Reviewed by: Roger Moorhouse Author: Michael K Jones Publisher: John Murray Price (RRP): £25
It is curious to think that it is not so long ago that the eastern front in the Second World War barely featured in the western consciousness.
That particular myopia has long since been corrected, of course, not least thanks to the work of such luminaries as John Erickson, David Glantz and Antony Beevor. Indeed, the correction has been so complete that one is already tempted to ask if there is anything new to be said about that most decisive of theatres.
Michael Jones’s Total War answers that question in the affirmative. Using first-hand testimony and memoir accounts from both sides, he weaves an engaging narrative outlining the human dimension of the conflict.
Jones tells his story with his customary flair. Starting with the battle for Stalingrad – the high-water mark of Nazi expansion – he traces the Soviet advance through the killing fields of Byelorussia and Ukraine into the very heart of the Reich, focussing throughout on the experiences of the ordinary men and women who were doing the fighting.
The theme that looms particularly large in this book is the growing desire for revenge that was engendered among Red Army soldiers as they advanced.
In the first instance, as they recaptured their own villages and towns, they saw the horrors left by the German occupation: entire families hanged, homes torched, communities destroyed. Spurred by the imprecations of arch-propagandist Ilya Ehrenburg, the Red Army was determined to avenge its people.
“Kill the German”, Ehrenburg wrote in 1942: “Your motherland demands it.”
Then, as the Red Army entered occupied Poland and discovered the unspeakable crimes of the death camps, those sentiments were further amplified. Far from being hardened to such bestiality, Jones argues, Red Army soldiers were profoundly affected by what they saw.
As one of them noted of the liberation of Auschwitz: “I never saw anything so terrible throughout the entire war. It pierced me to the very soul.” As a consequence, their desire for revenge would be transformed into a righteous and sometimes uncontrollable rage. German civilians would reap a whirlwind of retribution.
Jones’s approach is necessarily pointillist, but he writes engagingly and with considerable verve, giving a convincing impression of the whole.
As well as using excellent first-hand testimony, including poetry, letters and diaries, which allow the reader into the mind of the average Soviet soldier, he has also unearthed some genuinely new material, such as the deliberate Nazi attempt to infect the Red Army with typhus in the spring of 1944.
If there is a caveat to be expressed, it is simply to suggest that Jones might use his excellent first-hand material a touch more sparingly. Occasionally the reader has the feeling of being overwhelmed by the multiplicity of voices that he employs, and a leaven of context or analysis – or some judicious editing – would make its impact all the more powerful. In this instance, one suspects, less might well be more.
However, that minor grumble should not detract from what is an excellent book and a genuine contribution to our understanding of a war that was characterised by such unimaginable suffering.
Roger Moorhouse is the author of Berlin at War (Vintage, 2011)