OSTKRIEG: HITLER’S WAR OF EXTERMINATION IN THE EAST
By Stephen G. Fritz
University Press of Kentucky, $39.95, 664 pages
Accounts of World War II - including some published under auspices of the U.S. Army - have tended to portray officers of the Wehrmacht (the German army) as “professionally competent, technically proficient, and above all, clean.” As Stephen Fritz writes, the general theme of many books held that “not only had the army suffered from Hitler’s megalomania, constant interference, and poor strategic and operational judgments … its leaders had neither known of nor condoned the massive crimes committed against the Soviet civilian population, especially the Jews.”
In “Ostkrieg,” Mr. Fritz convincingly argues the opposite was true. The Wehrmacht, he documents, played a key role in furthering Nazi criminality, especially in the Soviet Union. He writes, “Hitler did not blunder into the war in the east [ostkrieg, in German]. For him the ‘right’ war was always that against the Soviet Union, for to him Germany’s destiny depended on attaining Lebensraum [living space] and solving the ‘Jewish question.’ Both of these, in turn, hinged on destroying the Soviet Union.”
Mr. Fritz indicts the German military in strong terms for its complicity in murder. Military commanders urged their troops, “in ideologically charged, anti-Semitic proclamations, to wage war on National Socialist lines and discard notions of humane treatment of the enemy.” The army “fully cooperated” with the mobile death units, the Einsatzgruppen, “as they carried out their bloody tasks, offering logistic, intelligence and communications support, as well as occasionally furnishing manpower for executions.”
Be forewarned, Mr. Fritz has produced one of the grisliest war books I’ve encountered in five decades of reading them. One reads Hitler’s “war plans” and wonders why his high command did not “man up,” to use current slang, and call a halt to his madness. The reason, Mr. Fritz makes clear, through quotes from documents and conversations, is that the Wehrmacht agreed with him: The Russians - namely, the Jews - had to be destroyed. He makes his case through research detailed in 45 pages of notes and another 52 for the bibliography. Mr. Fritz is professor of history at East Tennessee State University.
Hitler’s easy victory over Poland as a prelude to his strike on the USSR gave him false confidence. But his war machine was hollow and in desperate need of refitting before going into battle again. Half of his front-line troops were older than 40. Motor vehicles were in such short supply that ranking generals suggested a “demotorization program” with horses replacing tanks. One military expert in the autumn of 1939 likened the Wehrmacht to a “lance whose point consisted of hard steel but [whose] wooden shaft looked … ever more brittle.”
In common with most wars, the ground soldiers doing the actual fighting paid for blunders at the top: “roughly eight of every ten German soldiers who died were killed in the east; from June 1941, in no single month of the war did more Germans die in the west than in the east.”
If the magnitude of these losses bothered Hitler, he did not show it. He made a telling remark to the Danish foreign minister: “If the German people are no longer strong enough and ready enough to sacrifice their own blood for their existence, they should perish.” (German military deaths totaled 4,179,290, less than half the 10,008,434 Soviets who died).
Incredibly, even as the Red Army began to throw back the Wehrmacht, Hitler still concentrated on slaughtering Jews. Rather than supplying his besieged army with weapons, trains were commandeered to transport Jews to death camps in Poland.
Mankind is fortunate that the clock ran out on Hitler before his minions could carry out a massive program of “population dispersal” wherein Jews and unwanted Soviet prisoners would be transported beyond the Urals and starved to death. Food-importing areas of the USSR would “die off.” Under this scheme, “Nazi bureaucrats estimated that anywhere from 30 to 40 million inhabitants of the Soviet Union would have perished, with some believing even these figures too low by half.”
Of all the hundreds of books on the Russian campaign, Mr. Fritz’s is the first I have seen that demonstrates the nexus between mass murder and military operations.
Joseph C. Goulden’s expanded edition of “Spy-Speak: The Dictionary of Intelligence” will be published by Dover Books in January.