Saturday, September 19, 2015

Britain's Two World Wars against Germany: Myth, Memory and the Distortions of Hindsight by Brian Bond

Brian Bond's 'Britain's Two World Wars against Germany' is a slim volume that offers a somewhat in-depth look at the continued myths that cloud our history and memory of both World Wars when it comes to British efforts.  The Second World War is regularly viewed as the 'good' war with acceptable casualties and brilliant commanders while the First World War is too often seen as the 'donkeys' leading the 'lions' to slaughter.  Bond convincingly points out that the Battle of the Somme, more specifically the first day of the Somme, has continued to influence our views and perceptions of the First World War when in fact so many other encounters with the enemy occurred that resulted in victories and, more importantly in some ways, taking the war in its entirety shows the progression of military art among the British that eventually led to the defeat of the Germans on the Western Front.  While casualties were certainly much greater in WWI than WWII that's partly because of the limited time the British spent on the ground fighting the axis powers in large numbers, compared to the regular encounters on the Western Front of the First World War. While many mistakes were made by generals in the First World War they certainly learned from their errors and continued to improve, in part by incorporating new technology and more of it.  All the military arms in the First World War grew by tremendous numbers (tank, air force, artillery, etc.) and combined arms operations helped pave the way to victory, while the Second World War featured a Britain that defied the Germans but had to continually rely on more powerful allies (the USSR and America) to undertake the brunt of the struggle in defeating Nazi Germany.  Some of the campaigns undertaken by the British and the allies in the Second World War actually proved more costly when viewed by casualties per day statistics than battles in the First World War.  Even though this is a volume that relies on secondary sources its quite a good fit in today's 'memory wars' that are continually going on in regards to the Second World War and the First World War considering the centenary celebrations.  But it also becomes quickly apparent that much research remains to be done to do justice to both World Wars in order to separate myths from reality and fact from fiction.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

The Battle of Moscow 1941-1942: The Red Army's Defensive Operations and Counter-offensive Along the Moscow Strategic Direction Translated and Edited by Richard W. Harrison

The Soviet General Staff's study "The Battle of Moscow, 1941-1942" is in some ways essential reading.  For those familiar with David Glantz's operational histories, much of this study reads similarly.  There is no real narrative for the German side and the Stalinist narrative of the war that was crafted during the war itself is very much evident throughout the pages of this text.  That is really, for this reader, the most important aspect of this volume.  This is a glimpse into a historical document that shows what was allowed to be said and written about during Stalin's time in power, even in a confidential General Staff Study, and what had to go unmentioned.

There are some frank admissions made throughout in regards to Red Army weaknesses, both for the rank-and-file and in terms of commanding officers, which would undoubtedly be absent from any literature that was released on the war during Stalin's lifetime for the general public.  But, for the most part, what you have here are pages of descriptions of defensive operations in the lead up to the Red Army's Moscow Counteroffensive, usually described under the umbrella term "active defense," and the ensuing counterattacks along the Moscow direction by a few fronts and the armies under their command.  Attention is also paid to logistics, party work among soldiers, and some of the heroic acts performed by Red Army soldiers.  Stalin's name is featured here more than any other, as would be expected in some respects, with the likes of Zhukov, Rokossovsky, Dovator, Belov, and a few others making a rare appearance.

There are numerous tables offered for the sake of reference and some of them are quite eye opening, especially when it comes to the number of troops in divisions.  There are a few mentions of the losses sustained by Red Army forces but numerous instances of German losses, which are undoubtedly inflated.  Whether they were inflated by the authors of the study or the primary reports they were based off of is a separate question.  Finally, I have often believed that Red Army forces operating on the Moscow direction were capable of inflicting a greater defeat on the Wehrmacht that what actually occurred in the winter of 1941/1942.  In part I am still of that mindset but, in reading this volume and following the numerous maps and information included, I am also more aware of the difficulties Red Army forces encountered and the limits they were up against.  In some ways this is a very important work but one that speaks more to its limits as a document created under Stalin than an analysis of the Battle of Moscow.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

