Friday, October 4, 2019

Mortar Gunner on the Eastern Front: The Memoir of Dr. Hans Rehfeldt. Volume 1: From Moscow Winter Offensive to Operation Zitadelle by Hans Heinz Rehfeldt

Hans Rehfeldt, a mortarman in the Grossdeutschland Regiment, then division, uses his wartime diaries as a foundation for this 'memoir.'  Most of the text reads like diary entries but there are a few instances of foreshadowing that make it evident the author has made additions to the text.  Having read quite a few WWII memoirs (mainly German and Soviet) this volume is best for those with an intimate knowledge of the Eastern Front.  Many of the entries focus on mundane activities but there are also more than enough examples of the type of fighting the Wehrmacht encountered on the Eastern Front. 

Rehfeldt participated in some of the most well-known and bloodiest engagements that occurred during the Soviet-German encounter.  He first found himself fighting outside Tula in the winter of 1941, the city was Guderian's target and one step too far for his Panzer Group.  Rehfeldt documents the fighting he experienced in the lead up to the Soviet counteroffensive in December of 1941 and the ensuing retreat in terrible winter conditions.  By early 1942, the author is continually suffering from wounds sustained from frostbite and his battalion is eventually disbanded due to the heavy casualties it sustained.  After recovering, Rehfeldt participates in battles on the Don and outside Rzhev as well as in the retaking of Kharkov and then the Kursk offensive. 

There is no lack of action, and some of the included maps created by Rehfeldt himself will help readers understand some of the situations he found himself in.  The photos (dozens of them) included are also a nice addition.  Where the book suffers is from a lack of maps that would help track the progress and movements of the author's battalion/regiment/division.  Without these maps much of the actions the author is involved in become hard to track or contextualize.  An additional weakness is a lack of self-reflection, something many memoirs contain but which authors undoubtedly don't have time for when keeping a diary at the front and when they constantly find themselves in the midst of battle.  Otherwise, this is a fairly detailed and informative account of a soldier who found himself on the Eastern Front.

Friday, August 2, 2019

Fur Volk und Fuhrer: The Memoir of a Veteran of the 1st SS Panzer Division Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler by Erwin Bartmann

There are a few different ways one can approach "Fur Volk und Fuhrer."  Memoirs are usually self-serving and self-censored.  Moreover, when written decades after the events in question, memories can change or be altered by encounters with others and by the influence of literature/media and contemporary events.  Thus readers should take what's written on these pages with a grain of salt.  However, having read dozens if not hundreds of memoirs on the Second World War, especially the Eastern Front, there's much here that I found fascinating, including Bartmann's interactions with locals (French, Soviet, and German), the animosity that existed between the Wehrmacht and Waffen SS, as well as some of his descriptions of combat operations.  However, there are also episodes that I would question in terms of authenticity.

Having said the above, Erwin Bartmann's memoirs read more like a number of separate and loosely connected vignettes of his time in the 1st Panzer SS Division Leibstandarte.  He discusses his childhood in Berlin, the street brawls he witnessed between Communists and Nazi Brown Shirts, and Hitler's eventual seizure of power.  After volunteering to serve in Hitler's Bodyguard unit, he is initially denied the chance and then receives an opportunity thanks to the timely intervention of Heinrich Himmler.  After undergoing training he is deployed to the Eastern Front where he experiences most of his time in combat.  The descriptions of combat against the Red Army resemble many other available German Army memoirs.  The Red Army is viewed as a faceless mass full of soldiers who torture and mutilate any German (including the wounded) they can get their hands on, while the author and his comrades fight a clean war as they attempt to save Europe from the Bolshevik hordes.  After an initial stint on the Eastern Front Bartmann's division is relocated to France for rest and eventually find themselves once more on the Eastern Front, first fighting in Kharkov after the encirclement of the Sixth Army in Stalingrad, and then at Kursk, where the author is wounded fighting around Prokhorovka.  That wound pretty much puts him out of action for the duration of the war as he attempts to heal and then is put in charge of training machine gunners.  By April 1945, Bartmann finds himself stationed close to Berlin and undertakes a meandering trip to escape the advancing Red Army with some of the recruits he's been training.  He eventually finds his way over the Elbe and is caught by Western Allied forces. 

In general, this is an author who looks back on the Second World War as a nostalgic time that he spent having sex with numerous women (which he discusses on multiple occasions) and forging close bonds of comradeship while fighting in the ranks of what eventually became the 1st SS Panzer Division, an elite unit with a rich history of battles throughout the Second World War.  He readily believed in Hitler's cause and by the end of the book admits that if given a second chance at life he would not change any of his actions.  While he acknowledges the genocidal regime that was Nazi Germany, to then admit that he would once more fight for a nation that started a World War and went on to kill millions of men, women, and children sounds like someone who has yet to learn from history or his own actions. 

