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Articles on this Page
- 07/22/16--18:00: _After Stalingrad: S...
- 08/08/16--18:59: _In Wartime: Stories...
- 08/18/16--20:13: _Enemy in the East: ...
- 08/30/16--18:44: _We Will Not Go to T...
- 09/18/16--19:37: _Rogue Heroes by Ben...
- 10/05/16--17:12: _ Stalin's Commandos...
- 11/04/16--21:11: _Konev's Golgotha: O...
- 12/07/16--16:45: _The Lands Between: ...
- 12/15/16--12:29: _Panzer Operations: ...
- 12/19/16--23:02: _Agents of Terror: O...
- 01/03/17--10:52: _Architect of Soviet...
- 01/24/17--13:52: _Lenin on the Train ...
- 02/15/17--20:24: _Who Lost Russia?: H...
- 02/23/17--15:06: _Soviet Conquest: Be...
- 04/08/17--18:46: _Panzer Killers: Ant...
- 05/13/17--16:07: _Blitzkrieg: From th...
- 05/22/17--12:51: _Hitler's First War:...
- 06/06/17--13:19: _The Unwomanly Face ...
- 07/04/17--14:49: _Confronting Case Bl...
- 07/19/17--20:19: _For The Motherland!...
- 07/27/17--18:46: _Operation Bagration...
- 09/13/17--22:50: _From Warsaw to Rome...
- 09/20/17--23:15: _Blood in the Forest...
- 09/26/17--19:24: _The Price of Victor...
- 10/05/17--20:32: _Dubno 1941: The Gre...
- 08/08/16--18:59: In Wartime: Stories from Ukraine by Tim Judah
- 09/18/16--19:37: Rogue Heroes by Ben Macintyre
- 01/24/17--13:52: Lenin on the Train by Catherine Merridale
- 02/23/17--15:06: Soviet Conquest: Berlin 1945 by Tony Le Tissier
- 05/13/17--16:07: Blitzkrieg: From the Ground Up by Niklas Zetterling
- 06/06/17--13:19: The Unwomanly Face of War by Svetlana Alexievich
I've read a few memoirs detailing German experiences in Soviet POW camps. Adelbert Holl's experiences, overall, offer an interesting insight into the Soviet POW and GULag system of camps. Simultaneously, I was a bit disappointed as Holl's narrative can at times be tedious and tiresome. Thus, I can't say that this is the most interesting memoir I've read but it is one that offers the ability for readers to make a few interesting observations. To some extent I'd say readers are probably interested in seeing if German prisoners ever wondered about their complicity in the Third Reich and the unfolding Holocaust, or if they even knew it was going on around them. Holl spends little to no time reflecting on his role as a soldier in the Wehrmacht, only at times reminding the reader how much better Germans are than their Soviet/Russian/Asiatic counterparts. He has no remorse or really any feelings at all for the war that was unleashed on the Soviet people, for Holl the most important aspects of his imprisonment are ensuring survival for himself and those Germans who have not decided to "betray" their country by joining the Soviet propaganda efforts against Hitler's regime. Thus, from one camp to another Holl mainly recounts his attempts to avoid work, stand up to perceived and real Soviet cruelty, search for food, etc. The majority of his memoirs are in fact filled with discussions of the horrid situation he's found himself in and, when his attempts to avoid work finally result in his judgment and imprisonment in the Soviet GULag system for ten years of hard labor, he experiences another level of cruelty that includes an introduction to the criminal element that has made the GULag world in part its own fiefdom. For those interested in how German POWs were treated and how the Soviets were able to convict many and keep them working within the GULag system, thus avoiding returning them home until they absolutely had to, you'll find plenty of interesting information in Holl's account of his time in the Soviet state. However, if you're looking for a narrative that includes a more personal and retrospective discussion of the Third Reich, Hitler, the German invasion of the Soviet Union, the Holocaust, etc., you won't find much of that here.
Tim Judah's "In Wartime: Stories from Ukraine" offers a good introductory look at the recent conflict that began in the shadow of the Sochi Winter Olympics. There are a few issues and weaknesses throughout. But, overall, for those who want to understand Ukraine's turbulent history, its place within the Soviet Union and relationship to Russia in the post-Soviet period, as well as how the recent "Maidan" revolution began, including the war in Eastern Ukraine, this is a great starting point.
First, the few minor negatives that I ran across. Since I had an advanced copy of the book, there were some spelling/grammar issues that I think will be corrected before the final publication is out, but at times such issues made for having to reread sentences and even paragraphs as some of the arguments presented and events described became convoluted and the errors/writing style made it harder to figure out what was actually happening. Secondly, and more importantly, since Judah isn't a historian - and although this is not a history book - yet attempts to tackle historical issues/topics, he does not always do a satisfactory enough job in presenting them (conversely, he has unearthed some interesting material and has led me to ordering a few books to continue my own research). I'll only utilize two minor examples. When discussing the referendum in Donetsk and Lugansk he compares the event to the Soviet "acceptance" of Western Ukraine and Belorussia after the dismemberment of Poland following the non-aggression pact. The comparison is fair but omits the precedent the Soviets were working from, that is, the German annexation of Austria and the Sudetenland. Similarly, when discussing the annexation of Crimea and the referendum that took place there, the author ignores the more recent precedent of what happened in Kosovo, which Russia had a large interest in and whose concerns were ignored when Kosovo was granted independence. Obviously none of this is an excuse or justification for Russian/Soviet actions, simply that the author is presenting historical events with limited context which places all the onus on the Soviet Union/Russia and misses important precedents. Finally, the author is not fluent in either Russian or Ukrainian, thus he used translators and there's the possibility that some nuances or context might be missing, but that's an issue that doesn't come across the pages of this book, at least nothing jumped out at me, but it's simply something to keep in mind.
