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Total War on the Eastern Front
on 13 August 2011
It's quite rare these days that a book on the Eastern Front will surprise me once, almost never more often than that. Having read on this war for over a decade I thought I knew the majority of what went on and what one could expect to find on a book entitled 'Total War'. With this work, however, Jones has built on what he's done previously and in many ways this might be his best work to date, easily rivaling his first foray into the Eastern Front with 'Stalingrad'.
As with his previous volumes, Jones tells the story of the Eastern Front through the voices of the soldiers, commanders, and civilians who participated in it, willingly or unwillingly from both the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. Woven through the accounts he presents is the regular question of how Red Army soldiers and the civilian population of the Soviet Union kept up enough morale to endure the chaos and defeats of 1941, the demoralizing situation around the siege of Leningrad, and the battle for Stalingrad in 1942. Thus, 'Total War' begins with the initial situation around 1941 and moves through battles for Leningrad and Stalingrad, onto the eventual Soviet defeat of the German sixth Army and continues through their victories at Kursk, Bagration, etc., all the way to Berlin.
The question here is less about military prowess, tactical, operational, or strategic decisions (although various details of individual operations are discussed and contextualized) but revolves around what the Red Army and civilian population endured, witnessed, and remembered up until their entrance into East Prussia and Germany proper. Jones sets the stage for the infamous events of the Red Army's 'liberation' (a contested term to say the least) of Eastern Europe and Germany. The initial chapters dealing with 1941 and Stalingrad are readily covered in Jones's other books on the Eastern Front so they presented little new in the greater scheme of the Eastern Front. It is only when we get to 1944 and the German scorched earth policy as they retreated before the Red Army that events and information I had never heard of before first began to appear. As the Germans withdrew from Belorussia they ran up against large swamp areas, on these territories they began to herd the local population, encased them in barbed wire, and trucked in typhus patients. They dumped them all in one of these 'camps', let them lay on muddy ground and allowed hundreds of cases of typhus to break out so that they might be passed on to the liberating troops of the Red Army. According to the commander of the 65th Army, whose soldiers were at times unable to control themselves as they ran to liberate these locals, an entire corps had to be quarantined because typhus ran rampantly through Red Army units as they tried their best to liberate these hastily established camps. Luckily the spread of the disease was readily contained and presented limited problems for the Red Army advance.
The Red Army's crossing over into Germany proper brings much debate and controversy. What Jones attempts to do, and in truth does very well, is contextualize what Red Army soldiers perpetrated on German territory. In showcasing what Red Army soldiers witnessed on their way to Germany, the enormous amount of death and destruction they came through during the liberation of Ukraine and Belorussia, the liberation of camps like Majdanek and Auschwitz (both of which are discussed by Jones in this book), as well as the regular propaganda campaign waged by the Soviet Union in order to keep up Red Army morale and encourage them to 'kill' the occupiers of their territory and the murderers of their families and friends, there is reason to suspect that such bent up anger and hatred would have an outlet once the German border was crossed. And this is exactly what happened. But Jones also gives voice to those soldiers who attempted to curb the violence, looting, raping, and murder that was going on. He continually implies that this was a minority within the Red Army that contributed to the 'total war' mentality of the time and shows orders coming from the high command and army command that attempted to curb any type of violence and looting against the local population, changing the propaganda of the time from 'destroy the fascist beast in his lair' to a voice claiming the Red Army is an army of liberation. There are some heartwrenching stories presented of Red Army soldiers taking out their hatred on the German population, all too often women, but in each case Jones attempts to contextualize the atmosphere these events occurred in and the reaction of Red Army soldiers to these events, which after the initial euphoria of revenge passed quickly into condemnation, contempt and a questioning of their methods. Many soldiers even attempted to protect the local population, forgetting or at least putting aside the propaganda they had been exposed to for years.
A minor weakness in these chapters is the fact that Jones mentions little of the fact that the Red Army at this point was operating with allies, like two Polish armies, who at times had more reason to hate Germans than Soviet troops, who can account or separate for crimes they perpetrated? Additionally, Jones takes the time to show how the Germans themselves exaggerated Red Army atrocities on their soil. Goebbels created something called 'atrocity propaganda' that exaggerated everything 'in order to strengthen the deterrent effect and the German people's will to hold out' (224). More so, at times the Germans themselves were given orders to destroy a village or town while the population was expelled, only to then have German film crews and journalists bussed in to "survey the ruins and to record the imagined ravages of Soviet soldiers...The swans in the town park were shot, and it was then announced that the 'Asiatic hordes' had killed and eaten them' (225).
As I reached the end of the book I found myself speechless. The epilogue Jones includes is a mere five pages, and the last page simply found me questioning myself and my knowledge of the Great Patriotic War/Second World War as well as the costs that the Soviet population had to bear. I don't want to give anything away but Jones shows once more that we continue to merely scratch the surface of the Eastern Front and there is still so much left to learn and understand in this encounter between Germany and the Soviet Union.
A few minor mistakes are evident, Soviet units should be listed as 'rifle' but in various instances they are described as 'infantry brigade' or 'infantry corps' rather than rifle or if this was a naval unit it should have been 'naval infantry' rather than just 'infantry'. There is also a mention of a fortieth 'tank army', but only six existed and they were named first through sixth. Additionally, the Soviet commander Chernyakhovsky is misspelled as 'Chernyakovsky'. Lastly, I have to say that the notation system in this book leaves much to be desired. While Jones lists his sources there are no endnotes/foodnotes in the traditional sense and at times it makes for a very hard time when attempting to locate the source of a specific comment/description/event.
Putting aside these minor errors, there is no question that Jones has created a highly important addition to Eastern Front literature. He is one of the few authors who attempts to contextualize Red Army action on German territory by putting the motivation of the Soviet soldier in a context that showcases that while some might have taken vengeance to an extreme, many others managed to control themselves and at times showed their altruistic side by protecting the local population and providing them with basic necessities. Jones continually emphasizes that it was a minority of the Red army that committed crimes on enemy soil, while the majority managed to preserve their reputation and the title of 'liberators'.