Wednesday, November 19, 2014

A German General on the Eastern Front: The Letters and Diaries of Gotthard Heinrici 1941-1942 by Johanne Hurter

I have regularly come across Heinrici's name when reading on the Eastern Front and I know he is considered one of the better commanders to come out of the Wehrmacht (where today pretty much every German commander is considered a genius compared to their allied counterparts).  What drew me to this volume was that the majority of the text was based on his letters and diary entries.  While there might have been some self-censorship going on, these sources would undoubtedly be more telling than his memoirs or reminiscences about the war.  Initially I was a bit surprised and skeptical at the brevity of the text, only some 146 pages, including about 60 pages that serve as an introduction to the text, written by Johanne Hurter, who originally unearthed this rich source material.  But I'm happy to say that this is a valuable and important source of information for those interested in better understanding the Wehrmacht's situation throughout 1941 and early 1942.

Those interested mainly in combat, tactics, and operational art will be somewhat disappointed.  There is little talk here of minute details about battles, attacks, defensive actions, orders, etc.  This text is made up of diary entries and letters written to the General's family/wife, thus they mainly relay Heinrici's hopes, despair, and reflections on the various situations he and his corps/army found themselves in.  Hurter's introduction is well written, concise, and draws the reader's attention to the more important bits of information readers will come across.  Much of what you'll find here has to do with Heinrici's thoughts on the Red Army soldier, Soviet partisans, Soviet citizens in occupied territory, Jews and their treatment, as well as his descriptions of life in the occupied territories of Poland, Ukraine, and Russia.

Some of the more interesting discussions and information came in the form of a diary entry on 30 April 1941, when Heinrici comments on the fact that 'it has been raining incessantly for two weeks' as he's located in Sidelce.  Unfortunately there are no other comments on the weather leading up to the invasion of the Soviet Union, but this does hint at the fact that an earlier, mid-May, invasion of the USSR would have been impossible due to the extra long rainy season of spring 1941.  This is something Heinrici himself readily forgets about or doesn't even consider when in later entries he talks about all the time lost due to the Balkan campaign and what difference those few weeks might have made on the road to Moscow.  Another contradiction can be found when Heinrici comments on the rigid nature of Soviet officers, who would not retreat on their own initiative and wound up in encirclement and as prisoners of war.  Simultaneously, he himself constantly comments on the ignorance of his higher command as repeated request for retreats were turned down during the winter of 1941/1942 when his 4th Army was under constant threat of encirclement (and he himself refused to take the initiative).  Finally, the reader will come across numerous instances of repetition, which might explain in part why the volume is as slim as it is since this is a somewhat abridged version of documents that most likely contained repetitive ideas, descriptions, etc. (even so I wish more entries were included, or at least those included were expanded).  For instance, Heinrici continually mentions his interpreter, a former Odessa native, who is fluent in German and lost the majority of his family to the Soviet regime for various reasons.  This interpreter became one of the most vicious and enthusiastic 'partisan hunters', killing/hanging Soviet partisans by the dozens throughout 1941.

While I don't want to give more away from what these pages contain, I will say this is one of the most revealing and interesting accounts I have come across from the German point of view of the war on the Eastern Front.  This is without a doubt a highly recommended read that once more raises questions about Wehrmacht complicity in the Holocaust, as well as what German officers thought, knew, and tolerated from themselves and their soldiers.

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