Sunday, March 17, 2019

The First Soldier: Hitler as Military Leader by Stephen G. Fritz

Germany's initial victories, both diplomatic and military, during the late 1930s and early 1940s have given rise to a few myths about how they were accomplished.  Hitler is usually given credit for his ability to persuade and cajole Western leaders into stepping back from promises made in the immediate aftermath of the First World War as Germany's borders once more expanded to the detriment of her neighbors.  However, when it comes to discussions about military achievements, it's usually the commanding generals and Field Marshals that receive the laurels of victory while Hitler suffers in the corner as the lowly corporal who couldn't keep his mouth shut and listen to his generals when they told him exactly what he should do.  

In 'The First Soldier," Stephen G. Fritz revisits the many key decisions made by both Hitler and his commanders and attempts to contextualize how much influence each had on the other and on the final decision-making process that was visible on the ground.  For Fritz, Hitler's victories have to be accepted alongside his failures.  That is, Hitler's numerous diplomatic triumphs that many of his commanders often opposed were accomplished in spite of his generals.  The decision to invade Poland and France was also made in the face of many nay-sayers and it was in many respects Hitler who pushed Manstein's plan for the invasion of France to the forefront, which ended in utter humiliation for the French and a victory no German general, or Hitler himself, could have predicted.  The victory over France reinforced and reenergized Germany's commanders so that by the time Hitler wanted plans for an invasion of the Soviet Union there were no longer voices of disagreement to be heard.  The final major accomplishment Fritz sees fit to assign to Hitler is the decision to issue the "stand fast" order of the winter of 1941/1942, which many German commanders themselves agreed was the correct choice of action.

Fritz shows that for the majority of the war Hitler leaned on and listened to his generals or was able to convince them of his ideas.  In truth, both played off each other and used each other to accomplish their respective goals.  To what extent were German victories a reflection of Hitler's genius is a question that's still too difficult to answer.  The decision to invade Poland was based on the idea that at worst this would be a localized conflict with a partner in the form of the Soviet Union.  That plan quickly came undone and the Western Allies declared war on Germany, which Hitler was not expecting or prepared for.  France's quick defeat/surrender was as much a surprise to Hitler as it was to the Allies.  The outcome was a combination of numerous factors, part of which was the decision to employ Manstein's plan - another example of Hitler and his commanders working together.  The invasion of the Soviet Union, however, saw both Hitler and Halder interfere in numerous decisions that eventually resulted in defeat.  But, as Fritz correctly points out, the invasion was doomed to failure from the very beginning because of flawed planning and intelligence.  The decisions that followed the invasion of the Soviet Union only compounded the many inherent flaws of Operation Barbarossa.  There was no way to achieve victory militarily, only politically, but any attempt to reach out to Stalin or the Western Allies to ask for peace was out of the question for Hitler.  

As the war progressed Hitler's generals often worried about the obstacles before them and gave little thought to the greater geo-political landscape Hitler inhabited.  Fritz argues convincingly that many of Hitler's decisions, up until the last days of the war, were made with political, diplomatic, military, and economic ideas in mind, whereas his generals had only need of more men, tanks, planes, and supplies to finish off the enemy standing before them.  Both Hitler and his generals failed to take into account how the war they had unleashed on Europe and the world would play out strategically.  Compounding their flaws on top of each other, Hitler and his commanders found themselves in a situation that few thought manageable toward victory as early as 1941.  By contextualizing Hitler's decision making process, Fritz has shown first and foremost the flaws of the German commanders that surrounded Hitler.  It wasn't that Hitler was unable to wage war successfully, it was that German commanders have left a legacy of memoirs that claimed that only they could.  Their postwar accounts portrayed Hitler as a temperamental dilettante who refused to listen to reason, whereas in reality their flawed ideas revolving around military strategy, combined with Hitler's racist worldview, meant the Second World War was lost before it began.

Sunday, December 23, 2018

Panzers on the Vistula: Retreat and Rout in East Prussia 1945 by Hans Schaufler

Hans Schaufler's "Panzers on the Vistula" offers readers a look at some of the retreats the 4th Panzer Division participated in during the final few months of the Second World War on the northern section of the Eastern Front – mainly through Latvia and East Prussia.  Readers can experience the chaos of this final period of the war as German losses kept mounting as a result of repeated Soviet offensive operations and German counterattacks that aimed to restore some coherence to the front but all too often proved pointless.  Schaufler’s account hits many of the usual Cold War clich├ęs about the Second World War, Eastern Front, Soviet Union, and Red Army that one would one expect from a former soldier who took part in the fighting on the Eastern Front and was regularly exposed to German propaganda.  Interestingly, at the same time that the author is calling out German reports as presenting a “totally false analysis” about the fighting situation on the Eastern Front, he himself offers a skewed look at the struggle against the Red Army. 

