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.

Fragile Empire: How Russia Fell In and Out of Love with Vladimir Putin by Ben Judah

Ben Judah has done an impressive job in showcasing his travels and interviews throughout Russia. Recent events with Ukraine and the Crimea have done much to put Russia in the center of western media. What has become evident is that the budget cuts and lack of funding for academic research into Eastern Europe has led to a dearth of knowledge about Russia and Putin's administration. The end result is a glut of news anchors dithering about, trying to decipher what it all means, all the while forgetting any type of journalistic integrity and commencing to scream at the top of their lungs that the end of the world is nigh.

These journalists, and many others, would do well to read Ben Judah's discussion about how Vladimir Putin has created a country that has both impressed and depressed many of Russia's citizens within the span of the last fifteen years. The embarrassment that was the Yeltsin administration saw Russia turn to the west for help with her transition to 'capitalism' with the end result being a fall off an economic precipice that left many regretting the end of the Soviet Union while billions were stolen and sent into overseas bank accounts as a few lucky future oligarchs were able to game the system for their own needs. Those same oligarchs helped retain Yeltsin's presidency in 1996 and thought they could control his successor with as much ease. Unfortunately Putin was playing a different game than the perpetually drunk Yeltsin.

With Putin's ascension to power much began to change. He first went after the main source of information for the population, television stations/channels, and forced two former oligarchs out of the country after their channels featured attacks against his administration. With power over television programming in the hands of the Kremlin, Putin's PR campaign could truly begin. His next major target was Khodorkovsky as he retained control of one of the major companies within Russia. Khodorkovsky reaped his rewards in the 1990s like all the other oligarchs, through any means necessary. In the early 2000s he decided that Russian oil and Russian companies in general were worth more than many outside Russia had valued them and he began to overhaul his operations, utilizing western techniques in not only the actual drilling and exploration of/for oil, but in how he managed his company's finances (focusing somewhat on transparency). This gave the impression that this was a company that seemed bent on fighting corruption rather than partaking in it, but in all fairness this was done to boost the image and profits of Yukos as much as it was Khodorkovsky trying to make amends (perhaps) for what he'd done in the 1990s. He began to donate to political organizations (including Putin's party) and gave money to the public for schools/education, etc. Unfortunately, getting involved in politics is exactly what Putin had warned the oligarchs against after he had come to power. Being warned numerous times wasn't enough for Khodorkovsky. He continued to pursue his interests and eventually that resulted in charges being filed against him and his company. He would sit in jail until 2014 while Putin reaped the benefits of the company he had revamped and built up in the form of taxes on oil, which Putin and his associates would use to enrich themselves and make life somewhat more comfortable for the rest of the Russian state.

Pensions would be funded and raised, as would salaries. For Russians coming out of the 1990s, where the murder rate was one of the highest in the world and workers often failed to be paid for months at a time, having regular salaries and a leader presented through his PR campaign as bent on fighting corruption meant Putin's popular continued to rise during his first two terms in office. But all the gains made in moving against the oligarchs and providing minor, yet useful and badly needed, benefits to the Russian population soon wore off as Medvedev came and went while Putin stayed either in the back or foreground. Todays Russian billionaires and major political figures within Russia owe their position(s) to Putin. They've created a new segment of the population that controls the majority of Russia's wealth and power and have begun to put their children into future positions that will continue their 'legacies'.

In response, opposition movements have begun but have yet to find a voice that speaks to the entire country, or at least the majority of the voters. Many are unhappy with the continued abuse and corruption that's become a common feature of their lives, including the fact that Moscow is akin to Paris and New York, a microcosm that is not representative of the rest of the nation yet contains much of its wealth and intelligentsia. From the former battleground of Chechnya to the Far East, corruption, abuse, apathy, and neglect are readily evident in every city and region. There's a bitter feeling, whether true or not, that Russia is falling into the hands of 'immigrants', be they from China or the central asian republics (Chechens are included here as well). Russia hardly produces anything aside from natural resources and those will not last forever; oil production is already projected to fall by over 100 million barrels per day in the next few years unless tens of billions are invested in new wells and drilling techniques. Thus in many ways the 'stability' that Putin has created in Russia is a fragile one that's currently being tested on the international arena with the 'Crimean Crisis'. Nothing lasts forever, but the question that's becoming more evident is will Russia revert to the days of the 1990s without Putin and his 'entourage' or continue to move in a general, albeit all too slow, direction of 'democracy' and 'capitalism'?

