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Nations at war
Boog, Horst; Forster, Jurgen; Hoffmann, Joachim; Klink, Ernst; Muller, Rolf-Dieter; Ueberschar, Gerd R. Edited by the Militargeschichtliches Forschungsamt. (Ewald Osers, translation editor) Germany and the Second World War, volume IV: The Attack on the Soviet Union. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998.
1364 pages plus separate map volume
List of Illustrations; List of Tables; Notes on the Authors; Note on the Translation; Abbreviations; Glossary of Foreign Terms; Introduction; tables; charts; maps; footnotes; Bibliography;
Index of Persons.
This must rate as one of the thickest, densest tomes ever published about the Second World War, containing as it does over 1360 pages filled unrelentingly with text unbroken by a single photograph or drawing. The thick, tightly written German having been carefully rendered into sentences of precise, illiquid, almost clotted English, the only visual relief from page after page of data-intensive paragraphs comes from a few equally data-intensive charts and tables. With a very few exceptions, even the maps have been moved from the main volume into the accompanying map set. After crossing acres of arid type, the occasional typographical error or dubious translation seems like an oasis.
Which is not to say this is a bad book.
Far from it.
Those already acquainted with earlier volumes in this series from the Research Institute for Military History in Potsdam will be aware of both the stylistically limited prose and the wealth of information contained therein. The progression from volume I (The Build-up of German Aggression) to volume II (Germany's Initial Conquests in Europe, 444 pages) to volume III (The Mediterranean, South-East Europe, and North Africa, 1939-1941, 822 pages) to the latest addition's 1364 pages makes it hard to believe that future volumes in the series -- already available in the original German -- could possibly be larger, more difficult to wade through, or more valuable in content. In fact, although volume II's dustjacket promised "Forthcoming...volumes III to X," Oxford University Press has lately been mum on the prospect of anything beyond volume IV.
Emblematic of the Institute's approach is the way more than 500 pages elapse before the reader arrives at 22 June and the launch of Barbarossa. Those initial 500 pages are devoted to setting the diplomatic and economic stage, measuring and weighing the various armed forces, describing the evolution of German military planning for the invasion, and placing the entire operation within the context of Hitler's political philosophy of a war of annihilation.
When the authors finally reach the beginning of hostilities, roughly another 500 pages are devoted to the actual description of military operations. These operational descriptions tend to emphasize the discussions and disagreements among the commanders over the correct strategies and tactics to pursue and for the most part the battle narratives reach no deeper than corps level. Interestingly, the authors divide the operational portions of the book into "The Conduct of Operations" (with about 225 pages) and, later, "The Conduct of the War through Soviet Eyes" (at about 100 pages) covering the same campaigns. A separate section (of about 50 pages) describes the Luftwaffe role in the invasion, including sub-sections on the air war at sea and the limited German effort to conduct strategic bombing. Further lengthy sections deal with the war in Finland and the participation of other Axis forces on the Russian front. All of this takes the Russo-German War through the end of 1941.
The final 250 pages or so of the book scrutinize several additional topics:
- The "Crusade" aspects of the war and the volunteers from western, southern, and northern Europe serving with the German armed forces in the East
- "The Failure of the Economic 'Blitzkrieg' Strategy"
- "Securing 'Living-Space'"
- "Operation Barbarossa in Historical Perspective"
The text is meticulously footnoted and the bibliography amounts to nearly 100 pages. Of the dozens of charts, tables, and diagrams many are concerned with division-level OBs as well as equally detailed Luftwaffe OBs. Others quantify Luftwaffe missions by front and timeframe, armament production, ammunition stockpiles, dispositions of AA forces, and even TOE data for German divisions including which units were under-equipped at the start of the campaign and which utilized captured French equipment.
The separate map volume contains 27 folding color maps and schematics. These also contain a wealth of data (including division-level dispositions for both sides at the start of Barbarossa) but have not been translated into English.
In regard to the translation, it should be noted that, while it certainly doesn't sing, much of the sluggishness of the text can be traced to the original German. The writers and editors seem to have devoted considerable effort to accuracy, precision, and thoroughness at the expense of pacing, dynamism, and drama, and the translation reflects that approach. One area in which the translation itself introduces constant annoyance is the of use of English terms where German ones would have proved perfectly acceptable: for example, "Armoured Group 4" for "Panzergruppe 4", "anti-aircraft battalion" for "flak battalion", and so on.
All in all -- despite the likelihood that it will win no awards for its precise but difficult prose -- this is a phenomenal piece of work. In addition to everything else they have done so well, the authors are to be commended for forthrightly discussing not only the failures of German planning and implementation, but also for refusing to ignore the ugliest aspects of the war. For example, Jurgen Forster demonstrates that most regular army units, while concealing the facts in their war diaries with euphemisms, complied obediently and unhesitatingly with the Commissar Order. The book also refutes the notion that Barbarossa was a legitimate act of self defense in response to an imminent invasion by Soviet forces.
As rewarding as it is challenging, and certain to be on this reviewer's Top Ten list for 1999.
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Reviewed 6 February 1999
Copyright © 1999 by Bill Stone
May not be reproduced in any form without written permission of Stone & Stone