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Front & Center

Robert M. Citino takes a closer look at World War II's most riveting battles, leaders, weapons, and tactics in his blog, Front & Center.

Citino, a faculty member at the University of North Texas, is a military historian who specializes in the Second World War. His most recent books are Blitzkrieg to Desert Storm, The Death of the Wehrmacht, and The German Way of War.

Backhand Blow: Kharkov 1943
By Robert M. Citino

Thursday, March 22nd, 2012

Last time out, we left the Eastern Front in a state of high suspense. Soviet armies were ranging wide and deep, hurtling toward the Dnepr crossings. They were maneuvering in open space, a rare thing in modern war. Wherever you happened to fix your eye on this sprawling operational map, the Soviets could see dizzying opportunities and the Germans were contemplating disaster.

Well, not ALL the Germans. One of them saw an opening, and he happened to be the one man who mattered. Field Marshal Erich von Manstein was the commander of Army Group South, and if he brought anything to the table, it was an ability to spot operational opportunities. Sure, it's easy to criticize him today. His armies were knee-deep in heinous war crimes on the Eastern Front and he was politically blind, wedded to the naïve belief that somehow, someway he could win an operational victory on his front that would force the Soviets to accept a Remis-Frieden (a stalemate peace, borrowing a term from chess). It's easy to ask Manstein just what part of the phrase "unconditional surrender" he did not understand.

For all that, he had few if any peers in the conduct of military operations (Kriegführung, in German). While others in the high command were throwing up their hands, he had an idea: a Rochade (another term taken from chess, a "castling maneuver"). The armies on his far right in the Caucasus (4th Panzer and 1st Panzer) would shift rapidly to his left, then strike the Soviet offensive spearheads in their deep flank. Manstein had in mind a Schlag aus der Nachhand (a backhand blow), a strike that you launched once the enemy had committed himself and expended much of his strength.

And so it went. One moment, the Soviet commanders (General F. M. Kharitonov of 6th Army and General D. D. Lelyushenko of 1st Guards Army) were riding high, carrying out a form of "deep battle" that their training and doctrine emphasized—multiple echelons feeding forward along the same axis to smash their way into the enemy's rear areas. Then, on February 21st, General Hermann Hoth's 4th Panzer Army launched a vigorous counterattack. Two convergent thrusts—one from the south spearheaded by LVII Corps on the left and XXXXVIII Panzer Corps on the right, and one from the region of Poltava in the northwest by II SS Panzer Corps—caught the advancing Soviet armies strung out in road march, took them in front, flanks, and rear, and routed them. German casualties were minimal; Soviet casualties, by contrast, were practically total in terms of materiel and high enough in men. No wonder. Formation after formation was, quite literally, running out of fuel at the very moment of Manstein's counterattack. Over the course of the next few weeks, the Germans kept up the momentum, with II SS Panzer now reversing course and driving north, pounding forward, fighting its way into Kharkov, and clearing the city by 14 March—69 years to the very day that I am writing these words.

Look, let me lay my cards on the table. I am an operational guy. I grew up reading the popular histories, I've played the wargames, and after all these years, I'm still a buff on the Eastern Front. You have to give Manstein his due. Facing a series of nearly insurmountable crises, he had coolly taken stock, weighed his options, and then engineered a dramatic revival. Against all odds, he had restored the front—give or take—to where it had stood at the start of the 1942 campaign.

But I've grown up, and the time has come for a colder eye. An amazing achievement, yes. But in the process, Manstein had driven his army up to a long, meandering line along the Donets river, a position he would never be able to hold in the coming year. He knew it, the high command knew it, and together they would attempt the rather desperate expedient of the Kursk offensive in summer 1943—a mere four months hence—to do something about it. Bewegungskrieg, in other words, led the Wehrmacht not to triumph in early 1943, but to the abyss.

As for the Soviet commanders, they, too, had stayed in character. Even as their momentum began to lag, they had driven on and on, ignoring their losses and their increasingly perilous logistical situation, until they imploded. They literally recognized no limits. Their faith in deep battle made them dangerous to their enemies early on, but eventually proved disastrous.

And this, I think, is the lesson of the winter campaign in 1943. Far from serving as a display of individual or collective genius, it offers us the fascinating spectacle of two armies trapped, like helpless prey, in the talons of their own doctrine.
 

For the latest in military history from World War II's sister publications visit HistoryNet.com.

 

Deep Battle: The Drive to the Dnepr, Winter 1943
By Robert M. Citino

Thursday, March 8th, 2012

When last we left the Eastern Front, the Wehrmacht teetered on the brink of disaster. Well planned Soviet attacks had first encircled an entire German field army (the 6th, under the unfortunate General Friedrich Paulus) at Stalingrad, then systematically dismantled the Allied armies serving alongside the Germans: first the Romanians (hit in the initial offensive north and south of Stalingrad, code-named Operation Uranus); then the Italians defending up the Don (Operation Little Saturn); followed by the Hungarians upriver (the "Ostrogozshk-Rossosh operation"); Operation Gallop, targeting German forces on the Donets river and into the Donets basin (the Donbas) itself; and finally, Operation Star on the extreme Soviet right, tearing great gaps in the defensive front of the German 2nd Army.

All across the southern portion of the massive front, Soviet offensives were churning forward, reaching out ever farther to the west and south, seeking the German flank over the middle Donets river, and indeed, threatening the crucial crossing points over the mighty Dnepr river itself at Kremenchug, Dnepropetrovsk, and Zaporozhye. For the first time, the Soviets were going deep on the Wehrmacht, and the stakes were high. If the Soviet crossed the Dnepr, they would succeed in smashing Army Group South itself—an operational victory that might well have strategic consequences. Confidence was high in all levels of the Soviet command, and that confidence extended all the way up to Moscow.

As the Book of Proverbs tells us, however, "pride goeth before a fall." At the very moment that the Soviets were riding high, driving all before them and motoring into the clear, the wheels were already beginning to come off of their offensive. Each mile that their tank divisions "went deep" was another mile away from their own supply bases. Their mighty T-34s were wearing down, treads and transmissions above all; the lines of communication were no longer delivering replacements in a timely fashion; and even soldiers who were accustomed to pushing beyond their limits, as the men of the Red Army certainly were, were beginning to succumb to fatigue.

Of course, none of this would have mattered in the absence of an enemy. Unfortunately, the Soviet drive to the Dnepr had to contend with a German army that, no matter how battered and bruised, still retained some formidable operational skills: veteran tank crews who hung together even when losses had reduced their battalions to battle groups (Kampfgruppen); infantry who fought with the courage of desperate men a long way from home who still hoped to get there; and, above all, ruthless commanders trained to maneuver boldly on the operational level—i.e., in large formations like divisions, corps, and armies—in order to win battles even when they happened to be outnumbered.

Exhibit A in that last category was the new commander of Army Group South, Field Marshal Erich von Manstein. Despite the godawful situation maps laid out in front of him, he could still perceive some old truths. He had an enemy lunging forward at top speed, while his own formations were falling back on their supply bases over the Dnepr. At some point, the iron laws of war told him that the Soviets would begin to wane while his own strength would be waxing. All he had to do was predict the precise moment.

His biggest worry were the German formations still lying far to the east in the Caucasus region, the legacy of an exceedingly ill-fated campaign in late 1942. They needed to be recalled, and soon, but Manstein knew that he had to tread carefully there. Asking Adolf Hitler to issue retreat orders rarely ended well for anyone, he well knew. The situation was so dire this time, however, that even the Führer had to agree, and soon, 1st Panzer Army (General Eberhard von Mackensen) was scurrying back to the west as far as a bad road and network would permit.

