Thursday, July 13, 2023

Fascism in America: Past and Present by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld and Janet Ward

Without a doubt this is a timely and needed volume that looks at the intersection of US history and fascism.  Numerous experts in a variety of fields offer a collection of chapters that explore American history and question to what extent we can lean on the framework of fascism to explain both events during the early twentieth-century as well as the recent Trump administration.  Some of the chapters offering theories and ideas in development, others lean on established work and positions, and some discuss more original research that helps readers, academics, and policy experts think about the possibilities open to them when it comes to leaning on comparisons to fascism and how to address growing right-wing animosity, rhetoric, and violence.  Personally, I found myself in agreement with the idea of 'fascism' as a mobile, moving target that is in part influenced by the time and place in question. The US will never find itself in a similar situation to Italy, Germany, Spain, or Japan in the inter-war period, yet all experienced a level of fascism. So it will be impossible to point to exact parallels and know when we are staring in the proverbial face of US fascism. However, looking at the US and our current political environment means appreciating both how historical US racism influenced the rise of German fascism and vice versa. As a transcontinental phenomenon, fascism should not be viewed in isolation but always contextualized and historicized with room left for taking into account future development based on transmitted ideas and the influence of successful policies. Thus there is certainly room for calling reactionary, right-wing policies fascistic, and personalities fascists, even if they do not perfectly line up with what happened in 1930s and 1940s Germany. They are an evolution that has built on previous authoritarian, racist rhetoric and actions and are abusing and subverting our current democratic system with the aim of turning it into something that will certainly taste the same, even if the recipe is different from what we know as 'fascism.'

Thursday, June 22, 2023

Invasion On!: D-Day, the Press, and the Making of an American Narrative by Stephen Rusiecki

 In 'Invasion On!' Stephen Rusiecki offers a look at how wartime media (specifically radio and newspapers) were able to come together to help craft a memorable and myth-laden narrative of the Allied invasion of Normandy, which became known simply as D-Day.  The basic elements the author concentrates on are the limitations under which radio and newspapers operated within, and their concentration on four specific myths (the significance of the invasion, the religions undertones of the "Great Crusade', the emphasis on the leadership of British and US commanders, and the highlighting of the heroic nature of the G.I. who made his way across the ocean to help liberate a subjugated Europe from Nazi tyranny.  One chapter is devoted to each of these myths but the author often belabors the point and often there's repetition or excessive detail.  Additionally, while the author makes frequent mention of the omission of Black Americans in the myths revolving around D-Day, there is little to no mention of any other minority group. The final chapter tackles the legacy of these myths as they have been regularly recycled in presidential addresses since Ronald Reagan's visit to Europe in 1984 (the author also discusses Bush Sr., Clinton, Bush Jr., Obama, and Trump's speeches). The larger argument is that the collective memory around D-Day was formulated in the lead up to the invasion and during its first few days because of how well the media apparatus worked in cooperation with government needs, desires, and censorship. The lasting influence of that relationship between the media and government is the continuation of the myth surrounding D-Day to the present.

Saturday, December 31, 2022

Blood, Dust and Snow: Diaries of a Panzer Commander in Germany and on the Eastern Front by Friedrich Sander

While I'm always of the opinion that every primary source account has in it something of value, it's rare that a memoir or diary leaves a lasting impression on me after having read so many. There are still those that I recall more so than others and "Blood, Dust and Snow" will now join their ranks. Coming in at over 400 pages (including a few dozen photos) and mostly concentrating on the initial German invasion of the Soviet Union during Operation Barbarossa, as well as Operation Typhoon, the ensuing Soviet counterattack, and the 1942 Stalingrad relief attempt, Friedrich Sander's diaries are a window into the personal thoughts and emotions of a German tanker caught up in the war on the Eastern Front.

Although there is undoubtedly some self-censorship, the author is readily candid with himself on a wide variety of topics. There is quite a bit of front line action and with the author having so recently lived through the events in question there is less risk of him misremembering his personal experiences. At times the nature of a soldier in the midst of battle produces a rather myopic take on events and they become somewhat hard to follow, but that is, after all, rather reflective of the battlefield and the chaos of war. There are also numerous mundane entries where little to nothing happens but the author is attune to his surroundings and constantly has something to say or recall or complain about. Each is another little window into the everyday life of a German soldier in a panzer division on the Eastern Front in the midst of a genocidal campaign. 

What is telling in its omission is a lack of commentary on the evolution of the Holocaust, whether in Germany, Europe, or the East. There is mention of Jews (usually in a derogatory way), the author also has some harsh words for the Russian/Soviet population (although that is somewhat fluid depending on the time period and at times the person in question), and there is undoubtedly an evolution to his thinking about these topics/themes and others that readers can witness themselves, which in effect is why although this is a lengthy volume it is worth the time investment. Personally, I think the author simply did not much care about Jews and what did not concern his immediate needs/desires rarely received mention. Furthermore, being on the front lines with limited time in the rear meant what was happening there, whether atrocities against Jews or local partisans, was rarely witnessed - and when it was merited limited mention/commentary. 

The diary entries end in 1943 and that's unfortunate. We know the author survived the war, but it would have been interesting to know the rest of his wartime and even postwar experiences and how his thoughts about the war and his time at the front might have changed. Nonetheless, this is without a doubt one of the more raw and honest accounts of the war on the Eastern Front and definitely highly recommended.

