Monday, 19 March 2018

Book Review - The Third Reich at War by Richard J. Evans

The Third Reich at War : how the Nazis led Germany from Conquest to Disaster
by Richard J. Evans

London: Penguin, 2008 (first published 2007)     ISBN 9780141015484

There is no doubt that both the collapse of Communism in Russia and Eastern Europe and the passing of the war generation has led to a revolution in the historiography of both the Third Reich and World War Two. One allowed historians access to hitherto hidden archives, and the other has allowed a less personal and more probing look at what went on during the years 1933-1945.

With these advantages, and building on the work of historians before him, Richard Evans has written a detailed, scathing and (as it says on the cover) terrifying account of the Third Reich during the period of the War (1939-1945). This book is the final of a three part account of Nazism written by Evans (the others being The Coming of the Third Reich, and The Third Reich in Power). Along with Ian Kershaw's biography of Hitler and Saul Friedlander's history of the Holocaust, Evans' work gives the early twenty-first-century reader a clear and chilling insight into what was perhaps the most murderous regime in history.

What Evans makes clear in this work is that murder - annihilation of entire sections of society, entire classes and indeed entire races - was at the core of everything National Socialism stood for. Their way of "making Germany great again" consisted only of eliminating "enemies". Evans shows us how much time, effort and expense went in to eliminating not only the Jews, but anyone else that the Nazis felt needed to be got rid of.

Hitler, and by extension the cronies he'd gathered around him, had a very narrow idea of what constituted a good German: anyone who didn't fit that idea, and certainly anyone who wasn't German (or "Aryan") was not considered to be human, and so fit for destruction. The warped Social Darwinism of the Nazis drove them to ever more killing, as the stock of "good Germans" was reduced by the war. The executions continued up to (and even beyond) the end of hostilities.

Evans mentions several times throughout the book that the Nazis never garnered more than about 37% of the popular vote in elections, so how did they manage to keep the whole country under control for so long? There was no doubt that Nazi Germany was a police state, which became ever more the case as the war dragged on. Fear was a big factor in the quiescence of the population. The victories early in the war were genuinely popular, and by the time the war turned against Germany, it was clear that a whirlwind of vengeance would descend, and the Nazis played on that fear to keep the country fighting. Much of the population, as Evans suggests, were by this time expending all their energy in trying to get enough food and fuel to live, and so didn't have time to foment rebellion.

Apart from the July plot, there were other small attempts at defiance of the regime, which usually ended in failure, imprisonment or worse. Evans spends some time on the ambivalent attitude of the Church - both Roman Catholic and Protestant - to Hitler and the regime, with their desire to protest compromised by their desire to not lose their position or possession in society. It's fair to state that they don't come through unscathed by shame.

Evans also spends time focusing on the political economy of the War. That Germany was destroyed by the War we know; that it was always going to be the case was probably not in doubt even early on in the conflict. The German economy was simply not big enough to equip an army for the task Hitler set, nor was the German population big enough to replace the horrendous losses entailed in fighting in Russia. Evans shows clearly that, even without US industry, the Allies were producing more weapons and food than Germany. Despite having over 400,000 foreign workers and hundreds of thousands more POW and Concentration Camp inmates working in agriculture and industry (the latter classes often being worked to death), the German economy was simply unable to provide enough material for the Army to prevail. The irony of the racial state of the Third Reich having to rely on the "lower" races (Slavs, Jews) to undertake vital work is not lost on Evans. Any fraternising between these imported workers and native Germans was forbidden, with harsh punishments for those who transgressed.

What comes through very clearly in Evans' work, and indeed through most studies of the government of the Third Reich, was how - apart from the Police apparatus - shambolic the systems and activities of government were. The personalized nature of the Nazi dictatorship meant that all "law" emanated from Hitler, and so when he did not codify activities and behaviour, his disciples made it up, according to what they thought he wanted. Combined with Hitler's inability to delegate power to one person (most areas of the economy had two or three departments attempting to run them), this led to constant bickering and power-grabs by whomever thought they might have the upper hand at the time. This extended into the military sphere as well, with Albert Speer's attempts to streamline military production constantly stymied by personal projects of other Nazi leaders.

At well over seven hundred pages this is not a short book, and given its subject matter not always easy to read, but it is a masterful overview of the final years of Nazi power, which drew the World into a War that ended up destroying not only the Third Reich, but Germany itself. Designed to be read as a stand-alone book or as the final of Evans' trilogy, it's a must-read not only for those who wish to know more about one of the darkest periods in human history, but also for serious students of World War Two.

Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell

Wednesday, 7 March 2018

Book Review - The Battle of Dienbienphu by Jules Roy

The Battle of Dienbienphu - by Jules Roy, translated from the French by Robert Baldick, introduction by Neil Sheehan

London: Faber and Faber, 1965

If you want a dry factual account of the battle of Dienbienphu, this is not the book to read. If you want a heart-felt paean to both the French and Vietminh soldier, on the stupidity and wastefulness of the whole French effort in Indochina, this book is a must-read. The Battle of Dienbienphu is a very French book about a very French military catastrophe. It is a story of pride, hatred, and incompetence on the French side, and of determination and ruthlessness on the side of the Vietminh.

Jules Roy was a former member of the French Air Force, who had resigned his commission in response to French policy in Indochina. His initial idea was to write a book about the battle and the heroism of the French troops, but as he researched more he realised that that the true story of Dienbienphu was one of the generals and government, the pettiness of the former and the cynicism of the latter, who didn't want to remain in Vietnam, but couldn't bear to loss of face a withdrawal would require.

It pays, as a reader, to have a basic idea of the course of the battle before you come to this book. Written about ten years after the battle, by a Frenchman in France, there is an assumption that some knowledge of events will be brought to the book by the reader. Written in a diary format, Roy begins his book with the appointment of Navarre as commander in Vietnam, and with his idea to provoke Giap by investing Dienbienphu to cut the Vietminh off from Laos and to draw them into pitched battle, while also providing a base from which to patrol and attack. This was a lot to accomplish, but Navarre was very sure of himself despite his inexperience in Indochinese warfare and refused to listen to the doubts his juniors cast on his scheme when they voiced them, which they perhaps didn't do aggressively enough.

That they didn't push their doubts may have been partly down to the contempt in which most French officers held the Vietminh troops. There was little doubt from the French that they could not only hold Dienbienphu, but also destroy any attack the Vietminh might like to launch. Navarre envisaged that Dienbienphu would draw the Vietminh in and allow him, while the bulk of the enemy were fighting there, to clear the Delta of enemy combatants.

This underestimation was fatal for the French. Not only could Giap get an army to Dienbienphu, he could also feed them and keep them in ammunition. More importantly, and to the complete surprise of the French, he could get heavy artillery into the hills surrounding the French base and dig them in well enough to survive any bombardment.

The geographical position of Dienbienphu was an appalling one in which to survive a siege: the bottom of a basin ("the Chamber Pot"), surrounded by jungle-covered hills, far from air support (fighters could only spend ten minutes over the base before they had to return), it was impossible for the French to effectively deny the hills to the Vietminh, and thus protect themselves.

The ambivalence of the French Government - unwilling to expand their commitment to Indochina - led to the French forces being short of the equipment they needed. Most of the Air Force consisted of war surplus US equipment, and Navarre stinted on ramping up Dienbienphu, insisting that it was the decoy for his larger Delta campaign long after it was obvious that Dienbienphu was in fact becoming the decisive battle for control of Vietnam.

Roy is quite naturally angry about this aspect of the debacle: men were being sent to die in the weeks before the final surrender in the full knowledge that it was pointless, with the Generals knowing that Dienbienphu was lost. This makes the many heroic actions of the troops on the ground poignant and tragic.

Roy does not ignore the Vietminh story, with respectful (too respectful?) interludes describing the herculean efforts of the Viets to undertake the logistical effort as well as the fighting to win a historic victory.

The diary-like structure that Roy has chosen does much to add to the drama of his telling of this story: each day brings the inevitable end closer, and the horrors suffered by the French are well conveyed. Roy pulls no punches in his views of the French leadership - Navarre the cynic, Cogny the schemer, Castries, hopelessly out of his depth, Langlais keeping it all together on the ground, Bigeard the hero. Roy builds his story around these personalities, and others such as Grauwin the chief medic.

Roy's conclusion is that Dienbienphu didn't have to happen, or that it could have turned out differently. But, the particular combination of both military and civilian leaders that were on the spot at the time led to the inevitability of the final disaster.

Dienbienphu was not the end in Vietnam: there was another twenty years of warfare ahead of it. One outcome of the French defeat was that the United States was drawn in to the quagmire, only in the end to fail just as the French did.

For a powerful, if partisan and opinionated, description of Dienbienphu, I recommend this book.

Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell