Thursday, August 18, 2016

Enemy in the East: Hitler's Secret Plans to Invade the Soviet Union by Rolf-Dieter Müller

Although I say it often enough, there are still only a few books that surprise me when it comes to the Second World War, especially the Eastern Front.  In this case, the book I'd compare this work to would be David Stahel's "Operation Barbarossa and Germany's Defeat in the East."  I'd recommend reading Müller's volume first and follow that up with Stahel's ever evolving look at the German incursion into the Soviet Union.

Taking a look at "Enemy in the East" there are a few important things the author attempted to do with this monograph.  He wanted to look at the history of German military plans against the Soviet Union, especially in the period after Hitler took power and through 1941.  Simultaneously, he wanted to see who actually did the planning as in the postwar period the majority of the German commanders who remained alive created a narrative that portrayed Hitler as being the sole guilty party in the genocidal campaign that was the German invasion of the Soviet Union.  Answering the question of where the plans for the invasion of the Soviet Union originated from also means creating additional context in understanding not only the evolution of the Second World War but also the Holocaust.  This means engaging with the old "intentionalists vs. functionalists" debate.  The conclusion reached by the author is that it was Halder and the army that created the original plans for the invasion of the Soviet Union (which were not ideological, although perhaps a little too idealistic) but it was Hitler who created the genocidal form the war would take in the early periods of 1941 without much opposition from the army high command.

What the author does well, better than any interwar history that I've come across previously, is show the interplay between Hitler's Germany and Poland.  That relationship receives a rather large amount of attention, while that of Germany and Great Britain, France, Japan, Italy, the Soviet Union, Romania, Czechoslovakia, etc., receive less attention but all play very vital roles in how Hitler's plans for the Second World War evolved.  In some ways I think more attention should have been paid to the diplomatic relations between Germany and the Soviet Union as there are connections the author misses and would have added even more context to an already fascinating study.

According to Müller, Hitler had always planned to go to war with the Soviet Union and might have actually done it in 1939 with Poland's help if not for how certain events developed.  Poland's move away from Germany toward Britain and France meant Germany could no longer continue creeping slowly east and utilizing additional eastern territories for an eventual invasion of the Soviet Union (with or without Poland's help).  This meant an eventual deal with the Soviet Union had to be made.  After invading Poland, and having Britain and France in turn declare war on Germany, Hitler once again had to alter his plans and invade France, in order to avoid a future war on two fronts.  Only after the defeat of France was Hitler ready for a final showdown with the Soviet Union.  However, German hubris, combined with unrealistic evaluations of both the Soviet Union and Red Army, resulted in clashes between Halder and Hitler and the eventual failure of Operation Barbarossa and Germany's eventual defeat.

Although this is very well researched work, there were some weaknesses amidst the many strengths.  While there is no question the author is an expert in his relevant field(s) when it comes to Nazi Germany, Hitler, and the Wehrmacht, there were a few problems with how the Soviet Union, Stalin, the Red Army, etc., were portrayed.  In general I think the author thinks quite highly of the Wehrmacht's capabilities, even before the invasion of Poland, and had a rather inadequate appraisal of the Red Army's abilities.  Furthermore, the author compares the German invasion forces of some 3.7 million troops (German and allied) to Red Army forces in Soviet Western Military Districts, 2.9 million.  The problem here is that western military districts stretched all the way to Moscow, Soviet forces on or near the border totaled only some 1 million men.  Finally, one somewhat oft cited argument is that the Soviet counteroffensive outside Moscow was enabled thanks to Stalin siphoning off divisions from the Far East to face Germany in the west.  Although this was done, it was a gradual process that began in the summer of 1941 and divisions from the Far East, while making a difference, were not decisive.

The above aside, this is a highly recommended text for those interested in the interwar period and the evolution of Hitler's plans for war and expansion throughout Europe.  This is simply an indispensable volume that puts much of the interwar period and the lead up to the invasion of the Soviet Union in a new light.

Monday, August 8, 2016

In Wartime: Stories from Ukraine by Tim Judah

Tim Judah's "In Wartime: Stories from Ukraine" offers a good introductory look at the recent conflict that began in the shadow of the Sochi Winter Olympics.  There are a few issues and weaknesses throughout.  But, overall, for those who want to understand Ukraine's turbulent history, its place within the Soviet Union and relationship to Russia in the post-Soviet period, as well as how the recent "Maidan" revolution began, including the war in Eastern Ukraine, this is a great starting point.

