Germans and watching new friends and strangers perish before his eyes, he was finally taken prisoner by the Germans while seeking shelter with a few other American stragglers. His time in German POW camps offers an interesting view to the dynamic that existed for an American Jew who was trying to hide his identity. His encounter with Russian prisoners of war and their selfless action of offering their sole meal of the day to newly arrived starving American POWs was a touching example of the comradery that existed in some instances. Eventually, Max encounters Karl and a friendship that would last a lifetime develops. Although Max previously tried twice to escape his confinement, it was only with Karl and another prisoner that they finally succeed in escaping and joining up with American forces just as the war was drawing to a close.

The rest of the volume deals with how both established their respective lives and families in the United States, the trials and tribulations, as well as achievements, both faced and accomplished, as well as the sacrifices they made and their regrets. But through it all their friendship continued to flourish and remain as committed and strong as ever - a bond formed in war and sustained through the hardships of peace.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Tank Warfare on the Eastern Front 1941-1942: Schwerpunkt by Robert Forczyk

In general I have mixed feelings about "Tank Warfare on the Eastern Front 1941-1942".  I welcome any new or original look at the Eastern Front, either from the perspective of an academic or non-academic, but both contain their fair share of weaknesses and strengths and the same is true for this volume.  Here, Robert Forczyk attempts to show and explain how Germany's armored forces achieved success on the Eastern Front throughout the campaigns of 1941 and 1942.  Simultaneously there is also a concentration on the 'evolution' of the Red Army's use of their tank park and the mistakes made in 1942, lessons learned, and eventual achievements in 1942.  This is a useful way of looking at the Eastern Front as it concentrates on a foundational tool that both sides relied on when planning the majority of their operations.  The weakness here, however, is that much of the rest of the narrative of the Eastern Front is left out.  This means that any operation that doesn't heavily rely on the use of tanks and assault guns is left out, which omits an inordinate amount of context, even if the concentration is solely on the first two years of the war.

In terms of original research, the majority of the information presented is readily available in other volumes (much of it in English).  There are numerous examples showcased that bring to light the inadequacies, weaknesses and strengths of both sides (the author doesn't have an issue with highlighting the successes or failures of either Red Army or German units).  One has to give credit to the author for attempting to 'level the playing field' in terms of myths that have been built up around Germany's armored forces and her commanders.  Be it Manstein or Raus, and even Zhukov or Rokossovsky, alternative opinions are presented that put their actions in a more critical light and help bring context to a time period and series of events that have usually been presented on the basis of self-serving memoirs or recollections.  But that's really where the strengths of this volume end.

The weaknesses are many and range from the trivial/detailed to more analytical. In terms of the information presented,  I was a bit surprised that there was no mention of Nikolai Popel's raid in 1941, which exhibited quite well what some Red Army units were able to achieve when a capable officer was put in charge.  There is also an omission of addressing Zhukov's claim of how much more could have been done if Stalin did not take away critically needed forces from his front during the Moscow Counter-Offensive and instead decided to launch an offensive along the entire Eastern Front.  German forces were in a desperate position, and additional units concentrated against Army Group Center could have made a tremendous difference in the short and long-run.  Additionally, in discussing Operation Mars, the author seems unaware of Geoffrey Jukes's work ("Stalingrad to Kursk: Triumph of the Red Army"), which puts what happened there in asomewhat new perspective. 

There is a consistent attempt to highlight the various losses on both sides in terms of tank forces and, to a lesser extent, troop casualties.  Although such information is valuable, the problem is that every so often the ratios the author presents are meaningless without adequate analysis, which at times is missing.  For instance, on pg. 54 there is a comparison between Army Group Center's tank losses compared to those of Pavlov, commander of the Western Front, during the first few weeks after the invasion of the Soviet Union.  The ratio given is a '16-1 exchange ratio of 130 German tanks for well over 2,000 Soviet tanks...'  For an author who does acknowledge the numerous reasons for why Red Army tanks were lost (malfunction, lost in swamps, in need of repair, abandoned due to fuel/ammunition shortages, etc.), presenting such a generalized figure becomes meaningless. 

This leads to one of the major weaknesses of this volume: a lack of both endnotes and a weak bibliography.  For the amount of information presented, there is a great dearth of available sources and source material.  Sources in Russian are very much limited.  Often, whole paragraphs of useful and interesting information might be presented but without a single endnote.  Furthermore, some endnotes feature links to websites; when I tried myself to visit said links I was only able to get error messages.  This greatly weakens the usefulness of this study. 

