Monday, December 3, 2007

The Myth of the Eastern Front by Ronald Smelser and Edward J. Davies II

“The Myth of the Eastern Front” is an interesting look at the evolution of the Western view when it came to the German Wehrmacht throughout WWII.

To begin with the book is broken down into eight chapters, discounting the introduction and conclusion. The first chapter aims to reveal how the Soviet Union was viewed throughout the war in the American Media. Many times the Russians, from the soldiers to the women working in industries and within the Red Army, were compared to their US counterparts with the idea that they were very alike and similar as a people and in their individual qualities. From Readers Digest to a variety of other publications like Time and Life readers would be able to catch a glimpse of the Soviet Union through journalists, reporters, and a variety of others. Yet, just as soon as some publications went from vilifying the Soviet Union before they were attacked by Hitler, they would go back to the same standard quite soon after the war was over. Helping to tarnish relations that so many worked had to sustain and cement in the hopes of a peaceful future.

The Second chapter tackles the Nuremberg trials and the numerous ways in which the German General Staff and Army Generals were shown to have been implicit in genocidal acts on the Eastern Front. Trials began to take place soon after the war in various cities throughout the Soviet Union where perpetrators were put on trial for their crimes, from collaborators to SS and regular army officers and soldiers. The Wehrmacht’s guilt was made quite clear by a number of their own generals, and others, including Einsatzgruppen commanders who testified to the regular cooperation of the army with their troops. Some of the generals convicted of various war crimes through trials held after the Nuremberg IMT were Wilhelm List, Walter Kunze, Lothar Rendulic, Wilhelm Spiedel, Helmuth Felmy, Ernst von Leyser, Hubert Lanz, Ernst Dehner, Wilhelm von Leeb, Georg von Kuchler, Hermann Hoth, Hans Reinhardt, Hans von Salmuth, Karl Hollidt, Karl von Roques, Hermann Reinecke, Walter Warlimont, Otto Wohler, and Rudolf Lehmann. Walter H. Rapp, the prosecutor, stated that the one of the reasons for the trials was partly so that legends would be prevented from forming in the future about military generals, as had happened after WWI. It seems that the American occupation paved the way for the future view of the Germans and the Soviets. Those soldiers who had liberated the Concentration camps and had seen what the Third Reich was all about were soon replaced by new recruits who began to view the Germans in a different light. Fewer and fewer came to blame the German people for the war and even less could believe that they were responsible for concentration camps. But US soldiers were quick to apply their homegrown stereotypes to the Slavs and the Jews which the Germans eagerly encouraged and cultivated, especially after US soldiers were allowed to fraternize with the Germans. One must also take into consideration the fact that the Soviets, to a large degree, did not want to be friends with the Germans since they were so different culturally and the Germans did invade and unleash a genocidal war on their land. After this the reader can follow the various political machinations that eventually led to the majority of those convicted of war crimes, from the SS to the German Army, to be released for a variety of reasons cooked up as a result of the political situation in the US, the war in Korea, and the rearmament of West Germany. The last part of the chapter examines the “Halder Group” which was, for the most part, responsible for the Cold War view of the Eastern Front and the Soviets. A surprise to me was to learn that after France was conquered, in the beginning of July, it was Halder’s staff which drafted the first major plan for a war against the USSR, “Operation Otto”, which was created in part out of strategic considerations and as well to counter the demobilization which Hitler was contemplating.

The third chapter, aptly named “The German Generals Talk, Write and Network” begins with a description of how Halder was helped by the Americans in escaping a trial in Bavaria, which was a result of his diaries being found and incriminating Halder in a variety of war crimes. Halder’s thoughts and ideas on how the German military should be perceived were tape recorded as he conferred with others. He continued with the “war against Bolshevism” theme and at the same time tried to “rescue the honor of the German officer corps” by removing the stigmatism that had developed in regards to Hitler, Nazism, and the Holocaust/atrocities of the war. A list of Generals who would help Halder write about the Eastern Front is given and, even more interesting, is a list of the titles that came out from the Strategic, Operational, and Tactical field which helped create the myths that have been sustained to this day in the west in regards to the war on Germany’s Eastern Front. Halder would become a household name after his diaries were published in the 1960’s. He’d be given various honors from the military and politicians; he’d give speeches throughout military schools in the US and receive numerous letters from the layman asking every kind of question about the German Military and WWII, etc. The Bundeswehr as an institution is described, interesting is the fact that 100% of its officers were part of the former Wehrmacht in 1955, when it was created.