First, the few minor negatives that I ran across.  Since I had an advanced copy of the book, there were some spelling/grammar issues that I think will be corrected before the final publication is out, but at times such issues made for having to reread sentences and even paragraphs as some of the arguments presented and events described became convoluted and the errors/writing style made it harder to figure out what was actually happening.  Secondly, and more importantly, since Judah isn't a historian - and although this is not a history book - yet attempts to tackle historical issues/topics, he does not always do a satisfactory enough job in presenting them (conversely, he has unearthed some interesting material and has led me to ordering a few books to continue my own research).  I'll only utilize two minor examples.  When discussing the referendum in Donetsk and Lugansk he compares the event to the Soviet "acceptance" of Western Ukraine and Belorussia after the dismemberment of Poland following the non-aggression pact.  The comparison is fair but omits the precedent the Soviets were working from, that is, the German annexation of Austria and the Sudetenland.  Similarly, when discussing the annexation of Crimea and the referendum that took place there, the author ignores the more recent precedent of what happened in Kosovo, which Russia had a large interest in and whose concerns were ignored when Kosovo was granted independence.  Obviously none of this is an excuse or justification for Russian/Soviet actions, simply that the author is presenting historical events with limited context which places all the onus on the Soviet Union/Russia and misses important precedents.  Finally, the author is not fluent in either Russian or Ukrainian, thus he used translators and there's the possibility that some nuances or context might be missing, but that's an issue that doesn't come across the pages of this book, at least nothing jumped out at me, but it's simply something to keep in mind.

What the author does well is discuss the numerous shades of grey that exist in this conflict.  That includes the propaganda campaigns from both sides that recycle Soviet/Nazi rhetoric and propaganda while justifying their own actions.  However, Ukraine is a multi-ethnic state seeking a history to grasp onto but unfortunately the historical heroes and events many right-wing groups, including some in government positions, have grasped onto ignore the other rich historical legacies that exist throughout Ukraine.  Thus the selective memory of OUN and UPA actions against Ukraine's enemies have come to represent a heroic Ukrainian narrative that ignores the genocide of Ukraine's Jewish population, some of whom died at the hands of the same OUN and UPA heroes that are honored today.  These decisions, of whom to honor and what events to ignore, have added fuel to the propaganda fires that have been emanating from Russia and the rebel groups in Eastern Ukraine.  A grain of truth is all that is needed to paint entire groups as "fascists" and "puppets of the West."  While some believe the propaganda campaigns the vast majority of Ukrainians want peace and an end to the corruption that they have been witness to at every level of society.  They want to live their lives in peace, raise their children and work jobs that pay relatively stable and meaningful salaries, something that has eluded most Ukrainians for the past two decades and has become even harder to come across in a Ukraine that now has to wage war on its eastern frontier.  The majority of the stories presented from interviews are interesting and give minor insights into everyday life throughout various regions of Ukraine (Galicia, Bessarabia, and the eastern provinces of Lugansk and Donetsk).  Each region has its own distinct history, interests, cultural legacies and impressions of the Maidan revolution and the ensuing war in the east.  There is no single, coherent narrative that all of Ukraine can get behind and support, something Ukraine's government has been unable to create, while Russia has taken every opportunity to emphasize its own propaganda efforts to discredit Ukraine's current regime.  Thus, Ukrainians continue to struggle to understand their place in Europe and their relationship to Russia while waging war in their backyard.

Friday, July 22, 2016

After Stalingrad: Seven Years as a Soviet Prisoner of War by Adelbert Holl

I've read a few memoirs detailing German experiences in Soviet POW camps.  Adelbert Holl's experiences, overall, offer an interesting insight into the Soviet POW and GULag system of camps.  Simultaneously, I was a bit disappointed as Holl's narrative can at times be tedious and tiresome.  Thus, I can't say that this is the most interesting memoir I've read but it is one that offers the ability for readers to make a few interesting observations.  To some extent I'd say readers are probably interested in seeing if German prisoners ever wondered about their complicity in the Third Reich and the unfolding Holocaust, or if they even knew it was going on around them.  Holl spends little to no time reflecting on his role as a soldier in the Wehrmacht, only at times reminding the reader how much better Germans are than their Soviet/Russian/Asiatic counterparts.  He has no remorse or really any feelings at all for the war that was unleashed on the Soviet people, for Holl the most important aspects of his imprisonment are ensuring survival for himself and those Germans who have not decided to "betray" their country by joining the Soviet propaganda efforts against Hitler's regime.  Thus, from one camp to another Holl mainly recounts his attempts to avoid work, stand up to perceived and real Soviet cruelty, search for food, etc.  The majority of his memoirs are in fact filled with discussions of the horrid situation he's found himself in and, when his attempts to avoid work finally result in his judgment and imprisonment in the Soviet GULag system for ten years of hard labor, he experiences another level of cruelty that includes an introduction to the criminal element that has made the GULag world in part its own fiefdom.  For those interested in how German POWs were treated and how the Soviets were able to convict many and keep them working within the GULag system, thus avoiding returning them home until they absolutely had to, you'll find plenty of interesting information in Holl's account of his time in the Soviet state.  However, if you're looking for a narrative that includes a more personal and retrospective discussion of the Third Reich, Hitler, the German invasion of the Soviet Union, the Holocaust, etc., you won't find much of that here.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Rollback: The Red Army's Winter Offensive along the Southwestern Strategic Direction, 1942-43 Translated and Edited by Richard W. Harrison

