Thursday, June 6, 2013

Book Review 281: Ostfront 1944

OSTFRONT 1944: The German Defensive Battles on the Russian Front, by Alex Buchner. 304 pages, illustrated. Schiffer

Today (June 6) many Americans are commemorating the invasion of Normandy in 1944, called the “biggest invasion in history.”

It was the biggest seaborne invasion, but few Americans know that a much bigger invasion began on June 22, 1944, when the Red Army began Operation Bagration against the German Army Group Center.

Ostfront 1944,” although it is very narrowly focused, gives an excellent sense of the overwhelming size and strength of the Red Army's advance.

The size of the German forces in France and in Army Group Center in White Russia in June 1944 were comparable. The size of the Red Army dwarfed that of the combined forces of the western allies. And it outnumbered the Germans anywhere up to 10 to 1, except in aviation, where the Luftwaffe was virtually absent.

Alex Buchner, a company commander in the German army in the East, is concerned here only to tell how the German forces reacted and what difficulties they faced. He makes clear that the incompetent orders from the High Command (meaning Hitler) added to the German disasters, but the Red Army was going to prevail anyway.

The speed of the victory was blinding. The Normandy Allies were stuck in bitter fighting in hedgerow country for a month. The Red Army blasted through and obliterated divisions, corps and armies in two or three days.

Later in the summer, farther south, the Red Army obliterated an entire army (the Sixth) in 48 hours.

These were battles of annihilation – it was no coincidence that Bagration began on the third anniversary of the German invasion of the Soviet Union. In the Sixth Army, one division of 12,000 had one survivor. In Army Group Center, there were several examples of divisions that lost up to 99% of their strength.

In “Ostfront 1944” there are a few narratives of individual Germans or groups that made their way through enemy lines to their own after up to 80 days of scrabbling through the forests. But the numbers were tiny.

In instance after instance, after organized resistance ceased, “battle groups” or “breakout groups” of hundreds or thousands of men were harried and killed till only one or two, in some cases none survived.

Buchner barely mentions the civilian population, and only once or twice barely alludes to the atrocities committed by the Germans up to the 1944 defeats.

The Germans often left their badly wounded, expecting them to be murdered, which they usually were, although the usual German obtuseness and self-pity is evident all over “Ostfront 1944.”

For example, in the first instance when Buchner describes a reluctant decision to abandon wounded, he mentions that they were entitled to kind treatment “as per international law.” How typical of the Germans to call on the protection of international laws they never respected themselves.

Buchner makes much of the harsh, often murderous treatment of the German prisoners of war; but says nothing about the even worse treatment by his army of the Russian POWs.

Ostfront 1944” is clearly written by and for Germans and to give a later generation of them a lively sense of the suffering of theor armies and the ineptitude of Germany's leaders.

So far it succeeds. But as history otherwise it is dishonest and misleading.

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