What the author does well is discuss the numerous shades of grey that exist in this conflict. That includes the propaganda campaigns from both sides that recycle Soviet/Nazi rhetoric and propaganda while justifying their own actions. However, Ukraine is a multi-ethnic state seeking a history to grasp onto but unfortunately the historical heroes and events many right-wing groups, including some in government positions, have grasped onto ignore the other rich historical legacies that exist throughout Ukraine. Thus the selective memory of OUN and UPA actions against Ukraine's enemies have come to represent a heroic Ukrainian narrative that ignores the genocide of Ukraine's Jewish population, some of whom died at the hands of the same OUN and UPA heroes that are honored today. These decisions, of whom to honor and what events to ignore, have added fuel to the propaganda fires that have been emanating from Russia and the rebel groups in Eastern Ukraine. A grain of truth is all that is needed to paint entire groups as "fascists" and "puppets of the West." While some believe the propaganda campaigns the vast majority of Ukrainians want peace and an end to the corruption that they have been witness to at every level of society. They want to live their lives in peace, raise their children and work jobs that pay relatively stable and meaningful salaries, something that has eluded most Ukrainians for the past two decades and has become even harder to come across in a Ukraine that now has to wage war on its eastern frontier. The majority of the stories presented from interviews are interesting and give minor insights into everyday life throughout various regions of Ukraine (Galicia, Bessarabia, and the eastern provinces of Lugansk and Donetsk). Each region has its own distinct history, interests, cultural legacies and impressions of the Maidan revolution and the ensuing war in the east. There is no single, coherent narrative that all of Ukraine can get behind and support, something Ukraine's government has been unable to create, while Russia has taken every opportunity to emphasize its own propaganda efforts to discredit Ukraine's current regime. Thus, Ukrainians continue to struggle to understand their place in Europe and their relationship to Russia while waging war in their backyard.
Although I say it often enough, there are still only a few books that surprise me when it comes to the Second World War, especially the Eastern Front. In this case, the book I'd compare this work to would be David Stahel's "Operation Barbarossa and Germany's Defeat in the East." I'd recommend reading Müller's volume first and follow that up with Stahel's ever evolving look at the German incursion into the Soviet Union.
Taking a look at "Enemy in the East" there are a few important things the author attempted to do with this monograph. He wanted to look at the history of German military plans against the Soviet Union, especially in the period after Hitler took power and through 1941. Simultaneously, he wanted to see who actually did the planning as in the postwar period the majority of the German commanders who remained alive created a narrative that portrayed Hitler as being the sole guilty party in the genocidal campaign that was the German invasion of the Soviet Union. Answering the question of where the plans for the invasion of the Soviet Union originated from also means creating additional context in understanding not only the evolution of the Second World War but also the Holocaust. This means engaging with the old "intentionalists vs. functionalists" debate. The conclusion reached by the author is that it was Halder and the army that created the original plans for the invasion of the Soviet Union (which were not ideological, although perhaps a little too idealistic) but it was Hitler who created the genocidal form the war would take in the early periods of 1941 without much opposition from the army high command.
What the author does well, better than any interwar history that I've come across previously, is show the interplay between Hitler's Germany and Poland. That relationship receives a rather large amount of attention, while that of Germany and Great Britain, France, Japan, Italy, the Soviet Union, Romania, Czechoslovakia, etc., receive less attention but all play very vital roles in how Hitler's plans for the Second World War evolved. In some ways I think more attention should have been paid to the diplomatic relations between Germany and the Soviet Union as there are connections the author misses and would have added even more context to an already fascinating study.
According to Müller, Hitler had always planned to go to war with the Soviet Union and might have actually done it in 1939 with Poland's help if not for how certain events developed. Poland's move away from Germany toward Britain and France meant Germany could no longer continue creeping slowly east and utilizing additional eastern territories for an eventual invasion of the Soviet Union (with or without Poland's help). This meant an eventual deal with the Soviet Union had to be made. After invading Poland, and having Britain and France in turn declare war on Germany, Hitler once again had to alter his plans and invade France, in order to avoid a future war on two fronts. Only after the defeat of France was Hitler ready for a final showdown with the Soviet Union. However, German hubris, combined with unrealistic evaluations of both the Soviet Union and Red Army, resulted in clashes between Halder and Hitler and the eventual failure of Operation Barbarossa and Germany's eventual defeat.
Although this is very well researched work, there were some weaknesses amidst the many strengths. While there is no question the author is an expert in his relevant field(s) when it comes to Nazi Germany, Hitler, and the Wehrmacht, there were a few problems with how the Soviet Union, Stalin, the Red Army, etc., were portrayed. In general I think the author thinks quite highly of the Wehrmacht's capabilities, even before the invasion of Poland, and had a rather inadequate appraisal of the Red Army's abilities. Furthermore, the author compares the German invasion forces of some 3.7 million troops (German and allied) to Red Army forces in Soviet Western Military Districts, 2.9 million. The problem here is that western military districts stretched all the way to Moscow, Soviet forces on or near the border totaled only some 1 million men. Finally, one somewhat oft cited argument is that the Soviet counteroffensive outside Moscow was enabled thanks to Stalin siphoning off divisions from the Far East to face Germany in the west. Although this was done, it was a gradual process that began in the summer of 1941 and divisions from the Far East, while making a difference, were not decisive.
The above aside, this is a highly recommended text for those interested in the interwar period and the evolution of Hitler's plans for war and expansion throughout Europe. This is simply an indispensable volume that puts much of the interwar period and the lead up to the invasion of the Soviet Union in a new light.
I've read my share of memoirs of the Eastern Front, both from the Wehrmacht and the Red Army. "We will not go to Tuapse" is not one of the more memorable reminiscences but, as is usually the case, there are some interesting events recounted. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately) for Kaisergruber, he was either assigned to duties that made him avoid/miss fighting on the frontlines for much of his military career, or he was sick/wounded and in the rear or recuperating and eager to get to the front and rejoin his friends. There is a distinct lack of discussion about the politics or ideology of what the German Army is doing on the Eastern Front. This raises the question of why exactly some of those who volunteered for service in the Wehrmacht did so. Much of what the author recounts sounds like it's coming straight out of the mind and mouth of an adolescent, and in that might be one answer - it was an adventure, a right of passage to manhood. For the most part what we have here is a soldier who's fighting a war almost in a vacuum - he sees what's before his eyes and omits most the rest. He likes most of the inhabitants of the Soviet Union he runs across or develops "relationships" with but he never questions why is it that he and the Wehrmacht are waging war against them, the Red Army (which includes their male and female relatives) or their state. He seems more interested in an experience in the "wilds" of the east and hardly treats his actions as anything other than responsible for self-preservation first and foremost. The more memorable passages are those dealing with his escape from encirclement and the casualties his unit suffers in their attempt to keep the Red Army from closing the pocket. The majority of the text is taken up with literary descriptions of everyday life in Wehrmacht, a lot of aches and pains from marching as an infantrymen, hunger due to lack of food, freezing in the cold, and wounds from combat or stomach issues due to food (or lack thereof). Finally, the poem the author listed as found after the capture of a Ukrainian village is by Konstantin Simonov, a famous writer and war correspondent, rather than an "unknown Red Army soldier," entitled "Wait for me."
