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.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Agents of Terror: Ordinary Men and Extraordinary Violence in Stalin's Secret Police by Alexander Vatlin

We are coming up on the 80th anniversary of the start of Stalin's Great Purges.  While much has been written on Stalinist repressions, there are still answers to prominent questions that continue to elude historians and regularly invite debate within the historical community.  "Agents of Terror," although a slim volume, is certainly not an easy read.  The author, Alexander Vatlin, takes the reader into the inner-workings of the NKVD on a district level.  Looking at the Moscow district of Kuntsevo, the author discusses the composition of Kuntsevo, the make up of the local NKVD, and chronicles the lead up to the Great Purges and the purges themselves, including the many victims, with as much documentation as he could find.

The story Vatlin uncovers is both familiar and revealing at the same time.  NKVD workers fabricated case after case in order to fulfill and overfill quotas assigned for the week/month.  Those arrested and accused of the most fantastical tales were beaten, tortured, threatened and lied to in order to get their confessions and signatures on paper.  At times blank documents were offered to them with promises of what would be written after they had attached their signature.  While initial arrests, when the Great Purges were just beginning (after order 00447 was issued), were often a result of NKVD agents consulting previously prepared lists for known suspects, after running out of known victims they moved on to anyone whom they could assign any type of blame to, no matter how outlandish.  In some ways family units were sought after as connections could easily be made and entire underground or spy "groups" could be claimed to have been found.

In detailing all of the above, Vatlin continually tries to figure out the mentality of NKVD workers who continued to enforce orders that some, at the very least, disagreed with.  There is no one satisfactory answer we can come to after reading about these events, but some reasons stand out more so than others.  Ideology seemed to play a limited role, at least when it came to Kuntsevo NKVD operatives, economic motives were a bigger draw for at least one leading NKVD figure who threatened victims with arrest and worse if they did not move out of apartments he coveted.  Some, who perhaps could no longer handle the stress of the job, committed suicide.  Often times it appears that "ideology" was more important to those under arrest than those doing the arresting, as they were often told their sacrifice in signing falsified confessions would help Stalin, the state, and the cause, and sign they did (at least if their own accounts of these events are to be believed).

Unfortunately, due to the limitations associated with the archival information the author was working with we are still left with many questions that will forever remain unanswered and some that might find their answers when additional archival material is unclassified.  Additionally, we, both reader and researcher, are left to rely on documents and accounts written by perpetrators and victims.  How much truth each inserted into their versions of events is impossible to tell.  However, in general, because both perpetrators and victims often enough recounted similar ideas, events and accusations that at least points to some type of "truth" that we can use as a foundation to continue searching for additional information to help us understand why the Great Purges were initiated and how they were sustained.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Panzer Operations: Germany's Panzer Group 3 During the Invasion of Russia, 1941 by Hermann Hoth

Hoth, at least in 1941 and 1942, was one of the original four commanders of German Panzer Groups/Armies who were responsible for the encirclements at Minsk, Smolensk, Uman, Kiev, Viazma and Briansk.  Although discussions/monographs of 1941 are readily available today, from both the German and Soviet point of view, I would always welcome additional primary source information that tries to put into context the German Army's inner-dialog, so to speak, when it comes to the beginning of Operation Barbarossa and its evolution into Operation Typhoon.  Hoth has much of that insider's knowledge but this slim volume while adding something to our knowledge also leaves a lot of questions unanswered.

The epilogue deals with Hoth's career, reputation, and what happened to him after the war was over.  These last pages of this book explain why there is absolutely no discussion of the validity of Hitler's orders on the eve of the invasion of the Soviet Union or of the methods employed by the Wehrmacht in their conduct of the war.  Hoth was, from available evidence, a Nazi who supported the invasion of the Soviet Union and followed through with the various criminal orders he was assigned throughout the war.

Thus this is a work that, like so many others written by former German commanders, tries to solely discuss the military aspects of the invasion of the USSR which means the more interesting and somewhat unoriginal ideas expressed revolve around Hitler's inability to come up with a concrete plan for how Barbarossa was supposed to be implemented.  That is, was the Wehrmacht supposed to aim for the destruction of the Red Army, secure the Soviet Union's economic facilities and industries to help Germany continue her campaign(s) or was Moscow the final target for 1941.  Hitler's continued vacillations and ad hoc decisions to assign German forces to take advantage of developing opportunities (Kiev encirclement) rather than concentrate on one singular aim (Moscow) are what hampered German operations, at least according to Hoth.