The New Tsar: The Rise and Reign of Vladimir Putin by Steven Lee Myers

"The New Tsar" is a good account of Putin's "Rise" and "Reign."  Steven Lee Myers is a journalist and in many ways it shows throughout the text that what you're reading are almost extended journalistic pieces of famous events/personalities that made headlines in their time rather than in-depth historical coverage.  Some of the topics covered in one or two chapters (Beslan, Kursk, Chechnia, Yukos affair, etc.) have entire volumes dedicated to them by historians and scholars that often do more justice to them than the space provided for here.  Nonetheless, what Myers does well is congest a lot of information into a readable account, pretty much what journalists are paid to do.  The majority of the text leans from unbiased to somewhat biased (against Russia/Putin), not that one can fault Myers, Putin and his time in office have witnessed numerous disasters, mysterious deaths, wars, the jailing of prominent members of Russian society, etc.

A more subjective approach, however, I think would have been helpful for western readers to gain a sense of where Putin and the many Russians who support him are coming from - even if their arguments are often laced with familiar propaganda.  There is a lot to learn here for those somewhat familiar with the Russia of the post-Soviet period, those totally unfamiliar might get lost among the many names, places, and events that Myers goes over with, at times, the briefest of descriptions.  Personally, I've long suspected that Putin's Russia is less so guided by ideology than by Geo-politics and economics, which often come into direct conflict with European and American organizations that appear to Russia as encroaching on her "spheres of influence."

Russia often appears to be the epitome of crony capitalism, the revolving door that we're so familiar with in the US (between corporations and political positions) is a given in Putin's administration, except it's more brazen than in the west.  Embezzling, fraud, tax evasion, etc., are all prevalent within the Russian economy, but its fallout is usually much easier to spot than in the US where our economy and GDP dwarf Russia to enough of a degree that billions can be siphoned off and usually forgotten about within a matter of months if not weeks.  It's as if Russia has taken the worst aspects of capitalism that exist in the US and around the world and applied them to the 10th degree.  While some of Putin's early reforms helped raise the average Russian's economic situation in terms of buying power and savings, what has happened after that initial term in the early 2000s has been a policy of attempting to strengthen the state to the detriment of any and all "democratic" institutions that might have existed.  This enriching of friends and focusing power within the hands of a "loyal entourage" means Putin becomes that much more frightened of what will happen once he's out of office.  What he undid after Yeltsin stepped down is undoubtedly in the back of his mind and his losing power seems an impossibility in the near future as his popularity continues permeate much of the Russian population.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Marshal K.K. Rokossovsky: The Red Army's Gentleman Commander by Boris Sokolov (Author), Stuart Britton (Translator)

Boris Sokolov’s biography of Marshal of the Soviet Union K. K. Rokossovsky is a noble effort to document the life and history of one of the most accomplished Soviet commanders to come out of the Second World War.  The subtitle, “The Red Army’s Gentleman Commander,” serves multiple purposes as it immediately highlights that other Red Army commanders were “ungentlemanly” and it allows Sokolov to pontificate somewhat on a subject he covers in numerous publications – the true losses the Red Army suffered were much higher than those presented in published works.  In general Sokolov’s biography walks a less than fine line between academic study and a polemical work.  He takes a few too many literary licenses when he goes off on tangents here and there that have no place in a historical work but in a general sense this biography is still full of valuable information.   

