Monday, July 13, 2009

500 Days: The War in Eastern Europe, 1944-1945 by Sean M. McAteer

As described, this book covers the last year and a half, give or take, of the war on the Eastern Front. It is true that this period of activities is greatly lacking literary coverage when compared to the the battles throughout 1941: the Moscow Counter-Offensive, the battle for Stalingrad, 1942, and Kursk, summer of 1943. I can only commend the author for trying to put together a text that deals with 1944 and 1945, and more so, from both sides. But in the end, too many Cold War myths are propagated and his narrative, in general, is lacking. Perhaps a step in the right direction for those new to the topic and who have an interest in some of the details that the author highlights, but the reader would do well to remember that this is a dated analysis with dated commentary. While the author would probably like to think of himself as an 'objective historian,' in this case that is certainly not true.

This is not an academic work and thus the bibliography and the endnotes are not up to academic standards. This then greatly takes away from trying to figure out where certain information is coming from, aside from this, much of the information offered does not even come with endnotes. For example, the small section of Slavic and Germanic history is interesting, but contains no endnotes. The sources themselves are lacking. There is a large dearth of materials, from both English and Russian sources, that have been released in the past two decades and rely on formerly closed Soviet archival data (the battle of Berlin, for instance, has been documented in great detail by Alexei Isaev in his "Berlin 45-go"). Many, at times too many, sources are from the cold war era and are outdated today. It seems this book was begun in the mid to late 1980s and, for the most part, stayed glued to the sources of that time period (aside from a few ventures into later publications like Glantz's recent book dealing with the failed first Red Army offensive into the Balkans and Beevor's ever-controversial book on the Battle for Berlin). There are also no maps in this text, which massively takes away from trying to keep up with the narrative.

Aside from the errors and typos the author himself has commented on (not very sporting to give yourself a five star review), the reader will find quite a few more throughout the text. For instance, on p. 121 the author writes, in regards to the 4th Ukrainian front, at the moment it opposed German forces in the Crimea, as having "11 rifle divisions and a reinforced tank corps, 328,000 men" in reality the 4th Ukrainian Front contained 18 rifle divisions on the first of April 1944. Sapun hill is called 'Samun hill' (p. 126 and 127). Lev Mekhlis is transformed into Levrentti Mekhlis. Aside from listing the various tanks operating in the Red Army the author also makes mention of 'assault guns' and 'self-propelled artillery' (p. 7), within the Red Army they were one and the same, specifically, self-propelled artillery. The author also manages to misspell both Pokryshkin and Kozhedub (Pokryshin and Kojedub respectively, although the j in Kozhedub might be forgiven if the original source was German (p. 29)). Novorossysk becomes Novorissyk (p.30). Page 68 Fedyuninsky's name is misspelled as Fedyunsky. On p. 81 the author claims Malinovsky commanded a 'border guard corps.' I've personally never seen such a reference. Border guards were NKVD commanded units, Army formations close to the border were not known as 'border guard' units.

General statements abound in this book, for instance, the statement 'Despite the awful German occupation policies, it remains that internal repression resulted in more deaths among the Soviet population' is presented and linked to a few works in the bibliography, but no numbers are provided nor are specific pages where one can see or even compare the information the author is working with. A huge exaggeration is located on p. 45 when the author claims the famine in Ukraine in 1932-33 killed a 'quarter' of the population. The author gives too much credit to the German campaign against Tukhachevsky, especially since to date there is no evidence that German planted documents were even used against Tukhachevsky (how can one take seriously an espionage charge against Tukhachevsky, specifically that he is working for the Germans, when they themselves are giving him up to Stalin?). When listing 'anti-Russian minorities' the author deems fit to include Belorussians and Armenians, not exactly anti-Russian from what I can remember. As mentioned above, Cold War era propaganda enters the picture as well, the description of 'punishment battalions' encompasses the following '...unarmed first wave assault units who would be loaded with vodka before death-charging the enemy lines' (p. 5). I'd recommend the author read "Penalty Strike" by Alexander Pyl'cyn to learn what penal formations were like (there are also a number of works in Russian, half a dozen, by those in Penal formations and outlining the history of penal formations). Page 21 mentions that 'reserve security troops' had 'instructions to shoot down their own men if running', a bit of an ambiguous statement. Blocking detachments were created in order to gather those who initiated in an unauthorized retreat and, depending on the situation, to send them back to their respective units or, in severe cases, send them to penal formations or execute them (the majority were returned to their units). The author also harks back to battles in 1941 as being composed of Red Army riflemen 'link arms and charge across fields of death, shouting and cheering as they were cut down, row by row" (p. 381).