What Manstein had in mind was nothing less than a Rochade, what a chess player would call a "castling" move. Mackensen's 1st Panzer Army and the 4th Panzer Army of General Hermann Hoth had, up until now, formed the extreme right wing of the German battle array. They now received orders to hurry clear over to the other side of the theater to form the German left. If they arrived in time, Manstein would deploy them facing north, a position from which they would have a clear shot at all those immense Soviet formations fighting deep battle and driving helter skelter towards the Don river crossings to the west.

It wasn't a sure thing. The German formations to the south were advancing over ground that was soggy from the early thaw, while the Soviet armies to the north were still motoring over good, hard frozen ground. Nothing about war is ever a sure thing, however, and this was about the only shot that Manstein had. If 1st and 4th Panzer Armies arrived in time, his plan just might work.

A big if.

More next week.

For the latest in military history from World War II's sister publications visit HistoryNet.com.

The Dangers of Going Deep: Where Do You Stop?
By Robert M. Citino

Tuesday, February 28th, 2012

Last time out, I made a plea to the readership: take the Red Army seriously. These guys were good. They weren't just a mindless horde, and they didn't just overrun their German adversary mindlessly. They were quite competently led, they planned their operations carefully, and they had a thoughtful war-fighting doctrine they called "deep battle." They beat the Wehrmacht for a lot of reasons, and their superior size was only one of them.

But before any of you decide to climb on that Red Army love train, let me also issue a series of caveats. Compared to other armies of the period, the Soviets were an inflexible instrument. They rarely reacted well when the situation changed, and they seemed not to care at all about their own casualties. Even deep battle, which we might identify as their greatest strength, needs careful parsing. Deep battle—the insertion of second and third echelons along the same axis of attack as the initial assault troops—sounds like a good idea. It's aggressive, it's relentless, it nails an enemy to the wall and doesn't let him maneuver, react, or recover. I'm not a general, but if I were, it's exactly how I'd like to see myself.

Click for larger image
Click for larger image
Let's be a little more critical, however. What if you were a commander in an army where "going deep" had become a guiding principle, a catchphrase, perhaps even an obsession? Let us imagine that you are a "Front" (army group) commander in the Red Army in mid-war. Let's say that you have just landed a heavy offensive blow. Your shock groups have managed to grind their way through a well-defended German position. Your tank armies are currently motoring in the clear. The Fascist enemy is off balance. You know as well as anyone that the high command (read Stalin, the Vozhd, or "boss") has high hopes for your offensive, and you don't want to be the one to radio bad news back to the boss. That's never a good idea.

A simple question : where would you stop? Just when do you send your message? Perhaps something along the lines of, "Troops exhausted. Mobile formations badly in need of rest and refit. Supply columns lagging. Forward troops halting." Oh sure, it all makes perfect sense to us after the fact. Military historians are always to identify precisely when an offensive should stop.

But you're not a military historian. You're a Soviet Front commander. Sure, you've read the history and the military theory. As a Soviet commander, you are well schooled in it. The great theorist Clausewitz called it the "culmination point" (Kulminationspunkt), the moment at which all offensives wind down, lose their momentum, and need to be halted, lest they are vulnerable to an enemy counterstroke.

Then again, you're not a history professor. You're not Clausewitz. You are a high-ranking commander serving in an army with a ruthless institutional culture, an army that has a professed faith in something called deep battle. So you think very carefully about calling a halt to an offensive while you are still driving forward. After all, your decision might be "misunderstood" at higher echelons. Lack of will. Lack of faith. Lack of loyalty. And none of those are good in the 1940's Soviet Union–especially lack of loyalty.

This was the precise situation facing some very good Soviet commanders in early 1943. They had all just landed what we might call a Big Hurt on the Wehrmacht. In November 1942, Operaton Uranus had slammed through the weak Romanian armies north and south of Stalingrad, linking up at Kalach on the Don and encircling the unfortunate German 6th Army. Most western histories trail off at this point, employing the simplistic notion of a "turning point" in the war and focusing on the plight of the encircled Germans until their surrender in early 1943.

Action aplenty continued on the front, however. The Soviets followed Uranus with one great offensive operation after another: Operation Little Saturn, crushing the Italian 8th Army; the "Ostrogozshk-Rossosh operation," targeting the Hungarian 2nd Army; Operation Gallop against German forces on the Donets river and into the Donets basin (the Donbas) itself; and finally, Operation Star on the extreme right in the southern theater, smashing into German 2nd Army with great force. All across the front, Soviet mechanized forces were driving forward against minimal opposition. Opposition was sporadic. The sense of holding the initiative, that intoxicating feeling of success, was palpable.

Were the Germans finished? As a Soviet Front commander, you were actually asking yourself that question.

And then another one. Am I being overconfident? Is it time to stop?

More next time.

For the latest in military history from World War II's sister publications visit HistoryNet.com.

 

Going Deep: The Red Army in World War II
By Robert M. Citino

Thursday, February 16th, 2012

Yesterday in my 20th Century Warfare course I was taking my students through the intricacies of "deep battle"—the Soviet warfighting doctrine that arose in the interwar period, came to fruition during wartime, and eventually helped inform U.S. doctrinal reform in the 1980s (the era that witnessed the rise of "AirLand Battle").

It's an important topic for students of the war. With all the attention we lavish on the Germans and the Americans in World War II classes, the Red Army rarely gets the credit it deserves. Oh sure, just about everyone now accepts the truth that the Soviets bore the brunt of defeating the Wehrmacht on land. The vast majority of the German army at any given time was deployed in the East, and that's where it suffered its most catastrophic defeats, just about one a year, in fact: at Moscow in 1941, Stalingrad (1942), Kursk (1943), and Byelorussia (Operation Bagration) in 1944. Still, there has been a tendency to belittle the fighting qualities of the Soviet army, to attribute its victories to size and mass and numbers alone, to portray it as a big beast with a single-digit IQ, or better yet, as a mindless steamroller that simply flattened everything in its path.

That is in incomplete portrait, however, and I'll go on record: these guys were good. Before 1939, the Soviet army had a reputation as one of the most forward-thinking and experimental military forces in the world. Guided by the fertile brain of Marshal M. N. Tukhachevsky, the Soviets devised a doctrine they called "deep battle": huge armored formations (styled "mechanized corps") crashing through very narrow portions of the enemy line, feeding in more men, tanks, and guns along the same axis in one irresistible wave after another (echelons, they were called), smashing hostile resistance and driving far into the depth of the enemy position. He also stressed the notion of "consecutive operations." Modern armies had grown so large and had such enduring recuperative powers that it had become impossible to destroy them in a single battle. You had to keep pounding them in repeated large-scale offensives, landing a series of non-stop blows on the enemy that would not let him reform his line or recover his equilibrium.

Like all good ideas, these two took a while to put into practice. Stalin's purges of the 1930s had a ruinous impact on many areas of Soviet society, but they hit the army especially hard. Tukhachevsky was arrested, accused of disloyalty, and shot. Most of the corps and divisional commanders were replaced, and this at a time when the Vozhd was ordering a vast military expansion as a reaction to the dark international situation. The army grew rapidly in this period, therefore, from 1.5 million men in 1937 to 5 million in 1941, but it didn't grow very good. New generals, a lot of poorly trained manpower, fear hanging over everyone like a shroud: it was a toxic combination for unit quality and cohesion.

