Monday, December 25, 2023

Japan's Holocaust by Bryan Mark Rigg

Bryan Mark Rigg's "Japan's Holocaust" is a bit of a conundrum. This is a historian who initially wrote about "Hitler's Jewish Soldiers" and has recently seemingly altered his interests, focus, and research toward the Pacific Theater of Operations. There's no doubt that he's gone through a large amount of primary and secondary source material in putting this volume together (over 1500 footnotes) but the structure/organization, central argument(s), and polemical detours often take away from what could have possibly been an excellent single volume look at Japan's war effort against the various civilian populations that fell under their occupation.

In effect, Rigg has a few agendas he is routinely pushing throughout this monograph. First is that the atomic bombs should have been used and this is in response to the fact that, second, the Japanese were perpetrating their own version of the 'Holocaust' throughout their occupied territories. This is somewhat simplistic and reductionist but, giving the author the benefit of the doubt, readers will be presented with a history of Japan and Japanese war crimes that encompass over 300 pages. The narrative is not necessarily based on a chronology of Japanese actions in the Pacific and it's more that the chapters are broken up thematically, so there is a fair amount of repetition when it comes to Japanese crimes and the author's condemnation.

Unfortunately, when reducing the history of the Pacific Theater of Operations to just Japanese war crimes this volume begins to read like a voyeuristic look at the basest acts humanity is capable of, ranging from mass rape, to mass suicide, cannibalism, and grotesque torture of human bodies before and after death. When just reading through Iris Chang's "Rape of Nanking" is a soul-crushing task, this book multiples that to the Nth degree. Every page is a new horror and every chapter reaches another level of depravity and debauchery. This is a volume that cannot but haunt readers and while I can appreciate wanting your audience to understand what occupied populations and prisoners of war endured, I'm not sure that an encyclopedic discussion (akin to "The Complete Black Book of Russian Jewry," which chronicles the Holocaust on Soviet territory from primary sources) will accomplish much without the required academic commentary.

Which brings us to one of the significant weaknesses, in my opinion, of this work. There is simply not enough context for the amount of information presented. Going through the crimes of a perpetrator on the scale of Japan from the late 1920s through 1945 is simply not enough. While Rigg's does offer some contextual discussion about why Japanese soldiers and officers might have ignored orders, rules of war, and insisted on allowing wanton destruction, rape, and murder more often than not it is generally applied rather than based on specific situations or events and that can become problematic all too quickly.

Finally, while it is undoubtedly true that Germany has done a better job of reconciling with its past than Japan, Rigg's is either unaware or chooses to ignore the numerous obstacles that were put in the way of that reconciliation throughout the Cold War period, nor does he comment on the myth of the Wehrmacht with Clean Hands, which was only addressed in the 1990s and not without criticism. While there is much to admire in how Germany today approaches its past, that should not obscure the resistance many put up to recognizing the crimes of the Third Reich when it comes to the Holocaust and its occupation policies throughout Eastern and Western Europe.

In the end, this is a book I would only recommend to those already familiar with the Second World War and the Pacific Theater, otherwise, the author's polemical style and at times subjective commentary limits the utility of this work.

Friday, December 1, 2023

Stalin's Plans for Capturing Germany by Bogdan Musial

I'm not exactly sure what the point of this book was aside from trying to cash in on the usual conspiracy theories surrounding Stalin's purported invasion plans when it came to Germany during the Second World War. In the usual style of those who enter into this type of conspiracy theory laden discussion, we begin with the Revolutionary/Civil War period and proceed to the eventual German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941.

A monograph that tries to cover that much territory in about 300-400 pages means there will be more missing than included, especially considering the numerous topics that need to be touched on, discussed, contextualized, etc. The basic idea for this author is that the Communist Party of the Soviet Union always aimed to export Revolution. Was Stalin going to invade Germany?  Maybe in 1943, but it's still all speculation and conjecture according to the author. That, in essence, is the entire book. Nothing new, nothing original.

What are the strengths? The author uses some good documentation from the archives and other primary sources. That's it for the strengths.

What are the weaknesses?  Everything else. Those documents and primary sources need to be contextualized and they rarely are. The numerous volumes that exist in terms of research on dozens of topics that are covered here are rarely if ever referenced nor are large, block quotes that are often introduced adequately contextualized.

Does this book develop a new central thesis/argument?  No.

Is it worth your time/money if you're familiar with the history of the Soviet Union, WWII, or the Eastern Front?  No, and if you're not familiar with those topics, then this isn't a good starting point for them.

I'm not at all sure who this book is for unless you're a fan of conspiracy theories and need some additional ammunition to reinforce what you already believe.

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.