Ben Macintyre's 'Rogue Heroes' takes a look at the history of the SAS throughout the Second World War, concentrating on their exploits in North Africa, Italy, France and Germany. This is a journalistic text and it often reads more as a series of adventure stories than a history. There's much that's left out and a lot that a historian would have emphasized, deconstructed, or better analyzed, but one can't blame a journalist for doing his job. Similarly, there is a limit to the documentation that was available to Macintyre so the final product is an engaging introduction to British Special Forces and the many operations they took part in throughout WWII.
What surprised me most was the amateurish nature of both the creation of the SAS and the blasé attitude of many of the commanding officers and the soldiers themselves to their missions. The very first mission was a complete and utter disaster, something they would not repeat very soon but inevitably would repeat later on in the war. Dozens of SAS volunteers would die due to circumstances of their own creation in situations that could have been readily avoided, either displaying blind indifference to danger or an unrestrained courage with predictable results. For a force of men and arms that numbered so few their destructive power(s) were proven again and again in the continued problems they caused Rommel in Africa and the eventual Commando Order issued by Hitler that meant death for any SAS operative if caught behind enemy lines, even if in uniform. Another surprise was the deadly nature of the clash in the French countryside between the French resistance, SAS, and other units operating against the Germans and their collaborators. Too often German forces took to reprisal actions against entire villages that were very much reminiscent of their actions on the Eastern Front where the line between victim, bystander, and accomplice could change in a heartbeat depending on the situation one found him/herself in. Finally, a bit disappointing was the final chapter in the story of the SAS. Not much time or documentation was devoted to their attempts to capture those Germans who perpetrated war crimes against SAS soldiers. Similarly, what happened to those who joined the SAS and survived the war was also covered fairly quickly, whereas I would have appreciated a more in-depth look at what men who saw so much death and destruction took away from the war and how they lived their lives after.
"Stalin's Commandos" is in some sense a treasure trove of information. But western readers need to be aware of a few issues when attempting to tackle this monograph. First, Gogun is a Russian academic, he was trained in Russia and has a grasp of quite a few languages which makes this case study that much more impressive than those that have come before. Secondly, because he is trained in Russia the usual academic work one would expect from a western academic is not readily visible in these pages. There is much less attention paid here to theory and methodology (which, in all honesty, does happen in western academia often enough as well), rather, Gogun concentrates on letting the sources speak for themselves with limited additional commentary. But where that commentary is encountered he does make important points and takes on some greater themes/topics that might be in need of a re-evaluation. Thirdly, this is a text on the Soviet Ukrainian partisan "movement," so it discounts to a large extent the partisan movement in Belorussia, Russia, but it does touch on activities of partisans that belonged to the OUN/UPA and the Polish AK, in fact some of his concluding thoughts that include comparisons between all of these organizations make this book that much more important in the greater catalog of Eastern Front literature. Additionally, this is a book that is not always as readable as I'd have liked it to be. A lot of the text is full of quotes from primary source material that is rather bland and formulaic, it makes for tedious reading but much of it is important for those interested in primary source material since much of this monograph is based on just such material. Finally, this leads to a weakness that the author doesn't stress perhaps as much as he should. Much of what is presented comes from eye-witness accounts and memoirs/reminiscences. Those are not always accurate or representative of the greater "truth" of the events/people/places in question. Where and when he can, Gogun presents as much evidence as is available, even if it contradicts previous information to show what previously "heroic" events might in reality have been myths or misrepresentations (and why they were invented in the first place). Thus, in general, the reader has to keep in mind the material that Gogun is working with. Much of it is really enlightening with respect to the partisan war in the German rear with facts, dates, personalities, and details that the western reader will simply never come across in any other monograph in print today. For that, I am extremely thankful that this text was translated and for the tremendous job the author has done in compiling so much primary source material for a western audience.
Mikhail Filippenkov's look at the beginning of Germany's Operation Typhoon (specifically the attack toward Sychevka) is more so oriented for the enthusiast of the Eastern Front than perhaps students of military history. Both will inevitably find something of interest here but the author's lack of historical training mean he's not presenting a monograph which utilizes primary source material from both sides to develop an argument. Rather, he's been able to document the actions of a few specific units on a semi-tactical and semi-operational level and present these developments with as much primary information as available to the reader without any real type of analysis. This makes it harder for the reader to understand the significance of some events and the insignificance (if any) of others. An added complication is the lack of primary source material for many of the Soviets units discussed because they were lost, destroyed or are still classified as 'secret.'
Consequently, readers will be met with a play-by-play of the action German and Soviet units found themselves in as they attempted to advance (the Germans) and defend and counterattack (the Soviets). Unit movements, actions, attacks, retreats, casualties sustained, all are presented from primary sources but rarely analyzed. Thus, if you're already familiar with the Eastern Front you'll know what to look for in terms of significance. For instance, the Wehrmacht's need for more fuel is a consistent theme readers will encounter and really puts into perspective how much of a challenge Operation Typhoon was for the Germans from day one. Filippenkov also presents the weather on a daily basis making it possible to see where the cold might have impacted the German advance, or at least in one instance, facilitated their continued advance thanks to the freezing of previously muddy roads. Another issue that is continually encountered is the disconnect among Soviet formations in the field and higher headquarters, presumably, in Moscow. Due to the way situation reports were passed up the line, by the time they arrived in Moscow and new orders were issued on their basis for units in the field, the situation on the ground had already changed and they became outdated. Finally, much of the interesting details about rearguard and final "heroic" actions on behalf of Soviet units that did not survive are only available through German after-action reports. Unless survivors made it back and were interrogated (and these interrogations might still be unavailable for researchers) we'll never know for sure what these encircled men went through and survived. Overall, this is a good addition to Eastern Front literature and enhances our understanding of 1941 (both from the German and Soviet point of view), but a greater presence and analysis by the author would have made it that much better a look at these events and this war in general.