And with the Tukh gone, so was deep battle. In its place was a cautious armored doctrine that parceled out small tank brigades as infantry support. It was the same sort of thing the French army was doing at the time—"shallow battle," we might call it, if we wanted to be sarcastic. Once deep battle got going, however, the Germans never really were able to develop an answer to it, and the Red Army's battle honors prove it.

If there is one caveat I would introduce at this point, it is to warn against turning deep battle into a fetish or a buzzword. Yes, it presented the Germans with a problem they could not solve. Something else it did, however, was to generate massive casualties, both enemy and friendly. Try running a second echelon against the same position you just assaulted with your first, and then your third echelon against a position you just assaulted with your second. If you didn't break through immediately, and you often didn't, you were essentially launching a series of frontal assaults against fully alerted defenders—rarely a good idea against anyone, and never a good idea against the Germans. When deep battle failed (Operation Mars, 1942), it could fail spectacularly. Even when it worked, however, it was expensive.

A last point: deep battle and consecutive operations made perfect sense for the biggest country in the world, one with a massive population, vast natural resources, and a strong stomach for casualties. In other words, Tukhachevsky had come up with a way of war that made perfect sense for the Soviet Union. Could other countries fight this way? Would they want to? The Germans lacked the materiel; the French lacked the space; the British couldn't afford the high casualties, and the United States saw no need to risk them. In that sense, deep battle is not some sort of recipe for victory. It is, instead, an example of a "military culture," one linked to a specific army's history, tradition, and geography.

More next time. But I'll say it again: these guys were good.

For the latest in military history from World War II's sister publications visit HistoryNet.com.

 

Going Rogue: The Imperial Japanese Army Launches a War
By Robert M. Citino

Thursday, February 9th, 2012

Soviet Combined Arms at Khalkin-gol, August 1939
Soviet Combined Arms at Khalkin-gol, August 1939

We've been talking lately about the Imperial Japanese Army, its rapid entry onto the world stage in the 19th century, and its emphasis on the moral (as opposed to the material) factors of warfare. Note: we are talking here about "morale," that intangible area of military analysis that makes it so unpredictable and non-scientific. We are not talking about "morality," the impulse to do the right thing and to fight for righteousness.

The point is that this was an army willing to turn itself into "human bullets" in the service of the emperor. Willing to kill, yes, but even more than that, willing to die. Eager to die. A cold eye towards death was the Japanese army's great equalizer, a means by which it could beat the odds and overcome its better armed and richer adversaries. Armed with courage and a contempt for its own casualties, it could operate outside the political and economic limits that tend to limit modern armies.

All well and good, perhaps, but there was a downside to it. A Japanese army operating beyond politics could be a dangerous institution, not only for its enemies, but also for Japan itself. In the period between the two world wars, this "army of will" increasingly came to identify its own desires with those of the nation as a whole. It began to dictate policy, rather than follow it. Japan's highly aggressive field-grade officers—those stationed abroad or in contact with foreign armies—were the real culprits. Again and again in the interwar era, they were a source of trouble. They fired on Chinese forces and civilians at Jinan in 1927 (during the "Second Shandong Expedition"), unilaterally decided to overrun Manchuria in August 1931, and precipitated the "Shanghai incident" in 1932, which led to bloody fighting with the Chinese army and a great deal of international ill-will. In February 1936 they tried to overthrow the government in Tokyo, deeming it insufficiently forceful towards Japan's foreign enemies. Finally, in July 1937, they fired on Chinese troops at the Marco Polo Bridge outside of Beijing. What started as local fighting spread far and wide and soon grew into a full-scale Sino-Japanese war.

None of this narrative is meant to excuse the government in Tokyo. It, too, felt the lure of the siren: the notion that boldness and a stronger will and a refusal to accept second-class status could somehow overcome strategic weakness. The Japanese army may have gone rogue, launching one unauthorized attack after another, but the government retroactively approved every move. It was by now an article of faith among all of them that Japan could only compete with the West if it had access to the resources of China and Southeast Asia. Emperor Hirohito, often regarded as a retraining influence or even as some sort of pacifist (an absurd notion, given the historical record), was the worst offender. He knew that Japan's unruly military was a useful tool in solidifying his power at home and expanding it abroad. Restraining influence? More like the opposite.

For all its usefulness as a weapon of Japanese statecraft in the 1930s, however, a rogue army is rarely a good idea. The conquest of the immense, resource-rich province of Manchuria is a good example. While it looked good on paper, it also created a vulnerable Japanese enclave with an ill-defined boundary meandering some 3,000 miles against a resurgent Soviet Union still seeking revenge for the defeat of 1904–05. Frontier disputes in the region repeatedly flared up into skirmishes in the 1930s, with neither side willing to display weakness or back down.

One such encounter took place along the Khalka river ("Khalkin-Gol" in Russian), and it should have been a wake-up call to Hirohito and his minions in Tokyo. Some typical back-and-forth shoving across the indefinite border led both sides to send reinforcements. Finally, the Soviets launched a full-scale counterattack spearheaded by hundreds of tanks. Conceived by a figure who wasn't very famous at the time (but soon would be), General G. K. Zhukov, the operation featured two widely separated armored thrusts that sliced easily through the Japanese flanks. Emphasizing fighting spirit rather than firepower, the Japanese had no real answer to Zhukov. Within days, the Soviet pincers had linked up far behind the lines at Nomonhan, encircling and destroying an entire Japanese infantry division (the 23rd). It was a fiasco for an army that until now been fattening up on poorly armed and trained Chinese levies. Suddenly, morale-based concepts like will and bayonet charges and Yamato-damashii seemed a lot less important than material factors like firepower and armor thickness and main gun caliber.

The disaster at Khalkin-gol took place in August 1939. Is it possible, even two years before Pearl Harbor, that the Japanese Army had already lost World War II?

As for that rogue army? You can keep it.

For the latest in military history from World War II's sister publications visit HistoryNet.com.

 

Human Bullets: The Imperial Japanese Army
By Robert M. Citino

Monday, January 30th, 2012

First off, thanks to everyone for following me on this journey into the past of the Imperial Japanese Army. It's an amazing story—a military force dragged from the feudal era into the modern world virtually overnight—and it deserves to be more widely known. As we saw last time out, the IJA stressed will and morale (where it believed it could compete with the western powers) over the material factors (where it knew that it could not). It resurrected a supposedly ancient code of behavior, bushido, as a guide to modern operations. Honor above all. Never retreat. No surrender. Death before dishonor. Given the army's origins, the shock of its birth, the sudden realization that it had missed out on 300 years of world history, none of this is surprising. You look around, you assess your situation, and you do what you can. So the IJA was never an army that spent a lot of time adding up the material odds. If it did, it would have paralyzed itself.

click for larger image
click for larger image
Let's go a bit deeper, though. What does an "army of will" look like? How does it behave? How does it fight? How does a relatively small nation like Japan take on giant Russia in the war of 1904–05, for example, and triumph? We are lucky to have evidence from the army itself for this war, a memoir by a junior officer named Tadayoshi Sakurai entitled Human Bullets. To say Lieutenant Sakurai was "brave" misses the point completely. He wasn't just brave. He actually wanted to die, he courted it, he demanded it, and he wanted every soldier in the army to do likewise. He describes soldiers weeping at not being allowed into battle. He describes a comrade actually committing ritual suicide (sepukku) to make up for the "shame" not being mobilized rapidly enough. Before every engagement, he shares the ceremonial drink of water with his comrades, the ritual of purification before death. He is eager, even frantic, in courting death, and he eventually pays the price: Russian shrapnel catches him in the first Japanese assault on Port Arthur and shatters his right arm. "Crippled and useless," he describes himself, and yet there is a tone of satisfaction even in that grisly phrase. The book is a paean to "the Japanese ideal and determination to die in honor but never live in shame," as he puts it.