Monday, November 21, 2022

Voices of Russian Snipers: Eyewitness Red Army Accounts From World War II by Artem Drabkin and John Walter

There are quite a few sniper accounts from the Second World War when it comes to the Eastern Front. From the Red Army we have both men and women who served as snipers during the war and both have been interviewed or have left behind memoirs of their time on the frontlines. From Lyudmila Pavlichenko to Vasily Zaitsev, Soviet snipers had a significant impact on how the war was fought and its legacy as their exploits have become the basis for numerous war films. "Voice of Russian Snipers" consists of over a dozen accounts, ranging from half a dozen pages to about 50 in one instance, from both men and women about their actions on the front as snipers. 

Having read numerous accounts/memoirs by snipers, this volume will stand out as one of the most memorable and forthcoming in its descriptions of what these men and women experienced in the midst of battle. A few things to note is that very few of these veterans began the war in 1941, most joined later in 1943 or 1944. Most were wounded on multiple occasions and returned to their units or joined reserve formations. The training some underwent lasted for months while others were fast-tracked and sent to the front. Often snipers were not correctly utilized by their units or commanders because of a lack of bodies, and at times they served as mortar-men, riflemen, scouts, or sub-machine gunners. The chaos of the front is readily visible in these accounts and many of the episodes related are quite telling of the situations soldiers found themselves regularly facing. This volume is well worth your time and deserves a place in any eastern front library.

Tuesday, September 27, 2022

How the West Brought War to Ukraine by Benjamin Abelow

This is a slim volume that tries to offer some nuance and additional perspective with respect to Vladimir Putin's decision to invade Ukraine. The author doesn't necessarily break new ground but he highlights some of the most important issues that Putin continuously referred to and brought up in international gatherings and discussions that were seemingly ignored or not taken seriously. In this respect, there is not much new or original material as discussions revolve around the expansion of NATO, promises supposedly made and never kept by the West, the US unilaterally leaving various treaties revolving around anti-ballistic missiles, medium range surface-to-surface missiles, conducting training experiences on Russia's borders, and continually arming Ukraine to the tune of billions in the post-Maidan period. A lot of agency is taken away from Putin which is not necessarily a bad thing as it shows how NATO and the US are not without fault for the invasion of Ukraine, but this is a primer at best and needs to be read with a wide variety of literature that not only focuses on the international/security issues Putin and Russia have been dealing with but also internal issues that undoubtedly have had an impact on both, and vice versa. It's important to keep in mind that Putin's actions were not made in a vacuum and by better understanding his positions and thoughts, we will better understand how this war began and, just maybe, what needs to happen for it to end.

Friday, September 16, 2022

The Soviet Army's High Commands in War and Peace, 1941–1992 by Richard W. Harrison

I was very much looking forward to this volume but the approach is somewhat limited and the end result leaves something to be desired. Richard Harrison has produced some excellent monographs in the form of 'The Russian Way of War' and 'Architect of Soviet Victory in World War II.' The former included a well-researched and in-depth exploration of the evolution of Russian/Soviet strategy and the latter focused in on one of the more important Soviet military theorists from the 1920s and 1930s. This present volume, which purports to look at the 'High Commands' created during and after the Second World War is simply not in the same league. 

The author readily admits the source base is limited and as a result so is his analysis and the larger ideas he can extrapolate from the primary and secondary sources at his disposal. As a result, much of the attention when it is focused on the Second World War is a rehashing of activities from 1941 and 1942 often based on Soviet era sources. Although there are some worthwhile insights, it's next to impossible to tell what the importance of these 'high commands' was and if they weren't that important, then why devote an entire volume to them? Those familiar with the Eastern Front or the Soviet war experience might find some interesting commentary but be prepared to slog through a lot of pages for those golden nuggets. Whereas the author's previous volumes I would argue are valuable contributions to the larger discussion of Soviet military theory and the Soviet Second World War experience, this volume, unfortunately, falls short.

Monday, August 15, 2022

On the Eastern Front at Seventeen: The Memoirs of a Red Army Soldier, 1942-1944


Sergey Drobyazko's 'On the Eastern Front at Seventeen' is a memoir that does well in presenting its title literally. The original memoirs were simply entitled "A Soldier's Path: In Battle from the Kuban to the Dnepr." Having read and listened through hundreds of oral histories and memoirs from the Eastern Front, Drobyazko's account covers a lot of territory that readers will rarely encounter in accounts about the Eastern Front. Specifically, this is someone who survived German captivity and was able to escape and fight again until 1944. He was taken prisoner in 1942, so the horrendous German treatment experienced by soldiers in the initial months of the war seems to have been somewhat reduced but his insights and experiences still paint a rather tragic picture and his survival was in no small part thanks to friends he makes in the camp and those who surprisingly he runs into from his pre-war days, who eventually help him escape. 

This initial part of the memoir is followed by his time on the frontlines as both a mortarman and a rifleman, depending on the situation at the front he was forced to play both roles. The action(s) described are not always easy to follow and this is in part a reflection of the fact that the author did not utilize archival information or divisional/army histories and relied on his memories, so readers are presented with various memorable events and experiences that have remained a part of the author's recollections of the war period. The actions he describes are often ad hoc as his division seems to be the tip of the spear and encounters German rearguard forces during their retreats. This regularly results in significant losses for Soviet forces even though at this point in the war they utilize flanking maneuvers and reconnaissance forces. In some ways the chaos of the front and the inability for a frontline soldier to know what is going on beyond his field of vision is what much of this memoir resembles, readers will only experience what the author sees, hears, and feels. Finally, Drobyazko is wounded, more than once, and also reflects on his time in various medical facilities and wards. For all of the above reasons, and more, this is definitely a worthwhile read and addition to any library on the Eastern Front or WWII.