Tuesday, March 9, 2021

Churchill and Stalin: Comrades-in-Arms during the Second World War by Martin Folly, Geoffrey Roberts, and Oleg Alexandrovich Rzheshevsky

 "Churchill and Stalin" offers a limited but enlightening look at the relationship between the leaders of the British Empire and the Soviet Union during the Second World War.  The initial 70 pages outline in broad strokes the progress of their relationship, from the eve of the war, through the German invasion of Poland and France, and the eventual invasion of the Soviet Union.  Equal weight is given to the words and actions of not only Churchill and Stalin, but also Roosevelt and numerous personalities that made an appearance and impact (Eden, Molotov, etc.).  The initial chapters are followed by document collections that give further depth to the relationship that developed between these two men.  

It's difficult to judge what their specific thoughts were at the moment without recalling in hindsight what eventually took place in the latter period of the war and in the immediate postwar period. However, if readers are able to contextualize the events that preceded the various meetings in London, Moscow, the US, and the eventual large gatherings in Tehran, etc., they'll be impressed by the sheer amount of topics covered and the details that were touched on and thought about.  Consistent requests, telling omissions, plans for the future, etc., are all worth paying attention to while keeping in mind how the war was unfolding and where the attention and focus was at any specific time.  Soviet desperation and requests for assistance are front and center in 1941 and 1942 as Churchill makes promises only to renege on them a few weeks or months later, at times due to circumstances out of his control.  One of the major points the authors make is that making promises came easily for Churchill, keeping them was the real issue.  For Stalin it was the opposite, it was difficult for him (similar to Molotov) to make a final statement about anything without diving into numerous details and questions that delegations were often unable to fully answer to their satisfaction.  Britain was happy to enlist Soviet aid in the fight against Hitler, but the Soviets questioned whether that happiness was based on their suffering as they retreated in the face of continued German advances or whether Churchill genuinely wanted to join forces, help supply the Soviet war effort and, sooner rather than later, open a second front to take the pressure off the Red Army.

We take for granted how difficult wartime diplomacy can be, especially when the outcome is not yet foreseeable.  In these pages readers can begin to get a good idea of what thoughts plagued these two men as they tried their best to create some type of alliance and 'friendship' while planning for the postwar period.  

Sunday, November 15, 2020

Lost Honour, Betrayed Loyalty: The Memoir of a Waffen-SS Soldier on the Eastern Front by Herbert Maeger

Herbert Maeger's "Lost Honour, Betrayed Loyalty" documents his experiences as a soldier in what would become the Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler Division.  I have little question about the authenticity of the account but there is still the question of whether the author was forced into volunteering for the Waffen SS or if he did so out of his own volition and then needed an excuse at the end of the war.  Taking the author at his word, he found himself in a poor position and, after being threatened, he decided to volunteer and ended up in the service of the vaunted Waffen SS.  

Maeger spent the majority of the war with the 1st SS Division on the Eastern Front and Italy.  After being wounded he was able to take medical courses and eventually served in the 36th Waffen SS Division, commanded by Oskar Dirlewanger, a rather infamous unit made up of criminals which was often utilized in anti-partisan operations.  Finally, the last section of these memoirs ring quite authentic with the author attempting his best to outrun the Red Army and break out to the west in the chaotic final days of the Third Reich.

While Maeger spent some time on the frontlines, most of the time he was involved in rear area operations as a driver and then working with the wounded in the rear.  Those eager for frontline action will get some of that here, but more often this is a memoir of someone doing their best to survive and live to see the next day or, at best, the end of the war.  What is interesting, if, again, we take the author at his word, is that the Waffen SS seems to have begun taking in 'volunteers' as early as 1941.  These were not necessarily model Aryan Germans and it isn't that only the 'foreign' Waffen SS divisions that accepted these volunteers, some, or even many, could be found in the more 'famous' formations. 

Throughout the memoirs the usual mention is made of German's shooting POWs out of hand but the author wants to make clear that he believes these were isolated incidents and not indicative of what we today know as a regular policy among both the Waffen SS and the Wehrmacht in general.  There is also an interesting incident recounted about a German officer admitting the Euthenasia campaign that was waged against the mentally handicapped, which the author and a few other SS soldiers opposed (verbally).  With respect to the Holocaust, however, there is little to no mention and, on the contrary, the author plays up his positive interactions with civilians in Soviet territory and curses the leadership of the Third Reich for 'betraying' its soldiers and starting a war they were unprepared for.
There is no question that these memoirs are self-serving and undoubtedly contain a grain of self-censorship, but we can say that about any memoir.  There's much here of value to those interested in the Eastern Front, the Waffen SS, and the Second World War in general.

