- War of Annihilation: Combat and Genocide on the Eastern Front, 1941
As part of the publisher's series Total War: New Perspectives on World War II, this book is aimed primarily at a general readership. Published less than a decade after Müller's and Ueberschär's excellent survey of the historical literature on Hitler's war against the U.S.S.R., Megargee faces the daunting task of writing a readable synthesis of the massive historiography on the campaign's military and genocidal aspects for the nonspecialist. He succeeds admirably in this respect and demonstrates his superb command of the existing research. Somewhat less convincing are his claims that the literature "has suffered from two fundamental weaknesses" (p. xii): (1) the white-washing of the German army by its generals and postwar historians who have relied on their accounts, and (2) the existence of a gulf separating historians who write almost exclusively on military planning and operations from researchers who focus on Nazi criminality. Indeed, the emergence of "critical military history" in West Germany in the late 1960s successfully challenged the view of the apolitical and "clean" Wehrmacht. Moreover, during the past decade several historians have presented irrefutable evidence of the interconnectedness of military developments and the evolution of the Germans' various mass murder initiatives in the U.S.S.R.
Such connections, Megargee shows, predated the Third Reich. Since at least 1870 the German military had a tradition of advocating and practicing ruthlessness in the treatment of enemy civilians and the confiscation of the enemy's resources. The concept of total war emerged long before Goebbels publicly called for its implementation in February 1943. German war crimes in Germany's colonies in southwest and east Africa and in World War I also reveal a military leadership without regard for international law and willing to resort to mass murder to achieve its goals.
The generals shared the Nazi movement's hatred of Jews, communists, Slavs, and the Treaty of Versailles. They also agreed with Hitler's goal of molding a racially pure national community bent on conquest and domination. In short, most generals were predisposed to working with the Führer and at times more radical than Hitler himself. Megargee describes with great competence how men who presumably considered themselves cultured and [End Page 1271] educated did not hesitate to exhibit utter disregard for international law and the basic tenets of the western tradition. At the high command level they formulated orders that were clearly criminal in nature. In the field—at first in Poland and later in the U.S.S.R.—they did not hesitate to implement these criminal orders. Most commanders cooperated enthusiastically with the murderous Einsatzgruppen and other mobile killing forces who annihilated 1.5 million victims, mostly Soviet Jews. They also participated in the systematic plunder of the conquered territories, well aware that the removal of vast quantities of food would lead to mass starvation among Soviet civilians. Despite labor shortages in the Reich, the regime and its generals permitted millions of Red Army POWs to perish from hunger and disease.
Megargee's book appears particularly useful for the college classroom. His style is clear and concise. The author excels in linking the German army's growing problems in the fall of 1941 to the Germans' ever more radical approach in the occupied areas. In short, instructors who teach courses on the Holocaust, World War II, the Soviet Union, military history, etc., may wish to consider this book. Their students would gain knowledge about the fascinating (and depressing) story of Operation Barbarossa and its aftermath. They would also learn that men who claim superiority over others are often criminals, nincompoops, or scoundrels. Hitler's generals are a case in point.