The last part of the chapter deals with the similarities between the "lost cause" phenomenon of the US Civil War and the Eastern Front in WWII. A fascinating insight into how the American public has been, to a degree, duped into reveling in the failures of racists.

The fourth chapter deals with "Memoirs, Novels, and Popular Histories." The first tackled is Manstein's memoirs, going through Manstein's history on the Eastern Front I couldn't help but see the authors of this book mention that after the defeat at Kursk Germany went on the defensive and Manstein was advocating a fluid defense, after this the author mentions Manstein's victory when retaking Kharkov in March of 1943, why mention this AFTER Kursk when it happened before? Apparently, as someone pointed out to me, this is how Carell presents this in his book on the Eastern Front which the two authors quote from throughout the book. The majority of the material on Manstein speak to his knowledge of the genocidal activities going on, his orders which suggest he knew and supported these activities, and testimony that shows the aforementioned as well. Manstein's ideas about how Hitler was at fault for most of the blunders in the war and that he was the only one who could contradict and/or stand up to him are prevalent throughout his memoirs, yet are simply self serving as they go to discredit any officer who opposed or hindered Manstein's career during the war. I'd say this has been well established in recent literature, especially by Marcel Stein's recent book, but even so, it's here for those who are interested. The authors also cover books by Guderian, von Mellenthin, Rudel, Carell, and Sven Hassel noting how they’ve helped create a new of the Wehrmacht.

Next chapter goes over some of the previously mentioned authors and recounts how their books became part of the mainstream. Gaining accolades and forwards from scholars and historians as they ignored the genocidal aspect of the war they waged and rather praised their stance against the Soviet Union. Practically all the memoirs mentioned, from the officer to the lowly soldier, state outright that they will solely concentrate on the military aspect of the war and skip over the politics. In the end it appears that these were all valiant soldiers fighting for the good of their nation and people under the auspices of a brutal ignorant dictator. We can easily ask ourselves, how often does “good” fight for “evil”? Well, this is what the above mentioned authors would have you believe when they discuss their time on the Eastern Front. Everything is discussed from the blurbs to the photos inside each book and how it affected the US public.

Chapter 6 discusses the “gurus” of the German Army and Waffen SS, which today have legions of followers all over the internet. A critique of Mark Yerger is offered, the authors claim that although he has done some excellent research, for at least 2 of his books, on the whole the majority of the others rely on pictures and at best are ‘iconographic’ representations of the war and its participants. For me personally it was interesting to learn about Richard Landwehr who mostly caters to the Waffen SS, although many would probably consider him a revisionist of the highest nature for his love of the Waffen SS and the allies of Nazi Germany that joined its ranks. Erich Hartmann’s biography, The Blond Knight of Germany, is mentioned and the title already gives way to how the authors of his biography wanted him to be viewed. A variety of Franz Kurowski books are mentioned and the type of view that they give of the common German soldier, that of fighting for their comrades and uniting them in both life and death, yet where is the mention of the genocidal context for which these units were sent into the East in the first place? In the end it is simply a matter of one side of the war being ignored to present the other. There is no doubt that the actions Kurowski describes or bravery and compassion for the enemy took place, but he never questions why the enemy is in fact an ‘enemy.’ One “guru” who does admit what the Germans practiced in the east, that of brutal behavior and criminal acts, is Anthony J. Munoz who more so concentrates on foreign volunteers in the Waffen SS.