Thursday, November 12, 2020

In the Hell of the Eastern Front: The Fate of a Young Soldier During the Fighting in Russia in WW2 by Arno Sauer

This slim volume covers the history of a Wehrmacht veteran who served in the 132nd Infantry Division.  However, the actual author of this volume is the veteran's son, Arno Sauer, yet there is no delineation between where the author's thoughts and ideas can be separated from that of his father.  Although written as a memoir, a few of the chapters have discussions of events that no soldier would have known were happening because of their all-too-understandable myopic view of the battlefield in front of them and their immediate surroundings.  Discussions of other army groups, the Battle of the Atlantic, etc., are all made from hindsight and it's difficult to know what the author's father actually thought about these larger events during the war itself rather than looking back on those events.  Moreover, no sources are presented for the larger history being offered to readers.  For this reason this volume is not very useful for scholars but for those who are casual readers of the Second World War interested in another memoir about the Eastern Front, this isn't a bad choice.

There are some minor mistakes throughout as when the author writes the 132nd Infantry Division was in Army Group Center yet operating in the Crimea, but in other parts of the book he correctly mentions Army Group South and later Army Group North as the division was transferred there after the defeat of the Red Army at Sevastopol.  

Much of what is related here rings authentic and true.  The author discusses interactions with locals on the Eastern Front, cases of rape by both the Wehrmacht and Red Army, the inevitable disappearance of Jews from his hometown, the propaganda of Ilia Ehrenburg, and the usual suicidal charges by Red Army soldiers, which in essence are difficult to believe and might show a confluence of individual memory and collective memory.  How much of a threat could apparently drunk, unarmed soldiers present?  Is this really the enemy the vaunted Wehrmacht lost a war to?

Finally, the author somewhat plays up the victimhood of the German people, his comrades, family, and himself.  While he somewhat mentions the holocaust there is little credence given to the idea that this was something for which responsibility should be assigned to those beyond Hitler and his inner circle.  He removes agency from himself and those around him as if they were mere automatons fulfilling orders and unable to do anything to oppose those in power.  This is undoubtedly an expression of German victimhood once more coming to the forefront, which is not unexpected.  According to the author the German people hardly wanted war.  And yet they unleashed a war of annihilation anyway and killed millions in the process.   Somehow the two don't add up.

Saturday, September 26, 2020

The Battle of Kursk: Controversial and Neglected Aspects by Valeriy Zamulin, Translated by Stuard Britton

Valeriy Zamulin has made a name for himself in his histories relating to the Battle of Kursk in both Russian and now English.  His work, although devoted to just this one crucial battle on the Eastern Front, offers a taste of what is often missing from both general and specific studies when it comes to the Eastern Front.  He is able to utilize archival information in both the US and Russia related, respectively, to German and Soviet units, and offer an in-depth discussion that contextualizes and offers a critical analysis of actions undertaken by both sides.  Usually historians are limited to just one set of documents and, for westerners, Russian ministry of defense archives are almost always off-limits.  So Zamulin's contributions are very much welcome, but more so, they are a lens into discussions rarely found even in Soviet/Russian publications.  

This specific text deals with, as the subtitle makes clear, controversial and neglected aspects of the Battle of Kursk.  Personally, the most interesting chapter was the first, which dealt with the historiography of the battle during the Soviet period and into the post-Soviet period.  Detailing how Soviet historians, official histories, and veteran high-ranking officers attempted to both describe the battle and their roles in it is just as, if not more interesting, than chapters detailing the battle itself.  The Battle of Kursk proved a contested engagement where reputations were made and sustained but also gave voice to numerous myths that continue to haunt the pages of histories up to the present.  Zamulin details much of that process and traces where some of these myths began and how they were sustained.  Although the writing itself is not the most engaging or readable, in part due to Zamulin's prose, but the information is worth its weight in gold.  

The same can be said for the numerous chapters that make up this volume.  They include a discussion of the preemptive artillery bombardment and its impact on German forces, what intelligence Soviet units acquired on the eve of the offensive from deserters, why did Rokossovsky's Central Front have a seemingly easier time stopping German forces than Vatutin's Voronezh Front, and a critical look at some Soviet units and their commanders to try to explain the numerous difficulties they encountered 'behind the curtain.'  These and the other chapters offer western readers a look at aspects of the Eastern Front that are rarely examined in popular histories or even operational studies as historians and scholars simply do not have the access to the archival material that Zamulin does.  He is able to critically analyze both sides and offer worthwhile commentary that helps explain the situation both German and Soviet units found themselves in, including their strengths and weaknesses, and is happy to dispel myths and legends whenever he runs across them.  This is a highly recommended volume for all of those interested in the Battle of Kursk or the Eastern Front in general.

Sunday, August 9, 2020

Mortar Gunner on the Eastern Front, Volume II: Russia, Hungary, Lithuania, and the Battle for East Prussia: The Memoir of Dr. hans Heinz Rehfeldt

 This is the second half of the author's diary/memoirs, covering actions in the latter part of WWII as the Wehrmacht retreated from occupied Soviet territory, through Hungary, the Baltic states, and into Prussia.  Much of these entries follow the same pattern as those in the first volume, there's plenty of action, a lot of mundane information, and every now and then some insightful commentary on the Wehrmacht, the Eastern Front, and Nazi Germany.  

