The Retreat: Hitler’s First Defeat

 Evan Mawdsley looks at a striking picture of a Second World War defeat  

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Reviewed by: Evan Mawdsley
Author: Michael Jones
Publisher: John Murray
Price (RRP): £20

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 The ‘retreat’, it needs to be explained, is the retreat of the German army from in front of Moscow, between mid-December 1941 and February 1942. But, as a bonus, Michael Jones tells a larger story: the whole of the Moscow campaign, effectively from the start of October 1941. 

As a fresh popular account of the whole battle, this volume has much value. Rodric Braithwaite’s Moscow 1941 (2006) pays limited attention to the military side, and The Retreat is better than The Greatest Battle (2007) – another enigmatically titled book about Moscow, by the Newsweek editor Andrew Nagorski. 

Dr Jones for the most part lays out the strategic decisions accurately and intelligibly. But too much blame is assigned to Hitler, rather than to his senior generals like Brauchitsch, Halder and Bock; Moscow was their defeat. 

By November 1941 the führer was more interested in the Caucasus, and he hoped to smother Moscow with an encirclement. It is also not clear why so much space is devoted to the destruction of General Vlasov’s Second Shock Army or the siege of Demiansk. These were striking episodes, but Vlasov’s defeat was part of the Leningrad campaign, and Demiansk is halfway between Moscow and Leningrad. And the final page of the book is troubling. It was not in the spring of 1942, after the Moscow retreat, that Hitler began “a race war of subjugation”; “total war” was part of the German army’s original Barbarossa concept, and it was put fully into practice in the summer and autumn of 1941.  

The strength of this work, however, is the view from the trenches, and here will be its attraction to readers. The book consists of eyewitness testimonies by front-line officers and soldiers, constructed into a gripping narrative. Many of the published accounts will be new to English-speaking readers, and Dr Jones has also carried out an impressive number of interviews with elderly veterans in Germany and Russia.

Occasionally a good story is retailed uncritically: the report that German soldiers drove into battle with a gramophone playing on top of their vehicle (anticipating Colonel Kilgore’s Aircav in Apocalypse Now) suggests some ignorance of both gramophones and Russian roads. But there are more than enough authentic episodes. The battle of Moscow was a hell on earth, a terrible, bloody event for both invaders and defenders. A mass of first-person material has been cleverly assembled here to paint a striking picture.  

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Evan Mawdsley is professor of history, University of Glasgow, and author of World War II (Cambridge University Press, 2009)