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.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

We Will Not Go to Tuapse: From the Donets to the Oder with the Legion Wallonie and 5th SS Volunteer Assault Brigade ‘Wallonien’ 1942-45 by Fernand Kaisergruber

I've read my share of memoirs of the Eastern Front, both from the Wehrmacht and the Red Army.  "We will not go to Tuapse" is not one of the more memorable reminiscences but, as is usually the case, there are some interesting events recounted.  Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately) for Kaisergruber, he was either assigned to duties that made him avoid/miss fighting on the frontlines for much of his military career, or he was sick/wounded and in the rear or recuperating and eager to get to the front and rejoin his friends.  There is a distinct lack of discussion about the politics or ideology of what the German Army is doing on the Eastern Front.  This raises the question of why exactly some of those who volunteered for service in the Wehrmacht did so.  Much of what the author recounts sounds like it's coming straight out of the mind and mouth of an adolescent, and in that might be one answer - it was an adventure, a right of passage to manhood.  For the most part what we have here is a soldier who's fighting a war almost in a vacuum - he sees what's before his eyes and omits most the rest.  He likes most of the inhabitants of the Soviet Union he runs across or develops "relationships" with but he never questions why is it that he and the Wehrmacht are waging war against them, the Red Army (which includes their male and female relatives) or their state.  He seems more interested in an experience in the "wilds" of the east and hardly treats his actions as anything other than responsible for self-preservation first and foremost.  The more memorable passages are those dealing with his escape from encirclement and the casualties his unit suffers in their attempt to keep the Red Army from closing the pocket.  The majority of the text is taken up with literary descriptions of everyday life in Wehrmacht, a lot of aches and pains from marching as an infantrymen, hunger due to lack of food, freezing in the cold, and wounds from combat or stomach issues due to food (or lack thereof).  Finally, the poem the author listed as found after the capture of a Ukrainian village is by Konstantin Simonov, a famous writer and war correspondent, rather than an "unknown Red Army soldier," entitled "Wait for me."

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.