Ronald M. Smelser, Edward J. Davies II. The Myth of the Eastern Front: The Nazi-Soviet War in American Popular Culture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008. xii + 327 pp. $75.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-521-83365-3; $21.99 (paper), ISBN 978-0-521-71231-6.
Reviewed by Joseph Robert White
Published on H-War (November, 2008)
Commissioned by Janet G. Valentine
A Noble But Sisyphean Effort
This book addresses an issue that professors of German military history often encounter: their students’ tendency to differentiate “Nazi,” especially SS, behavior from that of Wehrmacht troops on the Eastern Front (Ostfront). Historians Ronald M. Smelser and Edward J. Davies II deconstruct the myth of the “clean hands”--the idea that the Wehrmacht had nothing to do with genocidal crimes in the German-Soviet War--in U.S. history and popular culture and trace its spread after World War II. The authors, both from the University of Utah, are well qualified for the task. Smelser is a widely published historian of Nazi Germany, while Davies, a self-confessed former adherent to the Ostfront myth, specializes in U.S. history.
In chapter 1, “Americans Experience the War in Russia, 1941-1945,” the authors review U.S. media coverage of the Soviet war, as well as efforts to aid the Soviet Union. Americans, the authors contend, had good reason to know that their Soviet ally bore immense sacrifices and contributed fundamentally to Allied victory. In accentuating positive U.S. coverage, however, they largely sidestep how the American media overcame previous perceptions of Stalinist tyranny in favor of Soviet suffering at German hands.
Chapter 2, “The Cold War and the Emergence of a Lost Cause Mythology,” traces the emergence of the Wehrmacht “lost cause” myth from Nuremberg through the early Cold War. The International Military Tribunal’s (IMT) prosecution of the German General Staff and the Nuremberg Military Tribunals’ “High Command Case” forcefully argued the case for Wehrmacht complicity in Nazi war crimes. Yet, the prosecutors’ contentions largely fell on deaf ears. Smelser and Davies trace this failure not only to the IMT’s refusal to condemn the German General Staff as a criminal organization, but also specifically to the reframing of German military history by the German army’s erstwhile chief of staff, Franz Halder, and his colleagues. As U.S. perceptions of the Soviets grew negative, American perceptions of Germans and the German army became increasingly positive. Americans mistook Halder for a “resister,” giving him entrée to rewrite German military history, while ignoring his personal role in the implementation of Adolf Hitler’s criminal orders.
The next chapter, “The German Generals Talk, Write, and Network,” reviews Halder’s leadership as head of the Operational History (German) Section within the U.S. Army’s Historical Division. Unsurprisingly, Halder appointed like-minded officers to present the German version of the Ostfront. With the Americans more concerned with tactical and operational issues, the German section’s historical reports contained numerous anti-Russian and racist stereotypes. These same generals also networked within the new Federal Republic of Germany, thus ensuring continuity in institutions and in historical interpretation between the Bundeswehr and the Wehrmacht. The authors hold the United States complicit in two “lost cause” myths: the Reconstruction-era legend of the Confederacy’s noble fight during the U.S. Civil War and the Cold War-era myth of Germany’s defense of Western civilization against the Soviet Union. One notable defect with this analogy is that, in contrast to Halder’s close relationship with the U.S. Army, Confederate General Jubal Early, a notable proponent of the Confederate “lost cause,” never contributed to The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies (1880-1901).
In chapter 4, “Memoirs, Novels, and Popular Histories,” Smelser and Davies deconstruct popular memoirs that contributed to the Ostfront myth, most notably Erich von Manstein’s Lost Victories (1958) and Heinz Guderian’s Panzer Leader (1952), by illuminating their omissions and outright lies. While Manstein was ambivalent toward the Nazis, Guderian was an early Nazi supporter, a fact forgotten after 1945. Other memoirs and novels that contributed to Ostfront mythmaking include Panzer Battles (1956) by Friedrich Wilhelm von Mellenthin, Hans-Ulrich Rudel’s Stuka Pilot (1958), and Sven Hassel’s grunt novels. These books blinker the war on the Eastern Front, emphasizing operations and tactics over grand strategy, occupation policy, and politics. In the wake of Vietnam, U.S. military thinkers uncritically appropriated this mythology. General Mellenthin was among their advisors and was a popular lecturer at U.S. military bases. Searching for a new model for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), American officers emphasized Germany’s stalwart defense against the Red Army from 1942 to 1945.
