The Eastern Front remains the forgotten child of Western histories of the Second World War. Even the phrase ‘Eastern Front’ is a reflection of a Western-centric view that sees the struggle between the USSR and Germany as an afterthought compared to exploits of Allied Forces for control of Western Europe.
Yet, as Prit Buttar makes clear in The Reckoning, the war in Eastern Europe was a whole different beast. The conflict here was existential. Two nations, with diametrically opposed ideologies, fought not just for victory, but at times the complete extinction of the other. The cost was catastrophic. Estimates vary, but some historians have placed the combined civilian and military death toll as high as 30 million.
Buttar’s focus in this text is on 1944. His well-argued thesis is that this was the pivotal year in hostilities between the Red Army and the Wehrmacht.
Following the halting of German forces within miles of Moscow in late 1941, the conflict had ebbed slowly back in the Red Army’s favour. Despite suffering heavy casualties, a steady improvement in Soviet military organisation and doctrine allowed it to start marshalling its overwhelming reserves to start pushing back against the seemingly invincible German Army Group South.
By the start of 1944, we find ourselves on the banks of the Dnepr in modern-day Ukraine, with much of the river now in Soviet hands. The scene was set for a year that would decide the final victors in the fight on the Eastern Front.
Before I continue, it should be noted that this book’s claims to revelatory myth-busting about the Eastern Front deserve to come with a fairly large asterisk. Buttar is following in the footsteps of a host of brilliant historians who have reframed our thinking of the Eastern Front: Timothy Snyder, Mark Edele, Elena Seniavskaia, Amir Weiner – the list goes on.
Rather than a simplistic fight between a faceless Red Army horde and a seemingly well-disciplined German Army, their histories have painted a more nuanced picture. We have come to understand how Wehrmacht commanders struggled
to deal with the increasingly delusional whims of Adolf Hitler, Soviet troops were kept in line by a resurgence of the purging ‘terror’ mentality on the front-lines, and ordinary troops on both sides engaged in a violent, ideologically driven fight for survival – often reliant on the bonds with each other to survive.
Qualifications aside, Buttar captures this new understanding of the fight on the Eastern Front well. The real reason The Reckoning deserves our attention is the detail with which Buttar brings the Eastern Front in 1944 to life.
He is clearly an expert, and a passionate one at that, in the study of this region in military history, with previous critically acclaimed texts including Battleground Prussia: the assault on Germany’s Eastern Front, 1944-45 and a sprawling four-part series on the Eastern Front in WWI.
The Reckoning is fabulously rich in primary sources, immersing the reader in the hopes, fears, and motivations of a vast array of personnel. We hear General Georgy Zhukov bemoan how Stalin was ‘very wrong’ to ignore the bravery of the 1st Ukrainian in an important Soviet victory at Korsun-Shevchenkovsky in February 1944. From Albert Speer in Berlin, we hear a startling account of how Hitler by 1944 was riven with ‘spells of mental torpor’ and ‘permanently caustic and irritable’.
And then there are a multitude of sobering accounts from ordinary soldiers, like Soviet gunner Evgeni Grigorevich Grigorev, experiencing violence we can barely imagine, in warfare that degenerated into summary slaughter as prisoners ceased to be taken.
Grigorev describes finding a ‘heap of our officers’, killed by retreating German soldiers: ‘their overcoats were shredded by bursts of machine-gun fire, some of their heads smashed by rifle butts’.
All this combines to produce a detailed, engrossing account of the Soviet victories in 1944. Buttar takes us step by step through the moments that led to the defeat of Army Group South, from its encirclement in the Korsun Pocket to the crucial Soviet victories that followed in the Ias,i-Kishinev offensive.
The section of the book that really grabbed my attention was the extended chapter on the Crimea. A vital strategic and cultural touchstone of the region, much blood has been spilt over the centuries for control of this Black Sea peninsula. Buttar really hits his stride here, bringing together traditional military history with a social and political history of the region to provide a wonderfully well-rounded understanding of why Soviets and Nazis clashed here again in the Second World War.