Sokolov discusses Rokossovsky’s history and youth in the first few chapters and covers his exploits in the Revolutionary/Civil War period.  The most interesting parts of the book are those that cover Rokossovsky’s actions during the Second World War, or the Great Patriotic War.  In part this is not the fault of Sokolov as there is little enough information available on Rokossovsky from his youth (Rokossovsky wanted to write about the Civil War but never had a chance).  The majority of Rokossovsky’s major campaigns are covered by the author: his actions in 1941 and clashes with Zhukov, the Moscow Counteroffensive and his thoughts about what was done correctly and incorrectly, the operations around Stalingrad and Rokossovsky’s role in the destruction of the German Sixth Army, operation Kursk, operation Bagration, the Home Army’s Warsaw Uprising, and the final battles for Germany.   Before continuing I will say that one of the weaknesses of this volume is that while there are many quotes (more so than western readers might be used to) and the author utilizes a range of archival documentation and published archival collections there is a distinct lack of endnotes/footnotes (something the original volume undoubtedly suffers from as well).  Sokolov is in no way making this information up, as I have some of the collections he uses and can verify the information he presents in a few cases, but the problem remains in that this volume becomes problematic as a source.   Furthermore, some of the source material is dated, unfortunately alternatives were/are hard to find.

Coming back to the text itself, the more interesting chapters were those on the Warsaw Uprising and the final battles/actions of the Red Army in Germany.  Here is where Sokolov presents a wide variety of interesting and pertinent material but at the same time goes off on tangents and at times simply makes up statistics.  The Warsaw Uprising is presented well enough with a lot of information provided from a number of eye witnesses (both Polish and Soviet) but primary source material is a bit sparse for the conclusions he makes.  We know that Soviet forces suffered losses trying to reach Warsaw, with the 2nd Tank Army losing close to 1,000 tanks and having to be taken off the line.  Similar attempts to by the 1st Polish Army resulted in losses for a variety of reasons but Sokolov insists on pointing toward Stalin as the cause.  Even though orders were given to take Warsaw that’s not good enough, for Sokolov armies needed to be moved over to Rokossovsky’s front, supplies diverted, other operations cancelled and postponed, all to help the Poles in Warsaw.  From an ethical standpoint, yes, everything should have been done to aid the Warsaw Uprising.  Unfortunately reality dictated otherwise, the Poles were in an unenviable position and acted in their own best interests then relied on Stalin’s apparent good graces and that of the Red Army to support them in taking the capital of Poland to use as a bargaining chip against Stalin.   They were asking for quite a bit from a man and armed forces they held in high contempt.

Finally, the chapter on the Red Army’s actions in Germany at the end of the war there are two arguments Sokolov expands on.  First is the issue of losses in the battle of Berlin.  He argues against the provided figure of 81,116 irrecoverable losses because in that figure are included losses for the two Polish armies that participated in the battle for the city.  Irrecoverable losses for both armies were 2,825.  Sokolov cites an “official” report from the Polish Defense Ministry that lists killed and missing in action as 11,000, almost four times as large a figure.  What he does then is argue that since this figure is a quarter of the number presented by the Russians then all other losses during the Berlin operation should be multiplied by four.  He utilizes the same argument in other places and I’m simply unconvinced.  I appreciate coming across new information and presenting it (I appreciate it more if it includes a citation) but an extrapolation based on limited evidence is unacceptable for a historian or an academic publication.  A similar argument is utilized when discussing the Red Army’s progress through Germany and Eastern Europe in terms of atrocities and rapes.  There’s no doubt that Red Army soldiers, as well as soldiers from national contingents serving within the Red Army (Poles among them), committed atrocities against the Germans, including wholesale plunder, murder, and rape.  Similar actions were committed when the Germans invaded the Soviet Union, the allies invaded Western Europe, or the Japanese invaded China.  But to paint an entire armed forces with such a broad brush is unacceptable, at least in my opinion.  In terms of degrees it might very well be that the Red Army’s occupation proved that much more detrimental than that of the allies, unfortunately qualifying some of the actions of Red Army soldiers will prove impossible.  What Sokolov does well enough is present a variety of eye witness accounts to some of the actions that happened on the ground, but he offers little to nothing as explanation for why these criminal actions happened.  Recently Filip Slaveski, in his “The Soviet Occupation of Germany,” offered an enlightening look at the Soviet occupation of Germany including the crimes committed.  Sokolov aimed for emotions, Slaveski offers that and an attempt to explain what happened along with why. 

As much as I appreciate Sokolov’s efforts, there are quite a few weaknesses here that make this far from a definitive study of either Rokossovsky’s life or his actions within the confines of the Second World War.  In part this is a result of many archives still being closed off to research within the Russian Federation but I would also argue that Russian academic standards are still somewhat lacking when compared to their Western equivalents.  Furthermore, while there are some excellent historians within Russia they are still working within a state that continues to view its present as a reflection of past accomplishments and shies away from attempts to take a closer look at its history for fear that a crack in the foundation will unravel a collection of myths better kept under a Potemkin village fa├žade. 

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning by Timothy Snyder

Timothy Snyder’s “Black Earth” offers a mixed bag for readers.  Those familiar with the topic will undoubtedly find themselves making notes in the margins of practically every other page, while those new to the subject will be awed by what, at best, can be classified as historical “sound bites” or factoids.  As such I have to admit that in places this book is very readable, much more so than your usual historical monograph on these topics.  Snyder is a historian of Poland and it shows well enough as at the heart of “Black Earth” is not so much the Holocaust as is Poland.  The problem is that putting Poland on a pedestal as Snyder so often does leaves a bad aftertaste.  Although Poland participated in the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia (using the same ideas of self-determination that both Germany and the Soviet Union utilized during the Second World War) and had similar plans to the Germans in the mid-to-late 1930s in removing Jews from Polish territory, according to Snyder it wasn’t so bad.  Polish citizens and institutions helped train Jewish Zionists to fight in Palestine against the British so that they could pave the way for a Jewish state and rid Poland, and, by extension, Europe, of its Jews sooner rather than later.  The party in power in Poland in 1938 “announced its preference for the emigration of about 90 percent of Poland’s Jews” (59).   But it’s not a big deal, as, according to Snyder, the leader of the party was married to a Jew.  The real difference between the two, for Snyder, is that Germany eventually aimed for the “destruction” of states where Jews lived whereas Poland wanted to create a new state in the Middle East for Jews.  But such a “sound bite” seemingly puts ideology as it would develop in Germany above everything else, the numerous exceptions made by Hitler in regards to decisions dealing with Jews and occupied territories, etc. 

In more than one instance Snyder also seems to be working backwards, with hindsight in mind to make his arguments hold water.  For instance, in discussing the creation of the first concentration camps in Germany he claims that “the concentration camps were training grounds for the more general SS mission beyond Germany: the destruction of states by racial institutions” (42).  But such a claim means that Hitler knew exactly how the Second World War would unfold before it even began.  Snyder also claims German plans for resettling Jews in Madagascar were equivalent to the “Final Solution” (76).  Further examples of using hindsight would be Snyder’s discussion of Stalin wanting to “seize” the opportunity to destroy the Polish state, leaving out any discussion of Soviet foreign policy in the 1930s, the more than two weeks spent by the Soviet Union after Germany invaded Poland in seeing how the western allies would react, or the threats made to the Soviet Union by Germany in regards to what they’d do with territories within the Soviet “sphere of influence” if the Red Army did not invade. 

On numerous occasions Snyder shows a lack of knowledge or understanding for the Soviet position in either the 1930s or throughout the Second World War.  Whether it’s Stalin “waiting for an alliance with Hitler,” for which no evidence is presented, or discussing the crisis over Czechoslovakia where he posits that the Soviet offer of help to defend Czechoslovakia against Germany would, in the end, have turned into some type of “truce with Germany that allowed it to take territory from Poland without having to engage the Germans” (92).  I was not aware that “fantastical what if scenarios” were now the norm for historians.  Snyder also makes the familiar claim that Soviet foreign minister Litvinov, a Jew, was dismissed and Molotov assumed his position just in time to make the non-aggression pact with Germany.  Recent research by Geoffrey Roberts on Molotov suggests that the move had less to do with Litvinov being a Jew than his inability to make a coalition with the western allies work and Stalin wanted someone new to make a foreign policy move that would last. 
Similar to a lack of any understanding in Soviet foreign policy is Snyder’s take on Hitler’s foreign policy.  The claim is made that “Hitler was consciously provoking a European war, and would have taken it in whatever form it came.” (93)  Is this why Hitler consistently said he would avoid conflict if the allies did anything to initiate a war when he remilitarized the Rhineland or when the Anschluss of Austria occurred?  Is this the same Hitler who was surprised when Britain and France declared war over Poland?  Worse was the statement that “Hitler understood the minutia of war; indeed he grasped its details far better than any other head of state and better than most of his generals.” (241) Once again, the sound bites are running the asylum.  No real evidence or further explanations are offered for either that make sense.

