Saturday, February 14, 2015

Hi Hitler!: How the Nazi Past is Being Normalized in Contemporary Culture by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld

"Hi Hitler" offers a fascinating look at contemporary culture and the various forms the memory of the Holocaust and Hitler have taken in today's society. The text features six chapters with the most interesting (for this reader) being the first three, which highlighted how our memory of the Second World War as the 'Good War' has continued to be challenged by various authors, discussions revolving around the 'uniqueness' of the Holocaust, and how counterfactual history is applied to the Holocaust.

In the first chapter the author traces the numerous volumes that have recently appeared challenging the well-entrenched narrative of the Second World War as being something unrepresentative of the facts. Rosenfeld himself never really comes out with his own opinion on whether the Second World War was a 'Good War' but allows the reader to view the intricacies of the debate(s) that have raged around the question, the authors who've written on the topic, the reviews their books have received, and the validity of the information presented in respective publications. Some are easy to critique and show for the shallow efforts that they are, while others raise important questions about the nature of war and how war remembrance is embraced within societies and then helps to shape their views and ideas up to the present (more than once is the connection made to our post 9-11 rhetoric). Similar themes are explored in regards to Europe (both western and eastern) in how they've treated the Second World War, especially the numerous attempts by various organizations and governments to equate the Nazi regime with that of Stalin's Soviet Union.

The second chapter was quite fascinating in that the author presents how we are constantly walking a fine line in how we view the Holocaust and its history. Should we consider it a unique event or can we normalize it? How will they change our treatment of the Holocaust and its legacy? The same somewhat applies to Hitler and the history of the Third Reich in general. Keeping these events in a cocoon limits how we view their history and memory but allowing for normalization could mean creating a discourse that's both difficult to control and justify. Some have argued that allowing for a 'globalization' of the Holocaust, creating comparisons to numerous other events in our recent history, has resulted in an awareness of how devastating some situations really are, but the Holocaust then begins to lose its uniqueness. These ideas come into play in later chapters which discuss how movies and literature discuss Hitler and how the internet has become a democratic forum for Hitler-izations of everything in the form of memes. If we treat Hitler as any other human being, how does that help us understand what took place in the Second World War and Germany? If we treat him as the embodiment of evil, do we then close ourselves off from questioning if in the future others might emulate and possibly achieve even greater heights of destruction and death?

Personally, I think the Holocaust was unique to Germany for many reasons.  But that's not to say that mass murder/genocide is limited solely to Germany.  Many, if not the majority, of the nation-states that exist today have acts of mass murder as part of their histories.  Be it the treatment of Native Americans and African Americans in the colonies and the United States, the Belgians in the Congo, the British in India and Africa, the Soviets under Stalin, China under Mao, the Spanish and Portuguese in the 'New World' and their role in the Slave Trade, and the French during the French Revolution and the Crusades against the Cathars (in some ways the Crusades in general), these are just some examples (many others include Darfur, Cambodia, etc.) of when mass murder, wanton destruction and mayhem are a part of a nation's past but each is unique to the people they occurred to and environment they occurred in.

The third chapter takes a look at how alternate histories that have dealt with the Second World have impacted how we view the Holocaust, Hitler, and the Third Reich. While I'm somewhat resistant to 'what if' scenarios, there are times when they are quite helpful in understand the numerous strands that go into making an event possible. Thus allowing for limited questioning of how changing one or two events could impact others creates an environment where discussions can become fruitful if limited to historians or experts in the field. For instance, if someone is interested in questioning the ability of the allies to bomb concentration camps (like Auschwitz), they'd have to explore how much the allies knew, how much they believed, what their capabilities were, what possible outcomes would have resulted, etc. This allows for a greater understanding of not just the allied bombing campaign but their intelligence, beliefs, and abilities during the war. Overall, this is a fascinating look at memory and remembrance of the Holocaust and Hitler and the impact the Second World War continues to generate on our society today.

Monday, February 2, 2015

After Hitler: The Last Days of the Second World War in Europe by Michael Jones

I have to admit that sometimes I ask myself, 'How much of the Second World War continues to remain mired in myths and legends?'  Each time I get tired of reading monographs on this time period I find a volume that reinvigorates my interest.  Michael Jones has managed to do this with every book he has put out on the war.  I can confidently say that I, someone who has been reading on this period for over a decade, continue to be amazed by the information he manages to convey and unearth.  While not everything that's found among these pages is original research, the narrative Jones has crafted is compelling and once more shows that even if some believe this time period has become over-saturated (every now and then I find myself among those 'some'), there are still areas that need more focus, attention, and rigorous research.

The premise of this text relies on looking at the last ten days of the war after Adolf Hitler commits suicide in his bunker.  There are numerous vignettes that build a narrative based on information about events from earlier years of the war, but in one form or another they all follow the threads that Jones weaves to come back to these fateful and climactic ten days.  One of the more controversial issues the author deals with is rape on both the Eastern and Western Fronts.  This is a subject that has yet to be fully explored by scholars for many reasons, but slowly more pieces of the puzzle are making their way into recent monographs (two recent examples are: "The Soviet occupation of Germany" by Filip Slaveski and "What Soldiers Do: Sex and the American GI in World War II France" by Mary Louise Roberts).  My biggest issue is the broad brush that's often used to paint the entirety of the Red Army as guilty of some rather large arbitrary number of rapes in either Berlin alone or all of Germany.  Jones adds to the puzzle by showing that the situation was much more complicated as, with one example, Polish forces under Red Army command perpetrated their own brand of justice on the Germans.  Before the storming of Berlin the 1st Polish Army 'was forced to draw up a disciplinary ordinance to curb the wilder excesses of its soldiers' (44).  Similar orders were read out to the Red Army as well, and for good reason.  There were also instances when justice took the form of on the spot executions as when a Red Army colonel found an NKVD soldier guilty of rape and offered him his pistol with one bullet to end his life within a minute 'with some self respect', or else he'd finish him off as the 'coward' he was (54-55).

Throughout the text one of the main themes the author continues to stress are the choices made by the western allies and the Soviets in regards to actions on the ground, which had major consequences for each side.  For instance, the promises made to the Soviets by Roosevelt and his administration in regards to Lend Lease were soon called off by Truman who attempted to utilize Lend Lease shipments as a bargaining chip, a move the Soviets were loathe to entertain.  Furthermore, Montgomery's move at Lüneburg Heath was co-opted by the Dönitz government to fulfill their needs and treated as an armistice rather than an unconditional surrender, something the Soviets were angered by but allowed in lieu of being able to sign an unconditional surrender for the remainder of German troops still operating throughout Europe at a place and date of their choosing.  Still, even those wishes were upset by the signing of the surrender of the German Wehrmacht at Rheims instead of Berlin, and more so by a lowly Soviet representative who was simply available, rather than Marshal Zhukov.  In part the signing at Rheims was the fault of Eisenhower who was keen on ending the war as soon as possible and wanted peace yet needed to simultaneously keep in mind the wishes of his Soviet allies, who were not always as forthcoming as they should have been.

Aside from the above, some of the more interesting discussions revolved around the Prague Uprising and the role of Vlasov's Russian Liberation Army in helping the resistance fight their German occupiers until they could no longer hold out with the Red Army making its way to Prague for a liberation of their own of the last Eastern European capital still under German control.  Additionally, the resistance of a Georgian Legion battalion on the Dutch Island of Texel was a complete surprise to me, as was how the Soviets treated the survivors and the memory of this incident.  Overall, I can't praise the author enough for what he's done in this volume.  Taking a look at the last ten days from the point of view of Soviet, American, British, German, and even Canadian eye-witness accounts brings an original look at the chaos of the final days of the Second World War.  On May 8 and 9 a reprieve for many occurred as VE Day was celebrated.  And soon enough the alliance that so many worked so hard to form will crumble as old issues creep up once again to create a new threat in the form of a Cold War (one whose language in many ways becomes recycled, by both sides, from the rhetoric they worked out so well during the Second World War).  

There were some weaknesses that I encountered.  I am disappointed in the system of 'endnotes' used here as it made tracing information more difficult than it needed to be and I believe footnotes would have been the better alternative as this is to a large extent a scholarly work.  There were references to the Warsaw Uprising (August 1944) but they were somewhat inaccurate and dismissive of the Red Army and Stalin.  In many ways this is a perfect example of an area that continues to wait for further scholarship as current volumes are still vague and greatly lacking when it comes to the Soviet side of things.  Finally, some of the material here is gathered from various internet websites that, while overall presenting useful and interesting information, are not always accurate.  Aside from these minor issues, this is a highly recommended volume and a great addition to literature on both the waning days of the Second World War and the foundations that were being set by the western allies and Soviet Union in what would become the Cold War.

Available in the states October 2015 (or from right now)

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Israel Since the Six-Day War: Tears of Joy, Tears of Sorrow by Leslie Stein

Leslie Stein presents a synthesis of source material that highlights the evolution of the state of Israel from the Six-Day War to the present.  There is a quick overview of the creation of Israel and the lead up to the Six-Day War, as well as an analysis on how and why it was a success.  In many ways Stein's narrative is quite objective in that there is no restraint when it comes to failed Israeli policies.  The failure of the Israeli intelligence to adequately forewarn the country on the eve of the Yom Kippur War is highlighted and detailed, with numerous personalities being singled out for harsh criticism.  Additionally, the author takes Sharon and the entire Israeli response to task for the massacre of civilians at two refugee camps, Sabra and Shatila, perpetrated by Phalangists with Israeli support and acquiescence.

Simultaneously, the double standards consistently utilized against Israel are also shown in regards to the United Nations.  In many ways Israel was a middle ground during the Cold War between the Soviet Union's support for Arab states and the French, British, and United States response to various Soviet moves in the Middle East.  This led to moments of support for Israel from France and the United States but hardly ever outright recognition of the position Middle Eastern states (Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, etc.) and the PLO has consistently put Israel in as they allowed numerous terrorist groups to form, attain weapons, and use their territory as staging grounds for attacks on Israeli territory against both civilian and military targets.  The post-Cold War analysis is just as interesting.  Stein presents numerous instances and examples of the double standards that are consistently evident when Israel is being dealt with by the likes of the UN and the world media.  The constant attempts by the Israelis to find a peaceful solution to the Palestinian question is a one-way street in which the Israelis offer and the Palestinians refuse.  Simply put, Israel in and of itself is the stumbling block to 'peace' for the Palestinians, yet in many ways Israel is the only thing keeping the peace in that area (just look at ISIS today).  If you're looking for a good semi-in-depth analysis of Israel since the Six-Day War this is an excellent contribution to the field and in many ways should be required reading.  There aren't any major disclosures or ground breaking discoveries, but in many ways I think casual readers of history and the Middle East will still be surprised by the complexity of the many issues we've come to view in simple Manichean terms and how thin a line Israel, her politicians and military have to walk as the world's media and judgment is constantly focused on her actions.

Monday, December 15, 2014

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

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

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 23, 2014

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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 9, 2014

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

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

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

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

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