"Rollback: The Red Army's Winter Offensive along the Southwestern Strategic Direction, 1942-43" is a compilation of a few articles written by military authors and for internal military studies followed up by a selection of translated documents from archival collections previously released in Russia.  The articles range from the 1940s into the 1950s and one can see minor differences in the time periods with how operations were discussed and analyzed.

For those familiar with works by David Glantz, these articles read in a similar way but are usually less readable with a dry, technical voice recounting fact after fact.  The majority of the action takes place parallel to or right after the Stalingrad operations being conducted in late 1942 and early 1943, so keeping that in mind it's no wonder that you have more limited operations going on simultaneously that are relying on a few armies and corps for various encirclement operations.

Each of the major operations here begins with an overview of STAVKA orders for front/army and corps/division commanders, followed by a look at training, intelligence, logistical issues, engineering troops, tank forces, artillery, air support, etc.  Mention is also made of terrain and weather conditions are also discussed.  Although the author(s) are aware of how detrimental weather conditions can be for operations, both on the ground and in the air, at one point when they could have blamed the weather for a poor Red Army performance they choose instead to more objectively point to the inadequate actions of army and front commanders.  So in that respect, readers of this volume should keep in mind that these articles were made for internal consumption and for Soviet military personnel to learn from and grow, rather than a rehashing of familiar propaganda slogans (although that is found among these pages every now and then as well).

The real interest here for readers is the tone taken with respect to deficiencies.  In at least two or three of the operations covered, there is an emphasis on what was done correctly and where there were deficiencies that need to be addressed in future discussions and eliminated in future operations.  From lack of engineering support and tanks lost due to concealed minefields, to lack of air support and poor coordination on the part of army and front commanders, the authors are rather frank in what Red Army forces did well and where and why they performed poorly.  That in and of itself is not often found among publications created for the public in the Soviet period so the highlighting of these issues is very important to note and worthwhile to be aware of when contemplating to what extent the Red Army had learned its trade by the end of 1942 and the beginning of 1943, that is, leading up to the Third Battle of Kharkov in the spring of 1943.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Secondhand Time by Svetlana Alexievich

Having read hundreds of books on the Soviet Union and today's Russia there are few that make the kind of impression that Alexievich's latest foray into the lives of generations of former Soviet men and women has left on me.  "Secondhand time" is a book about life and death, suffering, tragedy, the human condition and what life is like in a space that encompasses a world not totally forgotten, that of the Soviet Union, and one not totally understood, crony capitalism moving in the direction of new-age fascism.  The weaknesses or biases of the book are few, even though they are important to remember.  This is a book based on human memory and one that mainly concentrates of women and their stories, all too often filled with adversity, desperation, humiliation and misfortune.  Although human memory is imperfect, there are snapshots that have entered everyone's consciousness and which can readily be recalled that seem to portray events that took place just yesterday yet truly occurred years or decades ago.  As the interviewees discuss traumatic events in their lives (war, terrorism, murder, violence, etc.), there is more reason to believe that what they are recalling is closer to an emotionally honest and raw remembrance than a self-censored, stylized depiction of events.  In some ways I would compare this volume with Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago in its emotionally draining narrative.  At almost five hundred pages this is a book best consumed slowly, methodically, with a lot of stops and interruptions to give readers time to digest what they've read and what has been related to them.

