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Book Review: Eastern Inferno

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  • Book Review: Eastern Inferno

    A diary from a Wehrmacht soldier participating in the invasion of the Soviet Union is an extremely rare find, especially one this forthcoming. Hans Roth's notes, commentary, descriptions, and candid portray of the fighting on the Eastern Front are a necessity for those interested in the clash between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Most importantly, as pointed out by the editors, the grandson and granddaughter of the author, this diary was written by Roth as the events he described were unfolding, not years or decades after-the-fact. Thus, what we have before us is a depiction of the author's thoughts with little if any self-censorship. The editorial notes, evident throughout the text, on the other hand, are a mixed bag. At times they are helpful but there is also evidence of the editors’ naiveté when it comes to the Eastern Front, i.e. assigning Soviet victory outside Moscow in 1941/42 to 'General Winter' and 'Siberian' divisions. Furthermore, there are quite a few editing mistakes throughout the text. Not enough to take away from the reading, but enough to be noticed on a more or less regular basis.

    While what Roth sees is limited to his field of vision, there is still some validity in knowing his train of thought at any given moment. For instance, before the invasion of the Soviet Union I was surprised to read that on June 15, 1941, Roth posits that "Russian scouts were on our side of the river [Bug] last night..." (23) Having read on the Eastern Front for over a decade, I have yet to encounter any discussion of Soviet scout missions behind German lines before June 22nd, especially considering the fact that Stalin and the Soviet high command regularly had orders going out that no provocation(s) should be made against German forces. On June 17 the author writes "I now know the date of the attack" (24). This is interesting to note as it shows until what day the exact date of the invasion was, at the very least, kept from soldiers. As the date of the invasion approaches the author is excited that "The greatest battle of all times will start the day after tomorrow!" (25) It then takes three months of fighting for the author to exclaim, "When will this horrible war find its end..." (110) A statement made not in the midst of battle, but during a time of self-reflection after the Kiev encirclement is over.

    Roth also exhibits evidence of the racist mentality that so many in the Wehrmacht undoubtedly entered the Soviet Union with. Trying to figure out how Soviet forces made it into Lutsk to attack his unit (after the town and its environs had been already captured by the Germans), he calls Red Army soldiers "sub-humans", "Caucasian monsters", "Asian tundra scum", and an "Asian mob" who "is sly and cunning" (31, 53, 131, 133, 161). Additionally, upon seeing some of the first casualties of the invasion, a young woman and two small children, during the first day of war, he exclaims "How wonder it is that we are able to exterminate these murderous beats. How good it is that we have pre-empted them; for in the coming weeks these bloodhounds might have been standing on German soil" (27). Here we also see the idea that the war was a pre-emptive one was very much part of the reasoning at least some soldiers used for the invasion of the Soviet Union. In general Roth displays a wide variety of attitudes toward his Red Army counterparts, many of which can be found in a variety of German memoirs (from soldiers to generals/field marshals). He discusses the precision with which Soviet soldiers are shooting at his unit, which "could have only been learned through intensive training" (67), and labels Red Army soldiers "...a dull, indifferent, soulless machine of destruction and death" who are "masters" "at digging themselves in" (51, 58).

    There is also evidence that while the German invasion was a surprise, the Soviets, be they border guards or Red Army soldiers, did put up fierce resistance where they could. The entry for June 22nd also discusses how German soldiers were "...pressed hard by enemy tanks" and had to retreat with "many casualties" (27). A similar incident occurs on July 10 when an entire German infantry regiment takes "enormous...casualties" and has to retreat to its starting positions (49). (The same day a portion of the regiment is encircled by the Red Army.) On June 24, while clearing out a Soviet village, the author notes "the number of our own casualties is...high" and discusses how one house after another "must be cleansed with hand grenades" as "Fanatics fire at us until the roofs collapse over their heads and they are buried under the rubble" (28-29). Already, three days after the war begins, there is evidence of Soviet activities behind German lines as the author notes the small battles to the rear of the front and convoys being attacked by enemy forces. On June 25 Roth writes he is already "spiritually and physically totally exhausted!" (30) And as early as July 13, the author writes "We have almost reached the end of our fighting strength" (56). Interestingly, there are numerous mentions made about the Soviet air force, both bombers and fighters, harassing Roth's unit. Usually, Soviet accounts are filled with a longing for the air force to do something, simply be present. Perhaps the fact that the author is describing actions occurring in the sector of Army Group South, opposite of which were some of the larger Soviet concentrations, might explain the regular presence of the Soviet air force during the first few days of the war.

