Gerhard P. Gross, ed. The Forgotten Front: The Eastern Theater of World War I, 1914-1915. Translated by Janice W. Ancker. Foreign Military Studies Series. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2018. 404 pp. $80.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8131-7541-6.
Reviewed by Matthew Schwonek (Air University, Air Command and Staff College)
Published on H-War (September, 2020)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)
The Great War’s eastern theater is in danger of losing its standing as that conflict’s “forgotten front.” Interest has grown in recent years, especially in anticipation and on the occasion of the war’s centennial. New studies plumb strategy, armies, campaigns, battles, and occupation, with culture and society coming in for much attention. This activity represents a large international enterprise with historians from Central and Eastern Europe leading the way. Particularly valuable, from the scholar’s perspective, are the several conference volumes that have appeared, a number emanating from Germany’s Military History Research Institute (now the Military History and Social Research Institute) and under the editorship of Colonel Gerhard P. Gross. Such collections explore major controversies, present new viewpoints, and sketch programs for future investigation. The volume under review here represents a welcome consideration of the problem of the eastern front, distinct from “the modern, technologized war on the western front” yet all of a piece with that terrible slaughter (p. 2).
Although it only appeared in English in 2018, this volume springs from a conclave jointly organized by the Military History Research Institute and German Historical Museum, marking the ninetieth anniversary of the Great War’s outbreak, in 2004. Historians from eight countries examined the eastern front in terms of operations, experience, and memory. Reports focused on the years 1914-15, thus separating the world war from the revolutions and political violence that shaped the conflict’s later stages and aftermath. Introducing the problem, as in other volumes, is the contribution of the esteemed Hew Strachan. He presents the paradox of the eastern front—in prewar German estimates Russia constituted the greatest threat, yet the best military opportunities lay in West of Europe. The stalemate in France and Belgium reversed this paradox. The imperative became to break the Franco-British entente, but military opportunities lay in the East. Strachan is sharply critical. In the German case it is hard to talk of strategy at all; there were only geography and operations.
Essays by Gross, Boris Khavkin, and Günther Kronenbitter examine the conduct of war. On the eastern front in 1914 and 1915 the war’s two greatest operational victories occurred, Tannenberg and Gorlice-Tarnów. All the same, the aims of both were limited and strategic results, therefore, were elusive. More than a problem of strategy, Gross finds that important constraints hobbled mobile warfare in the theater, not just bad roads and the slow pace of marching armies but also the skill of Russian commanders and a hard-fighting soldiery. Khavkin takes up the latter, forcefully arguing that victory did not elude German forces, rather the Imperial Russian Army denied them it. His contribution skews toward the patriotic and hyperbole, but this Russian perspective reveals that as difficult as mobile operations proved, defending a 1,934-kilometer front line was no less challenging. One is disappointed that operations of the Imperial and Royal Army did not come in for analysis, but Kronenbitter offers a trenchant appreciation of relations with the German High Command as a problem of coalition warfare. Relations were tense for much of the war, a problem made worse by reliance on ad hoc arrangements. Both sides were resentful, feeling they were ill-used by the other. Yet they could cooperate, as when the German East Front commander, Ober Ost in military shorthand, and Habsburg Army High Command united against General Erich von Falkenhayn’s General Staff. Research on battles and campaigns may be “not all that bad,” but this volume shows that we want more analyses of the Łódź and Warsaw operations of 1914 as well as the fall 1915 campaign in Volhynia (p. 30).
