Monday, May 22, 2017

Hitler's First War: Adolf Hitler, the Men of the List Regiment, and the First World War by Thomas Weber

Thomas Weber's addition to literature on Hitler attempts to address numerous myths while simultaneously answering and posing new historically relevant questions.  Hitler's time in the German Army during the First World War is regularly referenced when historians or those with even a passing interest in history attempt to understand his motivations, experiences, and goals.  Was it the fires of the Great War that gave Hitler ideas for which direction Germany needed to head toward in the near and distant future?  Was his anti-Semitic attitude a result of his war experience?  Were there other veterans of Hitler's regiment who we can point to who followed in similar footsteps in their world outlook?  Or were Hitler's experiences removed from other veterans, and if so, what does that tell us about the impact the war had on not only Hitler but his comrades in arms?

As Weber shows, much of what we know or assumed we knew about Hitler was based on select materials utilized by the Nazi regime to wrap the former corporal in a shiny veneer of courage, heroism, and forethought.  Hitler's regiment often occupied quiet sectors of the front and although casualties were plentiful, they were not enough to create a distinctly separate war experience.  As it turns out, Hitler's role as a regimental dispatch runner rarely put him in physical danger, unlike many of his comrades who fulfilled the role of regular infantrymen on the frontlines.  That he received the Iron Cross says more about his relationship with those working in regimental headquarters than any type of courageous and noteworthy behavior.  Iron Cross holders were few and it was mainly connections with those working in headquarters that resulted in receiving an Iron Cross than any type of bravery in the midst of battle.  Finally, the gas attack Hitler suffered through was wildly exaggerated, his temporary blindness was a psychological rather than physical ailment.  

Weber concludes that Hitler's war experience did not influence him to turn toward politics, turn against Jews, or lead Germany toward the Second World War.  His actions in the war were utilized and manipulated during his rise to power in the 1920s and 1930s as an example of heroism and courage endured in the defense of the Fatherland, but they were a tool to raise Hitler's popularity with little evidence showing that his time on the front resulted in a defining transformation.  What influenced Hitler's outlook occurred after the First World War, and still remains something of a mystery for historians.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Blitzkrieg: From the Ground Up by Niklas Zetterling

That the idea of “Blitzkrieg” – a term hardly ever employed by the Germans – continues to dominate thinking about the Second World War means the term and concept are still in need of a better grounding and contextualization.  Niklas Zetterling’s “Blitzkrieg: From the Ground Up” attempts to look at a few select German operations – the invasions of Poland, Norway, France, and the Soviet Union – through the eyes lower-level ground forces in order to understand how revolutionary the concept of “Blitzkrieg” really was.  While I appreciate the attempt, the final results are somewhat disappointing.

The initial chapter, which documents how the foundations of what became “Blitzkrieg” are visible in the First World War (stormtrooper tactics) and discusses the evolution of German thinking of warfare in the interwar period, contains some interesting ideas.  Specifically, the author discusses the novelty, or lack thereof, behind what we associate today with the idea of “Blitzkrieg,” and more importantly the role and influence of technology versus that of personnel initiative.  The individual chapters themselves also contain interesting discussions, when speaking in a general sense, about the various campaigns the author concentrates on.  For instance, when ending the chapter on the invasion of Poland, Zetterling concludes: “Poland had been conquered by a rather traditional mode of warfare…”  Hardly reminiscent of the exciting, lighting victory that the first German success on the field of battle is usually portrayed as.  

However, some of the other conclusions the author reaches are unoriginal and I am unsure why they would merit an entire volume.  Zetterling’s main arguments revolve around the fact that the way the Germans waged war in WWII was not “revolutionary.”  According to the author: German air power was limited during 1939-1940 and cooperation between ground and air forces was not ideal until perhaps 1942; combined arms operations as employed by the Wehrmacht were not a novel concept but rather the norm for contemporary military operations.  Germany’s “secret,” as it turns out, was the training and initiative that was stressed by its officer corps, which often enough in the field meant a disregard for orders and the solving of problems before superiors even knew they existed.  Less attention is devoted to how often subordinates ignored orders from commanding officers and how that influenced the commander/subordinate dynamic that existed in the Wehrmacht.  The author argues that new weapons that appeared on the eve of and during the Second World War were incorporated into an existing army framework; the army decided how best to utilize the weapons it received rather than the weapons defining future German operational abilities.  Thus German success against states like Poland, Norway and France was the culmination of intensive work done by the Reichswehr and the Wehrmacht in the interwar period.  Furthermore, no successful “Blitzkrieg” doctrine that relies on quick wars based around surprise and offensive actions explains the successful defensive operations that the Wehrmacht employed in the latter half of the Second World War.  That, once again, according to the author, was due to training and independent thinking.


