Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Book Review - Hitler strikes Poland by Alexander Rossino

Hitler strikes Poland : Blitzkrieg, ideology, and atrocity by Alexander B. Rossino

Lawrence, Kansas : University Press of Kansas, 2003                 ISBN 0700612343

The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 - and the subsequent opening of Eastern Europe to the West - sparked a new phase in the historiography of World War Two. The official Communist version of the Great Patriotic War could be tested without the ideological cast that officialdom gave it, and the opening of archives and people to the West gave historians much new material to work with.

In the years following the groundswell of new books, especially to do with the Holocaust, became ever larger. The passing of the War generation helped this process, as people were determined to tell their story before dying, and with their deaths some stories were now free to tell.

The process of re-assessing what we thought we know about the War is ongoing of course, but the book under review was an important re-appraisal of the earliest days of the War: the German Army's Blitzkrieg against Poland. Alexander Rossino has undertaken some deep research into particular units, places and times to try to shed new light on the development of the Nazi way of war that came to its terrible apotheosis in Russia and Ukraine two years after the fall of Poland.

Rossino's book begins with a wide view on the war with Poland, gradually hones in to looking at the behaviour of particular units during the advance, and then tries to reach some conclusions based on the evidence presented: conclusions that look to the past and to the future (operation Barbarossa), to put the Polish campaign in context.

While there is no doubt that Hitler and the Nazis brutal ideology contributed greatly to the climate that allowed atrocities to take place, Rossino explains in the first part of the book that it was not only rabid Nazis who favoured invading Poland: many career German soldiers felt that Germany's honour had been sullied by the territory ceded to Poland by Versailles, not to mention the ongoing rancour from the post World War One insurgency. This desire to "set the record straight" and to "free" the ethnic Germans from the Polish yoke fed neatly into the Nazi racial basis for Lebensraum, which in some ways pre-disposed the bloody nature of any fighting that might take place.

Nevertheless, the Nazi party did not have direct plans to involve the Army in any genocidal activity, with Heydrich being put in charge of organising groups of Gestapo, Police and SS men -Einsatzgruppen - who would follow behind the troops and engage in "securing" the countryside. This involved the rounding up of anyone seen to be a possible threat to the invading forces. This included most intellectuals, priests, and in what seemed to be a case of revenge, anyone identified as being part of the old insurgent forces. And of course any Jews were in mortal danger as soon as the Germans arrived.

Rossino shows us that it was the regular troops that committed the first atrocities on Polish soil. The German Army had for many years developed a policy of taking hostages to ensure obedience in rear areas, a policy that continued into World War Two, even though the legality of such a policy under the Geneva Conventions is not clear. The German troops, most not seasoned soldiers, responded to attack with at times mindless retribution, firing wildly without thought for civilian casualties, and at times deliberately targeting civilians. They would often execute hostages for little reason, and at times were willing assistants for the work of the SS. While some Army officers complained about the acts of the Einsatzgruppen, the complaints were generally about the effect that such actions had on the morale and discipline of their own troops, not on the loss of civilian life that was occurring.

While it was clear from orders issued from the Government before the invasion that the destruction of the Polish ruling classes were envisioned from the start, the Jewish policy seemed less clear. Initially it seems that the policy was to move all Jews into the Soviet sector (the USSR also invaded Poland in September 1939), but the Soviets soon resisted that, and the idea of a separate land area for Jewish resettlement gathered speed. While there wasn't a specific policy at this stage to annihilate the Jewish population, Rossino makes it clear that both the SS and the Army saw the Jewish population as less than human, and expendable. Many Jews were shot out of hand as the German forces advanced further into Poland.

The combination of retaliation for Polish aggression behind the lines, general lawlessness on the part of the German forces, and massacre resulted in the loss of many thousands of Polish lives in the first few weeks of the Polish campaign.

Rossino in Hitler strikes Poland shows us that the terrors of the Russian campaign had their precursor in the German invasion of Poland. This short war not only enabled the SS to fine-tune their programs and pogroms, but brutalised the Army to such an extent that when they got to Russia they had no qualms about killing non-combatants.

The descriptions (with photographs) in the book of some of the actions described brings an immediacy that is sometimes lacking in academic works of this type, and has led to this book receiving much praise. It is deserved, and Hitler strikes Poland is well worth reading.

Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell

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