When it comes to the Holocaust itself I am somewhat ambivalent about Snyder’s claims.  Some of the arguments presented are comical: “people in Poland tended to hate those from whom they stole because they had stolen from them” (109).  Sure.  But at other times the analysis seems to go deeper and provide an interesting take on events that have been covered in so much detail already.  One of the most important arguments for Snyder is his idea that the Holocaust was, in part, the creation of both the “east” and the “west” meeting in an area that was without coherent rule or institutional policies (143).   That area is within the territories that were “doubly occupied” (he uses that phrase a lot) in what his previous book called the “Bloodlands.”  In some ways it seems self-evident that when you introduce violence and anarchy, little if anything is off-limits.  Thus I cannot say this is a revelation when it comes to the evolution of the Holocaust, more so because today more than ever many researchers are looking toward local collaboration and accomplices to the Holocaust.  In many ways I would agree that the Holocaust would have been impossible to achieve without the numerous variables inherent in both the rise of Nazism within Germany after the Great Depression and the Treaty of Versailles, as well as its evolution on the Eastern Front, starting with the Einzatsgruppen and reserve police battalions leading the way for locals to help perpetrate the “Holocaust by Bullets” and eventually leading to gas vans, death camps and death marches.   

Snyder’s look at the perpetrators themselves also offers a look at research on collaborators that’s already been done.  Often it was the same men (and perhaps women) that offered their services to the institution or government in power and readily switched sides when those in power altered.  Thus those who served the Soviets readily served the Nazis and then once more the Soviets.  They worked within the German military and police institutions and did the same under the Soviets.  They killed Polish or German “spies” under the auspices of the NKVD or Soviet partisans and Jews just as readily under the Nazis.  The latter parts of this text offer a look at what happened to Jews in other states with the argument that those who deemed Jews “citizens” and where state institutions continued to exist, there the majority of Jews survived the war or at least had a better chance to survive the war.  Finally, the second to last chapter looks at those who risked their lives to help Jews, mainly Poles (surprise!).  There is no doubt that tens of thousands risked their lives to save Jews, and, in part, Poles make up the majority of those among the “Righteous” because there were so many Jews in Poland and because of the numerous connections and networks that intertwined both Poles and Jews.  Neither takes away from the selfless actions of the many men and women that chose to go above and beyond what was expected and saved thousands of Jews throughout the war years (and not just in Poland).   Snyder also provides numerous examples of diplomats throughout Europe (from countries like China, Japan, etc.,) doing their utmost in trying to get visas and passports for Jews to get them to safety.  As they are the faces of state institutions, this once more supports Snyder’s larger argument(s).

In the end Snyder’s “Black Earth” is a nice popular history with the needed sound bites to make the general reader shake their head in agreement without actually understanding many of the intricacies at work.  The topics Snyder covers, and forgets to cover, have volumes already written on them that offer much more in-depth analysis.  But, unfortunately, they are not as well written or as accessible to the general public, for whom Snyder is writing.  