While it is hard to disagree with the above, my biggest complaint is that the way this volume was put together does not allow for enough emphasis or analysis of the above.  Zetterling might have wanted to present various diaries from soldiers and weave them into a seamless narrative, but the end result is a general commentary by the author about major operations/campaigns and then something of a “zoom-in” feature that takes the reader to the ground level, almost disconnected from the previous narrative, as the author paraphrases each and every primary source with needless details.  Instead, the author should have either included the diary/journal entries as they were (written in the first person) or taken out all the superfluous context and concentrated on the information that would support his argument(s).  Moreover, there is not enough supporting original material when Zetterling does present his argument(s).  For instance, there was no mention of the fact that planning for Germany’s campaign against France was initially planned to last some six months – hardly a “Blitzkrieg” campaign.  Additionally, there is no attempt to offer an explanation for why Germany’s opponents either lost the discussed campaigns or were decisively defeated in various engagements.  This really is a missed opportunity as deconstructing what “Blitzkrieg” is and is not will go a long way in helping to understand not only how and why Germany was successful in the Second World War but how the myth of “Blitzkrieg” has continued to dominate our understanding of this time period.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Panzer Killers: Anti-tank Warfare on the Eastern Front by Artem Drabkin and Stuart Britton

Similar to the other volumes published by Artem Drabkin and translated by Stuart Britton, 'Panzer Killers' offers readers a glimpse into the everyday life of Soviet combat veterans that served in the artillery arm of the Red Army.  Mainly you'll encounter soldiers who served with 45mm and 76mm artillery units and self-propelled guns, SU-76s and ISU-152s.  For those familiar with the Second World War and the Eastern Front, you'll find much that rings true and many fascinating anecdotes and reminiscences of time spent in combat, in retreat, in hospitals, and on the offensive.  The high casualty rates that these units suffered are regularly mentioned and discussed.  These men saw death on a regular basis, losing best friends in the blink of an eye.  One of the more interesting aspects of these interviews is keeping track of how many of these veterans and their comrades sustained wounds at the front.  Random and sometimes not so random artillery fire was often the culprit, which might explain why they survived.  Many were wounded multiple times and often they would not wait to be discharged from hospitals but take their chances hitching rides to the front to return to their former units and gun crews (otherwise it was anyone's guess where they might end up).  Aside from discussions of frontline actions (some of which are accompanied by diagrams to better situate readers with the engagements they're reading about), the interviewees also go over their daily routines, from meals to maintenance, and share their thoughts about ignorant officers who wasted men's lives and brave and courageous officers and NCOs who helped many survive the war.  All in all this is a highly recommended volume for those interested in first-hand accounts from Eastern Front veterans.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Soviet Conquest: Berlin 1945 by Tony Le Tissier

"Soviet Conquest" features excerpts from six Red Army memoirs that detail their experiences in the Soviet offensive against Berlin.  The most interesting, personally, turned out to be the reminiscences of Katukov, commander of the 1st Guards Tank Army, and Dragunski, who at the time commanded the 55th Guards Tank Brigade, part of the 3rd Guards Tank Army under Rybalko, a formation of the 1st Ukrainian Front under Koniev.  Other figures include engineers, self-propelled artillery forces, and a commander from one of the two Polish armies that fought with the Red Army in Berlin.  The translation(s) overall were good but they were done by someone who was more inclined to follow German standards than English, so many first and last names will sound odd to those who are familiar with the Library of Congress transliteration guidelines that most American/English scholars adhere to.  The text itself is interesting but it is a product of its time.  The reader should be prepared to encounter a lot of praise when it comes to Soviet valor, heroism, self-sacrifice, the importance of the Party and Komsomol, etc.  No doubt much of it is authentic, at least in terms of contemporary beliefs, but it says much about the authors.  As does what they leave out from their accounts.  Also interesting to note is the repetition of some themes, like the idea that the Red Army needed to get to Berlin before the Western Allies, even though it was agreed that the Soviets would get Berlin.  Most surprising in some ways in this account is that the battle for Berlin lasted only some two weeks; yet the casualties sustained by Soviet forces were in the tens of thousands.  Since many of the accounts discuss tank/self-propelled artillery forces, which in house-to-house fighting consistently needed support from infantry units, that such a large number of forces was concentrated in so limited an area yet was consistently short of infantry when it came to their advances just reinforces the fact that this operation was being conducted as quickly as possible without forethought about how to limit casualties.  Rather, it appears everyone was eager to finish the war as quickly as possible and in so doing were prepared to suffer grievous losses even though the authors constantly lament the loss of dear friends for avoidable reasons.  For those interested in Soviet, Cold War era, accounts of the battle for Berlin, this is a good starting point.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Who Lost Russia?: How the World Entered a New Cold War by Peter Conradi

