The Retreat: Hitler’s First Defeat
By Michael Jones. 352 pp. Thomas Dunne Books, December 2010. $27.99.
Even before the Wehrmacht retreated from Moscow, it retreated from civilized behavior: its soldiers and officers launched an orgy of barbarism. These were not just aberrant über Nazis, fanatically enforcing Hitler’s mad racial theories; murderous, brutish actions against Russian soldiers, POWs, and civilian men, women, and children became the Wehrmacht’s norm. Russian prisoners likely suffered the worst: more than two million in German custody died during the winter of 1941–42 through deliberate neglect, starvation, exposure, and outright murder. In modern warfare, this stark inhumanity reached a scale only equaled by Japanese atrocities in China.
The Retreat completes an impressive trilogy about combat and carnage on the Eastern Front, described largely in the participants’ own words. Author Michael Jones’s two previous books (Stalingrad: How the Red Army Survived the German Onslaught and Leningrad: State of Siege) focused on the Red Army’s experience; here, primarily German voices recount the 1941 Battle of Moscow. Nevertheless, Jones demonstrates that the Soviet victory cannot simply be chalked up to “General Winter,” Russia’s traditional ally, though nightmarish conditions made the clash a supreme test of endurance for both sides. Instead, German hubris, the Red Army’s astonishing resilience, and the fierce determination of Russia’s leaders and individual soldiers led to Hitler’s first defeat.
Originally published in the April 2011 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.