Alexander Prusin's "The Lands Between" offers an excellent synthesis on the bordering territories that have seen so much death and destruction in the twentieth century. Similar to Kate Brown's "A Biography of No Place" and Timothy Snyder's "Bloodlands,""The Lands Between" looks at contested territories between the former Russian, German and Austro-Hungarian Empire that have today been Balkanized into some dozen nation-states that in some cases continue to struggle with their national identities.
Unlike the two previously mentioned volumes, which mainly concentrate on the Kresy area or some artificial time period and "bloodland," Prusin's text is more all-encompassing. He provides greater context and a more nuanced narrative that while overlooking some aspects of the history he's covering (it would take numerous volumes to do justice to this topic) nonetheless offers readers an in-depth analysis of the socio-economic, political and national questions that newly created polities and their inhabitants struggled over in order to find their place in Eastern Europe.
The most interesting chapters deal with the First and Second World War as we see the numerous factions vying for power in what became the Polish, Ukrainian, and Baltic states. Thus, for instance, in the lead up to the Second World War Prusin offers an in-depth analysis of Polish actions when it came to handling their minorities (Jews and Ukrainians), dealing with the growing power and threat of Nazi Germany, and taking part in the transformation of Central/Eastern Europe through 1939. The Ukrainian nationalist movement is also well covered and their evolution and transformation from their beginnings in the shadow of the Russian Revolution offer a cautionary tale of what to avoid in attempting to create a national identity. These two groups, Poles and Ukrainians, would in the lead up and during the Second World War take the wrong lessons from the idea of self-determination and aim to alter the national character of territories they deemed rightfully theirs by waging ethnic cleansing campaigns that took the lives of tens of thousands.
For those interested in an alternative to Snyder's "Bloodlands," which is just as "bloody" but an altogether better synthesis, I would highly recommend Prusin's "The Lands Between."
Hoth, at least in 1941 and 1942, was one of the original four commanders of German Panzer Groups/Armies who were responsible for the encirclements at Minsk, Smolensk, Uman, Kiev, Viazma and Briansk. Although discussions/monographs of 1941 are readily available today, from both the German and Soviet point of view, I would always welcome additional primary source information that tries to put into context the German Army's inner-dialog, so to speak, when it comes to the beginning of Operation Barbarossa and its evolution into Operation Typhoon. Hoth has much of that insider's knowledge but this slim volume while adding something to our knowledge also leaves a lot of questions unanswered.
The epilogue deals with Hoth's career, reputation, and what happened to him after the war was over. These last pages of this book explain why there is absolutely no discussion of the validity of Hitler's orders on the eve of the invasion of the Soviet Union or of the methods employed by the Wehrmacht in their conduct of the war. Hoth was, from available evidence, a Nazi who supported the invasion of the Soviet Union and followed through with the various criminal orders he was assigned throughout the war.
Thus this is a work that, like so many others written by former German commanders, tries to solely discuss the military aspects of the invasion of the USSR which means the more interesting and somewhat unoriginal ideas expressed revolve around Hitler's inability to come up with a concrete plan for how Barbarossa was supposed to be implemented. That is, was the Wehrmacht supposed to aim for the destruction of the Red Army, secure the Soviet Union's economic facilities and industries to help Germany continue her campaign(s) or was Moscow the final target for 1941. Hitler's continued vacillations and ad hoc decisions to assign German forces to take advantage of developing opportunities (Kiev encirclement) rather than concentrate on one singular aim (Moscow) are what hampered German operations, at least according to Hoth.
Much of this has been discussed previously, most recently by David Stahel. Consequently, there's little new or original information here, and neither is the coverage of Panzer Group 3's operations during 1941 that enlightening, it's more a summary of attacks, counter-attacks, and encirclements. However, with that said, there are still some interesting insights into events and discussions recounted by Hoth that make this a worthwhile book for those with more than a passing interest in the Eastern Front. While Hoth's reminiscences offer a less in-depth view of his own decision-making process or the events he recounts, at least compared to what other German commanders have put down on paper, they're still worth taking a look at, especially if you can read between the lines and keep in mind when this work was originally written.
We are coming up on the 80th anniversary of the start of Stalin's Great Purges. While much has been written on Stalinist repressions, there are still answers to prominent questions that continue to elude historians and regularly invite debate within the historical community. "Agents of Terror," although a slim volume, is certainly not an easy read. The author, Alexander Vatlin, takes the reader into the inner-workings of the NKVD on a district level. Looking at the Moscow district of Kuntsevo, the author discusses the composition of Kuntsevo, the make up of the local NKVD, and chronicles the lead up to the Great Purges and the purges themselves, including the many victims, with as much documentation as he could find.
The story Vatlin uncovers is both familiar and revealing at the same time. NKVD workers fabricated case after case in order to fulfill and overfill quotas assigned for the week/month. Those arrested and accused of the most fantastical tales were beaten, tortured, threatened and lied to in order to get their confessions and signatures on paper. At times blank documents were offered to them with promises of what would be written after they had attached their signature. While initial arrests, when the Great Purges were just beginning (after order 00447 was issued), were often a result of NKVD agents consulting previously prepared lists for known suspects, after running out of known victims they moved on to anyone whom they could assign any type of blame to, no matter how outlandish. In some ways family units were sought after as connections could easily be made and entire underground or spy "groups" could be claimed to have been found.
