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29 october 2021
The 1941-45 war between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union was the largest war in human history, and one hopes that record will never be broken. The war is also the subject of innumerable books: entire sections of used-book stores are sometimes devoted not just to World War II but to its Eastern Front. Yet it can be difficult to find a good, recent, one-volume history of the conflict.
I'm not sure why. One guess might be that people interested in the German-Soviet war are really interested in it, and could write a pretty thorough summary themselves. They don't want to read a synthetic narrative; they want to read a detailed account of the logistics of Barbarossa, or mass counter-thrusts at Kursk. Oddly enough, the repellent nature of both dictatorships frees up military-history buffs to explore the operational aspects of the Eastern Front in assiduous detail, without having to engage value judgments very often. There is so little to choose between Hitler and Stalin that for once, in reading history, your sympathies don't have to be engaged.
Not being much of a operational-history buff, I wanted to read a wider-focus history of the war, to complement reading I'd been doing lately on the history of the Holocaust. I considered Chris Bellamy's Absolute War (2008), one of the few general treatments in English that draws extensively from the Soviet archives that have become available in the last few decades. But even Absolute War seemed a bit too order-of-battly for what I wanted.
I finally found the right book in Stephen Fritz's Ostkrieg (2011). Like most of its predecessors, Ostkrieg relies on German archives and sees the war from a western angle. (I was going to say "German perspective," but of course Fritz doesn't take a German perspective; he considers the war from his own American perspective, while critically using German sources.)
There's still quite a lot of thrusting and counter-pincering in Fritz's narrative, complete with the oddly sporting terminology whereby one army "bags" a bunch of prisoners or deals with "pesky" flank attacks. There's a lot of Hitler fulminating at generals and said generals being cashiered and sent to well, they were already on the Eastern Front and couldn't be sent anywhere worse.
But Fritz is most concerned with the context of "extermination," which he explains as the developing improvisation, by the Nazi leadership, of a plan to kill all the Jews of Europe and many of the Slavs as well, to cleanse and re-settle enormous tracts of the Soviet Union after shooting the locals or starving them to death. Readers of WW2 history often think of the Nazi emphasis on murder as being counter-productive; and if you were trying to win a war or conquer a territory, it might have been. But if you were trying to kill all the Jews of Europe and many of the Slavs, and started a war with that killing as your main goal, then the Ostkrieg makes insane sense.
Hitler's invasion of the Soviet Union was central to his vision of a vast rearrangement of the map of Europe, one that would sort its peoples – the ones it did not destroy, anyway – into ethnically contiguous states. Enlarging a greater Germany in the process, and bringing home Germans from expatriate outposts abroad. Germany shrank instead and was divided for 45 years after the war, but Europe has indeed been increasingly sorted into ethnically homogenous units and the process continues in the 2020s. Ironically, Germany is one of the most liberal and diverse of those units at the moment, but no thanks to a growing ethnic-nationalist movement that cannot remember, and thus feels nostalgic for, National Socialism.
Such observations are outside the scope of Ostkrieg, though, and Fritz's book is a very good one on the scale – still massive – to which it limits itself. We get a clear view of the progress of the military operations, and a lot of context for the "total war," basically a euphemism for slavery and murder, that surrounded them.
Hitler at times had a grasp of grand strategy not much firmer than that of a bunch of Eastern Front fanboys yakking on Reddit. Hitler directed the Wehrmacht to seize various economic objectives in the west of the Soviet Union: oil fields, manganese mines, wheat-growing districts. He also ordered the SS and the notorious Einsatzgruppen to kill hundreds of thousands of people in that region and to prepare to starve millions more. The problem was, how do you reap the bounty of an economically productive area while killing all the people who made the region productive? German workers were needed for war production and could not go east to grow grain and mine manganese. Under the appalling Fritz Sauckel, the Nazi war machine enslaved millions of workers from Eastern Europe and brought them to Germany to make weapons, which made the supposed resources of the East unexploitable. And the violence that the Germans levied on Jews and Slavs as well bred partisan warfare and further nullified purely military gains. Contradiction and paradox were inherent in the Nazi war effort.
Fritz, whose historical specialty is the everyday life of the Wehrmacht rank and file, deplores the chronic lack of preparation and support that the German leadership put the ordinary soldier through. But Fritz is no sympathizer with the "pure Wehrmacht" legend. He acknowledges that the army, pervasively and not just in SS and other politicized units, had a strong core of Nazi believers who grew increasingly fanatical about the struggle against "Jewish-Bolshevism" (an insane Nazi phrase that Fritz, to my mind, doesn't put in scare quotes often enough). Regular German soldiers participated in many an atrocity, provoking counter-atrocities by partisans and by the Red Army. Millions of uniformed troops died in the 1941-45 conflict, but the toll on civilians was, of course, many times worse.
Perpetually, except for the very initial phases of the 1941 invasion, the German war effort against the Soviet Union seems to have featured armored divisions with almost no tanks, units given half the supplies they needed just to exist, fuel shortages, Luftwaffe squadrons with almost no airplanes, and horse-drawn supply trains instead of motor transport. (For most of the war, the Red Army, flush with Lend-Lease supplies from the Allies, was far more motorized than the Germans.) Yet both armies fought with tenacity, indeed, as Fritz portrays it, with a kind of fanaticism. Their governments had portrayed the war as an existential struggle and both armies bought into that rhetoric. The results are all but impossible to contemplate, even after giving them 75 years and more to sink in.
Fritz, Stephen G. Ostkrieg: Hitler's war of extermination in the east. 2011. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2015. D 764 .F737