Last week I introduced the subject of the Romanian Army in World War II, and the key role it played in the fighting on the Eastern Front. My intention was not to praise or condemn the Romanian Army–simply to point out its importance. No one will ever be able to call it the best army out there. Its equipment was outmoded, and its training standards were nowhere near Great Power status. Nevertheless, the Romanians held huge sectors of the front for most of the war, and as Germany’s largest ally in the East, they contributed an important share of Axis manpower. There can be no comprehensive history of Barbarossa–its battles, its campaigns, even its atrocities–without paying some close attention to the Romanians. Unfortunately, history has all but written them out of the story. In fact, the Romanians often seem to get scapegoated for the defeat, with the collapse of their armies on the flanks of the Stalingrad position being exhibit A. It is a ridiculous notion, unless you’re an author with an ax to grind.
And that is the key point. The historical reputation of the Romanian Army in World War II has been fixed, apparently forever, by a handful of references in the German memoirs, especially those of Field Marshal Erich von Manstein, Lost Victories. It is a book that sits on the shelf of every Eastern front scholar or buff. I plead guilty to owning a copy myself, a particularly well thumbed one, at that. Like all the other German memoirs, however (Guderian’s Panzer Leader comes immediately to mind), this one has historical holes big enough to accommodate a King Tiger. Manstein gives us the Romanians as primitive drones who had difficulty thinking for themselves and who lived in constant fear of the Russians. “In difficult situations,” he writes, “this was liable to end in a panic.” But to be fair, foot soldiers lacking heavy weapons and antitank guns have every reason in the world to panic under a tank attack. Likewise, Manstein mentions the practice of disciplinary flogging. Sure, that’s a bad idea. But remember, his Wehrmacht dealt with its disciplinary problems by executing its own soldiers wholesale. He does admit that the Romanians did their duty “as best they could,” but only when they “submitted to German military leadership.” Meaning his own, of course.
Lost Victories is still a crucial account of the war, and so are the other memoirs. On operational matters–deployment and maneuver of divisions, corps, and armies–they are as good a source as you can find. But Manstein has an agenda, actually several of them: defending his generalship and reputation, hiding his participation in war crimes, and blaming others for everything that went wrong.
Lost Victories should come with a warning label: Use with Caution.
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