Schaufler presents the German situation in January of 1945 as disastrous and doomed while claiming the only reason for the Wehrmacht to keep fighting “was to save the innocent victims of this senseless war from the vengeance of the Red Army…”  Apparently, he’s forgotten that Germany began this “senseless war.”  Even though the author realizes that German defensive actions are merely prolonging the inevitable, “even the dumbest long knew the war was long,” and himself question what the correct course of action is, he nonetheless claims that the civilian population, fearing the Red Army, “all sought protection from the German troops.”  This idea of German troops continuing to put up resistance to help civilians flee from the Red Army to the west – along with the idea that to surrender would be perceived as cowardly by their comrades – is a constant theme that’s repeated by the author and others from whose reminiscences and articles he quotes throughout the book.  In some respects, it isn’t surprising that soldiers came up with reasons to convince themselves that they needed to keep fighting rather than simply surrender to the Red Army.  The excuse that they needed to buy time for civilians fleeing the Red Army presented their ultimate actions as those of soldiers protecting future victims rather than the last defenders of a regime that began a Second World War and a genocidal campaign against the Soviet Union. 

Similarly, Soviet forces are represented by a “vast superiority in numbers,” another relic of Cold War rhetoric and German propaganda.  At this late point in the war German casualties are telling.  One of the strengths of this book are the rare times when the author shares the desperate situation German forces found themselves in as when a battalion’s combat strength was reduced to a mere twelve men and they were responsible for a twelve-kilometer sector of the front, an impossible assignment.  Another interesting incident is recounted when a self-propelled gunner discusses how Red Army troops created two fake anti-tank gun positions in order to lure him into firing and give away his position.  In the midst of the author’s descriptions of Soviet propaganda urging Red Army soldiers to “Kill the Germans!” the author admits that Soviet fighting troops deserved “credit” as “the overwhelming majority of them were humane.”  But there is, unfortunately, no explanation of what specific behavior constituted “humane” or “inhumane,” although the latter is easier to imagine.  The final chapters of the book deal with the different fates German survivors experienced in various prisoner of war camps, including those who were interned in Sweden and eventually handed over to the Soviets.  Overall, this text offers a thought-provoking look at the final months of the war but readers should be aware of the author’s biases and try to put his words and actions, along with those he quotes, into the greater context of the Second World War and the overall experiences of its participants. 

Saturday, November 17, 2018

The Tanks of Operation Barbarossa: Soviet versus German Armour on the Eastern Front by Boris Kavalerchik

It's not easy to write an original monograph on the Red Army and Wehrmacht's tanks during Operation Barbarossa.  This is a topic that many historians, scholars, and researchers touch on when discussing the Eastern Front but rarely do they go into detail.  Specialist texts that look at the history of tank creation/production leave much to be desired and general WWII readers can easily become bogged down in the details.  With "The Tanks of Operation Barbarossa" Boris Kavalerchik is able to give readers a little of everything: a look at the conditions that allowed for the creation of tank industries in Germany and the Soviet Union, two countries that very much lagged behind Britain and France or were forced in the wake of the First World War to cease production of armored vehicles in general; a rundown of the various models produced, including their strengths and weaknesses; and a look at how they fit into the greater strategy and tactics utilized by the Red Army and Wehrmacht during the Second World War.  The majority of the text deals with tank design and production as well as the human element that operated these tanks.  The final chapters look at the weaknesses and strengths of the most numerous of the latest tank models (Pz III and IV and the T-34 and KV I and II tanks).  How they performed on the field of battle is analyzed through the experiences of a Soviet tank division and a German tank division in a meeting engagement in and around Raseiniai.  This is not a text I would recommend for those unfamiliar with the Second World War or the Eastern Front.  For those with a general interest and a fair amount of knowledge, this is a great addition to your library if you want to better understand how and why the Wehrmacht was successful in its encounters with large numbers of Red Army tanks throughout the summer of 1941.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

The Shadow Emperor: A Biography of Napoleon III by Alan Strauss-Schom

"The Shadow Emperor" by Alan Strauss-Schom aims to offer a readable historical account of the life and times of Napoleon III, one of Napoleon Bonaparte's nephews.  From his early life and childhood, including his relationship with his mother, father, extended family and brother, to his early ideas and failed attempts to take power in France and his eventual assumption of power after the 1848 revolutions.  Finding himself in the role of ruler of France, Napoleon III initially surrounded himself with a few trustworthy and reliable personalities who helped him see through numerous reforms, wars, and institutional challenges that modernized and revitalized France among Europe's major powers.

