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Review: Total War by Michael Jones

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  • Review: Total War by Michael Jones

    It's quite rare these days that a book on the Eastern Front will surprise me once, almost never more often than that. Having read on this war for over a decade I thought I knew the majority of what went on and what one could expect to find on a book entitled 'Total War'. With this work, however, Jones has built on what he's done previously and in many ways this might be his best work to date, easily rivaling his first foray into the Eastern Front with 'Stalingrad'.

    As with his previous volumes, Jones tells the story of the Eastern Front through the voices of the soldiers, commanders, and civilians who participated in it, willingly or unwillingly from both the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. Woven through the accounts he presents is the regular question of how Red Army soldiers and the civilian population of the Soviet Union kept up enough morale to endure the chaos and defeats of 1941, the demoralizing situation around the siege of Leningrad, and the battle for Stalingrad in 1942. Thus, 'Total War' begins with the initial situation around 1941 and moves through battles for Leningrad and Stalingrad, onto the eventual Soviet defeat of the German sixth Army and continues through their victories at Kursk, Bagration, etc., all the way to Berlin.

    The question here is less about military prowess, tactical, operational, or strategic decisions (although various details of individual operations are discussed and contextualized) but revolves around what the Red Army and civilian population endured, witnessed, and remembered up until their entrance into East Prussia and Germany proper. Jones sets the stage for the infamous events of the Red Army's 'liberation' (a contested term to say the least) of Eastern Europe and Germany. The initial chapters dealing with 1941 and Stalingrad are readily covered in Jones's other books on the Eastern Front so they presented little new in the greater scheme of the Eastern Front. It is only when we get to 1944 and the German scorched earth policy as they retreated before the Red Army that events and information I had never heard of before first began to appear. As the Germans withdrew from Belorussia they ran up against large swamp areas, on these territories they began to herd the local population, encased them in barbed wire, and trucked in typhus patients. They dumped them all in one of these 'camps', let them lay on muddy ground and allowed hundreds of cases of typhus to break out so that they might be passed on to the liberating troops of the Red Army. According to the commander of the 65th Army, whose soldiers were at times unable to control themselves as they ran to liberate these locals, an entire corps had to be quarantined because typhus ran rampantly through Red Army units as they tried their best to liberate these hastily established camps. Luckily the spread of the disease was readily contained and presented limited problems for the Red Army advance.

    The Red Army's crossing over into Germany proper brings much debate and controversy. What Jones attempts to do, and in truth does very well, is contextualize what Red Army soldiers perpetrated on German territory. In showcasing what Red Army soldiers witnessed on their way to Germany, the enormous amount of death and destruction they came through during the liberation of Ukraine and Belorussia, the liberation of camps like Majdanek and Auschwitz (both of which are discussed by Jones in this book), as well as the regular propaganda campaign waged by the Soviet Union in order to keep up Red Army morale and encourage them to 'kill' the occupiers of their territory and the murderers of their families and friends, there is reason to suspect that such bent up anger and hatred would have an outlet once the German border was crossed. And this is exactly what happened. But Jones also gives voice to those soldiers who attempted to curb the violence, looting, raping, and murder that was going on. He continually implies that this was a minority within the Red Army that contributed to the 'total war' mentality of the time and shows orders coming from the high command and army command that attempted to curb any type of violence and looting against the local population, changing the propaganda of the time from 'destroy the fascist beast in his lair' to a voice claiming the Red Army is an army of liberation. There are some heartwrenching stories presented of Red Army soldiers taking out their hatred on the German population, all too often women, but in each case Jones attempts to contextualize the atmosphere these events occurred in and the reaction of Red Army soldiers to these events, which after the initial euphoria of revenge passed quickly into condemnation, contempt and a questioning of their methods. Many soldiers even attempted to protect the local population, forgetting or at least putting aside the propaganda they had been exposed to for years.

