Monday, November 28, 2011

Cataclysm: The War on the Eastern Front 1941-45 by Keith Cumins

In “Cataclysm: The War on the Eastern Front, 1941-1945” Keith Cumins assembles an operational history of the Eastern Front from the perspective of both the Soviet Union and Germany, which he rightfully points out is rare to find. Cumins acknowledges that this study is further concentrating solely on the military operations on the ground, forsaking the seas and air, to say nothing of the political, economic, social, and cultural nature of the war. Although the book is only 300 pages, these are very dense pages, to say the least. The enormity of the Eastern Front defies explanation, and in reading this book the reader will discover, or rediscover, how insignificant our knowledge of the clash between the Red Army and Wehrmacht is to this day.

Setting out to write an operational history means that much of what the author presents lacks context. For those familiar with the Eastern Front, that might not be much of a hindrance, but for those new to the topic, they might want to immerse themselves in general histories before they pick up this tome. While the operational history presented by Cumins is very much all-encompassing, he regularly focuses on battles/engagements that most histories of the Second World War omit, they are not contextualized well enough to give the reader a better understanding of their significance. “Cataclysm” can be compared to works by David Glantz, Chris Bellamy, and Evan Mawdsley; all are experts in their relative fields (be it history in general or military history more specifically), but it is true that their narratives are skewed toward the Soviet side. Thus, the advantage of this work is that the author draws the reader’s attention to the German side and incorporates some of the newest secondary literature available.

Reading “Cataclysm” reinforces the fact that our knowledge of the Eastern Front, the Red Army, and even the Wehrmacht in the latter period of the war, continues to be in need of further study and analysis. There remain too many unanswered questions and operations/battles that do not carry the significance of Kursk, Stalingrad, or Bagration are too often left out of the narrative even though casualties suffered ran into the hundreds of thousands. These battles are evident as early as the first weeks of the war, where the Red Army continually offered resistance and launched counteroffensives that slowed or bloodied German forces but could never achieve any type of initiative or take it away from the Wehrmacht. If Cumins showcases anything, it is that an operational history can only tell us so much about the Eastern Front; there remains a need for further research, contextualization, and analysis, even today, over half a century after the conflict has ended.

When taking on a topic such as the Eastern Front, the author will have to contend with decades old myths/errors. Cumins contextualizes some well enough, but others are reiterated, unfortunately. For instance, the author continually references Far Eastern divisions during his discussion of 1941 and the Moscow counter-offensive, but fails to point out that divisions from all over the Soviet Union were called up and that Far Eastern divisions were activated as early as June/July 1941 with orders to move to the west. Cumins also has an outdated view of Operation Mars when compared to Geoffrey Jukes’s latest book, which offers an original and compelling view of what happened around Rzhev during the Stalingrad offensive (Operation Uranus). Finally, the author is mistaken when he claims that the commander of the 1st Polish Army launched a crossing into Warsaw in 1944 during the uprising without Front or STAVKA authorization and was later removed as a result. Recently published document collections prove that it was in fact an order from the Front that allowed Berling to launch a crossing into Warsaw by the 1st Polish Army; Berling’s statements to the contrary after the war are disingenuous at best, although unfortunately reaffirmed here.

The publisher has included over 30 maps, with references next to various paragraphs that refer to specific maps for the reader to consult. Very helpful, but considering this is a book on the entirety of the Eastern Front, even 30+ maps are not enough! There is also a photograph section; although Hoth and Bock are mislabeled (Hoth’s photo is listed as Bock and Bock’s as Hoth). Overall, the book is well written even if at times there are thick descriptions of units/locations. Additionally, there are rare instances of grammatical errors/mistakes, but they hardly take much away from the reading experience. My bigger complaint is the fact that there are no footnotes/endnotes and the bibliography seems wholly inadequate when compared to the amount of information the author has accumulated. To be of use to academics – granted it is a rare thing to find an academic immerse him/herself in operational histories – there needs to be a line to original source material(s)! For instance, the author claims that the Red Army’s battlefield performance in 1941 was inhibited by strict obedience to orders, which allowed the Germans to anticipate and counter their actions (79); unfortunately, no examples are offered and no source is listed. Thus, for those interested in an in-depth operational history of the Eastern Front from the perspectives of both the Soviet Union and Germany, this is definitely recommended, although keep the above caveats in mind as you immerse yourself in this twentieth century ‘slaughterhouse.’

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