Even the title of the book is revealing. The Russians had superior firepower in this war. The Japanese equalizer was a willingness to charge forward no matter what the situation or odds, to be "human bullets" in the service of the emperor and to lay down their lives without a moment's hesitation.

To which we should make two comments. First, even with human bullets scorning death and hurtling themselves against superior enemy firepower, Japan barely won this war. Indeed, the margin of victory was Tsarist Russia's rickety political and social structure. Trying to prosecute a war and supply a mass army fighting in the empire's Far Eastern periphery was beyond Nicholas II and his minions. Certainly they were incapable of unleashing anything like the true military potential of their sprawling empire. That would be left to a later, much more ruthless Communist regime. By 1905 revolution had engulfed Russia, and the Tsar had no option but to open peace talks.

We sometimes forget, however, that the Japanese, too, were exhausted by this point. They had fired off their entire arsenal of men and materiel, their field logistics were atrocious, and the treasury was bankrupt. The Russo-Japanese War was a victory, yes, but the margin was much narrower than the Japanese were willing to admit.

Second, let's be honest about what actually happened at the front. Despite Sakurai's extravagant claims, how many of those hapless Japanese conscripts throwing themselves against the Port Arthur fortifications really wanted to be human bullets? We know today that there were more than a few regiments that simply refused what they viewed as their officers' senseless orders to attack enemy machine guns. And yes, despite the mythology, this war featured Japanese soldiers surrendering repeatedly. In modern combat, when your unit suddenly finds itself cut off without hope of relief, it happens. While the Japanese triumphed over Russia in this war, they didn't suddenly reverse the laws of modern military physics. They weren't supermen, and they died like any other soldiers when you shot them. Moreover, responsible commanders at the front recognized the problem, and protested to their superiors about the nonsensical infantry doctrine they were called upon to implement. There were also repeated protests among the civilian population once the needlessly high Japanese casualty statistics became public knowledge.

The army's high command and government dwelt on none of these unpleas-antries, however. As far as the generals were concerned, a win was a win. They preferred to talk about the soldiers who carried out suicidal attacks, or who killed themselves rather than surrender, or who died with the words "Port Arthur" on their lips. These heroes were declared "war gods" (a new concept in Japan) and held up as examples for young Japanese boys to emulate. In the wake of the victory over Russia, it was fairly simple to silence contrary voices and doubters.

I admit, I'm ambivalent. There are times when I read Human Bullets and I respond to it. How wonderful, I think, to love your country so dearly! What an awesome and mysterious thing it must be to make that supreme sacrifice! Dulce et decorum est.

But there are many other times that I read Sakurai, urging the youth of Japan to follow his example, to have their limbs blown off and their bodies shattered and to die in senseless military adventures, and I want to resurrect him solely for the purpose of trying him as a war criminal.

More next time.

For the latest in military history from World War II's sister publications visit HistoryNet.com.

 

Triumph of the Will? Japan After 1853
By Robert M. Citino

Tuesday, January 17th, 2012

Last week we asked the Japanese army a somewhat sarcastic question: What were you guys thinking?

I'd argue that the Japanese decisions of 1931, 1937, and 1941 make almost no sense unless we delve back a bit into Japanese history. We need to go all the way back to the mid-19th century, to 1853 in fact.

That year, the Japanese had what we might call a rude awakening. Perched on their remote home islands, they had managed to avoid contact with foreigners for centuries, and they liked it that way. Back in the 1500s, they'd had a bellyful of the outside world, especially the competing imperialisms of Portugal, the Dutch, and the British. Adopting western technology, especially firearms, they had managed to drive out the westerners—their missionaries and soldiers alike—and had then closed the doors on the outside world.

The western powers changed all that in 1853. More specifically, the U.S. Navy did, with a squadron of what the Japanese called "black ships" under Commodore Matthew Perry. Amazingly, these vessels moved without sails! They belched fire from long tubes! They could blow up anything that got in their way! It was an existential crisis for Japan, which suddenly saw itself at the mercy of forces it only dimly understood. It is about as close as any country on earth has ever come to having aliens show up bearing ray guns. I'm thinking here, perhaps, of that old Twilight Zone episode "To Serve Man," where the victims wind up as meat on the table of the conquerors.

Or perhaps a better analogy: being tossed into the ocean and having to learn to swim, stat. It was a dangerous world, an imperialist dog-eat-dog era many times more voracious than that of the 1500s. The Japanese could see what had happened to India, and what was happening to China. They could see what happened to backward states that tried to stand up to the western powers.

Perhaps the most amazing thing was that they managed to do just that. They modernized overnight. They overthrew the feudal system of the Shogun (the bakufu) and created a unified central government in the newly renamed city of Tokyo around the figure of the Emperor Meiji (left). They built railroads and industries. They formed an army of peasant draftees armed with modern 19th century weapons. No other country on earth has ever taken such a crash course in modernity.

Not everyone was pleased, of course. Change is always unsettling, and the new central government had to fight civil wars against the disgruntled old guard. But the reformers won and created a new Japan. They even began playing the imperialist game themselves, beating gigantic China in the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95 and, even more improbably, battering the Russian army in Manchuria in the war of 1904-05.

Still, the existential crisis didn't suddenly vanish. It was clear that the Japanese could never outproduce the western nations, and their technology, at least in its earliest phases, was entirely derivative and reliant upon the west. They had to hire military advisers for the army (from France at first, and then from Germany). They had to hire naval advisers from Britain, and the first ships of their new navy were produced abroad. Moreover, the civil wars showed that while the new peasants conscripts were able to smash the Samurai through superior resources, they could never match those old Samurai in fighting spirit and élan.

In other words, it was still a very dangerous world. And here, I think is the crucial point. In an era of brute force, of steel mills and armaments plants, where the big fish ate the little one, Japan could never really compete. Indeed, even surviving was a long shot. Its military leaders had to find a different path to prepare the nation for the struggles they believed lay ahead. If Japan could not contend in the realm of material factors, then it would have to emphasize the spiritual ones: its unique heritage, its unbroken imperial line stretching back over 1,000 years; its cultural and moral superiority to neighboring peoples. It had gotten rid of the Samurai in the civil wars, but now it needed to resurrect something like the Samurai spirit and impose it on a new mass army of conscripts. It had to turn those ordinary soldiers into "human bullets" willing, even eager, to die in the service of the emperor. In this way it might be able to compensate for material weakness.

And so bushido was born: the "way of the warrior" (or perhaps, the "way of the knight").

More next time.

For the latest in military history from World War II's sister publications visit HistoryNet.com.

 

A Question for the Imperial Japanese Army
By Robert M. Citino

Wednesday, January 4th, 2012

"What were you guys thinking?"

The Imperial Japanese Army was, by most standards, a first-rate outfit. Its officers were as smart and dedicated as they come and the enlisted ranks were filled with some of the toughest light infantry the world has ever seen. They hardly seem like the type of folks who would dive headlong into a debacle. And yet they did.

"How did you get into this mess?"

An equally good question. Launching a war that eventually saw Japan taking on the Chinese, the British (plus the Commonwealth), the U.S., and finally the Soviets simultaneously, the Imperial Army (kogun) turned itself into the 1940's equivalent of Sisyphus.