    A minor weakness in these chapters is the fact that Jones mentions little of the fact that the Red Army at this point was operating with allies, like two Polish armies, who at times had more reason to hate Germans than Soviet troops, who can account or separate for crimes they perpetrated? Additionally, Jones takes the time to show how the Germans themselves exaggerated Red Army atrocities on their soil. Goebbels created something called 'atrocity propaganda' that exaggerated everything 'in order to strengthen the deterrent effect and the German people's will to hold out' (224). More so, at times the Germans themselves were given orders to destroy a village or town while the population was expelled, only to then have German film crews and journalists bussed in to "survey the ruins and to record the imagined ravages of Soviet soldiers...The swans in the town park were shot, and it was then announced that the 'Asiatic hordes' had killed and eaten them' (225).

    As I reached the end of the book I found myself speechless. The epilogue Jones includes is a mere five pages, and the last page simply found me questioning myself and my knowledge of the Great Patriotic War/Second World War as well as the costs that the Soviet population had to bear. I don't want to give anything away but Jones shows once more that we continue to merely scratch the surface of the Eastern Front and there is still so much left to learn and understand in this encounter between Germany and the Soviet Union.

    A few minor mistakes are evident, Soviet units should be listed as 'rifle' but in various instances they are described as 'infantry brigade' or 'infantry corps' rather than rifle or if this was a naval unit it should have been 'naval infantry' rather than just 'infantry'. There is also a mention of a fortieth 'tank army', but only six existed and they were named first through sixth. Additionally, the Soviet commander Chernyakhovsky is misspelled as 'Chernyakovsky'. Lastly, I have to say that the notation system in this book leaves much to be desired. While Jones lists his sources there are no endnotes/foodnotes in the traditional sense and at times it makes for a very hard time when attempting to locate the source of a specific comment/description/event.

    Putting aside these minor errors, there is no question that Jones has created a highly important addition to Eastern Front literature. He is one of the few authors who attempts to contextualize Red Army action on German territory by putting the motivation of the Soviet soldier in a context that showcases that while some might have taken vengeance to an extreme, many others managed to control themselves and at times showed their altruistic side by protecting the local population and providing them with basic necessities. Jones continually emphasizes that it was a minority of the Red army that committed crimes on enemy soil, while the majority managed to preserve their reputation and the title of 'liberators'.
    "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

  • #2
    Thank you, Kunikov - a very good review for what looks like a highly interesting book. One of my colleagues told me she took Michael Jones on a tour around Leningrad, along the Road of Life and to the battlefield sites, and he personally spoke to the veterans and recorded their memoirs. His personal example is a big fat middle finger in the face of those Red Army detractors who use the excuse of "Russia's so secretive and hard to get in, you can't access the documents, nothing's published in English, blah blah blah" in order to spread their lies and stereotypes.
    www.histours.ru

    Siege of Leningrad battlefield tour

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    • #3
      Originally posted by ShAA View Post
      Thank you, Kunikov - a very good review for what looks like a highly interesting book. One of my colleagues told me she took Michael Jones on a tour around Leningrad, along the Road of Life and to the battlefield sites, and he personally spoke to the veterans and recorded their memoirs. His personal example is a big fat middle finger in the face of those Red Army detractors who use the excuse of "Russia's so secretive and hard to get in, you can't access the documents, nothing's published in English, blah blah blah" in order to spread their lies and stereotypes.
      Well, Jones doesn't work with many archives in Russia, as far as I know. His brand of history relies on the participants of these events to tell their stories in their own words while he adds context to the events they describe and positions them in the greater narrative of the Eastern Front. It's a great addition to our knowledge in many ways, but I'm sure that opening up archives would enhance our understanding of this war as well.
      "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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      • #4
        His book "The Retreat" discussing the Battle of Moscow is also very good.

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        • #5
          Excellent, a must read I'll put on my list.

          Comment


          • #6
            Originally posted by Kunikov View Post
            Well, Jones doesn't work with many archives in Russia, as far as I know. His brand of history relies on the participants of these events to tell their stories in their own words while he adds context to the events they describe and positions them in the greater narrative of the Eastern Front. It's a great addition to our knowledge in many ways, but I'm sure that opening up archives would enhance our understanding of this war as well.
            I believe that personal accounts is something sorely missed in the West now and although purely academic treatment of the subject in Glantz's style is surely necessary and very important, it is the voice of a common Soviet soldier which still remains unheard in the West.

