I’ve recently finished the second of two books on the Second World War. They both compliment each other and add to the understanding of that time in history, and what can happen when the world goes mad.
Ostkrieg: Hitler’s War of Extermination in the East, by Stephen G. Fritz and
Armageddon: The Battle for Germany, 1944-1945, by Max Hastings.
The titles, obviously, don’t entirely overlap. The first focuses on the War between Germany and Russia, although the impact of and on other fronts are included. The second deals only with the end of the war in Europe, starting of post D-Day and after the liberation of Paris.
Ostkrieg, perhaps evident in the title, focuses on the war from the German perspective. Recent access to the Soviet archives has prompted a wave of histories based on that new information. Fritz provides a counter point to that counter point, relying instead on secondary research as well as an effort by the now-reunited German government to document the war.
In Armageddon, the focus tends to lean a tad to the Western front, and even there a little bit toward the English (countrymen of the author).
Quality versus Quantity
Simply address the two books from a “rating” standpoint, both were worthwhile reads. Of the two, Armageddon does stand out for the quality of the writing. One frustration I did have with Ostkrieg is it had a repetitive quality, that may have benefited from a bit more editing. The presentation style was for the author to make a statement of opinion about a subject, and then back it up with quotations from (for example) someone present at the event in question. The problem is when there were multiple quotes on the same topic, the initial statement was often repeated. By contrast, Armageddon highlighted different points in paragraphs (or groups of paragraphs) and simply combined quotations on similar subject matter. It improved how easily the book read. Ostkrieg is also a rather hefty tome. I have to wonder if a little paring down might not have made the read a little quicker, but also shorter.
What it means to be “more evil”
Another contrast between the two books struck me as soon as I picked up Armageddon. First, I’ll take a step back.
The theme of Ostkreig is the centrality of the Eastern war to everything that Hitler did. Yes, the book details the battles themselves. This is the reason I picked it up in the first place; I was hoping for a overview of the war in the east that would help me put the battles, campaigns, and maneuvers into a larger perspective. The book does this well. But it actually starts at the very beginning, with Hitlers rise and rapid conquest in the West.
Another theme of Ostkreig is the limited prospects for the Third Reich in ever winning their war. From the beginning, the odds were greatly against Hitler. He was held up as a genius for his gambles that overcame those odds, but if eventually losing it all was inevitable, its not a mark of a genius to keep gambling until you’re busted. One of the first insights I gained from reading this book was about what might have been in Czechoslovakia. When Hitler threatened that country, Czechoslovakia was by many accounts an even match. While Germany’s armies were slightly larger, Czechoslovakia had the advantage of both a defensive fight and the ability to devote their entire force to that defense. Germany would have needed to divert some portion of its forces to protect against intervention by other powers, particularly France. When it came to it, Czechoslovakia may have been able to field a numerically-superior force, modernized to roughly the same level as Germany.
German generals were aware of the problems in Czechoslovakia, and there was a plot to, at the start of hostilities with Czechoslovakia, overthrow Hitler and make a deal with England. Unfortunately for all of Europe, England decided to ignore this avenue and convinced Czechoslovakia to make a deal with Germany. That deal ensured that they would be unable to resist the next set of demands from Germany and emboldened Hitler in continuing his expansion into Poland.
The book argues that each step in Hitler’s expansion was part of the larger plan to conquer the Slavic nations to the East. Austria and Czechoslovakia were needed to gain a strategic advantage over Poland. There is some evidence that Hitler expected Poland to ally with him in the fight against the Soviet Union, as their generational animosity towards the Russian empire should have overcome any indignities heaped upon them by the Germans. Likewise, invading the low countries, France and England were all necessary, in Hitler’s mind, to free his armies to conquer the Soviet Union. He seemed to be genuinely surprised at their declaration of war and expected that the West would probably look the other way as Germany expanded and purged the world of the communists.
Along with this story, the book details how the elimination of the Jews became entwined with everything Hitler did. The eventual genocide almost appears to be something stumbled upon by Hitler and his minions. Initially, the goal of the Nazis was simply to rid Germany of all Jews. An early plan was to transport them all to Madagascar. Once war broke out, Germany’s isolation by sea prevent such transport, the next idea was simply to move them out of Germany into occupied territories. As this became a problem, the slaughter began – perhaps even unsystematically. There is evidence that the killing of the native Jewish population in Belarus, Ukraine and Russia as the German armies invaded the Soviet Union may have been driven by local commanders attempting to impress their superiors (and ultimately Hitler) with ever greater anti-Semitic zeal.
