Friday, November 4, 2016

Konev's Golgotha: Operation Typhoon Strikes the Soviet Western Front, October 1941

Mikhail Filippenkov's look at the beginning of Germany's Operation Typhoon (specifically the attack toward Sychevka) is more so oriented for the enthusiast of the Eastern Front than perhaps students of military history. Both will inevitably find something of interest here but the author's lack of historical training mean he's not presenting a monograph which utilizes primary source material from both sides to develop an argument. Rather, he's been able to document the actions of a few specific units on a semi-tactical and semi-operational level and present these developments with as much primary information as available to the reader without any real type of analysis. This makes it harder for the reader to understand the significance of some events and the insignificance (if any) of others. An added complication is the lack of primary source material for many of the Soviets units discussed because they were lost, destroyed or are still classified as 'secret.'

Consequently, readers will be met with a play-by-play of the action German and Soviet units found themselves in as they attempted to advance (the Germans) and defend and counterattack (the Soviets). Unit movements, actions, attacks, retreats, casualties sustained, all are presented from primary sources but rarely analyzed. Thus, if you're already familiar with the Eastern Front you'll know what to look for in terms of significance. For instance, the Wehrmacht's need for more fuel is a consistent theme readers will encounter and really puts into perspective how much of a challenge Operation Typhoon was for the Germans from day one. Filippenkov also presents the weather on a daily basis making it possible to see where the cold might have impacted the German advance, or at least in one instance, facilitated their continued advance thanks to the freezing of previously muddy roads. Another issue that is continually encountered is the disconnect among Soviet formations in the field and higher headquarters, presumably, in Moscow. Due to the way situation reports were passed up the line, by the time they arrived in Moscow and new orders were issued on their basis for units in the field, the situation on the ground had already changed and they became outdated. Finally, much of the interesting details about rearguard and final "heroic" actions on behalf of Soviet units that did not survive are only available through German after-action reports. Unless survivors made it back and were interrogated (and these interrogations might still be unavailable for researchers) we'll never know for sure what these encircled men went through and survived. Overall, this is a good addition to Eastern Front literature and enhances our understanding of 1941 (both from the German and Soviet point of view), but a greater presence and analysis by the author would have made it that much better a look at these events and this war in general.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Stalin's Commandos: Ukrainian Partisan Forces on the Eastern Front by Alexander Gogun

"Stalin's Commandos" is in some sense a treasure trove of information.  But western readers need to be aware of a few issues when attempting to tackle this monograph.  First, Gogun is a Russian academic, he was trained in Russia and has a grasp of quite a few languages which makes this case study that much more impressive than those that have come before.  Secondly, because he is trained in Russia the usual academic work one would expect from a western academic is not readily visible in these pages.  There is much less attention paid here to theory and methodology (which, in all honesty, does happen in western academia often enough as well), rather, Gogun concentrates on letting the sources speak for themselves with limited additional commentary.  But where that commentary is encountered he does make important points and takes on some greater themes/topics that might be in need of a re-evaluation.  Thirdly, this is a text on the Soviet Ukrainian partisan "movement," so it discounts to a large extent the partisan movement in Belorussia, Russia, but it does touch on activities of partisans that belonged to the OUN/UPA and the Polish AK, in fact some of his concluding thoughts that include comparisons between all of these organizations make this book that much more important in the greater catalog of Eastern Front literature.  Additionally, this is a book that is not always as readable as I'd have liked it to be.  A lot of the text is full of quotes from primary source material that is rather bland and formulaic, it makes for tedious reading but much of it is important for those interested in primary source material since much of this monograph is based on just such material.  Finally, this leads to a weakness that the author doesn't stress perhaps as much as he should.  Much of what is presented comes from eye-witness accounts and memoirs/reminiscences.  Those are not always accurate or representative of the greater "truth" of the events/people/places in question.  Where and when he can, Gogun presents as much evidence as is available, even if it contradicts previous information to show what previously "heroic" events might in reality have been myths or misrepresentations (and why they were invented in the first place).  Thus, in general, the reader has to keep in mind the material that Gogun is working with.  Much of it is really enlightening with respect to the partisan war in the German rear with facts, dates, personalities, and details that the western reader will simply never come across in any other monograph in print today.  For that, I am extremely thankful that this text was translated and for the tremendous job the author has done in compiling so much primary source material for a western audience.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Rogue Heroes by Ben Macintyre

Ben Macintyre's 'Rogue Heroes' takes a look at the history of the SAS throughout the Second World War, concentrating on their exploits in North Africa, Italy, France and Germany.  This is a journalistic text and it often reads more as a series of adventure stories than a history.  There's much that's left out and a lot that a historian would have emphasized, deconstructed, or better analyzed, but one can't blame a journalist for doing his job.  Similarly, there is a limit to the documentation that was available to Macintyre so the final product is an engaging introduction to British Special Forces and the many operations they took part in throughout WWII.

