Book Review: Ostkrieg

In the words of Stephen Fritz, the author of Ostkrieg: Hitler’s War of Extermination in the East, his work is “a synthesis, an integrated narrative based primarily on exhaustive research by German, British, and American historians over the past two or three decades.”[1] I found this to be case as Fritz drew heavily from the work of well-established World War II historians such as Antony Beevor, Robert Citino, Adam Tooze, Karl-Heinz Frieser, and David Glantz (whose work the author referenced 191 times, mainly Barbarossa). The aim of the author, again in his own words, was to “provide a deeper understanding of the complexity and immensity of the Ostkrieg by anchoring the military events of the war within their larger ideological, racial, economic, and social context.”[2] The result of Fritz’s research is perhaps the most comprehensive narrative of the military events that took place on the Eastern Front 1941-1945 that has been produced from a Western point of view. Not only does the author provide an accurate and sometimes detailed account of military operations, but he also places military decisions in a strategic framework. In this respect I believe that the author was successful in accomplishing his stated goal of producing such a narrative; it is also for these reasons that I feel that the book is worthy of a place in my personal World War II library.

Against this background I wish to question, if not dispute, some of the author’s assertions. Firstly, that “none” of the previous works on the topic “have attempted to integrate the military, ideological, and economic dimensions.”[3] This statement is irresponsible, disrespectful to his colleagues, and in my opinion, just plain inaccurate. Many of the authors whom the author cites so liberally, and on whose labors he has admittedly based his work, made at least some efforts to do exactly that in their respective areas of Eastern Front study.

Secondly, I take issue with the author’s assertion that the “real war” was the German-Russian struggle.[4] In his opening comments Fritz explained that he wished “to re-establish the Eastern Front as the pivotal theater of the war.”[5] Accordingly it was understandable that he would portray the scale of fighting there, which in his words “dwarfed” the fighting that took place in the west, as the key to victory in World War II.[6] I do not necessarily disagree with this assertion however I do find it regrettable that the author through his choice of words diminished the sacrifices made by those in the West. According to the author the “real war” took place in the East because of the scale of fighting, brutality, and killing that took place there. The well-known statistics which the author cites in his work are telling; indeed between 1941 and 1945 the vast majority of Wehrmacht fighting power was concentrated on fighting in the East where most of their losses were incurred. Many millions of soldiers and civilians on both sides in the East became casualties of war and suffered incomprehensible horror and suffering. This however does not cheapen the sacrifices and loss of life in the West. Dead is dead, maimed is maimed, and war is real – regardless of where it occurred or how many died. 

Fritz does not altogether discount the efforts of the Western Allies and recognizes their vital contributions throughout his work to the Soviet cause, chiefly via Lend-Lease and the strategic bombing campaign over Europe. And he does point out numerous occasions when the Soviets benefitted from the transfer of elite Wehrmacht and Waffen SS formations to the west in response to the threat of an invasion and later to Allied operations in Italy and France. However, I feel that his choice of words and tone in describing the contributions of Western Allies were unfortunate.

July 1941: Panzer units of the German Army pass through a blazing Russian village during Operation Barbarossa – Keystone/Getty Images

In examining the rationale and the willingness of Nazi leadership and Wehrmacht high command to participate in planning and waging an offensive war of annihilation against the Soviet Union, Fritz pointed out that Hitler believed Stalin would remain out of the war until Western Europe “bled itself white” and then act to “Bolshevize” Europe.[7] There is a grain of truth to this; Stalin did expect to go to war against Germany, just not in 1941.[8] Hitler and the Nazi leadership were also well aware that only two decades prior Marshal Piłsudski turned back the Bolsheviks in the “Miracle on the Vistula.” This spared Europe from an onslaught that at the time sought to bring as much of Western Europe as possible under the yoke of communism. They knew that Stalin, while he officially proclaimed “socialism in one country” actively worked through the Comintern to subversively promote communist revolution worldwide. The Comintern provided German communists with one million gold marks and flooded the country with agents that worked hand in glove with communist revolutionaries during the 1920s in an effort to topple the Weimar Republic.[9] In 1923, the same year that Hitler marched in his failed putsch, hundreds of German communists attempted their own revolution in Hamburg which was put down with ninety people killed and hundreds wounded.[10] Hitler used the Ukrainian famine, caused by Stalin’s first Five Year Plan, as an effective campaign tool in 1933 using it as an indictment of Marxism. In Hitler’s words “millions of people are starving in a country that could be a breadbasket for a whole world.”[11] The fear of communism in the West, not only in Germany, was very real. The Nazi propaganda machine fully exploited this. Many of the soldiers that marched into the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, fully believed that they were going to war against a regime that was a threat to Western civilization. When the German Landser was received in Ukraine as a liberating hero and heard stories of Soviet oppression and mass starvation, this belief was confirmed in his mind. It was this same fear that motivated thousands of men from the West to volunteer for service on the Eastern Front in Wehrmacht and Waffen SS units. While the author touched on the subject, it seems a comprehensive work would have perhaps delved a little deeper into general fear of communism as a contributing factor in the war.

In conclusion, the book is a valuable, well researched history of the German-Soviet war. Although my criticisms of the author’s work are not limited to those expressed in this essay, they are not serious enough to cause me to discard the work. I would refer this book to anyone wishing to gain a general understanding of the events that took place on the Eastern Front during World War II.

[1] Stephen G. Fritz, Ostkrieg: Hitler’s War of Extermination in the East (University Press of Kentucky, 2011), Kindle Locations 137-141.

[2] Ibid. Kindle Locations 140-141.

[3] Ibid. Kindle Location 142.

[4] Ibid. Kindle Locations 9644-9645.

[5] Ibid. Kindle Locations 161-163.

[6] Ibid. Kindle Locations 162-163.

[7] Ibid. Kindle Locations 1664-1666.

[8] Timothy Snyder, Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin (Basic Books. Kindle Edition, 2010), Kindle Locations 3486-3918.

[9] Stephen Kotkin, Stalin: Paradoxes of Power, 1878-1928 (Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition, 2014), 511.

[10] Ibid. 526.

[11] Snyder, Kindle Locations 1622-1626.