Monday, June 22, 2015

Stalingrad: The City that Defeated the Third Reich by Jochen Hellbeck

Jochen Hellbeck's "Stalingrad" is a testament to how much we still don't know about the Eastern Front over 70 years after the war has ended.  Within the Soviet Union a historical commission was created to chronicle the struggles of the Red Army and the Soviet Union during the war years, to create a history that well enough encompassed the courageous actions of men and women in the face of an enemy that few others were able to withstand, less so achieve victories against.  Unfortunately, while much information was gathered by the historians of this commission, little of this rich material ever saw the light of day.  Hellbeck, however, was given the ability and funding to be able to take numerous interviews from survivors of the Stalingrad battle and weave a compelling narrative about the endurance of the Red Army and the fighting for the city that bore Stalin's name.  In many ways Stalingrad became a turning point in the war against Nazi Germany and while initially numerous Soviet publications appeared on the battle, including memoirs, readers must keep in mind (and many already know) that much of that literature was tainted by Soviet propaganda, rhetoric, and adhered to the whims of Soviet censors.  Those histories and memoirs that appeared in the post-Soviet period are recollections that without doubt have been influenced by time (not to say that they should be dismissed, but simply treated with an understanding of their weaknesses and limitations).  Thus, a work that encompasses written interviews with survivors of the battle mere days or weeks after the fact offer many advantages for those interested in this period and these events.  Of course these accounts are tinged with ideology and Socialist cliches, but they are also rather candid about topics like German prisoners of war, cowardly behavior by some Red Army commanders, commissars and soldiers, as well Hellbeck offers a large number of endnotes that help guide the reader through many of the actions, units, and locations that are mentioned and also helps to showcase where readers can find discrepancies in accounts by the likes of Chuikov and Rodimtsev.  Without a doubt this is a fascinating look at the Red Army and its struggle against the Germans at Stalingrad, the fierce nature of the fighting comes through these interviews on a regular basis and some of the descriptions of the courage and loyalty shown by Red Army troops are truly inspiring.  This is a needed addition to Eastern Front literature and I can only hope that this rich archive is further explored and utilized by historians in the near future.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

The End of Tsarist Russia: The March to World War I and Revolution by Dominic Lieven

This topic, in many respects, is my bread and butter. I'm a student of Soviet/Russian history and while I specialize in the Second World War, I've also done a fair amount of research on the First World War, including the lead up to the outbreak of hostilities in the summer of 1914. I had high hopes for a new treatment of the outbreak of the war from the Russian perspective, but Dominic Lieven promised much and delivered little, in my opinion. The subtitle, 'WWI & The Road to Revolution' is somewhat misleading. The lead up to the outbreak of the war takes up 312 of this 368 page tome. How can you fit in WWI and the Road to Revolution in some 50 pages?

The author's motives are understandable. There is a distinct lack of literature that concentrates on Russia on the eve and throughout the First World War when compared to the Western Allies or the Axis in Central Europe. Yet the war was begun because of what happened in Eastern Europe and the failure of the Entente to dictate a viable peace at the end of the war meant an environment that would create conditions for the outbreak of a Second World War, that much deadlier than the first. Thus, a concentration on Russia, who saw itself as a protector of the Balkan Slavs, is understandable and welcome. But this effort by Lieven leaves much to be desired. I'm fine with reading both popular history accounts or dry factual volumes that are minefields of little known information. While Lieven aims to be the latter, his writing style featuring thick descriptions of mundane events and minutia just put me to sleep. More so, the treatment of Russia and Russian figures takes center stage to the point where so many personalities are introduced that one simply loses all hope in trying to keep track of who is doing what, believes in what, and whether it matters how much influence they wield if they simply die off before 1914 even comes around. Putting so much onus on Russia and her "important decision makers" means many in the west are left out or are overlooked. Thus in some ways other nations are either reaction to Russian decisions/actions or are making them possible but their own agency seems to be absent. I wish I could say there are better alternatives out there for those seeking much of the information presented here but, again, there is a distinct lack of these studies where Russia is concerned. If you're able to get through this dense diplomatic history of Russia on the eve of war, I can only commend you.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

The Battle for Moscow by David Stahel

David Stahel's latest work, 'The Battle for Moscow', is somewhat removed from his previous volumes on this topic.  This is his fourth book and it becomes evident that what was clearly visible on a majority of pages in his first three texts is missing from much of this latest effort.  That is, there is a significant lack of tactical and operational descriptions of battles.  At least one amazon reviewer has already commented on how disappointed they were to discover this.  Yet, in this supposed 'weakness' lies the strength of Stahel's argument(s).  The Wehrmacht on June 22, 1941 was a vaunted fighting force that managed to defeat and conquer most of Europe.  The ensuing invasion of the Soviet Union showcased, on the surface, the Wehrmacht's military prowess operationally and on a tactical level as numerous encirclements and victories were achieved.  Stahel outlines them all quite well (mainly in regards to Army Groups Center and South) in his previous volumes.  That is, the Red Army lost hundreds of thousands in the encirclements at Minsk, Smolensk, Kiev, and finally at Viazma/Briansk.  Yet, the narrative that concentrates on the victorious outcomes of those encirclements misses the forest for the trees.