Soldaten: On Fighting, Killing, and Dying by Sönke Neitzel

Like many others, I was expecting something wholly different from the description offered of this text. It seems there were a few main points the authors decided to concentrate on and then used various bits of the evidence at their disposal to support and reinforce their ideas. What I, and many others it seems, expected was a candid look at the thoughts, opinions, and ideas of German soldiers: what they thought of their enemies, of the war, their commanding officers, orders they were forced to carry out, etc. Yet that hardly features in the sound bites the authors chose to concentrate on. Instead, it appears the authors believe the Wehrmacht has already been proven to have been an instrument of genocide and their interests are showcasing how the Wehrmacht was also a rather banal military instrument in the hands of the Third Reich. Specifically, that the attitudes of the soldiers within the Wehrmacht were created by their experiences in the First World War and the environment that they grew up in (Weimar Germany and the beginning of the Third Reich), which regularly featured violence and death on the streets and in the news.

Thus, there is a rather pointless concentration on the mundane experiences of soldiers, highlighting that the Wehrmacht was in many ways similar to the German Army in the First World War, the armies they faced in the Second World War, and even the armies and soldiers of the Vietnam era and today's veterans of the Iraq and Afghan wars. For some this is perhaps a worthwhile read, and in some ways it is a step in contextualizing the fact that some actions of the Wehrmacht can be and have been replicated throughout the past half-century in conflicts like Vietnam and the recent wars the United States (and many other countries) has participated in. Soldiers do take liberties with the power they've been given and the forces that they represent and are supported by. But, then again, the US featured a rather large and outspoken anti-war movement and many turned on US soldiers and what they stood for (during the Vietnam era). The same cannot be said for the Nazi Germany era. Thus, in some ways, this book misses the forest for the trees. Concentrating on just the soldiers and the Wehrmacht is useful and helpful in understanding their thoughts and interactions (with the enemy and each other), but it wholly omits the numerous organizations soldiers also had to interact with that were not represented by the Wehrmacht. Personally, however, I am more interested in understanding how much German soldiers knew of what was going on outside the confines of the 'front line', their views and attitudes toward the future Hitler was building with their services to the Third Reich, and whether any exhibited some type of opposition and remorse for what they, or the Wehrmacht in general, had done. Those issues, unfortunately, are hardly covered or contextualized in any meaningful way.

The Eternal Nazi: From Mauthausen to Cairo, the Relentless Pursuit of SS Doctor Aribert Heim by Nicholas Kulish

I'm sure on some level the authors wanted this piece to read like a 'detective novel', introducing new characters, setting up discoveries and leaving off chapters with 'cliff hangers'; unfortunately the end result is wholly lacking. The real story here is not about the hunt for the 'Eternal Nazi' but about the obstacles 'Nazi hunters' faced within West Germany and parts of the rest of the world. At times, those tasked with bringing Nazi war criminals to justice (be they self-appointed or assigned by a higher up) relied on information that came from a pool of rumors, false reports, and even uncorroborated witness testimony of those who were already dead. Thus, Aribert Heim was originally misnamed (known by his brother's name) and given an incorrect place of birth, making it that much harder to track and find him. Additionally, in the early post-war years, West Germany and in part Austria, had little interest in pursuing or harshly punishing Nazi War criminals who numbered in the hundreds of thousands. Escape networks were set up for former Nazis and members of the SS; many changed their names and escaped Europe while others simply switched one master for another and began to infiltrate the West German government and various public institutions. It was in their interest to forget the Nazi years and those working to remember and seek justice for what happened were continually looked at with contempt for trudging up the past. SS Doctor Aribert Heim was one of those lucky enough to be overlooked and then given a chance to escape to Egypt, where he lived a good enough lifestyle being sustained by his family's income from rents. There's nothing really 'gritty' or 'mysterious' about a war criminal living a rather mundane everyday existence with family visits. Thus the book falls flat on suspense, which combined with weak writing and needless concentration on literary descriptions made this book a chore rather than an experience or a thrill to see how the 'story' would end.