While Napoleon's time in power is best remembered for the numerous campaigns and coalitions that allied to defeat and depose the tyrant of Europe, Napoleon III spent most of his time and energy looking inward.  He helped usher in the design and restructuring of Paris, with the help of Baron Haussmann, he supported the sciences and research, the arts and agricultural initiatives that helped France's wheat, corn, and wine production.  Napoleon III was regularly consumed by thoughts about the common French man and woman, something his uncle seemingly spent little time on.  Unfortunately, Napoleon III's rule was not always peaceful and prosperous.  His attempts at colonial conquest in Algeria made sure that thousands of French soldiers suffered death and injury on a monthly basis while the local population died in massive numbers.  His help in waging war against the Russian Empire during the Crimean War made sure Russia's attitude toward France was antagonistic, at best, and his sponsoring of a campaign against Mexico made for an enemy out of Austria when the emperor's brother perished overseas.  Additionally, his support for Italy's attempts at unification against Austrian occupation was viewed poorly by many European powers.  Finally, his ill-advised antagonizing of Prussia on the eve of the Franco-Prussian war sealed the fate of his reign as the head of the Second Empire.  Napoleon III's achievements in modernizing the country seemingly came at the expense of the army, which after numerous overseas campaigns was not ready to challenge a modern European army like that of Prussia.  Schom does an excellent job of analyzing and describing the numerous deficiencies that plagued the French army as they attempted to engage in battle with a Prussian army that recently defeated two European powers (Denmark and Austria).

Schom does an admirable job of portraying Napoleon III and the men and women who found themselves a part of his life.  As a biography, this is an excellent account of Napoleon III and his major contributions to France during his time in power.  The only major weakness that I found was at times a lack of needed context to figure out why Napoleon III initially failed to gain power in France yet nonetheless eventually succeeded.  How the revolutions of 1848 facilitated his eventual rise to power remains a mystery, including their impact on French society.  Otherwise, I found this volume quite enlightening, especially for a period and ruler who are often overlooked.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

In Broad Daylight: The Secret Procedures behind the Holocaust by Bullets by Father Patrick Desbois

Father Patrick Desbois is partly responsible for our understanding of "The Holocaust by Bullets," the mass murder of millions of Jews throughout Eastern Europe that is often overshadowed by the assembly line mass murder of Jews and other "undesirables" in German death camps.  In his first publication on the subject, Desbois took an original approach to the topic by aiming to interview adolescent bystanders who could still recall how and where the local Jewish population was murdered by the invading Germans and their collaborators.  

"In Broad Daylight" takes that initial research a step further as Desbois and his team have continued to gather information through interviews and presents the minutia that has often been overlooked or simply never considered by researchers or academics. We have many accounts from German concentration and death camps by survivors and perpetrators, but Jews murdered by the millions in mass graves no longer have a voice.  Those who were lucky enough to survive can only offer accounts from their limited perspective, but Desbois is interested in the minute details that were needed for mass murder to become an almost acceptable everyday phenomenon.  

He looks at a typical mass murder site starting from the night before, when locals were conscripted to help transport Jews to their final destination and when German forces and their collaborators would begin arriving inevitably leading to a night that finally saw the last vestiges of human decency disappear as Jews were beaten and raped before their eventual executions in the early morning hours.  Aside from speaking to those who only witnessed German aktions Desbois's team also initiates discussions and interviews with those who participated in cooking the food the Germans ate while on break from executing Jews, those who dug the mass graves, and numerous others who one day lived with their Jewish friends and neighbors and the next found themselves drawn to either watching their death, including hearing their cries and screams, or in some way participating in the German aktion itself.  


This is a haunting and deeply disturbing text.  For many, simply reading a list of sites where German mass murders took place throughout Eastern Europe leaves them unable to grasp what those on the ground witnessed and experienced as their everyday lives were torn apart by an invading army and a genocidal occupation policy.  Therefore, this is a volume best read slowly and methodically so that readers can contemplate what humanity is capable of all too easily when presented with a specific set of circumstances as those with a superiority complex decide human life is cheap and disposable.  This is a study that offers an important contribution to our understanding of how the Holocaust by bullets unfolded and presents in a new light the vital role played by the local population in the mass murder of East European Jewry.    
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