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The Atlantic Monthly
Tuesday, January 25th, 2005


War in the Wild East: The German Army and Soviet Partisans

by Ben Shepherd

A review by Benjamin Schwarz

The epic clash on the Eastern Front in the Second World War remains arguably the largest conflict ever fought. It claimed 80 percent of all German casualties in the war. The front stretched for 1,900 miles (the distance from the northern tip of Maine to the southern tip of Florida), and the seemingly unremitting military operations staged there were of unparalleled scale (the Battle of Kursk alone drew in 3.5 million men). Perhaps most significant, the Wehrmacht and the Red Army fought with singular viciousness and unprecedented efficiency: scholars now put the number of Soviet soldiers killed at a staggering 14.7 million, and the number of civilians killed at close to 20 million. And for its part, elements of the Red Army wreaked a most terrible revenge, raping at least two million women as the Russians invaded and occupied Germany. In short, the war in the east constitutes the single most terrible chapter in world military history -- but it's a chapter that in many essential ways is only now being written. Since the publication, in 1975, of the final volume of John Erickson's magisterial history of Stalin's War, scholarship on various aspects of the Red Army's military operations -- much of it recondite, but necessary to fill in huge gaps in the historical record -- has swollen. But the books that have received the most attention have probed the German army's conduct. Owing largely to self-serving accounts written by Wehrmacht generals after the war, the conventional wisdom long held that even here the regular German army was -- as Shepherd, a young Scottish historian, characterizes that point of view -- "an oasis of honor and decency amidst the barbaric apparatus of the Nazi state." But Omer Bartov's pathbreaking 1985 study, The Eastern Front, 1941-45: German Troops and the Barbarisation of Warfare, demonstrated convincingly that in fact the Wehrmacht -- not just the SS and other Nazi ideologues -- had willingly, even enthusiastically, participated in the slaughter of Soviet civilians and the attempted extermination of the Jews. In his important examination of the Wehrmacht's war against Soviet partisans (among the most gruesome facets of the Russo-German conflict, in which neither side gave any quarter, and in which up to 300,000 Soviets, mostly civilians, were killed) Shepherd largely confirms Bartov's general conclusions but adds layers of nuance and shades of (dark) gray. Analyzing the official paperwork of three army security divisions responsible for the suppression of Soviet insurgents, Shepherd focuses on the conduct and motivation of field officers, who served as the crucial links that "converted the ideological, military, and economic imperatives of the Third Reich's war of extermination into action." He reveals that at all levels the Wehrmacht was thoroughly indoctrinated in Nazi anti-Bolshevik, anti-Slav, and anti-Semitic ideology, and that even prior to the invasion of the Soviet Union it was quite happily prepared to act with ruthlessness against Soviet civilians. Although the Wehrmacht planned its barbaric strategy for largely pragmatic reasons (given its small numbers relative to the size of the territory and the population it had to subdue, terror tactics seemed exigent), it also "colluded to the hilt in the mass murder of Jews and other groups by the SS." But Shepherd reveals that as partisan activity intensified, many officers (mostly from western Germany, and so largely immune from the anti-Slav sentiment that pervaded eastern Germany) calculatedly acted with some restraint and even attempted to cultivate ties with Soviet civilians in order to stanch support for the guerrillas and woo deserters -- even as other Wehrmacht units, commanded by ideological fanatics (who tended to be from eastern Germany), continued and extended their arbitrary killing spree. Shepherd in no way exonerates the Wehrmacht. The conduct of all German officers he examines was ferocious, even criminal -- though some were more brutal than pragmatic, and some more pragmatic than brutal. But in highlighting the diversity and fluidity of the Wehrmacht's response to the partisan threat, he illuminates both the mercurial nature of warfare and a particularly savage aspect of the most savage war yet waged.

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