Peter Conradi's "Who Lost Russia?" asks a question many have pondered for the past decade (at least).  In the wake of the end of the Cold War, and the Soviet Union, it appeared that the United States had "won" the Cold War and Russia looked with hope toward the West for understanding where their future might be found.  Unfortunately, much of the goodwill, from both sides, was squandered during the 1990s and led to the eventual ascension of Vladimir Putin to power at the turn of the century.  The terrorist attack against NYC on 9/11 offered another chance for a working partnership between the US and Russia but that was hardly the direction Bush, Cheney, and others in the White House/State Department wanted to take the country.  Thus, Putin as President of Russia, decided on an "alternative" approach by becoming more belligerent with "near abroad" territories and, thanks to the surplus created as a result of previously rising oil prices, much of the country was happy to follow someone they believed had altered their living conditions for the better while US actions in Eastern Europe and the rest of the world continually portrayed an America that many Russians no longer viewed with the same respect and appreciation they once did.

Conradi gets a lot right.  I was very surprised by how much ground he was able to cover in some 340 pages of text.  For those familiar with Russian/Soviet history, there won't be too much that's new or original within these pages, but for those new to the subject this is definitely a great starting point for beginning to understand the differences in how the US and Russia viewed events that took place throughout the 1990s up through the recent presidential election.  Where Conradi falls short is his reliance on a few select sources to tell his story.  He creates a compelling narrative but his own voice is often lost and not enough analysis is offered to better explain and fully contextualize all the issues he discusses, including how they influenced future developments.  That's the biggest drawback to a text that lacks primary source research (which in the author's defense is mostly impossible due to the recent nature of many of the events being portrayed).  However, more could have also have been done with other "players" who've been caught between the US and Russia.  That is, Poland, Ukraine, Germany, the Baltic states, and other Central/Eastern European nations have played a role in how Russia views the United States and vice versa.  There were a few instances when Conradi brought them into the equation and made sure to emphasize that their interests should not be ignored and that they do have an impact on how these larger regional and world powers behave but he did not offer enough analysis to drive home that fact often enough.

By the end of the text it appears Conradi could not come up with a clear-cut answer to the question in the title of his book.  He placed blame on both sides (which is often quite deserved) but in that respect I think he partly ignores one of his own points in that Russian thinking simply does not match that of the West, which has lived under "democratic" and "capitalistic" conditions far longer than Russians.  If one believes the above, then the author's conclusions rely on "Western thinking" and omit much of what he discussed from the Russian point of view, in effect skewing his conclusion(s).  Western attitudes toward Russia in the 1990s reinforced Russian beliefs of those who were wary of Western "experts" who came over to help in that they were more interested in Russian resources than helping Russia convert into a democratic power while building an economic system that relied on capitalist ideas.  Future Russian oligarchs worked with the system at their disposal to the detriment of both their country and the Russian people in general while politicians like Yeltsin tried to steer the country into a democratic direction as NATO, an organization that existed to thwart Soviet aggression, decided it was time not to reorganize and include Russia but more so placate their previous adversary while allowing former Eastern bloc members to join.  These actions might seem unimportant to many in the West, but a Russian narrative has been created based on this type of thinking and has been reinforced by many other actions that have degraded the reputation of the United States throughout the world.  Suffice it to say that this is hardly the endpoint to the question Conradi raises, it is just the beginning.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Lenin on the Train by Catherine Merridale

Catherine Merridale's "Lenin on the Train" is a bit difficult to categorize.  This is not a monograph for academics or specialists, the lack of archival research and the limited citations means this is more a 'popular' approach to this period (WWI, Russian Revolution) and personality (Lenin).  Simultaneously, however, the avalanche of names, locations, events, and dates mean readers need to have a rather in-depth understanding of the First World War and the Russian Revolution if they want to understand the narrative Merridale has created.

