For sixty years, Adolf Hitler and the National Socialist Party have been the universal alibi of the German armed forces. To explain why the invincible Germans suffered defeat at the hands of the allegedly incompetent Red Army, commanders like Erich von Manstein and Heinz Guderian blamed Hitler for every conceivable error of judgment, while ignoring the occasions when the dictator's instincts were better than those of his generals. The same German authors, and generations of popular historians, held the Nazi Party solely responsible for all war crimes, insisting that the men of the German Army and even of the Waffen (Combat) SS were above reproach, knights engaged in a crusade to defend Western civilization against the barbaric hordes of Bolshevism. The very fact that most Americans, if they are even aware of the Soviet-German conflict, refer to that conflict by the German term "the Eastern Front" reflects the degree to which the Germans have succeeded in imposing their view of the war upon collective memory.
Ronald Smelser and Edward Davies have performed a signal service by tracing the origin and spread of this mythology. They begin with the favorable American news coverage of the Soviet peoples and war effort during World War II, a coverage that ended abruptly when the American occupiers encountered friendly, cooperative Germans and suspicious, churlish Russians after 1945. They trace the role of men such as General Franz Halder, Chief of the German General Staff from 1939 to 1942, who manipulated Western views of the conflict by directing the group of German officers who wrote historical studies for the U.S. Army after the war. They note the German and American generals who, under the pressure of the Cold War, argued that all German military war criminals should be held blameless so that they could help re-form the German armed forces. The result was what the authors term the "myth of the clean Wehrmacht," in which the Germans were honorable soldiers while the Russians were savages (p. 101.) [End Page 681]
In writing their memoirs, German veterans tried to absolve themselves from any professional or moral errors. At the tactical level, these authors claimed that they were overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of Soviet men and tanks, without admitting that the Red commanders had become masters of deception and maneuver. As for war crimes and other moral lapses, these Germans argued that the Nazi leaders exploited their "political naiveté and dedication" (p. 143). Senior officers denied any knowledge of atrocities, and insisted that they had not implemented directives to violate the Law of War. In fact, of course, recent studies such as Marcel Stein's Field Marshal von Manstein: the Janus Head, a Portrait, have identified specific instances in which Wehrmacht commanders not only tolerated but actually encouraged genocide against Jews who were supposedly partisans.
Smelser and Davies go even farther, exploring why this myth struck so many responsive chords in American culture. For example, they note the remarkable similarity between the image of the gallant Germans, fighting to defend their culture against overwhelming odds, and the "Lost Cause" of the Confederacy. When describing the popular fascination with the Waffen SS, the authors suggest that Americans admired an elite based on competence rather than inherited status. In a similar vein, the authors explore the role of war gamers, re-enactors, and self-appointed internet experts in perpetuating positive, racist images of the Germans fighting against the Soviets.
By focusing on this very real phenomenon of popular culture, The Myth of the Eastern Front of necessity gives a one-sided view of the historiography of the subject. Thus, the more recent, balanced scholarship of David Glantz and a host of other historians appears only episodically, as a means of countering the assertions of the pro-German school. Overall, however, The Myth of the Eastern Front is a tour de force of cultural historiography. Military...