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"What an appalling moment... No battle in history compares with it." Clark
on 9 June 2014
Originally written in 1965, author (and Tory politician) Allan Clark decided to stand by his original text for the 1995 reprint of Barbarossa. Having just finished reading it, I can see why. It's excellent.
Now, about 50 years after it was first written, one might pick apart certain aspects - he seems to buy into Heinz 'Achtung Panzer' Guderian's personal renderings of events rather uncritically, for example - but in broad terms Clark's account seems to have withstood the test of time admirably.
At around 460 pages this is, by contemporary standards, a slightly old-fashioned in-depth treatment of, primarily, the military side of this mammoth campaign. Having recently read a more wide-ranging but very succinct account by German historian Christian Hartman, Clark's lengthier and more detailed old-school rendering was the perfect way to really get deeper into this gargantuan subject (at least on the military history side).
Whilst Clark does address the conflict from both sides, he definitely leans the weight of his coverage more to the German perspective. My title quote captures the mixture of awed excitement mingled with horror that both author and readers may feel when these two profligately cruel ideological empires clashed. For the German's, after the initial euphoria of 'kick-off', it's somewhat surprising how soon the rot set in, in terms of things starting to go wrong for the Axis forces. As many have remarked, the Germans may have read accounts of Napoleon in Russia, but they appear to have failed to learn from them.
For the vast bulk of this moderately large book Clark remains fixed on the military side of things. Only by occasional brief mentions, and in a slightly more focussed way near the end, do we hear of the appalling atrocities that were perpetrated within the Dante-esque inferno of the Ostfront. Clark puts this aspect across with succinct eloquence at various points, noting (p.193) that this was the theatre 'where the septic violence of Nazism festered openly', in (p.316) 'scenes of not so much medieval as of pre-Roman barbarism'.
Whilst some of this - for example the activities of the notorious SS Dirlewanger - necessarily makes for disturbing reading, Clark's general history of the war on the Ostfront is, overall, tremendously gripping, and (dare I say it of such a huge charnel house?) very enjoyable, when read in the comfort of a peacetime armchair. Of course one vehemently hopes - or at least I do - never to live through anything of this sort. But reading about it is exciting, informative, and, one hopes, salutary.