Wednesday, January 23, 2008

No Foreign Sky by John Farquhar

All in all this is the worst historical novel I've ever read. Perhaps that might not mean much to those who read this review, but I've read hundreds of historical novels and hundreds of non-fictional accounts of the Eastern Front. This book is a travesty. This review is written specifically because a reviewer on amazon mentioned that this book should be 'required reading' for every high school student.

Where to begin? First, a few warnings, in the next paragraph I do give away some aspects of the plot and I want to state that for those who finish reading my review and want to think that I won't be happy with a book that isn't 100% accurate, think again. Read "The Triumph and The Glory" by Rustad, he makes a few mistakes but they are forgivable since his book is simply amazing, sadly, out of print. Then again I wouldn't recommend that book to be read by every high school student either.

This book is lauded on the back cover to have been written after years of research in Russia, Ukraine, and Germany. It tackles the Eastern Front of the Second World War, some aspects of the Holocaust and the Ukrainian nationalist partisan movement. There are few historical fiction works today which concentrate on the Eastern Front. So this book, for a lot of reasons, stands on its own. The book is divided into small chapters, over thirty of them, and mainly revolves around a German tank Captain and his crew with the latter part of the book dealing with his love interest, a Ukrainian girl who winds up being forced to join the partisans. Throughout the story we travel with Army Group South into the Soviet Union and wind up in Stalingrad, from Stalingrad it's into Soviet captivity, then escape to the Ukrainian partisans, and then back to the Germans.

Within the first 35 pages of reading this book I knew this was going to be a waste of time, even so, I finished it just to document the more glaring errors, and believe me when I say that I've left PLENTY out.

The biggest issue I have with this book is the countless times the Wehrmacht and the main character, a German tanker, are lionized while the Red Army is dumbed down to illiterate peasants who can only rape girls and boys. While the SS and Einsatzgruppen carry the burden for most of the 'evil' deeds occurring in the East the Wehrmacht is practically never touched. This reeks of being a cheap attempt to whitewash the Wehrmacht when the reality of the matter is that they were just as guilty of war crimes as the SS. There is of course the possibility that this officer did not know what was going on, an entire Holocaust unfolding in his backyard, but some of the scenes depicted in this book just do not seem realistic enough to believe that they could have happened.

In a literary sense the characters had little depth, they didn't feel as if they are coming out of Nazi Germany in the early 40's but rather the US in the 21st Century, if one is to believe the conversations they have throughout the book. It also seemed as if they were little school girls as they 'giggle' their way through the book. Their line of thinking does not measure up to what we know today about the Wehrmacht at the beginning of the invasion of the Soviet Union. For example, how often does one think Germans made jokes about being homosexuals in the 1930's and 1940's when Hitler and the German administration were sending all homosexuals to concentration camps? This book has plenty of them though. The following statement speaks for itself: "Kurt's hand dropped to Ernst's nipple and twisted it hard" (pg. 94).

It seems as if the reader is supposed to sympathize with a man that likes to go off to war and kill others, he might not be aware of the genocide going on around him, but that's OK, he embodies everything 'good' and 'valiant' in a German soldier. Apparently, the author wants his ignorance to be excused just because he wants to do the right thing. What does doing the right thing entail here? Following orders without question? Can such ignorance be excused just because deep down he's supposedly a good person? If he was, he wouldn't be fighting for such a regime, blocking out everything that doesn't fit into his Utopian vision of war, nor would he be thrilled by war.

Then, there is of course, the stereotypical mass infantry wave assaults against German machine gunners. This is recounted more than once with the German machine gunner whispering 'please stop' to the 'Russians' as he keeps killing them. At this point we have German soldiers playing with Ukrainian children and getting along as well as they can with the local population, yet just a dozen pages back these same soldiers referred to Ukrainians as 'inbred', now they're going out with the girls and playing with the children? I did enjoy the author letting me know that there were 'orders' against looting and to "treat civilians with respect and courtesy," but where is the reference to the Commissar order? The 14th Panzer division is portrayed as being beyond valiant, the officers stand up to an SS officer who requests support for actions against Jews and other Partisans. Where is that mention of the 33,771 Jews who were shot outside Kiev at Babi Yar with 6th Army's support? Although Babi Yar is mentioned later on in the book as well as that 30,000 Jews were shot in 2 days time, not much is said of the support offered by the Wehrmacht at the time or any of the other actions that army personnel participated in, only the idea is kept up that the main character is somehow 'above' this.