The book itself is divided into two main sections, interviews from the 1990s when the Soviet Union fell apart and those from the 2000s.  The 1990s were best represented by regular violence in the streets, against everyday people and newly created "businessmen."  Many were angry and could not understand how authorities could simply "give away" what was the "Soviet Empire."  The social-contract that previously existed was done away with.  Where previously people might not have trusted the government or its organs, they understood that jobs, medical care, education, etc., would be available and provided for those in need.  When "capitalism" was announced, with no real explanation by authorities or understanding by the majority of the population, social and cultural ideals cultivated under the Soviets for decades were replaced by the all mighty dollar.  Those with connections or the "entrepreneurial spirit" - who didn't see it as beneath themselves to sell, buy, barter and "hustle" their way to better living conditions - did well, while those who continued to believe that the state would or should provide the basic necessities of life, or were simply not equipped for a capitalist market, suffered.  Seniors, who survived the Stalinist purges and lived to see victory in the Second World War were looked down upon.   These men and women defined themselves against a state that "won the war" and "beat Hitler" but were viewed as useless beneficiaries of a system that, while they might have fought and suffered for, no longer existed.

Gangs preyed on the weak and violence was a daily occurrence the results of which could be seen on the streets by passersby.  Xenophobia that was kept in check by Soviet authorities appeared once more as minor conflicts broke out in the Baltics, among Armenians and Azerbaijanis and in Central Asia.  Neighbors and friends that you previously got along with or played with as children turned violent and vengeful.  Moscow became the beacon that many were drawn to, looking for a better life.  Men left their families behind to seek migrant work while women left everything and everyone to make a new life for themselves.  All too often they found abuse and humiliation.

The more remarkable accounts that make up the vignettes the author includes in this work are that of a former NKVD worker and how he performed executions on a regular basis - he compared the "quotas" that were sent down from higher ups to the quotas that factories and workers were regularly issued and made to adhere to.  Both served the state - one created goods needed by the state while the other destroyed perceived enemies of the state.  Those recalling their time in Stalinist prisons and camps offered moving testimony and profound accounts.  As the system and its cogs went through the motions, all too often victims were turned into executioners and executioners into victims - the previously mentioned NKVD worker was in turn arrested and served seven years.  This is a text that will long stay with readers.  It's less of a testimony for or against the former Soviet Union or its citizens than a look at the lives of people who have suffered trauma and tragedy in their lives due to events beyond their control.

Monday, April 18, 2016

With Paulus at Stalingrad by Wilhelm Adam and Otto Ruhle

This text by Wilhelm Adam is a bit of a mixed bag.  There is no doubt it was written with a bias that precluded any real "honest" commentary on what the author thought of the Red Army, Soviet leadership, or the Soviet Union in general.  Criticisms that are to be found are rather tame and platitudes toward both the Soviet state and people come in waves toward the end.  Similarly it becomes readily evident that Adam's thoughts on Paulus are that of an admirer, which means criticisms (where they are evident) are also somewhat mild.  But simultaneously, we in the West have few histories of Stalingrad from inside of the Sixth Army's command staff, which makes this text in some ways still a useful look at the Sixth Army's march toward Stalingrad, the ensuing fighting for the city and their eventual surrender.

The actual fighting for the city receives less attention than I thought it would, but since Adam is constantly at Paulus's side and he's at Sixth Army headquarters, or the headquarters of corps/divisions, that's partly understandable.  The real interesting commentary here is more so about the Sixth Army's initial attempts to deal with the Soviet Kharkov offensive in the spring of 1942 and the actions of Paulus after the Sixth Army is surrounded in Stalingrad.  Here we see that initially the German lunge toward Stalingrad was not a sure thing, nor was the Soviet defeat around Kharkov a foregone conclusion.  There were numerous issues that the Wehrmacht in general had to deal with in order to achieve a victory against Timoshenko's forces and there is reason to believe a victory might have been achievable by the Red Army if proper reconnaissance, better command and control, and more forces were allocated to the offensive.  Although, after the numerous offensives undertaken by the Red Army in the wake of the Moscow Counter-offensive, the lunge against the Sixth Army was still a risky move that did not pay off.