Monday, June 22, 2015

Stalingrad: The City that Defeated the Third Reich by Jochen Hellbeck

Jochen Hellbeck's "Stalingrad" is a testament to how much we still don't know about the Eastern Front over 70 years after the war has ended.  Within the Soviet Union a historical commission was created to chronicle the struggles of the Red Army and the Soviet Union during the war years, to create a history that well enough encompassed the courageous actions of men and women in the face of an enemy that few others were able to withstand, less so achieve victories against.  Unfortunately, while much information was gathered by the historians of this commission, little of this rich material ever saw the light of day.  Hellbeck, however, was given the ability and funding to be able to take numerous interviews from survivors of the Stalingrad battle and weave a compelling narrative about the endurance of the Red Army and the fighting for the city that bore Stalin's name.  In many ways Stalingrad became a turning point in the war against Nazi Germany and while initially numerous Soviet publications appeared on the battle, including memoirs, readers must keep in mind (and many already know) that much of that literature was tainted by Soviet propaganda, rhetoric, and adhered to the whims of Soviet censors.  Those histories and memoirs that appeared in the post-Soviet period are recollections that without doubt have been influenced by time (not to say that they should be dismissed, but simply treated with an understanding of their weaknesses and limitations).  Thus, a work that encompasses written interviews with survivors of the battle mere days or weeks after the fact offer many advantages for those interested in this period and these events.  Of course these accounts are tinged with ideology and Socialist cliches, but they are also rather candid about topics like German prisoners of war, cowardly behavior by some Red Army commanders, commissars and soldiers, as well Hellbeck offers a large number of endnotes that help guide the reader through many of the actions, units, and locations that are mentioned and also helps to showcase where readers can find discrepancies in accounts by the likes of Chuikov and Rodimtsev.  Without a doubt this is a fascinating look at the Red Army and its struggle against the Germans at Stalingrad, the fierce nature of the fighting comes through these interviews on a regular basis and some of the descriptions of the courage and loyalty shown by Red Army troops are truly inspiring.  This is a needed addition to Eastern Front literature and I can only hope that this rich archive is further explored and utilized by historians in the near future.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

The End of Tsarist Russia: The March to World War I and Revolution by Dominic Lieven

This topic, in many respects, is my bread and butter. I'm a student of Soviet/Russian history and while I specialize in the Second World War, I've also done a fair amount of research on the First World War, including the lead up to the outbreak of hostilities in the summer of 1914. I had high hopes for a new treatment of the outbreak of the war from the Russian perspective, but Dominic Lieven promised much and delivered little, in my opinion. The subtitle, 'WWI & The Road to Revolution' is somewhat misleading. The lead up to the outbreak of the war takes up 312 of this 368 page tome. How can you fit in WWI and the Road to Revolution in some 50 pages?

The author's motives are understandable. There is a distinct lack of literature that concentrates on Russia on the eve and throughout the First World War when compared to the Western Allies or the Axis in Central Europe. Yet the war was begun because of what happened in Eastern Europe and the failure of the Entente to dictate a viable peace at the end of the war meant an environment that would create conditions for the outbreak of a Second World War, that much deadlier than the first. Thus, a concentration on Russia, who saw itself as a protector of the Balkan Slavs, is understandable and welcome. But this effort by Lieven leaves much to be desired. I'm fine with reading both popular history accounts or dry factual volumes that are minefields of little known information. While Lieven aims to be the latter, his writing style featuring thick descriptions of mundane events and minutia just put me to sleep. More so, the treatment of Russia and Russian figures takes center stage to the point where so many personalities are introduced that one simply loses all hope in trying to keep track of who is doing what, believes in what, and whether it matters how much influence they wield if they simply die off before 1914 even comes around. Putting so much onus on Russia and her "important decision makers" means many in the west are left out or are overlooked. Thus in some ways other nations are either reaction to Russian decisions/actions or are making them possible but their own agency seems to be absent. I wish I could say there are better alternatives out there for those seeking much of the information presented here but, again, there is a distinct lack of these studies where Russia is concerned. If you're able to get through this dense diplomatic history of Russia on the eve of war, I can only commend you.