There is also something of a 'fetish' when it comes to German ranks, unit names, and weapons.  Everything has to be in its original German, but for the Soviet side only the ranks remain in their 'original', and even that doesn't always follow as at times 'polkovnik' is replaced with 'colonel'.  I found this extremely pointless and a waste of space and time for the reader.  This, combined with a few instances of the author pontificating on what either the Soviet or German side should have done, instead of concentrating on what was done, reminds me in general of German war memoirs (Manstein being the best example), where more time is spent on saying what could have been done if only Hitler didn't interfere.  This also speaks to the vocabulary utilized for both sides.  Whereas the German side is regularly lauded for their abilities and awash in superlatives ("The German operational handling of their armour during the Second Battle of Kharkov was superb..", pg. 188), when the Red Army achieves some success in 1941 it's either 'amazing' to see said success or 'surprising'. 

Finally, there are two authors that Forczyk takes issue with, specifically, David Glantz and David Stahel.  Unfortunately, when the author attempts to contradict either Glantz or Stahel he never truly presents enough evidence to support his position.  And considering the research someone like Glantz or Stahel has undertaken (the former with Soviet sources and archival material and the latter with German archival material), a volume that mainly relies on secondary literature is somewhat suspect when so easily opposing the views/research/conclusions of established figures such as Glantz or Stahel.  I'd only recommend it to those with something of an intimate knowledge of the Eastern Front.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Rommel - A Reappraisal by Ian Beckett

The post-WWII period saw a plethora of reputations become set in stone in both axis and allied states.  Since then, and through today, we are witnessing renewed interest and the questioning of those reputations.  Be it Patton, Montgomery, DeGaulle, Zhukov, Manstein or Rommel, each has had numerous biographies written about them, questioning their abilities, actions and contributions to the war effort.  In this case, Rommel is a figure that is somewhat of an exception.  Rommel is the only general to garner the kind of notoriety that he enjoyed in both Germany and Great Britain, being known as the Desert Fox.  This label served numerous purposes for the British, who were able to continually point to the demigod of the desert and his abilities as the reason for continued reverses and defeats, rather than their own inabilities and weaknesses.  In truth, much of the image both Germans and the British became familiar with were a result of propaganda efforts on both sides that started during the war and continued apace in the after-war period.

This edited volume presents half a dozen chapters examining various events throughout Rommel's career, putting them into context and attempting a more objective look at a controversial figure.  The more interesting chapters, in my opinion, encompass Rommel's role in the defeat of France in the summer of 1940 and his experiences in North Africa, which cemented his 'credentials' and reputation.  I can't say this is an original volume as the research presented has been covered in other sources/monographs.  But bringing together numerous secondary and primary sources to go through Rommel's entire career is helpful in attempting to understand how his reputation was not only built through deeds but also crafted by the Third Reich's propaganda machine.

There is no doubt that Rommel was a glory hound; no other German general was as well known or had their picture taken as often as Rommel.  He was a favorite of Hitler's, which resulted in his eventual assignment to North Africa.  But before that campaign was underway, Rommel was able to prove his abilities during the German invasion of France.  Unfortunately, the chapter covering Rommel's role is somewhat weakened as there is no comparison to the abilities and achievements of the other German divisions and commanders, thus leaving the narrative of the 7th Panzer Division's performance in something of a vacuum.  There is a brief mention of the 5th Panzer Division and the numerous ways in which what some consider Rommel's innovative ideas and tactics are shown to have really been a regular part of German doctrine and warfare.  Thus while Rommel's 'ghost division' (labeled as such not only because the allies had no idea where he would show up next but also because the Germans could only guess as well) achieved much success against the French, those feats have to be put into context with, for instance, his failure to properly document his encounter with the British at Arras, where his exaggeration about the forces he faced caused further German formations to veer off course and attempt to come to his aid.  Furthermore, Rommel regularly ignored orders from his superiors, his use of tank formations in the vanguard allowed for ambushes and attacks on his force's flanks, which resulted in preventable losses.  Additionally, a direct result of being a glory hound meant that he regularly flaunted the achievements of his division while denying credit to his peers, once even denying support to one division fighting against the 1st French armored division.