Oh sure, just like Sisyphus, the first push up the hill was pretty successful, and the initial Japanese gains after Pearl Harbor still have the capacity to amaze: Malaya, Singapore, Java, the Philippines. But we need to be honest: in early 1942 Japan was a middle-level power that circumstances were allowing to punch above its weight. Much of the early success was due to the fact that its opponents were so unprepared (in some cases) or so distracted by the fighting in Europe (in others). The first Japanese offensive easily overran the Dutch East Indies, for example, and those oil-rich islands were some of the biggest plums in the Pacific. We aren't being uncharitable, however, if we point out that the mother country was under Nazi occupation at the time. The same with the British colonies. Locked in its own life and death struggle with a fierce enemy on its very door-step, Britain could hardly concentrate on the defense of such far-flung locales as Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur, or Singapore. Japanese planning and preparation were first-rate, to be sure, but they were operating in a uniquely favorable situation.

As everyone knows, that boulder has a way of rolling back, however, and when it rolled down on Japan, it rolled down hard. From mid-1942 on, the Japanese operational record was the very definition of futility. The kogun reeled from one defeat to another. Their American enemies alone outnumbered and outproduced it many times over, and they were able to pry the Japanese out of one defensive bastion after another. Every student of the Pacific War knows the chronology: the 1st Marine Division landing on Guadalcanal in the Solomon islands in August 1942; the landing of the 2nd Marine Division on Tarawa in November 1943 (the Gilberts); the 4th Marine Division on Kwajalein in January 1944 (the Marshalls); more "storm landings" on Saipan, Guam, and Tinian in June 1944 that gave the U.S. control of the Marianas.

And so it went. If U.S. forces wanted to take a position badly enough in this war, the Japanese had to yield, even with soldiers willing to kill themselves rather than surrender. Having to disperse forces all over the vast Pacific, they could never match what we might call U.S. "surge capacity"—the ability to concentrate rapidly for battle at a specific time and place. U.S. planners skillfully played on Japan's vulnerability, bypassing dozens of islands and letting massive Japanese forces wither on the vine. In February 1944, for example, heavy U.S. air raids smashed the Japanese base at Truk in the Caroline islands. U.S. forces essentially ignored the rest of the chain, and they did the same to the immense Japanese base at Rabaul, turning the island of New Britain into a kind of guardless POW camp for over 100,000 Japanese soldiers. I won't even go into the finale: the mech-heavy Soviet offensive into Manchuria in 1945 that shredded the Japanese Kwantung Army without breaking a sweat, or the U.S. atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They speak for themselves.

Let's end where we began, with the question, "What were you guys thinking?" This was a war that Japan had a very small chance of winning. My (admittedly) non-scientific estimate would place it at 10 percent, maybe less. Your mileage may vary.

So, what were they thinking? I'm a historian, so you probably suspect how I'm going to answer this question. The key to Japan's performance in World War II, perhaps even its decision to launch such a "senseless" war in the first place, lies in the past. The distant past.

Next week, let's take a trip back in time. The year is 1853, and Japan's world has just exploded.

For the latest in military history from World War II's sister publications visit HistoryNet.com.

Miracle: The Girl from Rotterdam
By Robert M. Citino

Thursday, December 22nd, 2011

As readers of this column know by now, war movies don't do much for me. It's a case of too much movie and not enough war. Too much Hollywood, not enough Hürtgen. Everything in real war is confused, bewildering, and ambiguous. Everything in movie-war is certain. I have a feeling that Clausewitz wouldn't be much of a war movie buff, either, and after I die, I intend to ask him.

There is one kind of movie I can't get enough of, however: films made during World War II. Or immediately before. Or immediately after. However much they try to deal in fantasy, they can't help but tell the truth. They are my window into a world that I cannot know. Born in 1958, I can try to understand what it felt like to live in 1938 or 1948, but I usually fail. My introduction to World War II as a boy? The television series Combat, with my boyhood hero, the late Vic Morrow. A few years later, I watched Rat Patrol, and it, too, blew my mind. In neither case, however, do I confuse them with real life, or history, or an objective account of "how it really was." I've grown. I've put away the things of a child, as St. Paul once wrote.

The other day, however, I was watching a movie made in 1947, in the very wake of World War II. Its audience had just lived through a war that had killed wholesale—60 million dead by the most recent Wikipedia count, some 2.5% of the world's 1939 population. In many places like China and the Soviet Union, the percentage was much, much higher. This was a movie made in the very wake of holocaust, in other words, not to mention the Holocaust.

Oddly enough, it's a happy film. Uplifting. A "feelgood," as wags in Hollywood like to call it today. It's that holiday perennial Miracle on 34th Street. You all know it: A nice old man with a beard who calls himself Kris Kringle, who thinks he's Santa Claus, and who, by the end of the film, manages to convince the U.S. Postal service that he is, in fact, who he says he is. Maureen O'Hara at her most beautiful. An adorable Natalie Wood at the age of 8.

There is a scene in the middle of the film where Kris, dressed up as Santa at Macy's, greets a shy little girl. Her mother—actually, we learn, her adoptive mother—tries to explain to him that the girl knows no English, that she is a Dutch refugee, an orphan from Rotterdam recently brought to the United States and placed in a foster home.

You all know what happens next. Kris—miraculously, it seems—begins speaking to her in Dutch. Her little eyes widen in amazement and she speaks back. "Sinterklaas," she squeals with delight! It's the first sign to us, the audience, that there is something special about this old man. Maybe he really is Santa Claus! I watched it last night, and I'd like to say that my wife cried like a baby during this scene, but she wasn't the only one grabbing the kleenex.

It's Hollywood at its classic best. But like I said, I'm not a kid any more, and as I sat there, I started thinking about World War II. About Rotterdam and that Luftwaffe terror raid. It was infamous at the time, a clear sign of Nazi frightfulness. Today, there are historians who describe it more as a result of bad timing: the Dutch had already offered their surrender, it was still working its way through diplomatic channels, and no one bothered to inform the Luftwaffe, which had already drawn up its plans for a raid into the city center.

But here's something else I thought about. Today, the Netherlands is one of the richest countries in the world. Dutch cities are renowned for their beauty, their architecture, and their hedonistic delights. Back in 1947, however, you could be making a movie that included a crucial scene centering on a refugee child, and it would be the most natu-ral thing in the world to say, "Get me a Dutch girl."

We live in a world where "refugees" are from faraway lands that Americans don't think much about. Congo or Yemen or Libya or Haiti or a dozen other places. The Third World, we call it. Lands of tyranny and privation and want. Lands where unfortunate people starve to death, or have to dance to the whims of the local dictator and risk death if they refuse.

This is what I thought about the other night while watching Miracle on 34th Street. You want to talk about the "Third World"? In World War II, that meant the Netherlands. A prosperous First World country descending into hell. Terror-bombed by the Luftwaffe. Overrun by the Wehrmacht. Ruled by a Nazi madman named Artur Seyss-Inquart, and by the end of the war, starved to death during what the Dutch still call the "Hongerwinter" of 1944–45.

Sometimes I wish I could just watch a movie like other people.

For the latest in military history from World War II's sister publications visit HistoryNet.com.