What surprised me most was the amateurish nature of both the creation of the SAS and the blasé attitude of many of the commanding officers and the soldiers themselves to their missions.  The very first mission was a complete and utter disaster, something they would not repeat very soon but inevitably would repeat later on in the war.  Dozens of SAS volunteers would die due to circumstances of their own creation in situations that could have been readily avoided, either displaying blind indifference to danger or an unrestrained courage with predictable results.  For a force of men and arms that numbered so few their destructive power(s) were proven again and again in the continued problems they caused Rommel in Africa and the eventual Commando Order issued by Hitler that meant death for any SAS operative if caught behind enemy lines, even if in uniform.  Another surprise was the deadly nature of the clash in the French countryside between the French resistance, SAS, and other units operating against the Germans and their collaborators.  Too often German forces took to reprisal actions against entire villages that were very much reminiscent of their actions on the Eastern Front where the line between victim, bystander, and accomplice could change in a heartbeat depending on the situation one found him/herself in.  Finally, a bit disappointing was the final chapter in the story of the SAS.  Not much time or documentation was devoted to their attempts to capture those Germans who perpetrated war crimes against SAS soldiers.  Similarly, what happened to those who joined the SAS and survived the war was also covered fairly quickly, whereas I would have appreciated a more in-depth look at what men who saw so much death and destruction took away from the war and how they lived their lives after.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

We Will Not Go to Tuapse: From the Donets to the Oder with the Legion Wallonie and 5th SS Volunteer Assault Brigade ‘Wallonien’ 1942-45 by Fernand Kaisergruber

I've read my share of memoirs of the Eastern Front, both from the Wehrmacht and the Red Army.  "We will not go to Tuapse" is not one of the more memorable reminiscences but, as is usually the case, there are some interesting events recounted.  Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately) for Kaisergruber, he was either assigned to duties that made him avoid/miss fighting on the frontlines for much of his military career, or he was sick/wounded and in the rear or recuperating and eager to get to the front and rejoin his friends.  There is a distinct lack of discussion about the politics or ideology of what the German Army is doing on the Eastern Front.  This raises the question of why exactly some of those who volunteered for service in the Wehrmacht did so.  Much of what the author recounts sounds like it's coming straight out of the mind and mouth of an adolescent, and in that might be one answer - it was an adventure, a right of passage to manhood.  For the most part what we have here is a soldier who's fighting a war almost in a vacuum - he sees what's before his eyes and omits most the rest.  He likes most of the inhabitants of the Soviet Union he runs across or develops "relationships" with but he never questions why is it that he and the Wehrmacht are waging war against them, the Red Army (which includes their male and female relatives) or their state.  He seems more interested in an experience in the "wilds" of the east and hardly treats his actions as anything other than responsible for self-preservation first and foremost.  The more memorable passages are those dealing with his escape from encirclement and the casualties his unit suffers in their attempt to keep the Red Army from closing the pocket.  The majority of the text is taken up with literary descriptions of everyday life in Wehrmacht, a lot of aches and pains from marching as an infantrymen, hunger due to lack of food, freezing in the cold, and wounds from combat or stomach issues due to food (or lack thereof).  Finally, the poem the author listed as found after the capture of a Ukrainian village is by Konstantin Simonov, a famous writer and war correspondent, rather than an "unknown Red Army soldier," entitled "Wait for me."

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Enemy in the East: Hitler's Secret Plans to Invade the Soviet Union by Rolf-Dieter Müller

Although I say it often enough, there are still only a few books that surprise me when it comes to the Second World War, especially the Eastern Front.  In this case, the book I'd compare this work to would be David Stahel's "Operation Barbarossa and Germany's Defeat in the East."  I'd recommend reading Müller's volume first and follow that up with Stahel's ever evolving look at the German incursion into the Soviet Union.

Taking a look at "Enemy in the East" there are a few important things the author attempted to do with this monograph.  He wanted to look at the history of German military plans against the Soviet Union, especially in the period after Hitler took power and through 1941.  Simultaneously, he wanted to see who actually did the planning as in the postwar period the majority of the German commanders who remained alive created a narrative that portrayed Hitler as being the sole guilty party in the genocidal campaign that was the German invasion of the Soviet Union.  Answering the question of where the plans for the invasion of the Soviet Union originated from also means creating additional context in understanding not only the evolution of the Second World War but also the Holocaust.  This means engaging with the old "intentionalists vs. functionalists" debate.  The conclusion reached by the author is that it was Halder and the army that created the original plans for the invasion of the Soviet Union (which were not ideological, although perhaps a little too idealistic) but it was Hitler who created the genocidal form the war would take in the early periods of 1941 without much opposition from the army high command.

What the author does well, better than any interwar history that I've come across previously, is show the interplay between Hitler's Germany and Poland.  That relationship receives a rather large amount of attention, while that of Germany and Great Britain, France, Japan, Italy, the Soviet Union, Romania, Czechoslovakia, etc., receive less attention but all play very vital roles in how Hitler's plans for the Second World War evolved.  In some ways I think more attention should have been paid to the diplomatic relations between Germany and the Soviet Union as there are connections the author misses and would have added even more context to an already fascinating study.

According to Müller, Hitler had always planned to go to war with the Soviet Union and might have actually done it in 1939 with Poland's help if not for how certain events developed.  Poland's move away from Germany toward Britain and France meant Germany could no longer continue creeping slowly east and utilizing additional eastern territories for an eventual invasion of the Soviet Union (with or without Poland's help).  This meant an eventual deal with the Soviet Union had to be made.  After invading Poland, and having Britain and France in turn declare war on Germany, Hitler once again had to alter his plans and invade France, in order to avoid a future war on two fronts.  Only after the defeat of France was Hitler ready for a final showdown with the Soviet Union.  However, German hubris, combined with unrealistic evaluations of both the Soviet Union and Red Army, resulted in clashes between Halder and Hitler and the eventual failure of Operation Barbarossa and Germany's eventual defeat.

Although this is very well researched work, there were some weaknesses amidst the many strengths.  While there is no question the author is an expert in his relevant field(s) when it comes to Nazi Germany, Hitler, and the Wehrmacht, there were a few problems with how the Soviet Union, Stalin, the Red Army, etc., were portrayed.  In general I think the author thinks quite highly of the Wehrmacht's capabilities, even before the invasion of Poland, and had a rather inadequate appraisal of the Red Army's abilities.  Furthermore, the author compares the German invasion forces of some 3.7 million troops (German and allied) to Red Army forces in Soviet Western Military Districts, 2.9 million.  The problem here is that western military districts stretched all the way to Moscow, Soviet forces on or near the border totaled only some 1 million men.  Finally, one somewhat oft cited argument is that the Soviet counteroffensive outside Moscow was enabled thanks to Stalin siphoning off divisions from the Far East to face Germany in the west.  Although this was done, it was a gradual process that began in the summer of 1941 and divisions from the Far East, while making a difference, were not decisive.

The above aside, this is a highly recommended text for those interested in the interwar period and the evolution of Hitler's plans for war and expansion throughout Europe.  This is simply an indispensable volume that puts much of the interwar period and the lead up to the invasion of the Soviet Union in a new light.

Monday, August 8, 2016

In Wartime: Stories from Ukraine by Tim Judah

Tim Judah's "In Wartime: Stories from Ukraine" offers a good introductory look at the recent conflict that began in the shadow of the Sochi Winter Olympics.  There are a few issues and weaknesses throughout.  But, overall, for those who want to understand Ukraine's turbulent history, its place within the Soviet Union and relationship to Russia in the post-Soviet period, as well as how the recent "Maidan" revolution began, including the war in Eastern Ukraine, this is a great starting point.

First, the few minor negatives that I ran across.  Since I had an advanced copy of the book, there were some spelling/grammar issues that I think will be corrected before the final publication is out, but at times such issues made for having to reread sentences and even paragraphs as some of the arguments presented and events described became convoluted and the errors/writing style made it harder to figure out what was actually happening.  Secondly, and more importantly, since Judah isn't a historian - and although this is not a history book - yet attempts to tackle historical issues/topics, he does not always do a satisfactory enough job in presenting them (conversely, he has unearthed some interesting material and has led me to ordering a few books to continue my own research).  I'll only utilize two minor examples.  When discussing the referendum in Donetsk and Lugansk he compares the event to the Soviet "acceptance" of Western Ukraine and Belorussia after the dismemberment of Poland following the non-aggression pact.  The comparison is fair but omits the precedent the Soviets were working from, that is, the German annexation of Austria and the Sudetenland.  Similarly, when discussing the annexation of Crimea and the referendum that took place there, the author ignores the more recent precedent of what happened in Kosovo, which Russia had a large interest in and whose concerns were ignored when Kosovo was granted independence.  Obviously none of this is an excuse or justification for Russian/Soviet actions, simply that the author is presenting historical events with limited context which places all the onus on the Soviet Union/Russia and misses important precedents.  Finally, the author is not fluent in either Russian or Ukrainian, thus he used translators and there's the possibility that some nuances or context might be missing, but that's an issue that doesn't come across the pages of this book, at least nothing jumped out at me, but it's simply something to keep in mind.

