Second World War: the Eastern Front

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Laan Yaa Mo
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Second World War: the Eastern Front

Post by Laan Yaa Mo » June 2, 2024, 3:37 pm

History buffs of the Second World War might enjoy this book.
Endgame 1944 by Jonathan Dimbleby review — the war was won on the Eastern front
This history of the titanic struggle between the Nazis and the Red Army is a story of horror, courage and sacrifice

Dominic Sandbrook
Saturday June 01 2024, 12.01am BST, The Sunday Times

Dawn, New Year’s Day, 1944. From his frozen foxhole on the west bank of the Dnieper, Gunter Koschorrek stares into the blizzard, struggling to make out the advancing enemy through the whirling snow. A machine gunner in Hitler’s 6th Army, he has been lucky to escape the carnage at Stalingrad. But after retreating some 800 miles to the west, he is exhausted in body, mind and soul.

Now, as a shell thuds into the earth a few yards away, sending up a great burst of snow and debris, Koschorrek throws himself to the ground. A moment later his friend Paul lifts his head to look for the enemy. Next comes a burst of machinegun fire. And then, Koschorrek writes, “I stare aghast at the fist-sized hole in Paul’s head just above his left eye, from which blood is leaking in dark red streams onto his steel helmet and from there right over his face and into his mouth … I am in total panic … My hands are trembling, my knees go weak and shake. I can’t do anything more; his face is already as white as a sheet …”

So begins Jonathan Dimbleby’s titanic history of the Eastern Front in 1944, a story of mind-
numbing horror, cruelty, courage and sacrifice. As he notes in his preface, we remember this as the year of D-Day, when thousands of British, Canadian and American soldiers waded ashore on the Normandy beaches. But the real turning point, he argues, took place hundreds of miles to the east, where more than six million men of Stalin’s Red Army were driving back about two million of Hitler’s best troops.

This, Dimbleby writes, was “the bloodiest and most brutal mega-conflict in the annals of human warfare”, determining the fate of Europe for more than a generation. But while D-Day stands as a moment of supreme heroism, there was no happy ending on the Eastern Front. By the close of the year great swathes of central Europe had been abandoned to Stalin’s chilly embrace, including, in a tragic irony, Poland, the country for which Britain had taken up arms. The Second World War was not yet over, but, as Dimbleby shows, the Cold War had already begun.

Although most readers will know Dimbleby from television, he is the author of several immensely readable works on the war, including excellent accounts of El Alamein and Operation Barbarossa. This book is his best yet, covering a vast canvas from the Baltic to the Black Sea, and moving deftly from the broad strategic picture to the tragic details of individuals’ lives. And while he is strong on the strategic politics — not least Hitler’s crazed and self-destructive refusal to let his generals fall back to more defensible positions — his real skill lies in his choice of memorably horrible vignettes.

Amid the ferocious struggle for the town of Korsun in central Ukraine, for example, one young Red Army soldier surveyed a smouldering battlefield littered with smashed-up tanks, burnt-out guns, slaughtered horses and hundreds of naked bodies, stripped by local villagers desperate for clothing. Then he saw an extraordinary apparition: an old woman, carrying something bulky underneath her shawl. When he questioned her, she revealed an axe and a pair of German officer’s boots, the legs still in them, severed above the knees. The boots, she explained cheerfully, would not come off the dead man’s frozen body. So she had cut them off and was looking forward to thawing them out over her cottage fire.

While the two colossal armies slugged it out on the Eastern Front, the Allied leaders were already quarrelling over the spoils. As Dimbleby shows, Winston Churchill was always torn between admiration for the sacrifices of the Russian people and profound suspicion of Stalin’s expansionist ambitions. At the Tehran conference in late 1943 he had been appalled by the Soviet dictator’s “diplomatic thuggery”, and as the months passed he felt a deepening foreboding about the fate of Europe. “Although I have tried in every way to put myself in sympathy with these communist leaders,” he lamented privately, “I cannot feel the slightest trust or confidence in them. Force and facts are their only realities.”

Unfortunately for Churchill, and for the nations of central Europe, Franklin D Roosevelt was rather less clear-sighted. Dimbleby’s Roosevelt is a man blinded by naivety, so insouciant that “with a smile” he abandons Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia to Stalin’s commissars. From the first page to the last Roosevelt consistently deludes himself about the nature of his Soviet partner, convinced that sheer bonhomie will persuade Stalin to play the game. But when challenged by Polish representatives, who are rightly terrified that he is about to abandon them, Roosevelt reveals a more cynical side. “Do you think [the Russians] will stop to please you, or us for that matter? Do you expect us and Great Britain to declare war on Joe Stalin if they cross your previous border?”

All the time, grimly, ruthlessly, the Red Army is fighting its way west. Every day Hitler’s empire is shrinking. So too, sadly, are the democratic hopes of the Poles, the Czechs, the Hungarians and others. In one hauntingly powerful section Dimbleby tells the story of the doomed Warsaw Uprising, in which about 40,000 Polish resistance fighters tried to liberate themselves from Nazi rule, only to be abandoned by their supposed Soviet allies.

In another he recounts the nightmarish battle for Budapest, in which at least 75,000 citizens were killed by the Germans, the Russians, starvation and disease. Yet still, amid the apocalyptic slaughter, Hitler refused to yield to reason. Late one night, in a despairing conversation with his adjutant, he muttered: “I know the war is lost.” But in the next breath he went on: “We will not capitulate, ever. We may go down. But we will take the world with us.”

For all their popularity, many books about the world wars are immensely boring and inelegantly written. Dimbleby’s work is in a different league, told with such skill and judgment that, despite the harrowing subject, it is still a pleasure to read. As in all good narrative histories, it is the human details that linger in the mind.

I won’t readily forget the story of Faye Schulman, a Polish Jew who escaped the Nazis and joined a partisan group as their photographer and nurse. During a raid on the Germans occupying her home town she stumbled across the trenches where her murdered family were buried, and seemed to hear their voices in her head: “Don’t give up … Fight! Avenge us and defend yourself.”

Then, making her way through the town, she came to her family home, gutted and empty. For a moment she stood there, imagining the voices of her mother and sisters. Then, with a fellow partisan, she doused the house in petrol and set it ablaze. “My family is dead,” she wrote afterwards. “I will never live here again … A terrible truth: this town and my house, so close to my heart, are no more. I can still hear the screams coming from the three trenches; they are forever engraved on my mind.” How lucky we are to have escaped such horrors.
Endgame 1944 by Jonathan Dimbleby (Penguin £25). To order a copy go to Free UK standard P&P on orders over £25. Special discount available for Times+ members

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