Thus, 'The Battle for Moscow' is a somewhat different creature than Stahel's previous works because it highlights again and again the slow progress of the German Army in the latter half of Operation Typhoon throughout November and early December of 1941.  There are no major battles, encirclements, or defeats of the Red Army because German forces were incapable of launching significant operations to achieve such feats, and when a major city was taken, Rostov by Army Group South, it eventually had to be evacuated due to Red Army pressure and German inability to hold it.  Stahel thus forces the reader to assume the physical and psychological state of the German Army through the numerous diaries, letters, memoirs, and battle reports that he quotes from.  The exhaustion of German troops was palpable on very page as they became bogged down in the mud of early November while hoping for a sudden freeze to create conditions for an eventual lunge toward Moscow.  And when that freeze did come it brought with it new obstacles that while facilitating one last push toward the Soviet capital also meant a whole new level of exhaustion, misery, disease and madness for countless soldiers.

Additionally, on more than one occasion Stahel draws the reader's attention to the genocidal nature of the war that Hitler unleashed against the Soviet Union and the complicity of the Wehrmacht in the numerous stages of the Holocaust and the deaths of millions of Soviet prisoners of war.  One simply cannot discuss Operation Barbarossa or Typhoon without highlighting the numerous difficulties the Germans faced in the rear from Soviet partisans and how they treated the civilian population as the cold set in and they needed both clothing and dwellings to keep warm, which often meant stealing from the local population and displacing it to fend for themselves while appropriating their living quarters.

Finally, much of Stahel's concentration rests on the German commanders and their actions throughout November.  Unlike many self-serving post-war memoirs, archival documentation from this period shows that generals like Bock, Guderian, Kluge, etc., had a choice in how they handled their troops and assignments.  None were forced to go on the offensive, the majority of those decisions they took for themselves based on a variety of factors until their forces were simply beyond the means of, in some cases, even picking up their weapons.  No German general was dismissed at this point (dismissals would come after the Soviet counter-offensive commenced) and yet being on the frontline, knowing the situation their soldiers were facing, they continued to ignore the exhaustion of their troops, the limits of their mobility (lack of trucks, tanks, planes, etc.) and forced their depleted formations onto the offensive again and again.  What was the end goal?  Moscow was never supposed to be captured, but encirclement was no longer an option as the targets were far too distant for what the Wehrmacht could hope to accomplish in November or December.  Thus, Stahel emphasizes the disconnect that existed between the goals of German commanders and the reality of what their forces could accomplish, with the final result being a situation that soon found exhausted and depleted German troops retreating in the face of a well-developed and planned Soviet counter-offensive.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Tomb of the Panzerwaffe: The Defeat of the Sixth SS Panzer Army in Hungary by Aleksei Isaev, Maksim Kolomiets, Stuart Britton (Translator)

"Tomb of the Panzwerwaffe" covers the actions of the last large-scale German offensive on the Eastern Front from January through March of 1945.  The majority of this work is concentrated on the Soviet point of view but simultaneously there are reports, figures, and information that details the German side as well.  Isaev and Kolomiets have put out multiple volumes on the Second World War in Russia and this collaborative effort is a great addition to any library on the Eastern Front of the Second World War.  There is not much here in terms of eye-witness accounts as this is an operation and tactical account of the German attack to initially break through into besieged Budapest and then launch an attack against the Soviets around the area of Lake Balaton.  The authors are critical of both sides and their actions when the need arises.  Some archival information provided reveals the lack of readiness on the part of various Red Army formations but simultaneously there is also evident the high quality of actions undertaken by some units when the need appeared.  Soviet forces had been through much and their knowledge and abilities can be seen in detail throughout these operations, whether creating anti-tank kill zones or utilizing dummy positions in order to steer German tanks into tank ambushes.  One of the points the authors stress is the importance throughout these battles of anti-tank self-propelled artillery and artillery formations in general, it was their presence (in regiment, brigade, and division size) that stabilized much of the front with Red Army tank forces playing a secondary role, to a large extent.