 

Smackdown: Timoshenko and the Winter War
By Robert M. Citino

Monday, December 12th, 2011

I've already confessed my love of the Talvisota, the "Winter War," especially the opening phase in which the tiny Finnish army stood tall and smashed the initial Soviet invasion of their homeland. The Finns were a democratic people, fighting in defense of the patria, and they showed what free men, fighting for a righteous cause, could do even in desperate circumstances. Manpower? The numbers tilted in favor of the Soviet Union a thousand times over. Weapons and technology? Again, not even close. The Red Army had modern tanks and aircraft and artillery. The Finns had to improvise homemade bombs, bottles filled with gasoline that they nicknamed, ironically, Molotov cocktails. Supply? Again, don't make me laugh. The Red Army was arguably adequate, given the horrendous nature of the arctic winter conditions in which this war took place. The Finns barely registered on the logistic scale, although those reindeer-drawn sleigh columns are still impressive.

This is the version of the Winter War that history continues to teach us. The defenders triumphant. Heroes drawing a line in the sand… er… snow. A tyrant seeking the subjugation of a free and hearty race thwarted in his foul and demented quest.

Yeah…. Unfortunately, we live in a cruel world, and I'm sure you know where this is headed.

The New Year of 1940 saw the tide turn when Stalin named one of his brighter young officers, General S. K. Timoshenko, to the supreme command of the theater. The new supremo was just 44 years old, vigorous, and filled with good ideas. We might call him one of the rare upsides of Stalin's murderous purges. A whole cohort of experienced professional officers had just gone to the grave, and that is rarely a good thing for a modern army. In many (most?) cases, the new men were hacks and bunglers and butchers, just as you would expect. But just enough of them were smart younger men, ambitious and determined to show that they belonged.

Timoshenko prepared carefully, then did what any analyst would label the obvious thing: suspending the fruitless fight to the north and launching a coordinated assault by two entire armies, the 7th and the 13th—some 600,000 men in all, supported lavishly by artillery and aircraft—against the Mannerheim Line. Soviet losses were stupendous, but the Finns were no match for such numbers. Timoshenko also showed some finesse, launching his 28th Rifle Corps across the ice of the frozen Gulf of Finland towards the key port of Viipuri and turning the Line's right flank. The assault opened on February 1st, 1940 and cracked the Line by the 11th. By the 25th, Viipuri had fallen and the main Viipuri-Helsinki road was in Soviet hands. The Finns, having suffered 30,000 casualties and levered out of their one solid defensive position, had no choice but to ask for terms.

The Soviets had won the Winter War, taking the territories they'd demanded and more: Viipuri, the northern port of Petsamo, and some 20,000 square miles of Karelia. The cost, however, had been unbelievable. Nikita Khrushchev would later estimate the casualty figure at a nice, even one million. His number is almost certainly inflated, part of his effort to de-Stalinize the Soviet Union, but the reality is bad enough: somewhere between 400,000 and 600,000 total casualties, depending on the source you read, with 120,000 to 200,000 of them killed in action. However you do the math, it was a steep price to pay for what was, after all, a relatively minor border rectification.

Even here, though, we must accept the complexity of military history. The world paid a great deal of attention to the opening phase of the Winter War, with those nimble Finnish ski troops slashing into their lumbering adversary. I fully admit to sharing in this prejudice. So did Hitler and the planners on the German General Staff. Their conclusion was that an invasion of the Soviet Union would be a pushover. Perhaps they all should have paid more attention to the end of the fighting, to Timoshenko's war.

And I promise to do just that. Maybe next year.

For the latest in military history from World War II's sister publications visit HistoryNet.com.

 

White Death, Part 2: The Winter War
By Robert M. Citino

Tuesday, November 29th, 2011

Last time out we were discussing the Winter War, the conflict between the Soviet Union and Finland during the winter of 1939–40. As we saw, a combination of Soviet bullying and Finland's refusal to be bullied had typical consequences for this era. Soviet demands gave way to threats, and when the talks faltered, Soviet foreign minister Molotov had the last word: "Since we civilians don't seem to be making any progress, maybe it's the soldier's turn to speak." Just days later, on November 30th, a massive Soviet force invaded Finland while bombers of the Red Air Force ranged deep inside the country.

Expectations are the key here. Just a few months earlier, German Panzer columns had invaded Poland, slicing through the defenders in multiple sectors, linking up far behind the lines, and encircling virtually all of the million-man of the Polish army. The Poles had fought bravely, even heroically in most cases, but they were simply outclassed. It was a typical result, of course, when a great power takes on a weaker neighbor, and probably what Stalin, Molotov, and the commanders on the Finnish front expected.

What they got, however, was something very different. Despite massive Soviet numerical and material superiority, absolute control of the air, and around-the-clock bombing of Helsinki and other targets that inflicted heavy civilian casualties, the first month of this conflict defined the term "military disaster." For the Soviets, it was a perfect storm of bad.

Disaster: the Sovietoffensive into Finland, November–December 1939
Disaster: the Sovietoffensive into Finland, November–December 1939
Some of it was their own fault. The Red Army had greatly increased in size in the past two years, a reaction to the dark international situation; indeed, the army was in the process of growing from 1,500,000 men in 1937 to somewhere around 5,000,000 in 1941. At the same time, however, Stalin had been engaged in a bloody purge of his own officer corps, with 80% of the corps and divisional commanders accused of disloyalty and shot. The combination was disastrous: masses of poorly trained soldiers under officers who were either political hacks or who were scared to death of exercising initiative for fear of falling afoul of Stalin and the NKVD.

They also had not counted on the fighting quality of their enemy. Commanding the Finns was wily Marshal Carl Mannerheim. In this opening phase of the fighting, he successfully waged two wars at once. Most of his regular army (five of nine small divisions) was deployed in the south, along the 90 mile front of the Karelian isthmus. Here he built a strong fortified position, usually known as the Mannerheim Line—tank traps, trenches, machine gun nests, bunkers—and dared the Soviets to attack. They obliged, in clumsy frontal assaults that the Finns shot to pieces.

Nothing unusual there. Frontal assaults against fortified lines have a way of failing. In the north, however, along the 700-mile-long border, Mannerheim waged a much more diffuse guerrilla war. The Home Guard was the backbone of the defense in this sector, hardy citizen soldiers who knew every inch of the land, who were dead shots, and who could handle the cold. They were ski troops, coming up silently out of the forests, nearly invisible in their white parkas, raking the ponderous Soviet columns with machine gun fire and then vanishing back into the forest. Their weaponry was often crude, home-made gasoline bombs they called Molotov cocktails, for example. They made up for their crude weapons with the oldest soldierly quality of all, however: intestinal fortitude, guts, courage. The Finns call it "sisu."

As bad as the stalled drive against the Mannerheim Line had been what happened in this sector was much worse. At Suomussalmi, two entire Soviet divisions (the 44th and 163rd) were ambushed, trapped, and destroyed in the forests. At Tolvajärvi, two more (139th and 75th), suffered the same fate. By Christmas, Finnish counterattacks had bro-ken up the invading Soviet columns into isolated, immobile fragments. They were starving, freezing, and surrounded. "Motti," the Finns called them—sticks bundled up for firewood and left to be picked up later.

The Soviets had fought bravely in all these battles, driving gamely into the Mannerheim Line or digging in grimly in their motti positions, but their losses on all fronts were soon rising into the hundreds of thousands. Indeed, 505 of them fell to one Finnish sniper alone: Simo Häyhä. He earned the nickname "White Death" from his Russian adversaries, but frankly we could apply the nickname to the entire Finnish army in this war.

Why study the Winter War? Perhaps the most important reason is that it reminds us that war is a gamble. You can count the cannon both sides, assess the probabilities, haul out the actuarial tables, but you can never predict the outcome. By most standards of military accounting, the Winter War should be been a quick pushover for the Soviets. But that is precisely what separates war in the field from war in theory.
 