    More than once the author mentions the precarious position he and his division find themselves in. It is hard to know for sure if the author's observations are accurate, but if they are then German actions need to be analyzed more thoroughly throughout the entirety of 1941. On July 9, the author claims his division has advanced so far that it will take at least an entire day for reinforcements to catch up, meanwhile the entirety of the Soviet 5th Army is standing opposite a lone German division. Roth begins to question the Soviets, "Are the Russians going to miss their big chance once again? Don't they know that their opponents are nothing more than small combat forces?" (48) The next day the author thanks the presence of heavy artillery for protecting his unit's flanks, otherwise "...the Russians would have rolled over our entire front line from the flanks" (49).

    The battle sequences described are not always full of the detail that some will be looking for. That is understandable since in the midst of battle few can remember the exact details of what transpired as they are fighting for their lives. Time might either slow down during prolonged artillery exchanges, or an hour long battle might be over in the blink of an eye. Both are present in Roth's diaries; especially interesting accounts are offered in the fighting for Kiev, the immense pressure the Germans are put under by both the Soviet Air Force and continuous artillery fire. Some of the stories representative of the Red Army and partisans are hearsay while others are more believable, although some context is undoubtedly missing. For instance, the author recounts how two Red Army soldiers, the last of a 'wave' attempting to reach their target (a bridge), retreat and are mowed down by their own side. While order 227 during Stalingrad created 'blocking detachments' from NKVD troops, Red Army forces themselves were creating blocking detachments during the summer of 1941 from 'reliable' soldiers with orders that unauthorized retreats should be stopped. Keeping that in mind, this episode is quite believable.

    June 26 becomes witness to the first war crime described by Roth. The initial entry of German troops into the city of Lutsk presented them with a gruesome sight, prisoners massacred by retreating NKVD troops. Roth then describes how "comrades" pulled out hiding Red Army soldiers and Jews from their hiding places and executed them (31). More interesting is the fact that Roth knew what was going on in the rear areas with Jews. During his stay in Kiev, when the executions of Babi Yar were taking place, he has an exchange with "a young SS soldiers [sic]" of the "kill commando", who tells the author of how "they 'freed' all the larger cities which were touched by our advance of the Jewish population" (111). What follows are the well known descriptions of mass executions that took place in Zhitomir. But the author admits he was "astonished" to learn about these activities taking place in the rear; he writes that "we soldiers in the first attack wave have never thought about the stuff that happens behind us in the cities we leave..."

    Roth's recounting of the logistical problems his unit and the German army in general experience from the mud and cold are enlightening. Usually, it is taken as a given that the rainy weather of October held up German forces by disabling their mobility. But Roth also provides evidence that while in some areas of the front the roads became frozen by intermittent periods of frost, areas to the rear were still suffering from muddy roads. Thus, while German forces at the front might have been ready to advance, their logistical difficulties, a result of countless trucks stuck in the mud, made it impossible to advance until the winter more or less began on November 15. And on that day the author writes: "It is finally here; the ground is frozen solid. We can start" (123).

    The last journal is the least detailed of the three in terms of dates (it covers June 1942-May 1943). Some of the entries are listed either under months or locations (unlike in the first two journals, where entries are listed under specific dates). There is a lot of self-reflection about the war, rear-area troops and the disdain frontline soldiers have for them, and the countless actions the author finds himself in with the enemy on a day-to-day basis. His exhaustion, and that of his comrades, is readily evident on every page, at times in every paragraph.

    For those interested in aspects of combat on the Eastern Front (especially detailed scenes are depicted of the fighting for Kiev in 1941, Voronezh in 1942, and Orel in early 1943), the ‘holocaust by bullets’ that was perpetrated in the east, and the ‘daily life’ of soldiers and civilians (men and women on both counts), this is a must read.
    "This isn't Paris, you will not get through here with a Marching Parade!" Defenders of Stalingrad
    "Man is the only animal that deals in that atrocity of atrocities, War. He is the only one that gathers his brethren about him and goes forth in cold blood and calm pulse to exterminate his kind. He is the only animal that for sordid wages will march out... and help to slaughter strangers of his own species who have done him no harm and with whom he has no quarrel.... And in the intervals between campaigns he washes the blood off his hands and works for "the universal brotherhood of man" - with his mouth". Mark Twain
    "It is forbidden to kill; therefore all murderers are punished unless they kill in large numbers and to the sound of trumpets.” Voltaire

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