What the author does well is discuss the numerous shades of grey that exist in this conflict.  That includes the propaganda campaigns from both sides that recycle Soviet/Nazi rhetoric and propaganda while justifying their own actions.  However, Ukraine is a multi-ethnic state seeking a history to grasp onto but unfortunately the historical heroes and events many right-wing groups, including some in government positions, have grasped onto ignore the other rich historical legacies that exist throughout Ukraine.  Thus the selective memory of OUN and UPA actions against Ukraine's enemies have come to represent a heroic Ukrainian narrative that ignores the genocide of Ukraine's Jewish population, some of whom died at the hands of the same OUN and UPA heroes that are honored today.  These decisions, of whom to honor and what events to ignore, have added fuel to the propaganda fires that have been emanating from Russia and the rebel groups in Eastern Ukraine.  A grain of truth is all that is needed to paint entire groups as "fascists" and "puppets of the West."  While some believe the propaganda campaigns the vast majority of Ukrainians want peace and an end to the corruption that they have been witness to at every level of society.  They want to live their lives in peace, raise their children and work jobs that pay relatively stable and meaningful salaries, something that has eluded most Ukrainians for the past two decades and has become even harder to come across in a Ukraine that now has to wage war on its eastern frontier.  The majority of the stories presented from interviews are interesting and give minor insights into everyday life throughout various regions of Ukraine (Galicia, Bessarabia, and the eastern provinces of Lugansk and Donetsk).  Each region has its own distinct history, interests, cultural legacies and impressions of the Maidan revolution and the ensuing war in the east.  There is no single, coherent narrative that all of Ukraine can get behind and support, something Ukraine's government has been unable to create, while Russia has taken every opportunity to emphasize its own propaganda efforts to discredit Ukraine's current regime.  Thus, Ukrainians continue to struggle to understand their place in Europe and their relationship to Russia while waging war in their backyard.

Friday, July 22, 2016

After Stalingrad: Seven Years as a Soviet Prisoner of War by Adelbert Holl

I've read a few memoirs detailing German experiences in Soviet POW camps.  Adelbert Holl's experiences, overall, offer an interesting insight into the Soviet POW and GULag system of camps.  Simultaneously, I was a bit disappointed as Holl's narrative can at times be tedious and tiresome.  Thus, I can't say that this is the most interesting memoir I've read but it is one that offers the ability for readers to make a few interesting observations.  To some extent I'd say readers are probably interested in seeing if German prisoners ever wondered about their complicity in the Third Reich and the unfolding Holocaust, or if they even knew it was going on around them.  Holl spends little to no time reflecting on his role as a soldier in the Wehrmacht, only at times reminding the reader how much better Germans are than their Soviet/Russian/Asiatic counterparts.  He has no remorse or really any feelings at all for the war that was unleashed on the Soviet people, for Holl the most important aspects of his imprisonment are ensuring survival for himself and those Germans who have not decided to "betray" their country by joining the Soviet propaganda efforts against Hitler's regime.  Thus, from one camp to another Holl mainly recounts his attempts to avoid work, stand up to perceived and real Soviet cruelty, search for food, etc.  The majority of his memoirs are in fact filled with discussions of the horrid situation he's found himself in and, when his attempts to avoid work finally result in his judgment and imprisonment in the Soviet GULag system for ten years of hard labor, he experiences another level of cruelty that includes an introduction to the criminal element that has made the GULag world in part its own fiefdom.  For those interested in how German POWs were treated and how the Soviets were able to convict many and keep them working within the GULag system, thus avoiding returning them home until they absolutely had to, you'll find plenty of interesting information in Holl's account of his time in the Soviet state.  However, if you're looking for a narrative that includes a more personal and retrospective discussion of the Third Reich, Hitler, the German invasion of the Soviet Union, the Holocaust, etc., you won't find much of that here.