Much of this has been discussed previously, most recently by David Stahel.  Consequently, there's little new or original information here, and neither is the coverage of Panzer Group 3's operations during 1941 that enlightening, it's more a summary of attacks, counter-attacks, and encirclements.  However, with that said, there are still some interesting insights into events and discussions recounted by Hoth that make this a worthwhile book for those with more than a passing interest in the Eastern Front.  While Hoth's reminiscences offer a less in-depth view of his own decision-making process or the events he recounts, at least compared to what other German commanders have put down on paper, they're still worth taking a look at, especially if you can read between the lines and keep in mind when this work was originally written.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

The Lands Between: Conflict in the East European Borderlands, 1870-1992 by Alexander V. Prusin

Alexander Prusin's "The Lands Between" offers an excellent synthesis on the bordering territories that have seen so much death and destruction in the twentieth century.  Similar to Kate Brown's "A Biography of No Place" and Timothy Snyder's "Bloodlands," "The Lands Between" looks at contested territories between the former Russian, German and Austro-Hungarian Empire that have today been Balkanized into some dozen nation-states that in some cases continue to struggle with their national identities.

Unlike the two previously mentioned volumes, which mainly concentrate on the Kresy area or some artificial time period and "bloodland," Prusin's text is more all-encompassing.  He provides greater context and a more nuanced narrative that while overlooking some aspects of the history he's covering (it would take numerous volumes to do justice to this topic) nonetheless offers readers an in-depth analysis of the socio-economic, political and national questions that newly created polities and their inhabitants struggled over in order to find their place in Eastern Europe.

The most interesting chapters deal with the First and Second World War as we see the numerous factions vying for power in what became the Polish, Ukrainian, and Baltic states.  Thus, for instance, in the lead up to the Second World War Prusin offers an in-depth analysis of Polish actions when it came to handling their minorities (Jews and Ukrainians), dealing with the growing power and threat of Nazi Germany, and taking part in the transformation of Central/Eastern Europe through 1939.  The Ukrainian nationalist movement is also well covered and their evolution and transformation from their beginnings in the shadow of the Russian Revolution offer a cautionary tale of what to avoid in attempting to create a national identity.  These two groups, Poles and Ukrainians, would in the lead up and during the Second World War take the wrong lessons from the idea of self-determination and aim to alter the national character of territories they deemed rightfully theirs by waging ethnic cleansing campaigns that took the lives of tens of thousands.

For those interested in an alternative to Snyder's "Bloodlands," which is just as "bloody" but an altogether better synthesis, I would highly recommend Prusin's "The Lands Between."

Friday, November 4, 2016

Konev's Golgotha: Operation Typhoon Strikes the Soviet Western Front, October 1941

Mikhail Filippenkov's look at the beginning of Germany's Operation Typhoon (specifically the attack toward Sychevka) is more so oriented for the enthusiast of the Eastern Front than perhaps students of military history. Both will inevitably find something of interest here but the author's lack of historical training mean he's not presenting a monograph which utilizes primary source material from both sides to develop an argument. Rather, he's been able to document the actions of a few specific units on a semi-tactical and semi-operational level and present these developments with as much primary information as available to the reader without any real type of analysis. This makes it harder for the reader to understand the significance of some events and the insignificance (if any) of others. An added complication is the lack of primary source material for many of the Soviets units discussed because they were lost, destroyed or are still classified as 'secret.'

Consequently, readers will be met with a play-by-play of the action German and Soviet units found themselves in as they attempted to advance (the Germans) and defend and counterattack (the Soviets). Unit movements, actions, attacks, retreats, casualties sustained, all are presented from primary sources but rarely analyzed. Thus, if you're already familiar with the Eastern Front you'll know what to look for in terms of significance. For instance, the Wehrmacht's need for more fuel is a consistent theme readers will encounter and really puts into perspective how much of a challenge Operation Typhoon was for the Germans from day one. Filippenkov also presents the weather on a daily basis making it possible to see where the cold might have impacted the German advance, or at least in one instance, facilitated their continued advance thanks to the freezing of previously muddy roads. Another issue that is continually encountered is the disconnect among Soviet formations in the field and higher headquarters, presumably, in Moscow. Due to the way situation reports were passed up the line, by the time they arrived in Moscow and new orders were issued on their basis for units in the field, the situation on the ground had already changed and they became outdated. Finally, much of the interesting details about rearguard and final "heroic" actions on behalf of Soviet units that did not survive are only available through German after-action reports. Unless survivors made it back and were interrogated (and these interrogations might still be unavailable for researchers) we'll never know for sure what these encircled men went through and survived. Overall, this is a good addition to Eastern Front literature and enhances our understanding of 1941 (both from the German and Soviet point of view), but a greater presence and analysis by the author would have made it that much better a look at these events and this war in general.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Stalin's Commandos: Ukrainian Partisan Forces on the Eastern Front by Alexander Gogun