In detailing all of the above, Vatlin continually tries to figure out the mentality of NKVD workers who continued to enforce orders that some, at the very least, disagreed with. There is no one satisfactory answer we can come to after reading about these events, but some reasons stand out more so than others. Ideology seemed to play a limited role, at least when it came to Kuntsevo NKVD operatives, economic motives were a bigger draw for at least one leading NKVD figure who threatened victims with arrest and worse if they did not move out of apartments he coveted. Some, who perhaps could no longer handle the stress of the job, committed suicide. Often times it appears that "ideology" was more important to those under arrest than those doing the arresting, as they were often told their sacrifice in signing falsified confessions would help Stalin, the state, and the cause, and sign they did (at least if their own accounts of these events are to be believed).
Unfortunately, due to the limitations associated with the archival information the author was working with we are still left with many questions that will forever remain unanswered and some that might find their answers when additional archival material is unclassified. Additionally, we, both reader and researcher, are left to rely on documents and accounts written by perpetrators and victims. How much truth each inserted into their versions of events is impossible to tell. However, in general, because both perpetrators and victims often enough recounted similar ideas, events and accusations that at least points to some type of "truth" that we can use as a foundation to continue searching for additional information to help us understand why the Great Purges were initiated and how they were sustained.
Those familiar with the Soviet Union's military advances in the interwar period will undoubtedly have come across the name G. S. Isserson. Although often overlooked for more familiar personalities (Tukhachevskii, Triandafillov, Svechin, etc.) he was, in the opinion of the Harrison, one of the founding fathers, if not the founding father, of the concept of "deep operations." This was without a doubt one of the most interesting studies I've read on the interwar Red Army and the evolution of Operational Art within the Soviet Union (a theme Harrison began to study in his previous book, "The Russian Way of War"). Isserson became a good candidate to study and analyze as he left behind a number of articles and full-length volumes expanding on his theories and ideas and he survived Stalin's purges. Unlike the majority of the Red Army, he was imprisoned in June of 1941 and was released from the GULag after Stalin's death. Thus he continued to discuss, publish and lecture on military theory after his release and up until his death.
Personally, the most impressive and enlightening chapters of this volume deal with Isserson's publications in the 1930s and Harrison's discussion and breakdown of the various ideas he expanded on as well as their foundations in wars from the nineteenth century and how they would be applied in future conflicts (including how much of that could be actually seen throughout the Eastern Front of the Second World War). Ideas on linear warfare in particular proved pertinent in how Isserson described the evolution of warfare into the First World War and how "deep operations" would continue to evolve warfare in future conflicts. His texts discussed meeting engagements, breakthrough operations, the creation of shock armies, cavalry-mechanized groups, the use of airborne forces, covering armies, and setting up defenses in-depth. Unfortunately, for all his intelligence and genius, Isserson never received the attention, praise or respect he deserved and in the post-Stalin period it was those figures who died accidentally (Triandafillov) or in the purges (Tukhachevskii, Yakir, Uborevich, Svechin, etc.) who received the majority of recognition for the improvements and advances the Red Army underwent in the 1930s before the purges lobbed off the "head" of the Red Army.
If there are any weaknesses here it is that Harrison seems to at times have become enamored with Isserson. There's no doubt this was an intelligent person, although he came with a very abrasive attitude toward his peers and whomever he considered beneath his intelligence, but it appears Harrison continuously ascribes the majority of the research and advances made within the concept of "deep operations" solely to him (granted, their foundations he does trace to Triandafillov). More so, when mentioning any of his "students" while a lecturer at the General Staff Academy he treats Isserson as if he was their only mentor and his class(es) were the only ones that mattered (and his students included some of the most famous and well-respected commanding officers during the Second World War). Granted, there's enough source material to show that there was appreciation for Isserson as an instructor but in general it seems the author is putting a lot of emphasis on this point and is becoming more of a cheerleader for Isserson rather than a biographer. However, one can easily let this weakness pass as the information Harrison has found and unearthed makes an enormous contribution to our understanding of the Red Army's evolution in the interwar period and throughout the Second World War - something historians continue to study and evaluate to this day and will continue to do so as long as numerous archival holdings are consistently made off-limits to researchers by Russian authorities.
Catherine Merridale's "Lenin on the Train" is a bit difficult to categorize. This is not a monograph for academics or specialists, the lack of archival research and the limited citations means this is more a 'popular' approach to this period (WWI, Russian Revolution) and personality (Lenin). Simultaneously, however, the avalanche of names, locations, events, and dates mean readers need to have a rather in-depth understanding of the First World War and the Russian Revolution if they want to understand the narrative Merridale has created.
While the initial approach offered by the author sparked some interest, specifically the question of what role did Germany actually play in allowing Lenin to travel through their territory and destabilize the Eastern Front has some parallels to events occurring today in both Eastern Europe and the United States (to what extent can state and non-state actors influence revolutions, revolutionary movements, or the democratic process) the rest of the text unfolded as a rather unoriginal attempt to contextualize Lenin, the lead-up to the Russian Revolution, and Lenin's eventual return, escape, and re-return to Russia. The most significant contribution Merridale makes is to showcase the chaotic nature of the Russian Revolution, how fragile the system that existed between the two revolutions was, and that Germany had no qualms about facilitating the return of personalities like Lenin to Russia if it would help get Russia out of the war and allow Germany to concentrate on the Western Front and potentially win the war.
As much as Lenin might have had to live down that his return was facilitated by a state that was simultaneously at war with the Russia, this was also the man that authorized the treaty of Brest-Litovsk. Making deals with enemies and utilizing opportunities to continue preaching his brand of Marxism is what made Lenin the man he was. Thus, reiterating that Germany was complicit in Lenin's return really does little to enhance our understanding of either the Russian Revolution or Lenin. And once again I'm forced to wonder who is the intended audience for this text.
