War of Annihilation: Combat and Genocide on the Eastern Front, 1941.
Geoffrey Megargee, a research scholar at the Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies and an award-winning military historian, draws upon the latest scholarship on Wehrmacht crimes and the newest literature on Operation Barbarossa to present a synthetic overview of a campaign conceived from the start as a war of annihilation between peoples rather than militaries. He seeks to provide an accessible and engaging work that integrates strands of scholarship that have run in parallel but only infrequently interacted with one another, specifically the military history of Barbarossa and scholarship on genocide and war crimes on the eastern front. Published as part of the Total War: New Perspectives on World War II series by Rowman & Littlefield, this short study makes no claim to be definitive or to present startling new interpretations but rather seeks to present an analysis that does not artificially separate the twin motors of Germany's quest for lebensraum in the East: combat and genocide.
Megargee breaks his study into six chapters, followed by a brief bibliographical essay surveying the latest English-language literature on the topic. Chapters 1 and 2 address "The Roots of the War of Annihilation" and "Plans and Preparations, 194041." Megargee's discussion of the impact of World War I, the weltanschauung of the German officer corps, and Nazi concepts of racial order and lebensraum reflect longstanding interpretations of the underlying roots of German ruthlessness in World War II. Drawing upon more recent literature, Megargee argues that the German military prosecuted the Polish campaign with brutality predictive of its behavior two years later. During the planning phase of Barbarossa, the German military laid the groundwork for a brutal campaign of annihilation, issuing directives for the murder of captured political officers, recommending harsh collective actions against civilians in the event of sabotage or partisan activity, willfully creating conditions that led to the deaths of millions of Soviet POWs, and blending military, racial, and political categories in such a way that antipartisan operations might entail the elimination of any group deemed objectionable. Far from objecting to Hitler's and Himmler's conception of the upcoming campaign against Russia as a pitiless racial war of extermination, German military planners contributed to its upcoming brutality.
Chapters 3 through 5 cover the campaign itself, carefully describing the course of military operations against the Red Army and then addressing developments behind the front lines, specifically German policies toward and treatment of captured Soviet soldiers, the civilian population in the occupied territories, and Jews.
Chapter 6 brings Megargee's study to an end with an analysis of the failure of Operation Typhoon, Germany's final offensive of 1941, and a discussion of why Operation Barbarossa foundered upon the rocks of Soviet resistance, poor intelligence, and predictable adverse climatic and geographic conditions. Given that both military operations and rear-area mass killings continued for another three and one half years, this endpoint seems more driven by the publisher's desire to keep the volumes of Total War brief and tightly focused rather than any particular turning point in the nexus of combat and genocide.
Megargee introduces his readers to major historiographical controversies from military history--such as whether the Ukraine or Moscow should have been the focus of German offensives in August 1941--and from the field of Holocaust studies, such as exactly when Hitler decided that the "Jewish Question" would be resolved by the physical extermination of all Jews within the grasp of German power. He provides numerous shocking statistics and anecdotes that illustrate the interaction between military operations and mass murder. Two will suffice. In July and August 1941, the 2d SS Cavalry Brigade participated in antipartisan operations in the Pripet Marshes, shooting 13,788 people at the cost of two dead. This correlation of "partisans killed" to "casualties suffered," echoed in countless other reports to German headquarters, indicates that antipartisan and reprisal operations served as cover and euphemism for mass killings, with unarmed Jewish men, women, and children the favored targets. On a related note, most military histories provide detailed analyses of how German armored groups broke through, exploited, and encircled Red Army formations during the summer and fall of 1941. Fewer accounts discuss how German supply and transportation priorities, coupled with willfully brutal and uncaring policies toward Soviet POWs, resulted in the death of some 1.4 million Soviet POWs by the beginning of December. Megargee successfully links front-line operations and classical military history with German occupation and military policies that not only tolerated but also endorsed the deaths of millions of Soviet noncombatants through execution, starvation, and mobile killing operations against Jews.
War of Annihilation provides a number of insights and warnings to those interested in or responsible for strategy and policy planning, execution, and analysis. First and foremost, it provides a warning that ideological worldviews based on unquestioned cultural assumptions serve as no substitute for solid intelligence. Sound German intelligence of the Soviet Union was swept aside or marginalized in favor of intelligence estimates that reflected the German army's poor assessment of Soviet capabilities. Secondly, Megargee notes how German fascination with operational art led it to neglect or marginalize the role of logistics in planning the German campaign. From the fuehrer down to divisional levels, those responsible for planning and executing Operation Barbarossa made their plans and then instructed logisticians to support them. The disastrous results for the German army of this approach became apparent no later than December 1941. Most importantly, this short book serves to underline the role of ideology and culture in the execution of war. Contemptuous of Slavs as subhumans and committed to the destruction of the Jewish people, the German military waged a brutal war of annihilation that served to rally Stalin's often disgruntled people in a war for survival. Initially greeted as liberators, by the end of 1941 German soldiers and occupation officials had turned potential allies into enemies through their brutal conduct, stoking support for the growing partisan movement. One simply cannot separate Germany's military campaign in the East from its broader ideological agenda and genocidal goals.
Douglas Peifer, PhD
Air War College
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|Publication:||Strategic Studies Quarterly|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2008|
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