White Death, part 1
By Robert M. Citino

Friday, November 18th, 2011

Ah, it's that time of year again. There is a chill in the air, even down here in Texas. The leaves are starting to turn color. The Beaujolais Nouveau is being released today. The holiday season is about to begin, and the mood is festive. It's a great time of the year for family, friends, and fellowship. It's time to break out the Frank Sinatra Christmas album.

And for me that can mean only one thing: it's time to renew my obsession with the Winter War, the great Russo-Finnish conflict of 1939–40.

Everyone has obsessions: favorite foods, drinks, bands, movies. And so do historians. All of us have topics that we just can't seem to get enough of. For me, it's the Winter War. My dream: I quit my day job as a university professor, and someone pays me to sit around for the rest of my life and read books on the Winter War. Anyone wishing to finance this dream can contact me at any time, care of World War II magazine.

It's one of history's classic David and Goliath stories. It is fall 1939. The Germans have overrun Poland, and Britain and France have declared war on the Reich. Hitler's ally Josef Stalin intends to cash in on the Nazi-Soviet Pact he signed back in August. Through his foreign minister and henchman, V. I. Molotov, Stalin puts the screws to Finland, a sparsely populated land that had, until World War I, been part of the Russian Empire. The demands on the young nation are moderate enough: the Soviets want a lease on the Hankö peninsula on the southern Finnish coast for use as a naval base; they want border adjustments on the Karelian isthmus, where the frontier was only 20 miles from the great Soviet city of Leningrad. Molotov is even willing to cede a larger area in return, some 5,500 square kilometers of territory in Soviet Karelia.

From the Finnish perspective, however, what was happening was not negotiation, and the actual terms were meaningless. This was the era, after all, of Hitler and Mussolini and Imperial Japan, of lawlessness in the international arena, of stronger powers preying on weaker ones. More specifically, surrender of any territory to the former imperial masters meant the beginning of the end for an independent Finland. The government refused Molotov's demands.

And just like that, the world had yet another war on its hands. On November 30th, 1939, the great guns roared, the bombers screamed overhead, and the Red Army invaded Finland. Calling it "David and Goliath" might seem to be a cliché, but how else to describe a war of 168 million vs. 4 million?

It makes what happened next seem all the more shocking.

More next time.

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"Memory: Using Leningrad"
By Robert M. Citino

Friday, November 4th, 2011

Last week I made myself sick writing about the siege of Leningrad.  World War II was a horrible time for everyone involved, and a lot of people had it very bad, indeed.  No one had it any worse than the poor population of Leningrad, however.  They got surrounded, deprived of every kind of supply that a city needs to survive, and they starved to death in unprecedented numbers.  Workers got fed, barely, because they were "essential."  Their families–wives, children, elderly, dependents–weren't considered essential, however.  Bringing food home to them (that is, going without so that your loved ones could live to see another day) was considered a diversion of resources from the "productive" to the "unproductive," and punished by the authorities.  By death.

Oh, and by the way, how about those "authorities"?  Will anyone reading this be surprised when I say that they always had enough to eat?

I'd like to tie up this discussion of Leningrad, which is threatening to become a kind of personal obsession, with a final point about the way it has been remembered.  Say what you will about Soviet communism, the system paid a great deal of attention to history and historians.  So much so that it monitored scholars carefully, watching what they wrote and didn't write, and offering socialist "guidance" when they didn't seem willing to write the correct thing.

Historians in the modern U.S. often complain that no one cares what we write.  No one official, that is.  And just about every day, I wake up and give thanks for that.

After 1945, the Stalinist regime was very concerned, indeed, about what historians were writing about Leningrad.  Intuition would tell us that Stalin should have opened up the archives.  Tell the world!  Let them see how Hitler had tried to kill us all!  Let them see the brutality of Fascism!  The Wehrmacht gave us their best shot, we took it, and threw it back in their faces.  All hail to the Soviet Union!

Er… no.  That's not at all the way it went.

After the war, the siege of Leningrad became a one of the century's classic victims of memory politics.  The Soviet Union, after all, was a land where the government had raised lying to a high art form.  The Ukrainian famine in the 1930s, the massacre of a huge portion of the rural population labeled "kulaks" (prosperous peasants), who were nothing of the sort, the purges of hundreds of thousands of "traitors" and "wreckers," who were nothing of the sort:  Stalin and his minions had invented false justifications for all of them.

They had learned to do nothing but lie, in other words, and so it was with Leningrad.  At first, the regime denied that anything bad had happened.  Nothing to see here; move along.  Admitting that 500,000 civilians had starved to death in that first winter would have meant owning up to official incompetence.  A city museum that tried to tell the truth was closed down, and the director sentenced to 25 years in the Gulag.

Things stayed that way for a long time.  By the 1970's, new lies had arisen.  An increasingly unpopular Soviet regime needed all the help it could get, and World War II seemed made to order.  The victory over the Nazis was, after all, the regime's great justification, its single positive accomplishment.  Brezhnev (and his minions) now made a kind of cult of the Great Patriotic War.  While they admitted everything, they also heroicized the victims.  No one grumbled, they said, no one despaired, no one stole.  No one ate corpses.  The Leningraders had made a long journey, from helpless victims to selfless heroes.

Only the attitude of glasnost ("openness") during the Gorbachev years and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union allowed more truthful and balanced views to come to the fore.  But there are so few witnesses left, so few blokadniki, to step forward and testify to the truth about what happened to them.

I'm a historian by trade, and frankly I'm proud to be one.  But I also try to be aware–and you should, too–that history (what happened) and memory (what the powers-that-be want us all to remember) are not always the same thing

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Horror: Leningrad Goes down the Drain
By Robert M. Citino

Saturday, October 22nd, 2011

I've dreaded writing this column.  I've been dancing around it, in fact, with a lot of talk about the meaning of history, about post-modernism and the accepted "narrative" of World War II.  Frankly, all that intellectualizing–in other words, what I do for a living–rings pretty hollow when I contemplate what happened to Leningrad in World War II.

Let's start with the operational situation.  In the summer of 1941, an onrushing and confident Wehrmacht drives for the great city at the start of Barbarossa.  The Red Army is in early-campaign mode, that is to say it is utterly inept.  Stalin's regime is determined to hold the city, but gives little thought–no, that's wrong–no thought at all to the civilian population.  There are half-baked schemes to evacuate it, as if anyone could evacuate a city of this size under wartime conditions.  Certainly the incompetent Soviet regime couldn't.  Local communist officials seem more concerned with heroic revolutionary myths of arming the population, as if you and I and our grandpa could defeat the Panzers in open field battle.  In the end, Soviet resistance and German logistical inadequacies conspire, just barely, to rob Hitler of a victory on this front.  Add it all up and you get a huge city surrounded and cut off from all contact with the outside world by early autumn. 

I've lived in cities my whole life, and if the census statistics we've collected are true, so have you.  We don't grow food–we go to the store and buy it.  When our children get sick, we don't go to the woods to collect herb and simples.  We drive to the doctor or the hospital, and they do the healing.  We don't barter–cave man bartered.  We collect regular paychecks to pay for all these things. 

For all these reasons, the tale of Leningrad holds special horrors for those of us in the so-called civilized world.  Food soon disappeared, and so did fuel.  I thought about this today as I took a trip to my Kroger's grocery store  in Corinth, TX.  The shelves were beautifully appointed–filled with a veritable cornucopia of food, staples like bread and vegetables and meat, not to mention luxuries of every conceivable description.  On the way home, I stopped at the gas station.  No problem, right?