Ultimately, and through the repetitiveness of similar stories throughout the Eastern Front, the book exposes the pure evil of the Nazi regime. Each new story of massive killings is shocking and horrifying. Even though we all know the numbers, as the details of the killings are explored, somehow the horror boggles the mind anew. Likewise, the large scale planning to simply wipe out as many inhabitants of Eastern Europe as possible, simply because Germans need the food and that takes priority, is unfathomable to modern sensibilities. And yet, this is something happened within the lifetimes of people still alive today.
Particular emphasis is made on the fact that no portion of the German military can completely detach themselves from the slaughter, enslavement, and genocide that was going on as the Germans rolled into Russia. While it became an common explanation that the German soldier was not the S.S. and only fought the war, evidence from the front suggests otherwise.
Regarding the purely military aspects of the German invasion, the book generally portrays an army doomed from the start. From a purely numbers standpoint (food, fuel and time), the conquest of Russia was never going to be very likely. Add to that many simply bad ideas emanating directly from Adolph Hitler, and the portrayal of the German fighting machine is mainly of vain attempts to avoid the disaster that ultimately consumed them.
By contrast, Hastings begrudgingly admires the Germans for their fighting ability, and that contrast with the utter lack of value placed on human life by the Soviets and the perhaps over-cautiousness from the West to risk more now to save later.
In that discussion, it also becomes clear that Hastings considers Stalin and his empire the pure evil actor in this war. He doesn’t line up the evidence, as perhaps Fritz would have, but it is certainly a combination of Stalin’s treatment of his own people both before and during the war, the systematic mass-rape of Germany after Hitler’s defeat, and the misery inflicted upon Eastern Europe for a generation (and beyond) following the end of the war.
While it is certainly hard to imagine a worse evil that the Nazi’s meticulous attempt to exterminate an ethnic group from the face of the earth, if one goes purely by the numbers, Stalin and the Soviet Empire do win out over Hitler. If for no other reason, Stalin could continue his reign of terror after Hitler’s death. Stalin’s callousness to the lives of even his own people seem to be unmatched even by Hitler’s own death culture.
Hastings also describes the lack of appreciation on the part of the Allies for the danger of that the Russian’s would be after the end of the war. The pact with the Soviet’s seemed necessary to save England and the free world, but as the ultimate defeat of German became ever more inevitable, the West and particularly Roosevelt failed to plan for the future.
The Allies went to great lengths to inoculate their public against the negative image they held of the communists, once those communists were needed as allies. The reality of kindly “Uncle Joe’s” soldiers behavior came as a shock to many Americans and British, but was anticipated by those in the East. A particular quote stuck with me, where the Soviet’s use of the word “Allies” clearly meant the Western powers, not the Soviet Union. They saw enemies not only in the Germans, but in the American/British at the same time.
Strategy and Tactics
Both books are obviously written for the war-history buff, but both try to tell their stories within the bigger picture of politics and civilian suffering. Ostkrieg illuminates many of the battles around the German’s high water mark when, at least at first appearance, they had the possibility of victory. As I mentioned before, it is often pointing out the places where German strategic mistakes cost them dearly.
Armageddon starts too late in the war for there to be any doubt in the outcome; the defeat of the Germans. Two operations are explored systematically; the Airborne assault to take the Rhine bridge at Arnhem in operation Market-Garden, and the German operation Wacht am Rhein, or the Battle of the Bulge. Both, incidentally, are analyzed for their strategic blunders, but they also resulted in the last two times when the Anglo/Americans and Germans were matched on the battlefield.
In the reading of military history, I’m often struck by the feeling that victory goes to the General who screws up not quite as badly as his counterpart. Dwelling on any particular historical figure and his moments of incompetence probably obscures that all figures have human frailties that are bound to shine through when illuminated by close study.
On the Eastern Front, the Soviet effort was massively mismanaged, but the willingness to expend an unlimited amount of human lives was as much a feature of their strategy as it was an error to be criticized. Like Grant against Lee, once the willingness to win at all costs was there, the final victory seems assured. By contrast, the Germans needed to get everything right in order to win. So analyzing where they failed to get it right seems particularly relevant.
On the Western Front, the failure of the Allies to get things right is probably gets its focus due to the emphasis on the image of American superiority from sources such as Citizen Soldiers and Band of Brothers. Hastings posits that a free and generally peaceful culture, such as America’s, can’t be expected to produce the kind of armies the the totalitarian states were capable of. In one passage, he speculates on the effectiveness of a Patton leading and SS Panzer Army rather than American soldiers. His frustration is that Western timidity likely cost lives in the long run by prolonging the fighting, and definitely sacrificed civilian lives by not saving them from first, the Nazis, and later from Soviet occupation.
At the end, both of the books are thought provoking additions to the histories written of the Second World War, and we absolutely worth the time to read. There is plenty in here to think about, not only in the conduct of the war, but in the generation of turmoil in Eastern Europe that was to follow.