While Kolomiets usually deals with a specific type of publication (photo heavy, oversized, and usually focuses on accounts of various battles or periods of the war) Isaev for the most part sticks to operational and strategic narratives in at times rather thick volumes.  I'm not a big fan of numerous photos of knocked out or abandoned tanks, but in the case of this book they served a very important purpose.  The Soviets marked each knocked out or abandoned tank, self-propelled gun, and half-track with markings and numbered them during this period.  This makes it possible to track the damage inflicted on the Wehrmacht in operations around Lake Balaton and compare the knocked out and abandoned equipment left on the field of battle with the numbers claimed by both the Red Army and the Wehrmacht in after-action reports.  While the Red Army claimed some 324 tanks and self-propelled guns burned out with another 332 knocked out, as well as 120 half-tracks burned and 97 knocked out, the German claims were for 42 tanks and 1 halftrack listed as irrecoverably lost, with another 396 tanks and self-propelled guns and 228 halftracks in for short and long term repairs.  Yet the pictures provided show a high number of at least 355, with most showing destroyed tanks and self-propelled guns (279 in total), thus the truth appears to be somewhere in the middle of Soviet claims and German reported figures.  More so, there is also the question of the Germans listing armored vehicles in 'short term' and 'long term' repair, categories which initially mean at least a month out of service, if not more, and indefinitely (respectively).  Additionally, categories can change over time, meaning a tank listed as in for short term repair can then be switched to long term and finally written off altogether.  I will mention that the only real weakness I found here is the limited endnotes and the limited bibliography provided.  Otherwise, this was a very interesting account of the final months of the war on the Eastern Front.

Friday, March 6, 2015

When the Facts Change: Essays, 1995-2010 by Tony Judt, Jennifer Homans

Tony Judt is a name Europeanists (historians of Europe) regularly encounter.  "Postwar" has almost become a standard text in many ways.  As with many historians in their own right, Judt has opinions on many issues, events, and personalities (whether they are part of his main concentration or not) and shares them with aplomb, for the most part.  This collection of book reviews, essays, and a few personal tracts written after the deaths of three well-known and respected historians are an interesting foray into the life of Judt, his ideas and the stances he took on a variety of contemporary topics.  The book is split into five parts. The first is entitled '1989: Our Age'; 'Israel, the Holocaust, and the Jews'; '9/11 and the New World Order'; 'The Way We Live Now'; and 'In the Long Run We Are All Dead.' These titles are mainly self-explanatory but personally I found one review and one lecture to be the stand outs.

The review of Norman Davies's 'Europe: A History' is absolutely phenomenal.  This is a hack of an historian who has received undeserved praise for reasons that I cannot even begin to fathom and yet his shoddy work is some of the worst drivel I've seen published in the past few decades.  Judt takes him to task for the mediocrity he is and the numerous mistakes, omissions, and worthless excuses for arguments he makes (his more recent 'No Simple Victory: World War II in Europe, 1939-1945' is no better).  As well, 'What is Living and What is Dead in Social Democracy?' was a lecture Judt gave at New York University in 2009 that deals with issues we've recently witnessed revolving around debates about economics, private vs. public, the role of government, etc.  Judt is very much of the opinion that what was done in the wake of the First and Second World Wars throughout Europe and America has slowly been undone since the Thatcher-Reagan era and has caused numerous problems for our society today, which will only continue to get worse.  One argument discussed how corrupt and inefficient publicly run municipalities/works fail to improve when sold to private entities as these sales include large commissions for banks and are a result of selling at a loss.  Additionally they are only approved when these private institutions are assured that in the case of their own failure the tax-payers will bare the burden while the private sector continues to reap any and all rewards.  The numerous safety nets created by governments come at a price, one that we as a society should be happy to pay and to see that others take up a similar cause when we are in need and suffering.  But in a society reared on 'An Army of One' that kind of mentality falls on deaf ears as 'crony capitalism' and 'greed' have created an image in people's minds where the government can do nothing right and corporations are people too.  While these were the most interested pieces, I also found his stance on the issue of where this country was going after 9/11, the usefulness of the UN, and the use of torture worth reading as well.

While the above are some of the more interesting and poignant pieces offered, there are some weaknesses, at least in my opinion. The sections on Israel are rife with contempt for Israeli policies, whether deserved or not, but wholly omit the responsibilities of the other side in this equation.  Judt makes it seem as if Israel has consistently held all the cards in the situation it has found itself in without any agency being given to the Palestinians or their various representatives, nor is any mention made of the numerous states that surround Israel and the role they have played when it comes to both Israeli security and the evolution of terrorism.  Although this collection is entitled 'When The Facts Change' it seems that some facts do not change for Judt when it comes to Israel.  Finally, much of the information presented is fascinating and one begins to crave more, but foot/endnotes are few (partly explained by the fact that these were, again, book reviews, essays and lectures).  Even so, considering there was an editor to this collection, a greater number of citations could have resulted in a better resources for those interested in some of the topics discussed.

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)