Peter Conradi's "Who Lost Russia?" asks a question many have pondered for the past decade (at least). In the wake of the end of the Cold War and the end of the Soviet Union it appeared that the United States had "won" the Cold War and Russia looked with hope toward the West for understanding where their future might be found. Unfortunately, much of the goodwill, from both sides, was squandered during the 1990s and led to the eventual ascension of Vladimir Putin to power at the turn of the century. The terrorist attack against NYC on 9/11 offered another chance to a working partnership between the US and Russia but that was hardly the direction Bush, Cheney, and Co. wanted to take the country. Thus, Putin as President of Russia, decided on an "alternative" approach by becoming more belligerent with "near abroad" territories and thanks to the surplus created as a result of previously rising oil prices much of the country was happy to follow someone they believed had altered their living conditions for the better while US actions in Eastern Europe and the rest of the world continually portrayed an America that many Russians no longer view with the same respect and appreciation they once did.
Conradi gets a lot right. I was very surprised by how much ground he was able to cover in some 340 pages of text. For those familiar with Russian/Soviet history, there won't be too much that's new or original within these pages, but for those new to the subject this is definitely a great starting point for beginning to understand the differences in how the US and Russia viewed events that took place throughout the 1990s up through the recent presidential election. Where Conradi falls short is his reliance on a few select sources to tell his story. He creates a compelling narrative but his own voice is often lost and not enough analysis is offered to better explain and fully contextualize all the issues he discusses, including how they influenced future developments. That's the biggest drawback to a text that lacks primary source research (which in the author's defense is mostly impossible due to the recent nature of many of the events being portrayed). However, more could have also have been done with other "players" who've been caught between the US and Russia. That is, Poland, Ukraine, Germany, the Baltic states, and other Central/Eastern European nations have played a role in how Russia views the United States and vice versa. There were a few instances when Conradi brought them into the equation and made sure to emphasize that their interests should not be ignored and do have an impact on how these larger regional and world powers behave but he did not offer enough analysis to drive home that fact often enough.
By the end of the text I appears Conradi could not come up with a clear-cut answer to the question in the title of his book. He placed blame on both sides (which is often quite deserved) but in that respect I think he partly ignores one of his own points in that Russian thinking simply does not match that of the West that has lived under "democratic" and "capitalistic" conditions far longer than Russians. If one believes the above, then the author's conclusions rely on "Western thinking" and omit much of what he discussed from the Russian point of view thus skewing his conclusion(s). Western attitudes toward Russia in the 1990s reinforced Russian beliefs of those who were wary of Western "experts" who came over to help in that they were more interested in Russian resources than helping Russia convert into a democratic power while building an economic system that relied on capitalist ideas. Future Russian oligarchs worked with the system at their disposal to the detriment of both their country and the Russian people in general while politicians like Yeltsin tried to steer the country into a democratic direction as NATO, an organization that existed to thwart Soviet aggression, decided it was time not to reorganize and include Russia but more so placate their previous adversary while allowing former Eastern bloc members to join. These actions might seem unimportant to many in the West, but a Russian narrative has been created based on this type of thinking and has been reinforced by many other actions that has degraded the reputation of the United States throughout the world. Suffice it to say that this is hardly the endpoint in the question Conradi raises, it is just the start.
"Soviet Conquest" features excerpts from six Red Army memoirs that detail their experiences in the Soviet offensive against Berlin. The most interesting, personally, turned out to be the reminiscences of Katukov, commander of the 1st Guards Tank Army, and Dragunski, who at the time commanded the 55th Guards Tank Brigade, part of the 3rd Guards Tank Army under Rybalko, a formation of the 1st Ukrainian Front under Koniev. Other figures include engineers, self-propelled artillery forces, and a commander from one of the two Polish armies that fought with the Red Army in Berlin. The translation(s) overall were good but they were done by someone who was more inclined to follow German standards than English, so many first and last names will sound odd to those who are familiar with the Library of Congress transliteration guidelines that most American/English scholars adhere to. The text itself is interesting but it is a product of its time. The reader should be prepared to encounter a lot of praise when it comes to Soviet valor, heroism, self-sacrifice, the importance of the Party and Komsomol, etc. No doubt much of it is authentic, at least in terms of contemporary beliefs, but it says much about the authors. As does what they leave out from their accounts. Also interesting to note is the repetition of some themes, like the idea that the Red Army needed to get to Berlin before the Western Allies, even though it was agreed that the Soviets would get Berlin. Most surprising in some ways in this account is that the battle for Berlin lasted only some two weeks; yet the casualties sustained by Soviet forces were in the tens of thousands. Since many of the accounts discuss tank/self-propelled artillery forces, which in house-to-house fighting consistently needed support from infantry units, that such a large number of forces was concentrated in so limited an area yet was consistently short of infantry when it came to their advances just reinforces the fact that this operation was being conducted as quickly as possible without forethought about how to limit casualties. Rather, it appears everyone was eager to finish the war as quickly as possible and in so doing were prepared to suffer grievous losses even though the authors constantly lament the loss of dear friends for avoidable reasons. For those interested in Soviet, Cold War era, accounts of the battle for Berlin, this is a good starting point.
Similar to the other volumes published by Artem Drabkin and translated by Stuart Britton, 'Panzer Killers' offers readers a glimpse into the everyday life of Soviet combat veterans that served in the artillery arm of the Red Army. Mainly you'll encounter soldiers who served with 45mm and 76mm artillery units and self-propelled guns, SU-76s and ISU-152s. For those familiar with the Second World War and the Eastern Front, you'll find much that rings true and many fascinating anecdotes and reminiscences of time spent in combat, in retreat, in hospitals, and on the offensive. The high casualty rates that these units suffered are regularly mentioned and discussed. These men saw death on a regular basis, losing best friends in the blink of an eye. One of the more interesting aspects of these interviews is keeping track of how many of these veterans and their comrades sustained wounds at the front. Random and sometimes not so random artillery fire was often the culprit, which might explain why they survived. Many were wounded multiple times and often they would not wait to be discharged from hospitals but take their chances hitching rides to the front to return to their former units and gun crews (otherwise it was anyone's guess where they might end up). Aside from discussions of frontline actions (some of which are accompanied by diagrams to better situate readers with the engagements they're reading about), the interviewees also go over their daily routines, from meals to maintenance, and share their thoughts about ignorant officers who wasted men's lives and brave and courageous officers and NCOs who helped many survive the war. All in all this is a highly recommended volume for those interested in first-hand accounts from Eastern Front veterans.