Problem.  Leningrad was a great city cut off from its producing hinterland.  Millions of people; no food.  It didn't take long.  Within months, the dead started piling up in the street (oh yes, other aspects of civilized life we take for granted:  the ambulance, the coroner, a "decent" burial). There were numerous, and now substantiated, incidents of cannibalism.  We can, today, analyze them and split them into two groups.  With so many dead lying around, some people ate the corpses for food.  Then again, some people committed "murder" so they could have something to eat.  I want to take this public forum to condemn their behavior, but then again, I wasn't there.  I'll let the moralists and the ethicists and the theologians hash that one out. 

I've never been all that interested in statistics.  You can manipulate them as you wish.  Every now and then, it's good to have a number, however, so I'll give you one:  in the first horrible winter of the siege of Leningrad, somewhere around 500,000 civilians starved to death.  Leningrad "descended into hell" in late 1941, in the words of the old prayer.  One writer who was there described it as "falling down the funnel"–perhaps in America we would say, "going down the drain".   
Want to try surviving on 125 grams of bread a day?  Three thin slices, often adulterated with joiner's glue (made from the remains of slaughtered animals) or cold cream or industrial casein?  No, neither do I.  Want to tell your daughter that's all there is to eat today? 

Neither do I.  If a merciful God could promise me a split-second, instantaneous death, I'd rather be nuked.

I'm just like most readers of World War II magazine.  Like you, I read and analyze the battles.  The big story.  The great events.  It's important work.  But while we do these things, let's agree to pause every now and then and think about places like Leningrad, along with all the citizen populations caught up in the horrors of war.

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Fact: the Siege of Leningrad
By Robert M. Citino

Friday, October 7th, 2011

I received some good discussion on my last post. Some took me to task, others were supportive, and still others were non-committal. At issue was the notion of how much of history is an eye-of-the-beholder narrative and how much is—to use a term that seems to have fallen out of favor today—objective truth. I was having some fun last time out with my post-modernist friends in the historical profession who very much subscribe to the first point of view.

Look, I am the last person to argue against the inclusion of new, previously unheard voices. That's been going on in academic history since at least the 1960s. Women, racial and ethnic minorities, the working classes: folks who previously had been missing in action from the histories finally began to receive the attention that was due to them. Back then, we called it "social history"—a more inclusive kind of history that sought a perspective from the bottom up rather than from the top down. Military historians took to it in a big way, so much so that it became common to speak of a "new military history." Sure, it's great to know what FDR or Ike or Bradley or Norm Cota were thinking and doing on D-Day, the traditional commanders-only approach to military history. But I hope we can all agree that it's just as important to know what PFC John Smith was thinking and doing, not to mention John's wife, family, and friends back on the home front in Cleveland, Ohio.

Post-modernism is a very different animal. It's not really interested in giving everyone a say. Rather, it claims that–since we all use language in unique and mutually unintelligible ways—there can never be a true reconstruction of any historical event. We will never really know what happened at Pearl Harbor, post-modernist historians believe, so trying to do so is a waste of time. One way they try to get around this conundrum is to focus on the "history of memory"—to study how Pearl Harbor has been memorialized and how the way we remember it has changed over time. It is not about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor at all, but more about how the government and other "memory elites" have succeeded in forcing their views on the rest of society over time, how they have "constructed a cultural icon" of Pearl Harbor that serves their interests. I love different historical approaches, and history of memory can be fascinating stuff to read, but in the end, I'm like most military historians, I suspect. I'm more interested in the event itself, and I guess I'm never going to be completely comfortable with any discussion that down-plays what actually happened.

With that in mind, I recently read a very good book by Anna Reid on the siege of Leningrad in World War II. Frankly, it turned my stomach, but not because it is a bad book. Far from it—it's a fantastic book, and I learned a lot. Reid is a skilled writer, and she does her share of assigning blame and parsing how the post-1945 Soviet government tried to exploit the memory of what happened. To be frank, however, I just can't get as interested in those angles as I should.

And the reason is this: I can't get past the simple fact of what happened in Leningrad. Reid's book is a page turner, and each page is more terrible than the one before. Consider this scenario: What if you lived in New York during some future war and some enemy force cut off Manhattan from contact with the outside world—closed the bridges, blocked the seaward approaches and rivers, shut down the Metro North Line. How soon would the food on that densely populated island last? How about the clean water? Medicine and other essential supplies? Let's say that the noose is drawn tight in September. What do you think that following winter would be like? How soon would people begin to starve to death? Freeze to death? What would the final death toll be? During a few short months back in 1941, Leningraders learned the awful answer to all of these questions.

More of this next week. But I have to warn you: it won't be pretty.

For the latest in military history from World War II's sister publications visit HistoryNet.com.

 

Narrative? Real Life?
By Robert M. Citino

Tuesday, September 20th, 2011

OK, all you postmodernists, you intellectuals who think that there is no such thing as reality, that it is all about the narrative, that each participant in a historical event has a separate and equally valuable experience that is as inviolable as any other. How progressive you are, refusing to "privilege" any one account over another, for fear of allowing one dominant social discourse to emerge! After all, the dominant party then quashes the stories put forth by marginalized groups, those outside the norm and thus those without power. What is "truth," after all, but the account of the dominant elites, and thus yet another way of keeping the people down? Downtrodden voices are by definition true, no matter what they happen to be saying.

Yeah, I can talk that postmodernist jive. And why not? I've been reading it my entire adult life.

But as much as I appreciate the insights offered by postmodernist thought, I also have to admit that I have a fundamental problem with this approach. "Nothing is true"? "All accounts are equal"? All history is merely a form of "discourse" that adds up to nothing?

Count me out.

And here is why. I have spent my entire life studying the greatest (actually, the worst) war in human history. Tens of millions of people died in the course of the fighting. Some were pulverized by high explosive, others burned in fire, and at the end, some were even vaporized in microseconds by a brand-new process of nuclear fission. The whole thing was horrible, and if there's one thing we're all sure of, it is this: World War II happened. It wasn't just someone's narrative, and it isn't open to question.

Oh sure, we can argue over the origins of the war and the why and the how (which is history's real purview), but just try and tell a military historian that the battle of Midway or Stalingrad or Normandy or Berlin were mere "narratives." Let's go back in a time machine and tour the Prokhorovka battlefield in July 1943. Let us smell the smoke and dodge the secondary explosions and try to avoid stepping on the human remains. Then step up and tell someone that Kursk is nothing but a "narrative.

Sure. Do that. Then stand back and prepare to defend yourself.

My friend and distinguished scholar John Lynn said it best in his 2003 book Battle: A History of Combat and Culture. "Extreme proponents of cultural history might dispute the very existence of reality, since all is perception to them," he wrote. "In the realm of military history, such airy discussions tend to become foolish. Thousands of dead and wounded as a result of battle is the kind of hard fact that defies intellectual games."

Let me just join in here with a "Right on, Dr. Lynn!" Sure, it is possible to intellectualize almost anything. But most military historians feel that there are clear limits to how far they can go without breaking faith with their subject. To paraphrase the bumper sticker, "S–t happened," and that is true no matter how clever we want to be with our analysis.

To prove my point, come back next week. I'll take you to Leningrad, to some truly horrific events, and to the martyrdom of a great city in wartime.
 

For the latest in military history from World War II's sister publications visit HistoryNet.com.

 

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