Eventually, it turns out that it was the cold winter that turned the main character's division against the local population and thus they began to either help the SS or simply turn their heads away from what was happening. The same character believes that a few degrees of frost drives all the Ukrainians in Kiev indoors...this line of thinking seems misplaced when its coming from a man representing the armed forces who blame the winter for their failures in the Soviet Union (pg. 101). "We do not shoot prisoners" the main character exclaims on pg. 90, how true is that statement in light of the Commissar order? Another incident, this time of a Soviet swimmer who is being shot at while swimming to the opposite bank of a river from the Germans, if he's lucky to survive and reach land unscathed, the Germans apparently stop their shooting and applaud because "they were great sportsmen, after all' (pg. 134).

The author has a limited knowledge in regards to his history with the Red Army throughout the 1930's and 1940's yet chooses to talk about the purges and the commanders as if dropping names (Kork, Primakov, and Uborevitch [sic]) to show off his knowledge. Rokossovsky is mentioned, as is the fact that he was purged and sent to "Siberia" but then a comment is added about him being a great tanker before he was sent off to the Far East. How could this be if he only commanded Cavalry formations before being purged? The German success in the beginning of the Barbarossa is attributed mainly to the purges of the Red Army, while this did play a role, in more ways than one, it was not the sole reason for the Red Army's defeats.

A Russian Captain is captured in 1941 who supposedly fought in a T-34 and Sherman tank, yet in 1941 there were no Sherman tanks on the battlefields of the USSR. In all some 35 tanks managed to arrive in all of 1941 via Lend Lease from the US, but that doesn't mean that they were incorporated into the Red Army the same year (sorry, I could go into more details, but suffice it to say, it's another mistake). On pg. 70 the aforementioned Russian captain says "If we retreat, Commissars shoot us. If we advance, you will kill us." I'm not sure how the Commissars would go about shooting tank captains while they are in their tanks. All I can see here is one stereotype being broadcast after another. Apparently Stalin "stripped" the far east of its "armies," there were actually at least half a million men there at all times. Usually, to replace divisions sent to face the Germans, new ones would be created from the local population. On page 131 the following statements are made "...prisoner battalions that clear minefields by walking through them", of which there are no recorded incidents, and of course "political officers stand behind men and shoot anyone who hesitates", actually it was the NKVD or regular army soldiers who were assigned to stop unauthorized retreats. Then there is the accusation that Red Army soldiers make children carry supplies as they are too light to set off mines, I've personally never come across such an incident. While it is a fact that the Germans used the local population in Stalingrad to get water for them from the Volga so that the Red Army wouldn't shoot them. Just because these statements are made by a German character doesn't mean that it doesn't reinforce cold war stereotypes. Penal formations are claimed to have had 1 rifle for 3 men, reading the memoirs of an officer in a penal formation, "Penalty Strike" by Alexander Pyl'cyn, gives a totally different version of events. The Red Army is claimed to rape not just women, but boys as well.

Then an incident with a KV 2 tank is described, the event in question is quite well known to readers of the Eastern Front. A lone KV 2 tank in the Northern sector of the front detains elements of a German tank division. In this book, the tank is magically transformed to the Southern sector of the Eastern Front, against a totally different German tank division, and is described as simply a "KV" instead of a KV 2, a KV is obviously a totally different tank, is first given a 122mm gun, then a 155mm gun (in reality it had a 152mm gun). Then the KV 2 is supposed to have participated in the Winter War, no, the KV did, the KV 2 did not. Some of those reading this review might consider this too much nitpicking. Sorry, if I read a historical novel about the Eastern Front I'd like to see some sense of history instead of convoluted ideas which take away from the reality of what went on during the largest invasion and the most gruesome fighting the world has seen. Similarly, if these details are added to the book then they should be correct, if you don't know much about them then simply omit them.