Thomas Weber's addition to literature on Hitler attempts to address numerous myths while simultaneously answering and posing new historically relevant questions. Hitler's time in the German Army during the First World War is regularly referenced when historians or those with even a passing interest in history attempt to understand his motivations, experiences, and goals. Was it the fires of the Great War that gave Hitler ideas for which direction Germany needed to head toward in the near and distant future? Was his anti-Semitic attitude a result of his war experience? Were there other veterans of Hitler's regiment who we can point to who followed in similar footsteps in their world outlook? Or were Hitler's experiences removed from other veterans, and if so, what does that tell us about the impact the war had on not only Hitler but his comrades in arms?
Boris Bogachev's memoirs give readers a glimpse of frontline life for a Red Army officer who went through the majority of the war serving as a platoon commander. Bogachev might not have found luck in his desire and eagerness to earn medals/awards or promotions, but he survived being wounded three times and the war in general - going on to a career as a military lawyer.
Bogachev joined the Red Army when he turned seventeen, at the end of 1941. After training, his unit was posted around Rzhev and participated in numerous offensive and defensive operations in the meat-grinder that took tens of thousands of lives for no real gains or success as the Germans eventually voluntarily gave up their positions and retreated to a more manageable defensive line. Bogachev was trained in an artillery school but as his memoirs describe, throughout the war he assumed command of a mortar platoon as well as a sapper platoon that was attached to tank formations. Although he wasn't initially trained for either mortars or being a sapper, he nonetheless made due with the decisions of those outranking him. The fact that a trained artilleryman was not utilized to his full potential either points to an overabundance of artillery officers in the Red Army (hard to believe considering the rate at which lower level officers were killed and wounded throughout the war) or that lieutenants were treated almost as poorly as soldiers - sent to where men were needed regardless of their qualifications.
The author spent a lot of time at the front even if he spent a great deal of time in medical battalions and hospitals. His impressions of what Red Army troops regularly experienced match what many others have written but he is much more forthcoming in a few areas. He makes no excuses for the numerous atrocities and acts of wanton destruction that greeted German soldiers and civilians in the latter part of the war. This is probably one of the few memoirs where readers will encounter numerous examples of Red Army troops (both male and female) executing enemy POWs (Germans and Soviet volunteers) but each situation the author covers also includes an attempted explanation for why such actions were taken (be it in the heat of battle, revenge for previous German atrocities, being in the enemy rear, etc.). Additionally, the author is quite vocal when discussing the numerous times he was denied medals and awards because someone in the rear deemed his actions not meritorious enough for the recommended commendation(s). He describes numerous cases of those who found themselves in the rear throughout the war receiving countless awards as frontline soldiers were denied an ability to exhibit their courageous acts. Although both of these issues are raised by other Red Army veterans, here they are front and center throughout the memoirs and make for a compelling narrative. This is especially the case as the author was able to work in the Ministry of Defense archives and present additional information he ran across to help readers in understanding his war experience(s).
The Soviet General Staff Study on Operation Bagration is divided into two parts, preparation and conduct. Similar to the other titles in this General Staff series, this is a text best suited for those intimately familiar with the Eastern Front of the Second World War and those who can often read between the lines of Soviet historical studies. Perhaps a reflection of the time this study was prepared and written in, there is no mention of Stalin but similarly commanders names, be they front, army, corps, or division, are also avoided. The same holds true for the enemy. This makes for a rather faceless exploration of Operation Bagration as readers will mainly be presented with descriptions of unit movements, attacks, counterattacks, defensive operations, etc.
However, those interested in understanding some of the intricacies associated with the planning and implementation of one of the most successful Red Army operations in the Second World War will find this volume quite useful. Specifically the details the author(s) go into when describing initial preparations, tactics utilized by units in the beginning of the offensive, the continuous attempts to adapt to the ever-changing situation as the offensive took shape and commanders soon realized that initial expectations were surpassed by the victories achieved in the field, etc., make for compelling reading. Because of the success of Operation Bagration there is much praise for Soviet forces within the volume but the author(s) were not above pointing out difficulties encountered in the field and inadequacies in tactics, operational art, strategy and supply services in the rear (logistics, medical, etc.).
The "international" implications of Bagration are also alluded to within this volume. There is regular reference to the German movement of forces from other theaters of operation to the Eastern Front to recreate a front where Army Group Center used to exist, making it that much easier for the allies to continue their offensive in the west after the initial D-Day victories had stalled. The tail-end of Operation Bagration is tied up with the Warsaw Uprising. There is a minor mention made of the uprising with some time spent discussing the numerous difficulties Soviet forces encountered attempting to reach the suburbs of Warsaw (specifically, Praga) but too context and too many details are left out. Undoubtedly this was for political reasons and to hide the losses Red Army units sustained as Operation Bagration was running out of steam. While there are numerous tables and mentions of losses sustained by both sides, they are best taken with a grain of salt. But there can be no mistaking the pride that's evident each time the author(s) were able to say Red Army losses were only a fraction of those lost by the enemy. So, for those interested in the details of Bagration, this volume is definitely recommended.
The Polish struggle in the Second World War was one of the first and the failure of the Western Allies to support Poland resulted in another partition and the fracturing of Polish efforts to continue the struggle against Nazi Germany. Eventually, on the Eastern Front, the Red Army finished the war with two Polish Armies in its order of battle while Polish forces would participate in the RAF as well as part of the allied campaign in Italy, which this text partly covers.
With the partition of Poland between the Soviet Union and Germany, Polish citizens on Soviet territory suffered under Stalin's rule. Prisoners of war were executed at Katyn, others deported to the Far East, and after the German invasion of the Soviet Union some began to voluntarily join a new formation made up of Poles and led by Poles to help in the war effort. The first half of this text covers that short history of Polish resistance to Germany's initial invasion and the creation of what became the first divisions that would make up Anders' Polish Army (although it is mainly referred to as a corps). The author, unfortunately, is limited in the sources at his disposal and due to lack of academic training there is a wealth of context missing. Those interested in the minutia of ever-changing orders of battle, logistical details, etc., which in many cases should have been moved to an appendix, will find plenty of such information throughout this text. Personally, it took a lot away from the reading experience.
