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Old 09-13-2009, 08:53 PM
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Ruud Ruud is offline
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"The Myth of the Eastern Front"

When i saw this book at the library, i immediately picked it up. I had precious little time to pick out a few books before my daughter decided that my search area was too boring and we needed to go back to the children books. The title had sold me that quickly, i was glad that i found it.

The Myth of the Eastern Front: The Nazi-Soviet War in American Popular Culture is written by Ronald Smelser and Edward J. Davies II. It is 327 pages, but 68 of those are the notes, bibliography, and index. The book is divided into 8 chapters. Chapters 1 through 4 follow a historical time line, covering the US perception of the Eastern Front during World War II and through the 1950's. Chapters 5-8 cover the different areas where the perceptions of the Eastern Front are commonly found (Memoirs, popular histories, War games, the Internet, re-enactors, etc.). The first 4 chapters read easily. The last 4 become a little repetitive.

This book feels like a long thesis paper. The authors are arguing that the Wehrmacht was not completely removed from the Nazi plans and activities on the Eastern Front. While covering that, the authors remind the reader of the SS's well-deserved label of being not only fierce and skillful fighters, but also ruthless and much more likely to commit atrocities.

The book provides the means, motive, and opportunity for changing the perception of the German Army in the East. After the War, the Western Allies were in need of information on the Soviets, their former and secretive ally. There was a great need for knowledge on how the Soviet war machine could be stopped, should there be a war. Also with the USA heavily involved in Korea, they could not provide enough military strength to help Western Europe stop the Soviets. There was a need for Germany to be able to help defend it's borders. Thus a new German military was being created and some of the most experienced, well thought of, and qualified officers were ex-Wehrmacht men. These ex-officers of the Wehrmacht were embarrassed by the way the German Military was being remembered (killing millions and losing the war) and by their treatment during the various trials that proceeded the end of the War.

Some of the German generals wrote memoirs of their wartime experiences, including Guderian, von Manstein, and von Mellenthin. There were commonalties present in these books. They focused simply on the military/front line aspects of their campaigns. The German soldier was praised for what they were able to accomplish in the face of the ruthless, relentless, masses of Communists. Hitler was blamed for the worst defeats (Moscow, Stalingrad, Kursk, the various pockets, etc.). There was very little mention of any of the political motivations and the Nazi party. The Soviet soldier was characterized as a less than human, unmoved by fear or the elements of nature. The Soviet soldier was described as willing to continue as long as their orders dictated it, fearless of death, unfeeling, animal like. Such men in such great quantities, equipped as well as they were, certainly could not be stopped by even such a quality force as the Germans had. This is especially true when the generals often had their hands tied by a dictator with a weak sense of strategy. Also mentioned is that the War in the East was a preemptive one, a necessity to protect all of Western Europe from Communism.

In the first 4 chapters, the book spends more time on the motivation of these generals than on the facts that disprove the "clean Wehrmacht" perception. The authors do note various items that point to the Wehrmacht's and certain individual’s involvement in all levels of the war versus the Soviets. These include references to many orders, memoirs, and witness accounts. Many Wehrmacht Generals, such as von Manstein and Guderian, had their images cleansed in the post war years, but one did not retain the confidence of Hitler by skill and results alone; loyalty to Hitler and the party were requirements as well.

Von Manstein - claims that the "Kommissarbefehl was utterly unsoldierly" and that "i had no alternative but to inform my superiors that the Commissar Order would not be implemented by anyone under my command." In his memoir, he chooses to "focus entirely on the operational and tactical aspects of World War Two." However von Manstein "was present in March 1941 when Hilter laid out his plans for war without mercy against the Soviet Union." He issued an order on November 20, 1941, in which he wrote: "The Jewish-Bolshevist system must be exterminated once and for all. Never again must it encroach upon our European living Space…." He was in command of the 11th Army when Einsatzgruppe D murdered 90,000 civilians in the Crimea. His troops were responsible for cooperating and supporting the Einisatzgruppe. "More than 2,000 German soldiers took part" in a massacre of 11,000 Jews at the town of Simferopol in November 1941. He was informed of killings. His Chief of Staff, Otto Wohler, "was sentenced to 8 years in prison for his cooperation with the Einsatzgruppe."
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Old 09-13-2009, 08:53 PM
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Guderian - "presents himself as a daring, innovative, audacious, hands-on commander who take the initiative and pushes the envelope in every campaign, all the while fighting those, especially in the German High Command, who were too obtuse to see the potential of armored warfare and who only tried to throw obstacles in his way." "...Like virtually all the German generals who wrote after the war, (Guderian) is critical of Hilter's decisions and short comings…." "He condems the 'Jurisdictional Order,' which pre-amnestied German troops…." He states "the equally notorios, so called 'Commissar Order' never reached my Panzer group." "Guderian claimed not to have known about the predatory behavior of the Nazi occupiers until..." he was informed in February 1943 by General von Prien. SS Brigadefuhrer Ernst Rode (a member of Himmler's staff and responsible for furnishing the troops neccesary for anti-partisan warfare) stated he had "personal discussions" with various "leading officers," including Guderian. He was relieved of his command by Hitler for an unauthorized retreat before Moscow in the winter of 1941. However he remained loyal to Hitler, he was appointed General Inspector of Panzer troops after the Battle of Stalingrad. He was appointed as chief of the general staff after the July 20th plot to assassinate Hitler. He was also asked (and did) serve on a "special Court of Honor (Ehrenhof), a military judicial body that had the duty of expelling the plotters from the army, so that they could be tried - and hanged - by the infamous Volksgerichtshof." He issued orders stating "do not let anyone surpass you in your loyalty to the Fuhrer. ... Be an example to others in your unconditional obedience. There is no future for the Reich without National Socialism."

