Thursday, October 3, 2013

Book R & R: Operation Barbarossa

This Book Review and Recommendation is on "Operation Barbarossa: Nazi Germany's War in the East, 1941-1945" by Christian Hartmann.

Regular readers know that recently I have advocated viewing WWII through different perspectives, for example reading about some myth-breaking facets of the war like sex crimes committed by Allied Forces, or how we treated deserters, or the experiences of soldiers from different nationalities. Operation Barbarossa was the German invasion of the Soviet Union, what we commonly refer to as "the Russian Front." Because there were no U.S. forces fighting in that Theater, the typical American knows as much about it as they do say, the British fight for Singapore. "Operation Barbarossa: Nazi Germany's War in the East, 1941-1945" can remedy that. It is a quick read (208 pages including back matter) and a palatable history of the major theater of World War II.

In June of 1941, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union along an 1800 mile front with over four million Axis soldiers. By the fall of 1941, the German offensive pushed into Russia to within twenty miles of Moscow. The Russians held and later pushed the Germans back, with the help of war material sent from the United States under the Lend-Lease program. The fighting on the Eastern Front involved the largest battles of the war, some of which are know to use in the west, like the siege of Leningrad, Stalingrad, Kiev, and the Battle of Kursk. The latter being the largest tank battle in history. By the end of the war in 1945, Operation Barbarossa would account for an estimated 26.6 million Soviet casualties, 13 million of which were civilians. These numbers represent as much as sixty-five percent of all Allied casualties incurred during the war, including the war with Japan. The German Army lost 2,743,000 soldiers on the Eastern Front (pp. 157-158). That's about half of Germany's military casualties during the Second World War.

Christian Hartmann is a military historian at the Institut Fur Zeitgeschichte in Munich and is a senior lecturer at the Staff College of the German Armed Forces in Hamburg. In his book, Operation Barbarossa: Nazi Germany's War in the East, 1941-1945, Hartmann has given us a succinct, yet very readable history. I found his concluding chapter on the aftermath of the war particularly insightful. Hartmann points out that Operation Barbarossa was the clash between the two largest totalitarian systems existing prior to WWII. The war between the Nazis and Stalinist Russia laid waste to both countries. While this condition gave rise to the Cold War, it also allowed for a new Germany to be built from scratch. And because of the Cold War standoff with the Soviet Union, the western Allies were forced to take a chance on creating a new, industrialized and autonomous Germany from the beginning, rather than focusing on punishment and reparations. Hartmann also posits that a factor in the Cold War staying cold was the memory of the destruction wrought during the German-Soviet war. I agree.

Why do we study military history? When I was an army officer, I thought it was to learn how to better fight the next war. I'll allow that's probably still true. But as a much older and wiser civilian I'd have to say that one reason we study a past war is so we'll learn the lesson of how terrible war is. I recommend being familiar with the shocking scale of Operation Barbarossa, especially in relation to our operations on the Western Front. Christian Hartmann's book is an excellent resource for that.

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