The author seems ignorant of the reasoning behind the designation of Stalingrad as a target for the summer offensive in 1942, supposedly Hitler wants it because it has Stalin's name. The reality of the matter is that Hitler never designated that the city should be taken in the first orders for the operation, rather it could be surrounded and the crossing brought under artillery and air bombardment to stop river traffic. A "strategic" discussion ends with the apparent idea that the summer campaign isn't about oil at all, but rather a personal battle of "Stalin's city against Hitler's finest army." No, Stalingrad was attacked by 2 armies, 4th Panzer and 6th Army, and the 6th Army was not the "finest" army, rather it was the largest army Hitler possessed at the time with something over 300,000 men.

The latter half of the book will deal with the partisan movement. Still, the reader is exposed to cold war propaganda about Ukrainian partisans fighting against both the Germans and Soviets to protect their land, etc. Somehow I don't believe that killing innocent Red Army men who are fighting for their own lives and that of their family members can be considered an honorable thing when discussing the activities of the Ukrainian Nationalist partisan organizations. Quite a few chapters mention the famine in Ukraine but it is again a layman's knowledge that is presented. Eye witness accounts can only tell a person so much about what happened, the author has pretty much propagated what the cold war developed. Farmers were innocent; it was all the higher quotas, etc. The real story is much more complex than presented here. Also, a claim is made that reporters were invited to Kiev during the famine. No, Ukraine was shut off from all reporters and no one was allowed in or out so that the famine would not spread (even though Ukraine wasn't the only place the suffered from the famine at the time). It seems that if you're Russian you cannot be a 'hero' in this book, no matter what. A scene has Red Army tankers run down their own countrymen who are actually trying to get away from the Germans to greet them. These same tankers, at times, even go out of their way to pursue fleeing civilians and run them over.

The men of the Red Army who would eventually finish the war in Berlin are labeled "stupid" and illiterate...makes you wonder how does that kind of army win against that wonderful German Armed forces that conquered all of Europe? Stereotypes, propaganda, myths, I simply cannot count them all and list them all. This book is beyond a waste of time it will drown you in ignorance, forget that it costs money; you are simply throwing away reality for disturbed fantasy, truth for lies, myths, and omissions.

Incorrect spelling and detail errors (although it's been brought to my attention that the transliteration might have simply been taken from German, when it came to Russian words and their spelling, in which case, what did those years researching in Russia really mean?):
Tukhachevsky is spelled as Tuchachevsky.
Shturmovik is spelled as Sturmovik.
Uborevich spelled as Uborevitch.
There is a mention of Vyansk...most likely Vyazma is what was meant and it seems as if Bryansk and Vyazma were joined into one word.
The author's Russian, in general, is also lacking.
Army Group Center became Army Group Central (pg. 36).
Kleist apparently commands the "Second Armored" army, in fact he commanded the 1st Panzer group which became an army after Kiev was captured.
The chronology of events, like encirclements, if very much off.
The PPSh is labeled a 'machine gun', no, it was a submachine gun.
The Jewish character is first named Ivan Kulikov then Ivan Kalugin.
Operation Uranus, the encirclement of the 6th Army at Stalingrad, occurs on November 13th, as best one can tell from the narrative, instead of the historical November 19th.
According to the author German POWs served in the same camps as GULag prisoners, another mistake.
Wilhelm Kube is mentioned to have been killed by a 'maiden' he was in fact killed by a 'maid.'


Anonymous said...

Mr Kunikov,

Well, please tell us how you feel about this book.

Debunking the myth of the "good German soldier" is all to often words that fall upon deaf ears an unseeing eyes.

I have often wondered why the attraction to the SS and Wehrmacht. Once you get past the sexual and racist undertones that usually remain unspoken. In most cases the speaker does not realize they possess them. All is left is admiration for an army that wasn't that good for that long.

Thank you for the review. Books like this appeal to me and it has a nice cover. It is nice that I did not have to waste the money.


T. Kunikov said...

You are quite welcome. I think those sexual undertones were quite present in this book though. :)

Reina Pennington said...

This is book reviewing at its best. I wish your reviews got a lot more attention.

T. Kunikov said...

Thank you for your kind words. As long as someone finds them useful I'm glad. :)