While the initial approach offered by the author sparked some interest, specifically the question of what role did Germany actually play in allowing Lenin to travel through their territory and destabilize the Eastern Front has some parallels to events occurring today in both Eastern Europe and the United States (to what extent can state and non-state actors influence revolutions, revolutionary movements, or the democratic process) the rest of the text unfolded as a rather unoriginal attempt to contextualize Lenin, the lead-up to the Russian Revolution, and Lenin's eventual return, escape, and re-return to Russia.  The most significant contribution Merridale makes is to showcase the chaotic nature of the Russian Revolution, how fragile the system that existed between the two revolutions was, and that Germany had no qualms about facilitating the return of personalities like Lenin to Russia if it would help get Russia out of the war and allow Germany to concentrate on the Western Front and potentially win the war.

As much as Lenin might have had to live down that his return was facilitated by a state that was simultaneously at war with the Russia, this was also the man that authorized the treaty of Brest-Litovsk.  Making deals with enemies and utilizing opportunities to continue preaching his brand of Marxism is what made Lenin the man he was.  Thus, reiterating that Germany was complicit in Lenin's return really does little to enhance our understanding of either the Russian Revolution or Lenin.  And once again I'm forced to wonder who is the intended audience for this text.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Architect of Soviet Victory in World War II: The Life and Theories of G.S. Isserson by Richard W. Harrison

Those familiar with the Soviet Union's military advances in the interwar period will undoubtedly have come across the name G. S. Isserson.  Although often overlooked for more familiar personalities (Tukhachevskii, Triandafillov, Svechin, etc.) he was, in the opinion of the Harrison, one of the founding fathers, if not the founding father, of the concept of "deep operations."  This was without a doubt one of the most interesting studies I've read on the interwar Red Army and the evolution of Operational Art within the Soviet Union (a theme Harrison began to study in his previous book, "The Russian Way of War").  Isserson became a good candidate to study and analyze as he left behind a number of articles and full-length volumes expanding on his theories and ideas and he survived Stalin's purges.  Unlike the majority of the Red Army, he was imprisoned in June of 1941 and was released from the GULag after Stalin's death.  Thus he continued to discuss, publish and lecture on military theory after his release and up until his death.

Personally, the most impressive and enlightening chapters of this volume deal with Isserson's publications in the 1930s and Harrison's discussion and breakdown of the various ideas he expanded on as well as their foundations in wars from the nineteenth century and how they would be applied in future conflicts (including how much of that could be actually seen throughout the Eastern Front of the Second World War).  Ideas on linear warfare in particular proved pertinent in how Isserson described the evolution of warfare into the First World War and how "deep operations" would continue to evolve warfare in future conflicts.  His texts discussed meeting engagements, breakthrough operations, the creation of shock armies, cavalry-mechanized groups, the use of airborne forces, covering armies, and setting up defenses in-depth.  Unfortunately, for all his intelligence and genius, Isserson never received the attention, praise or respect he deserved and in the post-Stalin period it was those figures who died accidentally (Triandafillov) or in the purges (Tukhachevskii, Yakir, Uborevich, Svechin, etc.) who received the majority of recognition for the improvements and advances the Red Army underwent in the 1930s before the purges lobbed off the "head" of the Red Army.

If there are any weaknesses here it is that Harrison seems to at times have become enamored with Isserson.  There's no doubt this was an intelligent person, although he came with a very abrasive attitude toward his peers and whomever he considered beneath his intelligence, but it appears Harrison continuously ascribes the majority of the research and advances made within the concept of "deep operations" solely to him (granted, their foundations he does trace to Triandafillov).  More so, when mentioning any of his "students" while a lecturer at the General Staff Academy he treats Isserson as if he was their only mentor and his class(es) were the only ones that mattered (and his students included some of the most famous and well-respected commanding officers during the Second World War).  Granted, there's enough source material to show that there was appreciation for Isserson as an instructor but in general it seems the author is putting a lot of emphasis on this point and is becoming more of a cheerleader for Isserson rather than a biographer.  However, one can easily let this weakness pass as the information Harrison has found and unearthed makes an enormous contribution to our understanding of the Red Army's evolution in the interwar period and throughout the Second World War - something historians continue to study and evaluate to this day and will continue to do so as long as numerous archival holdings are consistently made off-limits to researchers by Russian authorities.
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