"Stalin's Commandos" is in some sense a treasure trove of information.  But western readers need to be aware of a few issues when attempting to tackle this monograph.  First, Gogun is a Russian academic, he was trained in Russia and has a grasp of quite a few languages which makes this case study that much more impressive than those that have come before.  Secondly, because he is trained in Russia the usual academic work one would expect from a western academic is not readily visible in these pages.  There is much less attention paid here to theory and methodology (which, in all honesty, does happen in western academia often enough as well), rather, Gogun concentrates on letting the sources speak for themselves with limited additional commentary.  But where that commentary is encountered he does make important points and takes on some greater themes/topics that might be in need of a re-evaluation.  Thirdly, this is a text on the Soviet Ukrainian partisan "movement," so it discounts to a large extent the partisan movement in Belorussia, Russia, but it does touch on activities of partisans that belonged to the OUN/UPA and the Polish AK, in fact some of his concluding thoughts that include comparisons between all of these organizations make this book that much more important in the greater catalog of Eastern Front literature.  Additionally, this is a book that is not always as readable as I'd have liked it to be.  A lot of the text is full of quotes from primary source material that is rather bland and formulaic, it makes for tedious reading but much of it is important for those interested in primary source material since much of this monograph is based on just such material.  Finally, this leads to a weakness that the author doesn't stress perhaps as much as he should.  Much of what is presented comes from eye-witness accounts and memoirs/reminiscences.  Those are not always accurate or representative of the greater "truth" of the events/people/places in question.  Where and when he can, Gogun presents as much evidence as is available, even if it contradicts previous information to show what previously "heroic" events might in reality have been myths or misrepresentations (and why they were invented in the first place).  Thus, in general, the reader has to keep in mind the material that Gogun is working with.  Much of it is really enlightening with respect to the partisan war in the German rear with facts, dates, personalities, and details that the western reader will simply never come across in any other monograph in print today.  For that, I am extremely thankful that this text was translated and for the tremendous job the author has done in compiling so much primary source material for a western audience.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Rogue Heroes by Ben Macintyre

Ben Macintyre's 'Rogue Heroes' takes a look at the history of the SAS throughout the Second World War, concentrating on their exploits in North Africa, Italy, France and Germany.  This is a journalistic text and it often reads more as a series of adventure stories than a history.  There's much that's left out and a lot that a historian would have emphasized, deconstructed, or better analyzed, but one can't blame a journalist for doing his job.  Similarly, there is a limit to the documentation that was available to Macintyre so the final product is an engaging introduction to British Special Forces and the many operations they took part in throughout WWII.

What surprised me most was the amateurish nature of both the creation of the SAS and the blasé attitude of many of the commanding officers and the soldiers themselves to their missions.  The very first mission was a complete and utter disaster, something they would not repeat very soon but inevitably would repeat later on in the war.  Dozens of SAS volunteers would die due to circumstances of their own creation in situations that could have been readily avoided, either displaying blind indifference to danger or an unrestrained courage with predictable results.  For a force of men and arms that numbered so few their destructive power(s) were proven again and again in the continued problems they caused Rommel in Africa and the eventual Commando Order issued by Hitler that meant death for any SAS operative if caught behind enemy lines, even if in uniform.  Another surprise was the deadly nature of the clash in the French countryside between the French resistance, SAS, and other units operating against the Germans and their collaborators.  Too often German forces took to reprisal actions against entire villages that were very much reminiscent of their actions on the Eastern Front where the line between victim, bystander, and accomplice could change in a heartbeat depending on the situation one found him/herself in.  Finally, a bit disappointing was the final chapter in the story of the SAS.  Not much time or documentation was devoted to their attempts to capture those Germans who perpetrated war crimes against SAS soldiers.  Similarly, what happened to those who joined the SAS and survived the war was also covered fairly quickly, whereas I would have appreciated a more in-depth look at what men who saw so much death and destruction took away from the war and how they lived their lives after.