            The whole situation with the research on the Eastern Front is absurdly abnormal. It's like as if there were hundreds of books and films about 9/11 from the Al-Quaeda perspective while the heroic firefighters and policemen would only be known as a bunch of faceless men just doing their job.
            www.histours.ru

            Siege of Leningrad battlefield tour

            Comment


            • #7
              Originally posted by ShAA View Post
              it is the voice of a common Soviet soldier which still remains unheard in the West.
              I think you are wrong about this. "Ivan's War" by Catherine Merridale is one book that was recently published that gives a voice to common soviet soldier.

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              • #8
                Originally posted by AdrianE View Post
                I think you are wrong about this. "Ivan's War" by Catherine Merridale is one book that was recently published that gives a voice to common soviet soldier.
                Merridale's work, while definitely an addition to literature on the Eastern Front, was in many ways lacking.
                "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

                Comment


                • #9
                  Originally posted by ShAA View Post
                  I believe that personal accounts is something sorely missed in the West now and although purely academic treatment of the subject in Glantz's style is surely necessary and very important, it is the voice of a common Soviet soldier which still remains unheard in the West.
                  That's very true. Unfortunately, where before Stuart Britton was regularly churning out memoirs from the Eastern Front, he's now moved on to general histories of battles and more 'academic' studies with no one to pick up the slack.
                  "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

                  Comment


                  • #10
                    Originally posted by ShAA View Post
                    I believe that personal accounts is something sorely missed in the West now and although purely academic treatment of the subject in Glantz's style is surely necessary and very important, it is the voice of a common Soviet soldier which still remains unheard in the West.
                    I think, though, it is easy to underestimate how much is available in the west, specifically in English. Starting with Loza's "Fighting for the Soviet Motherland", just in the past 10 years or so we've gotten Abdulin's "Red Road from Stalingrad", Bessonov's "Tank Rider", Drabkin's "T-34 in Action", Krysov's "Panzer Destroyer", Litvin's "800 Days on the Eastern Front", Mikhin's "Guns Against the Reich", Tomkin's "My Just War", just to list what's on the bookcase next to my computer - all books of first person Red Army accounts of the war as they saw it.
                    It isn't enough, by any means, but it's an order of magnitude better than it was back before 1991, when the only 'Soviet memoir' material was from general officers and a few propaganda pieces published during the war. I remember a book supposedly by a KV tank driver called "The White Mammoths" I found in a University library back in the 1960s that was literally the only book I found in 25 years that was written from the point of view of the common Red Army soldier.
                    We need a lot more, but we also need histories that incorporate the eye-witness accounts from both sides, AND the archive documentation now available from both sides to 'cut through the fog' that has settled over too many accounts of the fighting in Russia. The translation of Zamulin's book on Prokhorovka, just published in English, is a good example of some of what is needed: exacting research in both Russian and German archives plus personal accounts (not enough of the latter, I think, but his purpose was to expose the archival truth that had been buried for too long, so I can understand his focusing on that).
                    It can and should be done, and not just for the major battles. Jack Radey and I have just finished the manuscript for an account of the fighting around Kalinin (Tver') in October 1941. It started out to be a short essay on what we thought was part of the Battle of Moscow. It ended up book-length, because we found that the entire battle was not, in fact, part of the Battle of Moscow, but the start of a whole new German offensive that was smashed by the new Kalinin Front so fast that it has disappeared from the history books. In passing, we also discovered that just about every 'popular' account of the battle was wholly or partially wrong - both in German and Soviet literature. We found all that by sifting through the German War Diaries of the units, unit histories written by members of the divisions, the Combat Summaries, Journals, and orders and directives from the Kalinin Front, Vatutin Operational Group and the Soviet armies involved, and personal accounts from a host of Soviet participants from private soldier to bomber pilot, and accounts from German participants.
                    I'm not saying we've written a masterpiece, but I think we've done the MINIMUM that is required for good historical research and writing about the War in the East for Western readers. Given that Glantz's second volume on Smolensk is due out this fall, and his final volume on Staingrad is due next year, I hope that we'll see some more 'even handed' research on the subject. Here in this Forum most of us have some idea of what is needed, but too often people don't even realize how ignorant they are on the subject.
                    When I read someone (n another forum) quoting Guderian's memoirs as an original and sole source for everything that happened in the summer of 1941 in the east, I want to weep. I also want to send him a copy of the von Bock diaries, the Halder diaries, the OKW War Diary, the Soviet Operational Summaries, the TERRA volumes of Soviet directives from all levels, and the war diaries of Guderian's own 24th, 46th and 47th Corps and tell him to do some research.
                    Problem is, he probably doesn't have either the research or language skills to access the data.
                    End of Rant. Point is, the state of the published matrial is far, far better than it was 10 - 20 years ago, and the availability of original material - personal accounts and archive data - is also far better than it ever was before. There's always more to do, but I am confident that it is and will be done.

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                    • #11
                      Originally posted by Sharposhnikov View Post
                      Here in this Forum most of us have some idea of what is needed, but too often people don't even realize how ignorant they are on the subject.
                      I would say in part many of us, who know more than our fair share, are still ignorant of all that is out there (granted, we'll never be exposed to everything, but I am comparing what I do know to what I should and can usually find gaps in my knowledge). Part of why I lauded Jones's work so much is because he's found something that in my opinion drastically changes what I knew/thought about the Eastern Front. I think that such discoveries will become the norm in the near future.

                      Originally posted by Sharposhnikov View Post
                      Point is, the state of the published matrial is far, far better than it was 10 - 20 years ago, and the availability of original material - personal accounts and archive data - is also far better than it ever was before. There's always more to do, but I am confident that it is and will be done.
                      And I think in 10-20 years we'll say the above as for today. There's much that's being done, but in all honesty, there are still too few people working on the Eastern Front. This is especially true when it comes to academia.

                      And when can we expect to see your book on the fighting around Kalinin?
                      "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

                      Comment


                      • #12
                        Originally posted by AdrianE View Post
                        I think you are wrong about this. "Ivan's War" by Catherine Merridale is one book that was recently published that gives a voice to common soviet soldier.
                        Originally posted by Sharposhnikov View Post
                        I think, though, it is easy to underestimate how much is available in the west, specifically in English. Starting with Loza's "Fighting for the Soviet Motherland", just in the past 10 years or so we've gotten Abdulin's "Red Road from Stalingrad", Bessonov's "Tank Rider", Drabkin's "T-34 in Action", Krysov's "Panzer Destroyer", Litvin's "800 Days on the Eastern Front", Mikhin's "Guns Against the Reich", Tomkin's "My Just War", just to list what's on the bookcase next to my computer - all books of first person Red Army accounts of the war as they saw it.
                        I'm aware of the fact these books have been translated and published, but I've just read quite a few comments on some other threads about the total unavailability of Soviet individual memoirs to even those who are interested in the subject, not speaking of them being part of the common WW2 knowledge. I'm sure the scholars can get them this way or another, yet the masses remain thoroughly uninformed.
                        www.histours.ru

                        Siege of Leningrad battlefield tour

                        Comment


                        • #13
                          Originally posted by ShAA View Post
                          I'm aware of the fact these books have been translated and published, but I've just read quite a few comments on some other threads about the total unavailability of Soviet individual memoirs to even those who are interested in the subject, not speaking of them being part of the common WW2 knowledge. I'm sure the scholars can get them this way or another, yet the masses remain thoroughly uninformed.
                          I'm well aware of the woeful lack of knowledge out there. I've lectured on the Red Army at various conventions of wargamers around the US for over 10 years, and never failed to have someone express surprise at the basic facts I presented about the Soviet military. I'm also a bookseller for Barnes & Noble, and every once in a while get to recommend one of the books I mentioned to a customer - who invariably has never heard of any of them. That just means we have to keep plugging away at it: the wall of ignorance does not fall by itself, but if you chip away at it long enough, some light gets through...

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