Last Christmas, a friend bought me The Retreat: Hitler’s First Defeat by Michael Jones. The Retreat is the story of the Eastern Front during World War II from the invasion of Russia in June 1941 to the end of the German retreat in February of 1942, so it’s about the first military campaign.
Michael Jones writes a lot of books about the eastern front in the war. Michael Jones has also written Leningrad: State of Siege, Statlingrad: How the Red Army Survived the German Onslaught, and Total War: From Stalingrad to Berlin. With this addition to the collection (released 2010), you can read about every moment of the war in the east just reading Michael Jones book. I recommend anyone who’s interested in the Nazi-Soviet War should do that.
Michael Jones leans heavily on first-person accounts from German and Russian soldiers alike. This takes the narrative away from where many historians place it, inside the halls of power or inside the military staff offices. Instead, you learn about the horrors of the war from the men in the trenches.
Few wars were as horrible to suffer as the World War II on the eastern front. Those jokes on Hogan’s Heroes about Germans who offend the wrong person being sent to the Eastern Front had a hard truth about them: 4/5ths of all deaths in World War Two were suffered in the war between Germany and Russia. Despite the huge contributions of us Americans and the British and strategic bombing, D-Day, and the atom bomb, the eastern front is where the war was won or lost.
If you want to read a book that gives you an idea of the unreal conditions faced, The Retreat: Hitler’s First Defeat is the book for you. You’ll learn about atrocities and atrocious conditions, but you’ll also read about people finding faith (and losing it) and brief moments of human mercy.
Retreat also tracks the German mass psychology from the invasion to the defeat. This run the gamut from confidence to elation to overconfidence to creeping doubt to panic to grim determination.
You do read about decisions made at the highest levels. Several stretches of the book discuss Hitler’s falling out with some of his best generals like Hans Guderian and replacing them with more ideological generals (though Guderian came back later). You’ll learn how General Model re-energized the defense and became Hitler’s favorite general and crisis manager. You’ll also see the toll Adolf Hitler’s “stand fast” order took on the German Wehrmacht, along with the obsession of German leadership with Napoleon’s defeat in Russia.
The real focus of The Retreat: Hitler’s First Defeat is on the soldiers and civilians caught in the middle of all this. More than most World War 2 books, The Retreat brings home the human cost of the conflict, so I recommend this history book from Michael Jones.