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Thursday, December 29, 2011

book report: No Simple Victory by Norman Davies (2006)


I think Norman Davies has succeeded in his objective in this book, No Simple Victory, with this reader to show in this World War 2 tome that the western theater was a side show to the main theater in the USSR. Regarding Belarus and the western Ukraine he writes,
They saw both the most intense warfare and the worst civilian horrors: the deportations, the Soviet and German occupations, the scourging of the Lebensraum and the Holocaust...They provided the ground over which the war's two biggest campaigns - Barbarossa and Bagration - were fought. It is no accident that Belarus lost a higher proportion of its civilian population than any other country in Europe, and that the Ukraine loast the highest absolute number. The history of these countries deserves to be better publicized. p. 20
Germany invaded the Ukraine years after Stalin committed genocide against that country with his induced famine there (my blog about that here). Germany also invaded after Stalin's great purge, when he had rid the army of most of its officers with arbitrary charges and accusations resulting in execution for most. Yet Russia had vast distances, many bodies, lots of factories and raw materials, and an insane dictator who had no regard for other human beings and made sure no other leader below him did either. The Western fighting only accounted for less than 25% of German army casualties (p. 25). With Bagration and Barbarossa campaigns resulting in two million deaths between them and the fabled Battle of the Bulge causing 38,000 deaths, it's not hard to imagine the logarithmic difference between the fronts.

Davies suggests that the Nazi's undoing in the East was partly due to their racist commitments. Ukraine, especially, had no love lost for the USSR, when the Wermacht overran them, but instead of enlisting their willing aid, they imprisoned and killed them because of their Slavic, instead of Aryan, category, making them sub-human in Hitler'swarped view. On the other hand, he thinks Stalin's insanity helped the USSR. He writes of the USSR,
No society has ever been subjected to such traumatic self-immolation. And one wonders what effect Stalin's mass murders might have had on the Soviet Union's ability to fight the war that was coming. One suspects that a foreign war, against a genuine enemy, came as a great psychological relief. It can be no accident that the Red Army would produce both the greatest number of dersters and the greatest number of men who threw themselves into certain death with cheers on their lips. p.50
He also reminds us that the political army kept the terror levels high in their ranks, even executing soldiers who expressed doubt too loudly. Similarly, all liberated prisoners of war were treated as traitors who were either sent to the gulags (see my earlier book report on them) or executed.

My knowledge of the the invasion of Poland is so limited. I assumed it was easy, but Davies writes, "The result was not the hopeless walkover that is often portrayed. Indeed, the Poles performed rather better than the British and the French were to do when Hitler turned west in the following year." p.77 Poland had a very competent army and the French, their professed ally had an army bigger than Germany's, but the Poles were asked by their allies to not mobilize their forces in order to not provoke Hitler. Yet they rallied and were able to held onto Warsaw for two weeks, then the Soviets invaded from the East and the odds, without help promised within 15 days by England and France, plummeted but they held on for 3 more weeks before admitting defeat. Their escaped units fought equally well in the West with the Allies in Africa, Italy, and France later on.

In the liturgical calendar of Christendom, Herod's slaughter of the innocents (Matthew 2:13-23) is remembered on December 29th. Regarding World War 2 Davies writes, "And no one is more innocent that children. Here lies the deepest 'pity of war". The conflict of 1939-45 destroyed not thousands but millions of children: innocents systematically starved; innocents incinerated by firestorm attack; innocents packed into cattle wagons; innocents gassed in the death camps. The story must be told and retold. For, as time passes, historical reality is harder and harder to believe." p.424 How such horror can happen may not be easily accepted, but our humanity is so broken, capable of great sacrificial love in the image of our maker and such demonic depravity in the same vessel.