“Winning Hearts and Minds: The Germans Interpret the War for the United States Public,” chapter 5, reveals the literary tropes that made Ostfront accounts so appealing to Americans, and documents Anglo-American complicity in the legitimization of these accounts. The analyzed works, Gottlob Herbert Bidermann’s In Deadly Combat (2001), Günter K. Koschorrek’s Blood Red Snow (2005), Armin Scheiderbauer’s Adventures in My Youth (2003), and Hans von Luck’s Panzer Commander (1989), emphasized love of family, professions of Christianity, charity toward the enemy, and heroic self-sacrifice. Apart from thick descriptions of the Russian winter, they ignored mass murder, anti-partisan warfare (in 1942 deliberately mislabeled by the Nazi regime as “combating bandits,” or Bandenbekämpfung), property confiscation, complicity in forced labor roundups, and wanton destruction. Instead, as claimed in Paul Carell’s Hitler Moves East, 1941-1943 (1964), the German soldier fought bravely and well, lying low in the Russian steppes, potato masher and rifle at the ready. Smelser and Davies also address how American and British historians and generals facilitated these books’ publication. Reviews, forewords, and “blurbs” by noted authors, like Basil H. Liddell Hart and Stephen Ambrose, lent authority to these accounts.
Chapter 6, “The Gurus,” discusses the “gurus,” the leading authors of tendentious accounts on the Wehrmacht and the Waffen-SS, and the “romancers,” their readership. American romancers provide a vast market for picture books about the German military, especially Waffen-SS uniforms and equipment; in the romancers’ imagined past, Luftwaffe pilots and Waffen-SS tankers joust with their foes. The gurus fetishize uniform, weapon, and equipment minutiae, which, Smelser and Davies admit, are generally accurate. The most important gurus are Mark Yerger, Richard Landwehr, Franz Kurowski, and Antonio Munos. The authors credit Munos with at least acknowledging Germany’s genocidal campaigns on the Eastern Front, which, they note, is “usually a taboo topic” (p. 186).
Chapter 7, “Wargames, the Internet, and the Popular Culture of the Romancers,” surveys the Ostfront myth in U.S. popular culture. The notable successes of Avalon Hill war games (like PanzerBlitz) and Simulations Publications Inc. games (like War in the East: The Russo-German Conflict 1941-1945) enabled the romancer to imagine an antiseptic version of history in which Germany emerges victorious without legal or moral complications.
In their concluding sentence, the authors concede that their effort may well be Sisyphean: “The ‘good German’ seems destined for an eternal life” (p. 259). This study should nevertheless provide food for thought in classroom discussions about the German army. Readers will have to search elsewhere, however, for broader treatment of German military complicity in war crimes and crimes against humanity on the Eastern Front and elsewhere in World War II. Indeed, the omission of a chapter-length overview of Wehrmacht participation in war crimes (aside from analyzing the Nuremberg prosecutors’ case and generals’ memoirs) assumes a specialized readership that regrettably undermines the authors’ otherwise noble effort to challenge the Ostfront myth.
. On Bandenbekämpfung, see the excellent book by Philip W. Blood, Hitler’s Bandit Hunters: The SS and the Nazi Occupation of Europe, foreword by Richard Holmes (Washington: Potomac Books, 2006).
. On Wehrmacht complicity in war crimes and crimes against humanity, accessible starting places in English are Wolfram Wette, The Wehrmacht: History, Myth, Reality, trans. Deborah Lucas Schneider (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006); Geoffrey P. Megargee, War of Annihilation: Combat and Genocide on the Eastern Front, 1941 (Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 2006); Alexander Rossino, Hitler Strikes Poland: Blitzkrieg, Ideology, and Atrocity (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2003); and Raffael Scheck, Hitler’s African Victims: The German Army Massacres of Black French Soldiers in 1940 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006).
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