Before I finally started reading The Nazi Officer’s Wife: How One Jewish Woman Survived the Holocaust I figured it might be wise to first read The Retreat: Hitler’s First Defeat. You see, I’ve had the book for almost ten years and considering how much I’ve enjoyed other books on the Eastern Front I’m kinda amazed I let it set on my shelf unread for so long. So one Sunday morning I grabbed my copy of Michael Jones’ 2009 book and headed to the coffee shop. Before I knew it The Retreat sucked me in and had me wishing I’d read it years ago.
As 1941 drew to a close the German military looked invisible. After smashing the Polish, Dutch, Belgian, Norwegian, French, Greek, Yugoslav and British armies the Nazis stood masters of Europe. Germany’s only adversary was Great Britain, which after being driven from the Continent sat alone and beleaguered. So, in the summer of 1941 when Germany invaded the Soviet Union and appeared completely unstoppable in its drive to destroy the Red Army and capture Moscow many thought the Nazis were indeed superman destined to rule if not the world then much of Eurasia. But before long, in the dead of the Russian winter something unexpected happened – they were stopped. Jones’ The Retreat takes a close look and shows how and why Germany’s initial drive to conquer the Soviet Union ended in failure.
What struck me the most about The Retreat it’s not as much a “big picture” analysis of the Eastern Front but more a collection of accounts of German and Soviet soldiers who did the fighting. Much of this is based on original sources like the combatants’ journals and letters as well as interviews done after the war. The result is a readable “boots on the ground” look at the brutal fighting in the USSR.
Germany’s plan to vanquish the Soviet Union, if successful all depended on a quick push to Moscow and successful capture of the Soviet capital. However, despite Germany’s many early victories and impressive territorial gains by late 1941 the Nazi juggernaut began to slow. Logistically, the challenge of supplying such a massive invasion force thousands of miles deep in the heart of Russia became too great. With the onset of winter the German army found itself bereft of winter clothing as well as cold-weather impervious lubricants for its tank, truck and airplane engines. The Germans also underestimated the Soviet Union’s ability to rebuild its depleted armed forces both in men and material. (Also, once Stalin learned Japan was planning on striking South and attacking the Americans, British and Dutch and not the Soviet Far East he reinforced his armies defending Moscow with fresh Siberian-based troops.) Lastly, the Nazis underestimated the Soviet people’s will to resist a hated invader and once Soviet soldiers learned millions of their countrymen had died or where dying in POW camps fought even harder, preferring to die fighting than be captured. (On the other hand, the Soviets committed errors as well, most notably engaging in costly frontal assaults against the Germans instead of attempting to encircle them.)
Fighting was savage on the Eastern Front but Jones’ includes a few accounts of shared humanity. One German soldier, after stumbling upon a Russian house with an impressive library including many books in German was told by the house’s Jewish owner to help himself since the whole place will end up getting torched in the end. Despite hearing reports of an impending Soviet attack, German forces occupying a Russian village went ahead with their impromptu Christmas Eve service . Before long local villagers flocked to the service, even though Christmas, in the Eastern Orthodox tradition isn’t celebrated until early January. Then, slowly and quietly assorted men begin to assembling at the back of the crowd. These were Red Army soldiers and partisans. In the end no shots are fired and quiet handshakes and well-wishes were exchanged between Germans and Russian fighters.
The Retreat is good book and it compliments rather well other books on the Eastern Front I’ve read like Katherine Merridale’s Ivan’s War: Life and Death in The Red Army 1939-1945 Willy Peter Reese’s A Stranger to Myself and Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin.