The Myth of the Eastern Front
Contributor: Thomas Houlihan
Review Date: 2 Aug 2008
Full Title: The Myth of the Eastern Front: The Nazi-Soviet War in American Popular Culture
In the very beginning, during the introduction and first chapters, I noticed a flaw in the presentation. In the introduction, it is mentioned how most of what Americans read of the war on the Eastern Front is from the German, rather than the Russian perspective. While there's no doubt that's true, we must recognize why that is. It's because for many years, those were the only good accounts available! Should we have not read anything until the Soviets let their books out?
Very little history was allowed to leak out from behind the Iron Curtain for decades. It was suspected, and later recognized, that even what was coming out was skewed, as the materials were edited for proper Soviet content. So, we can't be faulted for not reading what wasn't available!
The first chapter is entitled "Americans Experience the War in Russia, 1941-1945," which is quite descriptive of the contents. But even there, it starts out missing a vital fact. The chapter discusses several examples of American visits to the USSR, as well as a media campaign to educate Americans on life in Russia. The chapter describes how the general attitude of Americans was massaged and turned into a favorable one. But there is a major hole in the subsection "The Russian-American Relationship 1917-1941."
In one paragraph, the authors go from 1917 to the 1930s. They completely gloss over American attitudes towards the Communists/Bolsheviks during the first years of the regime. Not only is the negative attitude towards Communists not discussed, but the fact that the US had troops in Murmansk and Vladivostok from 1918-1920 is omitted. This was technically an invasion of their land, and the authors don't even factor it into the relationship! So we have an initial chapter about international relations that is presented as merely educating one country about another, when in fact the former had sent armed troops into the latter twenty years previously. This in fact, in my opinion, affects one of the authors' biggest complaints later.
The second chapter discusses the Cold War, and the growth of a "lost cause" mythology. Now, while I can see similarities in lost causes, I think the authors were wrong in comparing the Confederate States of America to Nazi Germany. While both may have "lost cause" mythologies built up around them, the American perception of these two opponents is radically different. The residents of the secessionist CSA were originally Americans. They were us! I can't help but see this as being rather different from befriending a former opponent as far away as Europe.
What got me about this chapter was the hypocrisy of it. The US, especially the military, was damned for their efforts to learn more about the Soviet Union from the people who had fought them most recently. Our former ally was now a potential enemy (and a formidable one at that). The responsible thing to do was to learn as much as we could about this opponent. In the military, it's known as gathering intelligence. Every responsible leader does it! The hypocritical part, as I see it, is that the authors praised the US for doing the same thing for the Soviet Union that they condemned when it was done for Germany! Never mind the fact that if the USSR did come west, Germany was going to be the main area fought over. In truth, this section did more to alienate the authors from me than any other.
There was another part of the second chapter that I found disingenuous to the point of lying. Halder, as Chef des General Stabs, was decried for having offensive plans for the east drawn up long before Hitler ordered them. This right here clearly illustrates that the authors' knowledge of the military is limited, or that they just chose not to include information that would undercut their point.
Any General Staff, High Command, or the like has contingency plans drawn up at all times. It is responsible preparedness. In the US, these plans were known as the Rainbow Plans *. These plans included potential operations against nations that were considered our allies, or at least not un-friendly. The operative word is "contingency." To criticize Halder, as the personification of the General's Staff, for having plans for potential operations anywhere in Europe is misleading, or at a minimum, ignorant.
As for claiming that German soldiers, from Private through General tried to hide things in their memoirs, I thought it was a little harsh. It is human nature to minimize one's own culpability for failure. So, to a certain extent that is to be expected in any autobiography or memoir. Very few of us are willing to air our faults for the world to see. That isn't something we can ascribe to any nationality. Certainly, the generals are going to lay more of the blame for loss on Hitler's meddling, but will we ever know how much of that is actually true? There is no doubt in anyone's mind that Hitler's taking personal control of orders down to divisional level hurt the Army's ability to fight. While I don't think Germany could have actually won the war, it certainly would have gone much differently if Hitler had let the professionals do their jobs. Again, I considered this to be twisting reality to suit their goals in this work.
I think that the authors also failed to give enough credit to the common soldiers. They scorn the thought that front line German troops would have patched enemy wounded, or given them food and water. This seems to be a common act, though, crossing any lines of nationality. There are too many accounts of soldiers doing this, regardless of the enemy. There are too many accounts extant to simply scoff at Germans mentioning it for possible self-aggrandizement. The rear-echelon elements, on the other hand, are a different story.
The last three chapters have one thing in common that minimizes their possible value. I think the authors have missed the point on one major issue. The key here is "military history." They criticize people who are interested in the TO&E, or rather, Kriegsgliederung. Apparently, it's not acceptable to be primarily interested in uniforms, equipment, tactics, weapons, vehicles, campaigns, or strategy. I don't study political history or sociology. I'm curious about how the Wehrmacht achieved the victories that it did, while throwing away other possible victories. I'm interested in how some weapons systems performed well, while others didn't. So their condemnation of people like Yerger and Rikmenspoel are petty. Those men, and men like them, study certain facets of the war more deeply than others, and comprehend them better, which makes it easier to explain to the rest of us. They don't deny the politics and ideology of the Reich. That is simply not the area they choose to study. To label them as gurus is insulting to them, and to those of us who read their books. That insinuates some kind of cult, with us readers as mindless followers. What then would the rest of us label anyone who takes this book as gospel, without doing any research of their own?
I understand that war is an extension of politics. However, tactics, weapons, and equipment are apolitical. Thus, any ideological goals of the Nazi Party have absolutely no bearing whatsoever on my studying of Waffen-SS uniforms and accoutrements, or the awards system of the Kriegsmarine. Himmler's machinations for political or personal gain are immaterial when discussing the activities of the 2nd SS-PANZER REGIMENT. Wargaming the Afrika Korps' campaigns to see if there might have been a way for them to march into Cairo, or a successful sortie by BISMARCK, are experiments in military science. Politics and ideology simply are not a part of that. I see no condemnation of wargames about ancient empires here.
As for condemning reenactors who do Wehrmacht or Waffen-SS impressions, perhaps they should have taken that concept a little further. What about other eras? The Federal Army of the United States was instrumental in destroying the culture of the Native Americans, including the use of biological warfare, but those who reenact the Union Army are ignored in this book. I have seen of those who reenact the Roman Legions. The Roman Empire was one of the best at subjugating other nations, and exploiting them for all that could be sent back to Rome, but they are ignored in this book. There are those who reenact English armies from various eras, yet the soldiers of this, one of history's largest empires, are given a pass. In my own personal opinion, I felt that aiming this antipathy was aimed at the targets of personal prejudices rather than the focus of a purely academic study.
This book wasn't as bad as I thought it would be. I did find passages of value, but these were far outnumbered by misleading, politically-correct pages that showed a distinct lack of knowledge regarding military history, military science, or the military in general. They have done themselves a disservice by not finding out more about their subject matter before they wrote this book.
* The Rainbow Plans:
- Red - Britain and Canada, with different territories assigned variants of that color: UK "Red," Canada "Crimson," India "Ruby," Australia "Scarlet" and New Zealand "Garnet."
- Black - Germany.
- Brown - Philippines.
- Citron - Brazil.
- Emerald - in Ireland in conjunction with War Plan Red.
- Gray - invading a Caribbean republic.
- Green - Mexico
- Gold - France and French Caribbean possessions.
- Indigo - Iceland.
- Lemon - Portugal.
- Olive - Spain.
- Orange - Japan
- Purple - a Central American republic, or possibly Russia (There may have been two different Purples).
- Silver - Italy.
- Tan - Cuba.
- White - domestic uprising in the U.S.
- Yellow - China.
- Violet - intervention in Chinese domestic events.
Source of Rainbow Plans: Wikipedia
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James Forrestal, Secretary of the Navy, 23 Feb 1945