Although the chapter on Rommel's role in the defeat of France attempts to be somewhat objective, the two chapters on his actions in North Africa seem less balanced.  There is a lot of admiration for his victories but his failures, while mentioned, appear to be glossed over rather than emphasized to give a more objective look at his abilities.  The bottom line with North Africa seems to be an insufficient force of German and Italian troops that Rommel was able to concentrate in enough strength to garner a few notable victories in the midst of regular defeats and setbacks until his logistical tail simply could not keep up with his needs.  Considering that by the end of the campaign German and Italian units were regularly relying on captured allied supplies, perhaps Rommel should have been asking Churchill for supplies rather than Hitler. Somehow the idea that a few more divisions would have made a difference seems a dream, at best, considering the difficulties the Germans and Italians had supplying the limited forces they already had in North Africa.

In the postwar period authors like Liddell Hart helped Rommel's overall reputation with their publications.  This served another purpose in that it helped to rehabilitate West Germany in the eyes of the west.  Rommel became the face of a Germany that was hidden and perverted by the Nazis.  Authors like Desmond Young concentrated on Rommel's involvement in the July bomb plot against Hitler and attempted to show that Rommel, while a German general, was not truly a part of the system Hitler created (Rommels potential role in the July plot is addressed in a separate chapter within this edited volume).  Overall, for those interested in a condensed introductory 'reappraisal' that's based on a variety of readily accessible literature, this is a good starting point for looking at the Rommel 'legend' and attempting to contextualize his abilities and strengths with his weaknesses and the myths that were built around him during the war and after.

Friday, June 6, 2014

The Deserters: A Hidden History of World War II by Charles Glass

'The Deserters' is an insightful foray into a subject that many historians and researchers of the Second World War gloss over or never even deem worthy enough to address.  The First World War has a more interesting history of desertion as most, if not all armies, witnessed droves of soldiers either desert en masse or attempt to 'strike' at one point or another.  But when workers strike businesses lose money and workers lose their pay, when soldiers strike (or desert) wars cannot be fought, less so won, thus presenting a serious challenge to governments and military institutions.

While there are numerous weaknesses in 'The Deserters', I felt focusing the reader's attention on deserters and deconstructing the usual representation of the Second World War in 'Good = allies' and 'Bad = axis' binaries, made this a worthwhile read.  Such a simplistic portray of the 'greatest generation' does little to better our understanding of the environment war breeds, including the inevitable bureaucracy that comes along with any large military institution.  Thus, a concentration on soldiers and the circumstances that led them to eventually desert - including the events that led to breaking points in their ability to cope with being on the front lines - helps the reader understand that not all 'deserters' are the same and shouldn't be lumped under the usual idea of someone who betrayed their comrades and simply walked, or ran, toward the rear.  Although such situations did occur, at other times the circumstances were much less dramatic as psychological breaks, rather than cowardice,  suddenly took away a soldier's ability to fight.

The above is really the best part of this volume.  The weaknesses, however, include a writing style that reads more journalistic than academic (and since the author is a journalist that shouldn't be a surprise).  Although such a writing style helps with readability, it is a reflection of the fact that this isn't an academic text and thus at times the analysis is rather superficial.  The author can point out instances of desertion, quote from memoirs and interviews, but such evidence is limited, anecdotal, and doesn't really advance any argument(s).  So, while, as mentioned above, this is a good starting point for a discussion about desertion, especially within the confines of the allies during the Second World War, this text raises more questions than it answers.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Red Fortress: History and Illusion in the Kremlin by Catherine Merridale

Catherine Merridale's 'Red Fortress' reads like a mediocre attempt at pop history. Unlike some historians who score a win with their rehashing of well known ideas, facts, and histories that's made accessible to a public eager for scraps of information historians find mundane and banal, 'Red Fortress' seems to be a failure on both counts. Merridale provides just enough information to make this text a chore for the average reader while avoiding any type of original conclusions or arguments. The usual suspects have their fair share of space devoted to them (Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, etc.) and while the Kremlin continually features as either the main 'player' or in the background of the narrative, it does so to the detriment of the story being told. Like those top-down histories that concentrate on kings and queens, politicians and diplomats, military commanders and revolutionaries, 'Red Fortress' ignores the periphery to concentrate on the center and adds little to nothing to the history of Russia while managing to omit much that made Russia what it was and is. As an introduction to Russian history this is a mediocre effort and unfortunately I can't imagine it being a useful fit for any other role.