Eventually, after a great deal of struggle, the Soviets allowed Anders to take his army out of the Soviet Union through the Middle East. Here the British took over as Polish units began to undergo training and suffered from the horrid weather as their ranks were continuously reduced by the siphoning off of troops to help the British war effort at home and through disease and desertion (hundreds of Polish Jews eventually deserted when the units were stationed in then Palestine). With a chance to finally put his troops on the frontline, the biggest hurdle for Anders was facing the reality that once his corps engaged in battle casualties would be unavoidable but a ready reserve of replacement was missing. This issue was never truly solved and the battles in mountainous Italian terrain produced thousands of casualties in a very limited space and time. The few chapters that deal with the battles Anders forces engaged in are somewhat lacking in analysis as the author only deems it necessary to say something about the quality of British and Polish leadership in the final chapter rather than helping guide readers along with the action as it unfolds. Thus, for all the good this text does in introducing readers to this minor episode in the Second World War it is consistently marred by limited research, source material, and analysis.
I'm always interested in diving into historic accounts that try their best to tell a story few are familiar with or will ever discover without having in-depth knowledge of specific events, people, places, etc. "Blood in the Forest" is one such account but, unfortunately, it is too often marred by a weak narrative that reads as if it was written by someone with a passing interest and knowledge of the subject at hand. More often than not the author is interested in tugging at heartstrings rather than letting the historical record and eye witnesses speak for themselves.
This is not a straight forward chronology of events but rather the author's trips from town to town that he intersperses with historical details and discussions about the history of Latvia, the Eastern Front, the Courland Pocket, the Soviet Union, the Holocaust, collaboration, etc. As such, there is much repetition throughout. Nevertheless, all these topics have entire libraries devoted to research done by academics, journalists, and amateurs which could have readily helped create a historical record of this period/events but on more than one occasion the source material mentioned came from various websites rather than research trips to libraries or archives. No matter how helpful, insightful, or emotionally draining eye-witness accounts are (and some of them are quite emotional and deserve to be told and better known) there is no excuse for not contextualizing better the various events these veterans and survivors went through with at least some additional primary or even secondary research.
With that being said, this text makes a good starting point for looking at the latter period of the war and the difficult decisions Latvians had to make as brother fought against brother because of poor luck or a fate no longer theirs to dictate. Red Army offensives launched against the Courland pocket were bloody affairs that never achieved their set objective, only resulting in countless casualties on both sides. Yet blame needs to be placed on those soldiers fighting on the other side as well who knew there was no hope left but still continued to take a devastating toll on their Red Army attackers, who often included Latvians in their ranks. This is a chapter of the Second World War and the Eastern Front that defies the black and white view so many have of the war as 'good' versus 'evil.' Here, among these pages, the reader will encounter multiple shades of gray surrounded by blood and tragedy.
This rather slim volume - even though it is an oversized hardcover - was written by Aleksei Isaev. I can only imagine that he based the majority of this work on his previously published "Ot Dubno do Rostova" (From Dubno to Rostov), but that volume (at some 600+ pages) takes readers through to December 1st of the action involving Germany's Army Group South. This present "Dubno 1941" volume seems to be mainly based around one of the chapters from Isaev's larger work (originally published around 2004) and ends on July 1.
The biggest issue with the current text is the lack of context for both the introduction (which can hardly be called an introduction) and the conclusion. Isaev has written numerous volumes on the history of the Eastern Front but he's not the greatest writer and often enough the reading experience is lacking, either because he goes off on tangents, misses an opportunity to contextualize information, or offers too much detail that would be better served in footnotes/endnotes or an appendix. Additionally, this translation is one of the worst I've read to date from Helion. Stuart Britton usually does an admirable job but the present translator seems like he gave up trying to make sense when it came to dozens of sentences. Translating Russian can be a time-consuming occupation, I do it regularly, but doing a poor job means you make yourself look bad, as well as the original author and the publisher that commissioned the translation. Some mistakes are unavoidable, we are all human, but the number of errors or poor choices for translations I came across was simply unacceptable.
With that out of the way, the volume itself has much to offer readers who are already familiar with the Eastern Front. Isaev covers what are called the 'border battles' that took place around the Dubno-Lutsk-Brody triangle, which featured the participation of hundreds of tanks - it is called the largest tank clash even though many of the tanks never made it to the battlefield(s) for numerous reasons. Aside from covering the movements and maneuvers of the half-dozen Mechanized Corps that participated in these battles, Isaev also covers the air-war taking place against German troops in the south. Unlike the Soviet Air Force positioned against Army Group Center, those formations in the south of the country survived the initial German invasion on June 22nd in relatively good order (some airfields were never even bombed). Isaev covers the unfolding battles day-by-day as Soviet forces continuously tried to figure out German plans, orient their own forces to counter what they believed the Germans were attempting to accomplish, and from time to time carried out their own counter-attacks and ambushes taking a toll not only on German casualties but also on their timetable - delaying their advances and the commitment of further forces.
That the Wehrmacht faced a formidable adversary is without question. As Isaev well proves, even in the chaotic conditions of June 1941, Soviet forces were able to continuously take a toll on advancing German troops but Red Army forces continually suffered from a lack of mobile artillery while the numerous marches undertaken by tank forces before even entering battle caused dozens of tanks to fall out of line as they were left by the roadside never having fired a single shot. Furthermore, regularly detaching formations (large and small) from numerous mechanized corps meant their strength was diluted, combine that with a lack of artillery and infantry forces in tank divisions that continuously went up against the much better equipped (in terms of infantry and artillery) German motorized, panzer, and infantry divisions resulted in Soviet forces continuously suffering devastating tank losses and lacking the ability to hold any gains they might have made. All these elements combined meant an eventual Red Army defeat was inevitable as Soviet forces retreated to the Stalin line and beyond. Soon enough all mechanized corps (over two dozen) were done away with as more mobile tank battalions and brigades took their place for the rest of 1941. Large mechanized/tank formations would only be evident again in 1942 on the approaches to Stalingrad.