Saturday, September 18, 2021

Drunk on Genocide: Alcohol and Mass Murder in Nazi Germany by Edward B. Westermann

Those who are interested in the Second World War and/or the Holocaust will undoubtedly have run across accounts that detail many of the mass executions that occurred on the Eastern Front or the treatment of Jews and other 'untermensch' in ghettos and concentration/labor/death camps. Something that regularly comes up in these accounts is drinking and the prevalence of alcohol. Often even Red Army memoirs will discuss their impressions of their German counterparts and comment on their 'drunken' advances (something the Germans will just as quickly mention about Soviet forces). In "Drunk on Genocide,"  Edward Westermann takes on the difficult topic of Germany's actions during the Holocaust and attempts to contextualize where alcohol and drinking fit in when it came to mass murder. 

The first chapters of the book might not be the most interesting or enlightening for the average reader as they are steeped in scholarly discussions about hypermasculinity as well as ritual and celebration. But these discussions are necessary to understand the context these men, and sometimes women, were operating in when it came to the Holocaust. Although not every chapter has alcohol and drinking at its  center, the events being described often enough featured drinking and celebration as part of the larger narrative of the Holocaust by bullets and the lived experience of those who found themselves in ghettos, concentration, and death camps. This is not a book that is easy to read, human depravity seems to have no limits and the more these men and women were exposed to torture, violence, and death that they themselves inflicted the less inhibited they became, but not because of alcohol. That was something I kept looking to find - specifically, mention of how many of these killers and torturers needed to turn to alcohol to make sense of what they were doing or to simply get through the day. But, as Westermann points out, alcohol was part and parcel of the killing process but it was an additional benefit not a way to lubricate someone's inhibitions or do away with their resistance. Only in postwar accounts did there begin to appear an attempt to explain the actions of these killers in part by the fact that they needed to be drunk to do their 'job.' Undoubtedly postwar memories of the many killing episodes became intertwined with alcoholic binge drinking and celebrations that occurred before, during, and after many of these mass murders - so why not believe that one directly influenced the other? But in this case, it was the killing that influenced a need to drink in order to celebrate not to cope, at least that was the case for the majority. As other historians and researchers have pointed out, if opposition existed to the killing process it certainly resulted in no discernible slowdown of the mass killing throughout Central and Eastern Europe as mass executions were evident until the final months and weeks of the war. While initially I was somewhat skeptical of what this volume could contribute to our understanding of the Holocaust, by the time I finished reading it I was very much impressed with the author's knowledge, research, arguments, and conclusions.

Friday, September 10, 2021

Hitler's Fortresses in the East: The Sieges of Ternopol', Kovel', Poznan and Breslau, 1944–1945 by Alexey Isaev

Alexey Isaev is a well-known Russian military historian who has published a wide range of books on the Eastern Front. He's usually meticulous when it comes to documentation and utilizes a variety of Russian and German primary sources and archives to create a narrative that's full of thick-descriptions when it comes to military action on the Eastern Front.  

 Having read quite a few of his publications, this is probably one of the less exciting and interesting volumes I've come across.  The focus here is on the latter period of the war, specifically analyzing the various 'fortress cities' that were created on Hitler's orders.  This is something of a reverse to Red Army actions in 1941 when Soviet forces tried to hold on to numerous cities in the face of German advances and were eventually forced to surrender at the end of large encirclement battles like Minsk, Smolensk, and Kiev.

However, in this case, Isaev is taking on a lot of territory and doesn't have the time or space to go into enough contextual detail for readers to get a good idea of what brought the Red Army to each of these fortress cities and what their loss and eventual impact would be on both Soviet and German operations. What readers are presented with are day-by-day accounts of unit actions (from battalions to divisions and corps) with corresponding tables of unit strengths, weapons, and losses. While the tables are interesting and telling when it comes to the various casualties units experienced, they're a small piece of a larger story that seems to be missing as the concentration is almost always on just one fortress city. 

For those familiar with the Eastern Front, you will find a lot of useful information but you'll need to contextualize it yourself for a better understanding of what happened on the Eastern Front in 1944-1945. For those new to the topic, I'd say this is something you can and should skip for the moment.

Tuesday, August 17, 2021

I Somehow Survived: Eyewitness Accounts from World War II by Klaus G Förg

As the years pass there are fewer and fewer veterans and survivors we can turn to in order to better understand the lived experience of the Second World War.  In "I Somehow Survived" readers are presented with a few recent interviews of soldiers and civilians who experienced different parts of Germany's war throughout Europe - from the Eastern Front, to Italy, and Norway.  As with all recollections/interviews and ego documents, there are strengths and weaknesses to this volume.  Being decades removed from the time period means there are undoubtedly gaps in their memories and knowledge of the war but some kept diaries and others related experiences that have stayed with them since the war.  The first account, describing the war on the Eastern Front, is the longest and the veteran being interviewed is quite open about the type of war Germany waged and the suffering inflicted on the civilian population, more than once he references 'hordes' when describing the Red Army - undoubtedly a leftover from the Third Reich's lexicon.   Other accounts relay the death and destruction associated with partisan warfare (be it on the Eastern Front or the Western Front), and at least one describes the rather long and convoluted route he had to take to avoid being taken prisoner at the end of the war.  While there is nothing groundbreaking in these interviews/recollections, they nonetheless add to our knowledge of the war and help better contextualize the various experiences soldiers and civilians encountered depending on where in Europe they found themselves - not all theaters were the same but Germans could be found in them all.

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.