Friday, May 8, 2009

Early look at "The Third Reich at War."

Needless to say, for anyone who has only the basic American high school level understanding of the Second World War in Europe, they are probably unaware many aspects about the war.

But I have to caveat this by stating that the Second World War was not a subject I exclusively studied, I am pretty confident that I am not clueless about this subject.

American high school version of WWII:
1933 Hitler becomes dictator of Germany and immediately rebuilds the German military. The wimpy British and French acquiesce to the German's demands in Austria and later in Czechoslovakia. The Germans then blitz the Poles and subsequently defeat their inferior army; in fact the Poles were so backwards that they sent cavalrymen on horses against German Panzers. Then the Germans invade and beat the French because they are fans of surrendering. Then they invade Russia, get caught in a bad winter; which doesn't help because they declared war on the United States. The US beats up the Germans pretty bad in North Africa, then stages the worlds largest amphibious operation at Normandy and start to liberate France. Then the US liberates Paris. Then the Battle of the Bulge. Then its a race to the heart of Germany for the US and the USSR who have too many people for the Germans to fight. The Russians take Berlin in 1945, Hitler commits suicide and end of the war.

That was actually a bit difficult for me to write seeing that I had to eliminate most of what I've read about the European theatre of the war in order to give the truncated version of what covered about 20 - 30 pages in a US textbook. Needless to say, I forgot to mention that it was the US that bailed everyone out. I think I managed to get the contempt for the French in there...the same pointless contempt that Americans today have towards the French.

As for the US taking the brunt of the war, in reality, it was probably the people of the Ukraine and Russia that took the biggest losses in the war compared to other European nation. Soviet records tended to lump all USSR casualties together, following old Russian doctrine of including the states of Byelorussia and the Ukraine into the overall Russian state. Norman Davies covers this near the end of his work: No Simple Victory.

I do highly recommend that book for those who have only the rudimentary background about this epoch in history.

Still, I am a bit saddened by the tilted version of the war, as seen through the kaleidoscope of the American experience: the roles of the British (who bore the brunt of the German Luftwaffe from 1940-1941), the French (it was not cowardice on the part of the French fighting man that brought about their surrender--in fact the French decided to make Paris an Open City to keep it from being wiped out by the Germans. As for the French not predicting the Germans coming through the thickly wooded was a huge gamble on the part of the Wehrmacht to commit to that move and the French had covered the most likely path of the Wehrmacht, coming down from Belgium) and even more sadly, the marginalization of the Red Army.

Reading the excellently composed A Writer At War covering the personal writings of Vasily Grossman, a Soviet war correspondent for the Pravda, along with other writings by Antony Beevor, Norman Davies, Guy Sajer etc does bring to light the colossal struggle between the Wehrmacht and the Red Army, and how all other campaigns conducted by the American Army pale in comparison.

Patton's great tank battles were mere child's play, or just the games of divisional commanders when compared to Kursk.

The clearing of the hedgerows in Normandy or even the Battle of the Bulge paled in comparison to the bitter struggles of Stalingrad or the siege of Moscow and Leningrad.

The great and swift movements of the US Armies in France were a normal day for the Red Army sweeping across the European steppe towards Berlin in 1944.

Needless to say, it is a humbling and eye opening experience when actually delving into the German-Russian War. It puts into perspective the actual sacrifices of the Western Allies and the fighting ability of the Russian and German solider. While it is pretty easy to go along with the generally accepted statement that the German Wehrmacht was one of the world's greatest armies in World War II, the soldiers of the Red Army were nothing to scoff at. Tough, resilient and brave fighters--they were the ones who broke the back of the Wehrmacht in 1944. They were the ones who actually crushed the fighting ability of the Wehrmacht.

Of course, we all know Stalin wasn't exactly the world's greatest humanitarian, but it was the officers and enlisted of the Red Army, irregardless of Party affiliation: news flash, not all members of the Red Army were fact those in the Party were not so sure whether or not to allow members of the Red Army into the Party. It was a very exclusive club.

We just happened to corner the market on improving on pulverizing cities from the sky.

So maybe Russians do have some right to scoff at the Western Allies when talking about defeating Germany, because until the Red Army overran the German industrial complex, the Albert Speer run war industry of Germany was still able to produce to supply the Army. Maybe they do have a right to scoff since it was they who destroyed one of the most powerful armies in the world at Stalingrad, or that they inflicted the crippling blow to the vaunted German panzer might at Kursk.

But, this post wasn't originally intended to go into how people should at least read one or two books about the Eastern Front (I do suggest Antony Beevor's Stalingrad: The Fateful Siege 1942-1943 and The Fall of Berlin 1945 as they are not only very informative but very accessible to the casual reader. He is the perfect historian--one who is able to convey his vast knowledge into something that anyone can easily understand and retain. I also suggest Antony Beevor and Luba Vinogradova's joint effort in A Writer At War: A Soviet Journalist with the Red Army, 1941-1945 that chronicles the Eastern Front through the private journals and Pravda pieces by Vasily Grossman), but about my take on the first hundred or so pages of Richard J. Evans' latest opus about Nazi Germany titled The Third Reich at War.

I have not read his first two books, The Coming of the Third Reich and The Third Reich in Power, but he even states in the introduction that each volume is capable of standing alone on its own. His intent in The Third Reich at War is not to give a history of World War II in Europe, but to " on Germany and the Germans" and at the very center of it is the mass genocide committed by the Germans and the German state. Basically, he intends to show how the Germans developed the mechanism that later lead to the killing machine of the "Final Solution."

Right from the start, Evans floors me with evidence that just as the German Wehrmacht was rolling across Poland that the murder, dispossession and deportation of Jews and Poles followed in the dusty tracks of the panzer divisions. Needless to say, despite some commentary about how this isn't a new trail blazing history of Nazi Germany, I personally thought that the German savaging other races did not go into full swing until the start of Operation Barbarossa. There's always something that someone did not know.

Still, just after the first 100 pages or so, I find it very readable with great information and without the usual dry prose that would make most people pass out after the first three paragraphs or so...but maybe other people would find this boring. I find TV in general quite boring, so who knows. The book already stands well on its own and maybe when I finally trudge through the 680 pages that remain, I may look into his two previous volumes.

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