Chapter 7 discusses war gamers, the internet and popular culture. War games apparently saw an opportunity to re-fight the battles of the Eastern Front with wholly different outcomes from what actually happened. Instead of only being able to read about the battles they could now take part in them and let these battles become a part of their world. Various cover art is discussed and shown for war games and the sympathy or righteousness that they are supposed to evoke from those who purchase them. Eventually what started in the 1950’s and 1960’s would evolve with various magazines in the 1970’s and 1980’s which gave context to these games with articles about the various scenarios being offered and the eventual breakthrough in communications, the internet, would create a new outlet for these “romancers” of the Wehrmacht and Waffen SS. The authors do an interesting dissection of various sites catering to the Waffen SS and the Wehrmacht as well as sites like Achtung Panzer and what they have to offer. Suffice it to say there is too much to recount in this review. The last chapter is dedicated to ‘what if history’, reliving the past on their own terms, it seems, for those who partake in such activities.

Overall I believe this is a needed book on the subject although it leaves a lot out. The main point here is that German generals and soldiers who have written about their experiences on the whole leave out the politics. This specifically means that the Generals who had knowledge and at times even participated in various ways with the genocide going on in the East blatantly pretended not know and denied any association with organizations like the Einsatzgruppen. While some might accept this and concentrate on the fighting itself this in essence absolves these authors from talking about the fact that they fought for a genocidal regime in a war of total annihilation against the Soviet people and at the same time knew little to nothing about what was going on in their proverbial ‘backyards.’ Their actions NEED to be put into context, that is what is missing today from WWII literature on the Eastern Front, yet slowly this is beginning to change with authors like Omer Bartov, amongst others. The western world has held and believed in racist opinions and outright lies in regards to what happened during the German invasion of the Soviet Union, it is long past due for the truth or at least a viable context to be presented which includes the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ of what went on. Many will look at the errors within this book, some of which I point out below, but I want to make it clear that they should not and do not detract from the main thesis of this book.

Lastly, the negatives of the book. A few mistakes/errors that I found which didn’t take away anything from the reading, but were something I’m familiar with: quite a few Soviet names were spelled, that is transliterated, incorrectly. Tukhachevsky is spelled as Tuchachevsky, Chekhov is Checkhov, and Litvinov is sometimes spelled as Litvinoff. But, as I said, it didn’t take much away from the reading (especially since this book is about the German point of view of the war on the Eastern Front, not the Soviet). Also instead of Marshal of the Soviet Union Konev, we have “Marshall Konev.” Two statements that I found made out of context were “Given the inadequacies of early tank models and the initial inability of the Russians to appreciate combined arms tactics until the Germans used them effectively…” I would say that this is a very difficult statement to make and one that cannot be made in a vacuum. Theoretically there was plenty of appreciation for combined arms within the Red Army. Practically, operations that tried to sustain combined arms were often lacking. Was it the fault of a specific commander or the circumstances he found himserlf in? That has to be examined on a case by case basis. Lastly, when the authors mention that “having troops ride the outside of the tank was a tactic of desperation made necessary by lack of trucks” I had to look twice. It was a lack of APC’s not trucks which forced the creation of ‘tank riders.’ Infantry does not ride trucks into combat. I have also been informed by quite a few people that there are quite a few mistakes from the German side including numerous misspellings of German words.


kalsby said...

"the author mention that after the defeat at Kursk Germany went on the defensive and Manstein was advocating a fluid defense, after this the author mentions Manstein's victory when retaking Kharkov in March of 1943, why mention this AFTER Kursk when it happened before?"

Maybe because he (the author) has read Paul Carell's "Scorched earth". I have just started to read Carell's book yesterday and he, Carell, does the same: first Kursk, and later Kharkov. According the introduction, in which he tells to the reader about that, it's because in this way the history is more "dramatic", but I can't see why it should be more "dramatic" in this way. Instead, I guess that, in Carell's book, it is because putting first Kharkov and later Kursk gives the impression of the Wehrmatch quickly "going down", but putting first Kursk and later Kharkov it's more like "hey, we have lost the first battle, but now we are winning" (Carell doesn't hide his preferences about germans, in fact, he deserves a place as a forger of the "eastern front myth"). Of course, this is false due to the fact that he doesn't follow cronological order.

Kind regards from a humble Axis History Forum reader.

T. Kunikov said...

Perhaps this is correct as the authors do mention on a variety of occasions Carell and it does make a wrong impression to say the Germans lost at Kursk and then won at Kharkov after when the reverse is the truth. Carell is most definitely one of those who propagates the 'clean hands' of the Wehrmacht myth.