Probably the most arresting analyses are offered in a block of essays on how the reality of war was experienced, both in terms of Erlebnis (direct experience) and Erfahrung (learned experience). These essays explore how wartime interactions affected the way people thought of themselves and their neighbors. They run the gamut from Polish identity formation to the image of lands and peoples in literature. In an essay on Russian mindsets, Hubertus Jahn argues that images of the foe are closely entwined with views of self. Jahn relies on popular representations of the enemy, which Kaiser Wilhelm II personified, although images of Russia were more varied. His employment of lubki (popular prints), chastushki (satirical ditties), and the novel medium of film lights the way for further research. Peter Hoeres’s analysis of German and Austrian views of Slavs stresses that servicemen had little interaction and first-hand knowledge before the war and, therefore, experienced genuine culture shock. Stereotypes served to simplify a complex reality, while a sense of superiority also shaped appreciation of Poles and Russians. Views of Slavs varied, while frontline troops developed a respect for their enemy. Despite important continuities, Hoeres and Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius distinguish images from 1914-18 from the murderous mindsets of 1939-45. The latter’s essay distinguishes the former experience by Germans’ sense of undertaking a civilizing mission, captured in the term “Deutsche Arbeit (German Work)” (p. 249).
A pair of essays on how soldiers experienced the reality of war challenge common tropes. The tsar’s peasant soldiers were hardly inscrutable, and their letters home are an important untapped resource. The common denominators of the Russian experience, according to Igor Narskij, were territorial expanses, mobile war, and violence. Also, Russian servicemen acquired discipline at the front and their own belief in a civilizing mission. It is no longer possible to speak of premodern Russian servicemen unsuited for modern war. It was commanders’ operational concepts, which were outdated. And it is not true that trench warfare in the West alone traumatized men, for mobile warfare, such as it was, close combat, and primitive conditions took a heavy toll. On the German military experience, Hans-Erich Volkmann offers a more extensive analysis. Experience was dominated by the fact that Russian forces, though suffering severe defeats in 1914 and 1915, remained in the field, fighting tenaciously. There is no gainsaying that many thousands of soldiers, including their commander General Erich Ludendorff, carried with them a mean anti-Semitism, while a racializing of Jews and Slavs took place in propaganda. Without denying the former, Volkmann cautions that this experience was not universal, noting positive encounters and cultural affinities.
As is the case with works of such diverse composition, some contributions disappoint. The discussion of memory is weak. This is a critical matter. The recent burst of scholarly attention aside, “the First World War is,” as Gundula Bavendamm warns, “on the verge of disappearing from the horizon of communicative memory” (p. 327). Nearly every contribution in this volume makes reference to the “forgotten front,” but none addresses why it has been so thoroughly ignored. An essay on memorials only addresses French and British tombs of the unknown. A consideration of internet representations likewise has aught to say about the eastern front, while this early analysis reckons without the explosion of digital remembrances accompanying the war’s centenary. The exception by Kristiane Janeke examines the history of the Moscow City Fraternal Cemetery, erected in 1914 to honor war dead and dismantled in 1932 to extinguish their memory. This all too brief contribution examines not only the role of national mythmaking and Soviet ideology in suppressing memory but also the new regime’s treatment of death.
There is much to commend this volume. It takes on important controversies and considers the larger significance of the operations, experience, and memory. The concluding piece by Rüdiger Bergien addresses the problem of continuities with the Second World War. Notwithstanding the large number of German contributors, this problem looms over the entire enterprise. Germans marched in 1941 with an image of the East already fixed in their minds, but it was constructed “only from a portion of total experience” (p. 356). He cautions against making connections, where scholarship has not yet matured, while admitting the limits to studying how men one hundred years ago experienced this war.
Some might wish for more on strategy and operations, but the relatively greater focus on how the reality of war was experienced is justified. Herein we find more satisfying answers to why the Great War in Central and Eastern Europe was so different than in the West. Nearly every contribution shows high quality of thought and research, even those wide of the mark. The German text is rendered in clear and concise English in the translation of Janice W. Anker. All the contributions are accessible to the general reader, although they are more likely to appeal to specialists. Historians of the Great War, even those studying US, UK, and French participation, no matter their point of view or interest, will find something of value here. This discussion of major issues and window into continental research should find its way into the holdings of every university and research library, while no one investigating the eastern front can do without it.
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Matthew Schwonek. Review of Gross, Gerhard P., ed., The Forgotten Front: The Eastern Theater of World War I, 1914-1915.
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