Quite a bit of literary license is taken throughout the text, for example, on p. 81 we're detailed the fate of Major-General Khomenko, commander of the 44th Army, who after accidentally driving into German positions and being killed by German fire was then used by the Germans in a propaganda ploy which claimed he defected to their side. The author claims "Stalin, in a flash of uncalculating rage" disbanded the 44th army when he heard of the 'desertion.' In fact, at least one source points out that Khomenko was traveling with the details of the 44th Army's positions, so while his desertion, in Stalin's mind, might have played a role in some of the other commanders from the 44th army being reassigned, the disbanding of the army (which rarely happened by 1944) might have been the result of of the 44th army's positions falling into the hands of the Germans (see "Fallen Soviet Generals" by Maslov).

Initial coverage of Warsaw uprising is lacking, the author skips over too many details to make the point that Stalin 'wanted' the Home Army to perish in the streets of Warsaw. Later coverage of the Warsaw uprising is also lacking, the author would like to make clear that the efforts on the part of the 1st Polish army to cross the Vistula were conducted "contrary to STAVKA's wishes...without their knowledge, approval, or support" p. 242. The author would do well to familiarize himself with orders coming down to the 1st Belorussian front which forecast a beginning of operations on August 25th against Warsaw with the 1st Polish Army moving along the western bank of the Vistula with their right wing and center assigned the object of Warsaw itself (see "Myfi Velikoi Otechestvennoi 2", p. 196, the article by M. Meltukhov "V Avgusti 1944"). Sadly, nothing came of these plans due to the German counterattacks against the 1st Belorussian front that followed. The atrocities that took place in Germany when the Red Army crossed the frontier are blown out of proportion, in my opinion. The author, once again, takes too many liberties with how he stylizes what happened without adequate research to serve as a foundation. There is also little, if any, mention of the executions and arrests that followed Red Army soldiers when they wantonly raped or pillaged, of which there are more than enough recorded instances.

Lastly, what I found oddly annoying is the author's constant aversion to so-called 'frontal assaults' by the Red Army. Even when they are trying to 'outflank' the Germans they are still attacking 'frontally', the two are, in fact, mutually exclusive. Also annoying is the author dictating what and how the Wehrmacht should have waged war while on the defense in the Balkans, reminiscent of German memoirs and their 'what if/if only' scenarios. In the end, I can't say I was impressed with the text. While there are a few interesting anecdotes and episodes that I'll be sure to remember (although many do not have a source behind them), the obvious lack of knowledge about current literature on the subject is a huge minus. There is nothing ground-breaking presented here, just a lot of secondary and primary (mainly memoirs, worse is that the author does not use the newly released memoirs of such figures as Zhukov, Vasilevsky, and Rokossovsky, which have had much of what was then censored put back into their reminiscences) literature coming together. But a problem remains, said literature has been used in a variety of other monographs and narratives on the war as well.


Zhukov said...

Hi, very interesting review! You mention the memoires of Rokossovsky. I only know 'Soldier's duty' - out of print and quite rare. Is there a new publication of his memoirs ?


T. Kunikov said...

Not in English there isn't, there are a few books in Russian about him though, and I'm sure his memoirs have gone through revisions and newer editions, as have Zhukov's.