The actual fighting for the city showcased the consistent casualties that German forces suffered as units slowly melted away in urban fighting and Red Army forces continued to desperately cling to every building and meter of ground they could get their hands on.  Adam regularly mentions the growing front-line and the reliance on allied formations (Romanian, Italian, Hungarian) in helping to hold the front.  With the eventual Soviet offensive to encircle the Sixth Army, the reader is offered an intimate look at the decision making process within the Sixth Army as Adam, initially caught outside the encirclement, flies into the city and continues to serve at Paulus's side.  Here the usual lament by many is that Paulus should have immediately broken out, such an argument is easily made with the aid of hindsight.  It took days for the encirclement to close around the Sixth Army, at which point units needed to be reorganized to meet the new threat to every front of the Sixth Army.  With Paulus trying to orient himself and figure out what the Army High Command's plans were for the Sixth Army and Army Group B, time began to be wasted.  Everyone vacillated as Army Group Don was created and Manstein was given the job of breaking through to the Sixth Army.  With this hope and the continued belief that the Luftwaffe would supply the troops with enough supplies, Paulus continued to believe that the Sixth Army would not be forsaken (and on more occasion Adam is critical of Paulus's inability to make decisions and assume responsibility).  One division that attempted to ignore orders and withdrew to eventually attempt a breakout was destroyed by Red Army forces, it was simply too late to make a concentrated effort, at least for forces caught outside the city of Stalingrad itself.  Thus, Paulus had a hard time orienting himself between Manstein, Hitler, and others and could not himself make up his mind, deciding to simply follow orders as otherwise it would set a poor example for other commanders (or so Adam tells us this was part of his reasoning).  Considering Manstein could have also taken the initiative to give Paulus the order to breakout, solely blaming the commander of the Sixth Army seems too simple.  The real problem is that Paulus had no idea what Manstein was planning or capable of and neither did Manstein know the exact situation the Sixth Army was experiencing.  Everyone had their own ideas and unfortunately a lack of initiative meant everyone stayed the course as best they could.

Eventually, with the destruction of the Sixth Army Adam is taken prisoner and slowly converts to a "Soviet" or "socialist" point of view with respect to the war.  The latter parts of the book discuss his time in prison camps and the various generals and officers he encounters, who joins the "Soviet cause" and who opposes it, etc., rather less interesting than the rest of the book.  Thus, overall this text offers an interesting and intimate, although somewhat biased, look at the Sixth Army's attempt to capture Stalingrad and the eventual defeat suffered by German forces.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Inferno in Chechnya: The Russian-Chechen Wars, the Al Qaeda Myth, and the Boston Marathon Bombings by Brian Glyn Williams

Brian Glyn Williams offers an in-depth and engaging account of Chechen history via their regular need to fight those attempting to subdue them and control their land. The accounts begin with Russian incursions into Chechen territories, the opposition raised and its inevitable defeat by a force that can readily engage in prolonged attacks and sieges and can rely on a large pool of manpower against the infinitely smaller number of Chechens and their allies who can, at best, take to the mountains and continue a form of guerrilla warfare that leans on ambushes. This resistance continues in the face of the Russian Revolution and eventually during the Second World War, for numerous reasons, the Chechen people are accused of collaboration and, along with other minorities in and around the Caucasus, are deported wholesale to Central Asia, where tens of thousands die and suffer for the next decade until in the 1950s Khrushchev's administration allows their return (although in truth Khrushchev had little say in the matter as many simply took their belongings and returned home). Then, the eventual break up of the Soviet Union leads to this minor internal Russian region to demand independence and take up the fight against Russian forces when they resist any such move (fearing a domino effect could ensue). After losing too many troops the Russians begin to negotiate with a variety of Chechen personalities and eventually a very precarious calm settles on the region only to be interrupted by a series of bombings within Russia and a renewal of hostilities against Chechnya.

All of the above is what the majority of this text covers, the Boston bombings are given a chapter, the last, and to be honest that chapter is somewhat the least interesting (not the author's fault). The strengths of this book are that you have an academic with a wide knowledge of both the Chechen people and territory and their place within the history of the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union and the Russian Federation today. Furthermore, he makes a good case for why Chechens and their struggle against Russia should not be conflated with Al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations. At the same time there are some weaknesses readily evident within the pages of this text. First off, there is a distinct bias toward the Chechen side. In part it's understandable but it also translates to at times an omission of the Russian side and at other times a distinct impression that Russians can do no right. The Russian/Soviet side is not represented to the same degree as the Chechens and it also appears that not enough condemnation is being offered for some of the more drastic actions taken by Chechen fighters. Just because they might treat hostages well doesn't mean they're not guilty of perpetrating terrorist acts against civilians. Overall, this is an excellent but at times biased introduction to the history of Chechen resistance and its evolution, especially in the post-Cold War period. It really shows how complex the situation is in and around the Middle East/Central Asia and how we need to have a grasp on the situation there to figure out how best to fight terrorism (international and regional) and avoid creating a worse situation than already exists.