 True to form for a soldier serving in a vaunted German Army formation, the author consistently praises German actions on the field of battle and belittles his Red Army counterparts.  German troops inevitably outperform their Soviet counterparts on the field of battle but inevitably need to retreat.  Red Army troops are the usual 'faceless mass' and there is little discussion of atrocities or the ongoing holocaust, although at one point reference is made to the execution of prisoners of war.  As the diary unfolds, the chaos of the battlefield, unplanned retreats, and mentions of anticipated 'wonder' weapons are regularly described and discussed.  

Readers that pay particular attention to these entries will notice the constant attention to enemy mortar and artillery fire.  This is partly understandable as the author was a mortarman, but it also shows that many of the casualties his unit sustained came from the consistent pressure Soviet forces put on German troops with their artillery and mortars, something that's often left out of memoirs that deal with higher level officers/generals, but is front and center here.  Additionally, one of the more interesting aspects of this volume are the many photos of propaganda leaflets by both the Soviets and Germans, trying to entice the other to surrender.  Although they are not fully translated, those with images are worth studying for they do and don't say.

Overall, these aren't the 'best' memoirs I've read when it comes to the Eastern Front, but as with practically every other primary source account, there's always something interesting to be found in these pages that enhances our understanding of the war on the Eastern Front.

Monday, July 27, 2020

Night of the Bayonets: The Texel Uprising and Hitler's Revenge, April - May 1945 by Eric Lee

Eric Lee's "Night of the Bayonets" attempts to cover the uprising on Texel Island by a battalion from the Georgian Legion.  In April 1945 some 800 Georgians turned on the Germans, massacred several hundred in the night with knives and bayonets, and went on to continue resisting German attacks and searches until the end of May, by which time some 228 men were able to survive. 

The first time I came across any references to this incident was in Michael Jones's "After Hitler."  I was fascinated to learn that such an incident occurred and more so that many of these men were not punished like many others who were handed over by the Western Allies to the Soviet Union at the end of the war.  Why some or all of them were able to escape severe punishment that many others who served in the Wehrmacht suffered is still a question without an adequate answer.

"Night of the Bayonets" is a slim volume and most of it does not directly deal with the revolt.  Lee does a good job with the source material available to him, but it's limited.  He touches on the history of Georgia, its relations with Russia and the Soviet Union, the role of the Communist Party, Operation Barbarossa, treatment of Soviet POWs, the Georgian Battalion's relations with the Dutch on Texel, and numerous other topics to help set the stage for what would happen in April and May of 1945.  But he devotes limited space to each of these topics as is evidenced by the rather small source base.  The uprising itself is covered in about 40 pages.

One of the strengths, however, is that Lee correctly directs the reader's attention to the contested memories that resulted from this event.  German, Dutch, and Georgian memories all differ in terms of what happened, who was responsible for the many deaths of civilians that became inevitable once the Germans began to fight the Georgians, and why the uprising began in the first place.  Each participant has altered, for their own needs, what happened, how they want to represent themselves, their actions, and those of their comrades, complicating an already complex set of facts.  But, that's a perfect example of the continuing reverberations of the Second World War.

All in all, this is an interesting book but one that really serves as an introduction to a little-known event on a little Dutch Island.

Friday, June 5, 2020

Black Tulip: The Life and Myth of Erich Hartmann, the World's Top Fighter Ace by Erik Schmidt

This is a volume that doesn't necessarily fit any particular category.  It isn't a biography, it isn't a traditional historical monograph, nor is it a scholarly treatment of any one subject/topic/theme.  Rather, this appears to be an author interested in the Second World War, Germany, aviation, and the Luftwaffe.  Mix those topics together, insert some 'popular history,' and you get 'Black Tulip.'  The author touches on subjects ranging from the Hitler Youth, the Luftwaffe, the place of aviation in 1930s society (mainly Germany and the Soviet Union), German POWs in the Soviet Union, reintegration into German society for POWs in the postwar period, and some of the myths that have developed over time when it comes to German victim-hood and the Wehrmacht.  Placing Hartmann in the midst of all these events/developments, interspersed with the author's proclivity for relying on literary flair, leaves the reader with little in the way of contextual analysis or anything beyond a superficial reading of any of the aforementioned topics.  Moreover, the bibliography is limited as is the space each of these rather significant topics have devoted to them, not to mention a total lack of original research and in a few instances references to works by John Moiser, an English professor with an inability to grasp how to research or write history.  The bottom line is that if you're interested in any of the above mentioned topics, including Hartmann, there are numerous books devoted to each that will provide much more value for your time and money than this volume.  If you want a limited and 'popular' look at something that has to do with the Second World War, German fighter pilots, and Germany, then this is the book for you.