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Ostkrieg: Hitler's War of Extermination in the East.

Ostkrieg: Hitler's War of Extermination in the East. By Stephen G. Fritz. (Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 2011. Pp. xxiv, 664. $39.95.)

The first comprehensive attempt to put Nazi Germany's war against the Soviet Union in its "larger ideological, racial, economic, and social context," Ostkrieg synthesizes the latest scholarship in English- and German-language secondary sources, focusing on events mostly from the German perspective (xx). It tells the story of the "pivotal theater of the war" and addresses the relevant scholarly controversies in judicious fashion and clear prose, both accessible to the interested layperson and informative for the specialist (xxi).

Stephen G. Fritz's essential thesis is familiar in its constituent elements. Germany fought in the east for Lebensraum and a "continental imperium," so as to possess the resources ultimately to challenge America for global dominance (198). Unrealistically inspired by its victory over France, Germany took on the Soviet Union in a reckless, "all-or-nothing gamble" that was highly unlikely to succeed (xxiv). Its unparalleled war crimes emerged out of deliberate prewar planning, radicalized by the euphoria produced by initial victories over the Soviets and then, when this "war of annihilation" turned bad, by a Darwinian determination to destroy the Jews, the nation's perceived existential enemy (xx). The German military, contrary to postwar claims that it was merely "apolitical and technocratic," played a vital, albeit mostly indirect, role in these crimes (480). Finally, both the Nazi regime at the top and the German soldier on the ground fought on to total defeat for a "complex set of motives," including racist ideology, patriotism, and a grim awareness that their own crimes would inevitably occasion a terrible vengeance (xxiv).

Fritz first sketches the development of Hitler's "utopian" ideology, centered on Lebensraum in the east and a definitive showdown with "Jewish-Bolshevism," and its initial murderous application, especially in Poland (19, 8). He then explains how the inspiring victories of 1939-1940 and Hitler's sense of a rapidly closing window of opportunity (with a powerfully rearming America tilting clearly toward Britain) launched Germany into war against the Soviets. This was a historic gamble to resolve definitively Germany's fundamental dilemma as a medium-sized European power determined on global preeminence.

The bulk of the book then focuses on how this gamble went awry against the resolve and superior resources of the Soviets (vitally bolstered by Lend-Lease) and how initial victories activated "breathtakingly radical" genocidal policies: the "hunger policy" that envisaged "tens of millions" dying by starvation in order to feed the German army and avoid severe food rationing in Germany; the complete racial reordering of Eastern Europe, involving massive ethnic cleansing, enslavement, and German resettlement programs; and the pragmatic move from a "territorial" to an "exterminationist" solution to the "Jewish problem." All of these initiatives were inspired less by the "bloody history of European colonialism" than by the vision and policies evoked by "American Manifest Destiny" (93).

Fritz's final chapters are a gruesome account of "debilitating German defeats and equally inglorious Soviet victories bought at horrendous cost" (365). They explain first why the Nazi regime, which was determined not to repeat the capitulation of 1918 and to win its "other war" against the Jews, and the German military, bolstered by "spectacular increases" in arms production, fought all the way to total destruction; and then why the Soviets, impelled by "anger and rage," engulfed German civilians and soldiers alike in a tidal wave of retribution (363, 451).

Besides comprehensively addressing the fundamental issues of the war in the east--its origins, nature, and resolution--Ostkrieg is alive to the paradoxes of its story. In the process, Fritz demolishes or reconfigures much received wisdom: how Britain's declaration of war and subsequent refusal to come to terms forced Hitler into a fundamental reversal of policy that would severely compromise, if not ultimately doom, his war in the east; how, contrary to the image of Nazi Germany as an irresistible military juggernaut, it was shockingly unprepared for war in 1939, let alone against the Soviets in 1941; how Hitler's military leadership was much less "irrational" and inept than the conventional portrait allows, especially in the first two years of the conflict; and how, despite the cliche of the Allied war effort as the "good war," the conflict was essentially decided when the "most murderous regime in Europe's history" defeated its "most genocidal."

Fritz convincingly asserts the decisive importance of the war in the east, typically underappreciated by the Western public's focus on the Normandy Invasion (469-470). Readers see "the full scope of the eastern war" and, above all, its intrinsic connection with the Nazi regime's most notorious crimes. There is some tension between the main thrust of Fritz's argument that Germany "lacked the necessary strength" to defeat the Soviets and his admission that Germany came "absurdly close" to achieving "not one but all of its objectives." Nevertheless, we are given a superb vantage point from which to view how the Nazi regime's obsessions trapped Germany into ultimately fatal dilemmas.

Geoff Haywood

Arcadia University
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Author:Haywood, Geoff
Publication:The Historian
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2013
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