There is mention of various authors and well-known individuals lending support and/or legitimacy to the "clean Wehrmacht" theory. These included General Eisenhower, Field Marshal Montgomery, and General Ridgeway. Authors that played a roll are Paul Carell (originally Paul Karl Schmidt, a press spokesman for Joachim von Ribbentrop's Foreign Ministry), Liddell Hart (wrote the foreword for Guderian's Panzer Leader, 1952 edition, Kenneth Macksey, Stephen Ambrose, and many others (including many authors published by Schiffer and JJ Federowicz).

The second half of the book i found less interesting and more repetitive. It covers "The Gurus" (authors and people on the web writing predominately about German World War Two subjects), war games and the Internet, and re-enactors and "What if History." There are interesting parts and good information given, but it is more laborious to read. Popular web sites, such as Achtung Panzer, and their glorification of the German military while not allowing the discussion of more "political" topics, such as war crimes and such, offer support to the "clean" theory. Re-enactors, focusing on ranks, uniforms, weapons, and unit histories, also avoid the darker facts of history.

There are noticeable omissions in this book. In the opening chapter the authors talk up the fact that the American media reported on the Soviet side of the war and that the American population was well informed on it. Not much time is spent on the fact that the Soviet Government was very secretive and a master of propaganda. Little is said about Soviet tactics: heavy use of propaganda (often stretching the truth), treatment of their own subjects (especially non-Russian ones) and willingness to use their ability to absorb casualties support many of the facts that are used in building the "clean" case. Nor did the Soviet Army’s conduct during the last months of the war help its case of wanting to be the honorable winner.

My personal thoughts: I have yet to read an author that did not agree that the German army soldier was the most efficient and effective soldier in World War Two. The fact that many in the Wehrmacht were guilty of the same crimes as the "Nazis" should not undermine their achievements on the field of battle. But keeping in mind that many of these soldiers were involved in or had knowledge of the Nazi plan for the Soviet Union (and helped implement it in one way or another) should keep our view of the German military arm in balance. Hitler was not a "lone gunman." He provided the vision and motivation, but the majority "bought in" to his plans and goals. He made his views known in speeches and orders, and the army carried them out. Loyalty to Hitler and the party kept an individual in a position of power and allowed for promotion. The Wehrmacht was not a place where anti-Hitler views were openly flaunted. The attitudes instilled in the Wehrmacht prior to the invasion led to the fact that no quarter was given by either side. An average soldier on the front line might have been kept more oblivious, but the truth was there in the open for all to behold.

I do not agree with all that is written in this book. Yet the facts shown undeniably prove that some of the greatest German Officer "heroes" were involved in much more than just tactics and front line battles. We modelers help perpetuate the myth of the "clean Wehrmacht" as well. German military subjects are by far the most built model kits. Add up the Bf-109's, Fw-190's, Panzers, Tigers, etc. you have seen at shows and you will see this to be true. Companies like DML/Dragon, Schiffer, and JJ Federowicz release predominantly German subject matter because it sells. I too find many German war machines and reference books more interesting than the Allied ones as well, but we should not forget the ideology and hatred that they helped spread throughout Europe and into Asia.
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Old 09-14-2009, 04:59 AM
sharkmouth sharkmouth is offline
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Thank you for the thorough review! This is a book I will have to read.

Regards,
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Old 09-14-2009, 05:35 PM
Trep Trep is offline
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Very interesting read from what you have posted. I am going to be looking for this book at my library.
Thank you for taking the time to bring this book to our attention.
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Old 09-14-2009, 10:54 PM
spongya77 spongya77 is offline
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good review

You really worked on it... well thought, well reasoned.
...but I'd raise a few points. (I liked this book very much, too)

The books point is to show how the Cold War altered the way people in the west altered history, so that they don't have to explain the fact that there are ex-Nazi scientists working on space technology (what von Braun did, using slave labor, was war crime, and he should have been if not executed, but at least imprisoned for a long time for it), why they are in the West German armed forces, and so on. Not to mention the new enemy had to be painted bad now, so that means the Nazis weren't that bad. (May I mention the fact that many in the US -people with considerate power both political and economic) thought they were fighting the wrong enemy. There was a very strong pro-Nazi sentiment before and during the war from these circles. So the white-washing of Germans had many reasons. (Not to mention that the negative view of Russians still persists.) Add to the fact that the German generals wanted to clean their legacies, and you have the perfect conditions for rewriting history. (It happened a few times...)