For the Nazis, the Crimea was viewed by some in the High Command as the ancestral home of the Gothic people and therefore a natural site for the expansion of the Aryan race – plans were even afoot for a highway to run between Germany and this ‘German Riviera’.
Buttar then offers a compelling account of the German conquest under Manstein’s 11th Army in 1941. As the war turned in the Red Army’s favour, we learn of the many failed Soviet amphibious attempts to retake Crimea. In one particularly evocative section, troops were dropped in darkness on a sandbar mistaken for the coast by commanders: ‘heavily laden with weapons and equipment, many sank into the deep water between the sandbar and the true shore’.
The drama reaches its peak with General Andrei Ivanovich Eremenko’s successful three-pronged assault from the north and east, taking back the Crimea from the combined Romanian and German forces by May 1944.
Perhaps the real reason why the Crimea is the hidden gem of this almost 500-page book is because it is here that Buttar finds a way to show how all the ideological tensions structured and drove forward events on the Eastern Front. For Nazi Germany, conquest of the Crimea was followed by a programme of racial extermination.
Jews and other so-called ‘inferior races’ living in this area were murdered in their tens of thousands: 13,000 were killed in Simferopol alone, ‘a massacre that was deemed as essential by military commanders as a means of avoiding famine’.
The Reckoning is very clear on this point, firmly disputing the idea propagated in the memoirs of Wehrmacht commanders that they were unaware of, or opposed to, the extermination programme of the infamous SS Einsatzgruppe.
Legacies of violence determined wartime allegiances. The Crimean Tatars, persecuted heavily under the Stalinist Terror, welcomed a German ideology that demonised the Soviets – particularly Jews – and legitimised violent retribution. For more on this, read Snyder’s Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin – it is the definitive tome on the waves of violence that scarred Eastern Europe during this period.
The bloodshed did not end with the conclusion of the Second World War. In a sobering passage, Buttar explains how thousands of Tatars were deported to Siberia in Stalin’s quest to ‘Russify’ the Crimea. When the Soviet secret police realised they had missed a group of Tatars on the Arabat Spit, they were rounded up and placed on a boat. That vessel ‘was towed into the Sea of Azov, where it was scuttled. Machine-gunners waited on the shore in case any of the Tatars attempted to swim to safety.’
Overall, Buttar’s is a strong introductory text for anyone interested in the minutiae of events on the Eastern Front. He shows a command of writing classic military history, taking the reader down into the trenches and into the command bunkers of both Soviet and Nazi forces in 1944.
This approach does leave his argument occasionally mired in outdated ‘top-down’ ways of explaining warfare. At one point, he suggests that Germany’s disadvantage in industrial production effectively meant by 1944 ‘the final result of the war was no longer in doubt’. Such statements are out of step with modern historical scholarship of war, which reject inevitability and point to an array of factors to explain final outcomes.
The real value of this book is where Buttar finds time to take a step back from grand strategy for a moment, and explore the wider forces at play on the Eastern Front. For example, his discussion of industrial production does eventually get back on track. He outlines how Germany created a huge additional burden on their war machine by using thousands of industrial train carriages for transporting Jews to concentration camps – rather than trying to alleviate the endemic railway rolling-stock shortage on the Front.
And it is this desire to keep dissecting why military events unfurled in the way they did during 1944 that makes The Reckoning a worthy text. It places grand strategy in the context of the complex ideological influences on both sides that turned the conflict into a bloody fight for survival. This helps us understand how the Soviet Army – kept together by industrial might, a desire for revenge, and plenty of genuine passion to defend the Soviet way of life – successfully defeated Army Group South in 1944.
Review by Alex Izza.
The Reckoning: the defeat of Army Group South, 1944, Prit Buttar, Osprey Publishing, £30 (hbk), ISBN 978-1472837912.