I keep reading history of the most tragic proportions over my Christmas break every year. But the Christmas story is also full of tragedy amidst victory, just like the Easter story. Eventually, righteousness prevails, because God, the standard of righteousness, can't be defeated and the battle depends on Him and not on such weak vessels. Thank God.
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Saturday, December 17, 2011

book report: D-Day: The Battle for Normandy by Beevor (2010)

Anthony Beevor has given us WW2 history geeks another well-researched gift in Cover of Cover of D-Day: The Battle for NormandyD-Day: The Battle for Normandy. A few years ago, before I started writing these book reports I had read his tome, Stalingrad: The Fateful Seige, which was a tremendous read. Beevor has no kind words for the British General Bernard Montgomery. He is embarrassed with Monty's lack of initiative and decisiveness. He is frustrated with the fear of the landing craft captains who released their tanks and men too far from the shore in the rough surf resulting in unnecessary losses and deaths. He admires the American generals and respectful of the German generals who tried repeatedly to make Hitler's fantasy battle plans come true, despite their better judgment. The German army was the better army on the ground in Normandy. They had better weaponry, better soldiers, and better tactics but the Allies had more. They had more men, more bullets, more tanks, and more support by the locals. The German army used conscripts from France and Poland and Russia and many other occupied countries who turned on their German impressors when given the opportunity. The locals would deny having any food to give to retreating Germans, but suddenly find plenty when the overrunning Allies came through. This resulted in a reprisal from SS troops in France, who returned to the farmhouse and killed the women who had not helped them.

Beevor does an excellent job of capturing the sights and smells in addition to the strategies and politicking. He is able to zoom in on one grunt's ground fight and then zoom out to the arguments among the politicians. I'm intrigued by Churchill's resistance to this invasion. Churchill preferred a continued upthrust North from Italy instead of an attack from the West into Berlin. Churchill presciently feared the consequences of Communist Russian troops occupying eastern Europe as they drove the Nazis back, but Roosevelt, foolishly, did not distrust Stalin.

This is the first book I've read on my Kindle from my local library, woot. My only complaints are that I was unable to zoom into the maps, I love map reading, and I was unable to find the pictures in the printed book.
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Wednesday, December 07, 2011

enough with the Flat Earth myth

This comes up so much, especially by people with an axe to grind against conservative Christianity, that I needed a link to permanently come back to, so I will point to the "Christianist" site, Wikipedia, Myth of the Flat Earth - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia . I appreciate the quote from the most belligerent "Christianist" Stephen J. Gould, "there never was a period of 'flat earth darkness' among scholars (regardless of how the public at large may have conceptualized our planet both then and now). Greek knowledge of sphericity never faded, and all major medieval scholars accepted the earth's roundness as an established fact of cosmology."

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Tuesday, December 06, 2011

book report: December 1941 by Shirley (2011)

Some people turn to fiction for a light literary snack, but my weakness is war history. and this book was just right for my sweet tooth. But this book is distinct from most of the other histories I read. Author Craig Shirley gives his readers the milieu of an historical event, in this book, the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7th. For me anyway, it was fascinating to learn that the newspapers were still printing Hollywood gossip in addition to reporting on the battles raging around the world.

The book is organized simply, by each day of the month of December. Shirley brilliantly weaves the trivial and mundane with the politics and the sacrifices of soldiers and citizens alike. He provides sufficient background to the events on each day. The book ends before the war resolves, yet sets up all the obstacles and fear inducing losses in the Pacific. If one is unfamiliar with the 2nd World War, this book's focus on one month is a great foundation for understanding the Pacific Theater, and leaves one wondering how were the Allies able to turn back the unstoppable Japanese and Germans. It's one victory after another for the Axis in December 1941. Even for someone familiar with the history, like myself, it made me want to revisit the history, so I got two more books out of the library, one on D-Day and one on the battle of the Atlantic against the German U-boats.

Many thanks to Booksneeze for this complimentary review copy.

an addendum: I found the examples of FDR's very socialist policies enlightening to today's debates. Shirley did not criticize these policies, but simply presented them, their background, and the ends they served. Shirley later claims that WW2 created the American middle class, a topic very much in today's discussions.
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