So the book's point is to talk about the Germans. The fact that the Russians themselves weren't clean as the driven snow is immaterial as far as the book's scope is concerned. It's simply not the focus of the authors. There are other books about the horrors of Stalinism, Maoism, and Communism in general. (Funny, but I don't think anyone complains that those books don't mention Hitler.)
Stalin himself was a monster, there's no arguing about that. His body-count over the decades of his reign probably surpasses the whole of WWII. (No one knows for sure how many perished.) Yet, to put it into perspective: when the Germans invaded, they behaved so bestially, that even the Orthodox church aligned itself with Stalin. The conservative estimates of civilian causalities is 17 MILLION people. In the Holocaust 6 million people were killed because they were Jewish; another 6 for other reasons. The body count in the Eastern Front somewhat surpasses this number -and to the angst of Russians- are never mentioned in the West. So to explain why the Russians behaved the way they did once they were on the offensive -just think about what they saw when they liberated their territories. Russians soldiers did horrendous stuff, which should not be condoned -but at least there are 17 million reasons to explain. (And don't forget the 5 million dead POWs, either...) I heard from my older relatives what they did; they occupied my country, too. It took 60 years for them to find the way out.

As for bias among modelers... it's a very touchy thing, too. I started to make a comparison, how many knocked out Russian vs German vehicles are built, how many dioramas depict victorious German troops, and I kind of stopped, because there's simply no comparison. You'd think they won the war. There's one thing that affects it, obviously, is the availability of figures, and kits, but the other is, let's face it, is that many still think the Germans were better. The other interesting thing is about a completely different thing: we picture the war (and people think about it) as the mighty German armor rolling over everything, yet, in reality, when you look at the numbers, they relied on horses (and bicycles), rather than motorized units.
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Old 09-15-2009, 02:53 PM
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Hoi,

The points you raise are true. I just think that to take it from the German side only makes for a book that feels incomplete. The Soviet behavior to their own people (prior, during, and after the war) makes it easier to "white wash" the German military. But indeed none of that holds a candle to what the Germans did to the Soviet Union. They planned to destroy the population and they were doing a "good" job of it until the Soviets drove them out. I do think that the Soviets willingness to take the casualties that they did (through their tactics and drive to push out the Germans) plays into the hands of those arguing for the "clean" theory. Of course if one adds in everything that went on behind the front lines, this is but a drop in the argument bucket.

I'm currently reading Armageddon by Max Hastings. So far it is a great book. He also covers some of the points from The Myth, so it was interesting to read that coming from a more encompassing historical view.

Thanks for taking the time to read my review y'all.

later
Ruud
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Old 09-16-2009, 05:33 PM
spongya77 spongya77 is offline
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one side / the other side

Yeah, it makes arguing with most people very tiring. (No reference to you -just an observation.) You argue about one thing (like how bestial the Germans were), and the knee-jerk reaction usually is: but the Russians...
(Same about atrocities in Vietnam, or the current politics, or who stole the cookie in the kindergarden...) Just because the other guy does it, does not make it OK.
I just read a book in Borders about leaders, soldiers in different European wars, and it mentioned it, too: there was a deliberate attempt by the whole of the German High Command (at least who weren't executed) to reshape history, exactly by the same ways you mentioned. Suddenly it put my casual observation s about "Lost Victories" into another light. (Not to mention the fact that Manstein was sentenced to prison for war crimes.)
The scary thing about this whole after-war punishments is that they were very light on the guilty. A few were hanged, true (Jodl's sentence was pardoned posthumously), a few sentenced to a few years of prison, and that's it. The "little people", who were rounding up people, and executing them went free...
Anyway, thank you for the review.
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Old 09-18-2009, 01:25 PM
Taesung Taesung is offline
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Good insightful review of the book, Ruud!

Sorry, a bit off topic. But I always wonder why atrocities happened in WW2 are always
a hot issue whereas nothing is ever discussed about other wars' atrocities on military
modeling forums.

Just an observation...
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Old 09-26-2009, 01:16 PM
spongya77 spongya77 is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Taesung View Post
Good insightful review of the book, Ruud!

Sorry, a bit off topic. But I always wonder why atrocities happened in WW2 are always
a hot issue whereas nothing is ever discussed about other wars' atrocities on military
modeling forums.

Just an observation...
You really want to know? Well, I think the Germans are a very convenient subject. WWII is romanticized anyway, and most of the Germans would agree that what happened then is inexcusable. But try to discuss American or British atrocities in Armorama, if you want to get a virtual knucklesandwich. It's a small scale demonstration of the answer to your question: all the others are politically inconvenient.
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