"The Myth of the Eastern Front" A review.

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"The Myth of the Eastern Front" A review.

Post by sid guttridge » Mon Dec 10, 2007 4:39 am

The Myth of the Eastern Front: The Nazi-Soviet War in American Popular Culture by Ronald Smelser and Edward J. Davies II (Cambridge University Press, 2008) has a convincing central line of argument but will fail to have any impact on its target.

Why? Because there is likely to be an almost complete disconnection between this book’s readership and the readership of the books and authors it criticises as romanticising the Wehrmacht. For example, while it has a quiet sneer at “the many pictures” (p.160) and “poorly written statements” (p.161) of Mark Yerger (whose books I am not familiar with) it is often so full of dense text and wordy academic-speak itself that it is highly unlikely that what it apparently presumes are Yerger’s semi-literate audience will ever wade far enough into The Myth of the Eastern Front to get re-educated. And I write this as one who actually agrees with its general line of argument.

Authors of such academic works, however worthy, would do well to ask themselves how it is that it is they who are writing books about Wehrmacht-romancing “gurus” and not the other way around. Are not their targets making inroads into American popular culture precisely because their simplistic picture books and tales of derring-do are accessible in a way that work like The Myth of the Eastern Front is not?

This book seems to have been a long time in preparation. Its references to Feldgrau and its predecessor are mostly to 1998-99. That said, the portrait it paints of Feldgrau remains recognizable today. However, it also means that the authors have overlooked far more recent ammunition on Feldgrau than they have used. Feldgrau therefore probably gets off relatively lightly compared with other targets.

The direct references to Feldgrau come in two parts. On page 206 it is mentioned in connection with Jason Pipes’ background as what it describes as a “guru” for “romancers”. On p.5 The Myth of the Eastern Front defines “gurus” as “authors, mostly but not exclusively American, (who) have picked up and disseminated the myths of the Wehrmacht in a wide variety of popular publications that romanticize the German struggle in Russia….. who insist on authenticity in their writings, combine a painfully accurate knowledge of the details of the Wehrmacht, ranging from vehicles to uniforms to medals, with a romantic heroicization of the German army fighting to save Europe from a rapacious Communism. There is little in the way of historical context in the writings of these men. They honor particularly the soldiers of the Waffen-SS, without bothering to tell us of the war of racial enslavement and annihilation these men pursued in the East”

On p.157 “gurus” are further described as “authors who are popular among the readers who romanticize the German Army and, in particular, the Waffen-SS. The gurus are the authors who are most frequently mentioned in the Internet chatrooms, where romancers keep up a constant dialogue about their favorite German units or battles…… These authors combine a careful attention to detail and authenticity when it comes to battles, dates, uniforms, and decorations, with either a slanted or revisionist historical context – or none at all – imbedded in an heroic ethos”.

“Romancers”, in the terms of The Myth of the Eastern Front, are those of the rest of us who lap up the “gurus’” work too uncritically. On p.5 “romancers” are described as “a wide subculture of Americans who have embraced the message of the gurus and indulge in wargaming and Internet chatting to a degree that reveals an identification with the values of courage, honor, and self-sacrifice they see in the German soldier in World War Two. The romancers also show an alienation from what is viewed as the crass materialism, selfish egotism, and moral ambiguities of the current world.”

Apart from Jason, so-called “gurus” mentioned in Chapter 6 (pp.157-186) are Mark Yerger, Richard Landwehr, Franz Kurowski (who is apparently unique amongst “gurus” in that he actually served in the Wehrmacht, albeit only as a journalist) and Antonio Munoz. Marc Rikmenspoel is added as an “Internet guru” on p.207. Indeed, so many of these “gurus” appear on Feldgrau that it puts the average Hindu temple to shame! Of these “gurus”, only Munoz, who is acknowledged for his co-operation in the preface, emerges with any credit.

Of the five or six “gurus” mentioned above, I am only familiar with the works of two. One is by Landwehr on SS-Hemwehr Danzig, which I think epitomizes well the point that the authors of The Myth of the Eastern Front are making. This obscure unit was only a small part of a much larger Army brigade raised in Danzig, which gets almost no mention. SS-Hemwehr Danzig existed for only a couple of months and had barely a fortnight in combat, almost all of it many miles behind the main front against isolated and heavily outnumbered and outgunned Polish forces. Nevertheless, it failed in almost every mission given it. Yet Landwehr manages to magic up a glossy short book on it out of almost nothing. So I can see why he gets a hammering from the authors of The Myth of the Eastern Front.

The other “gurus’” books I am familiar with are all publications by Antonio Munoz, although not his own work. These include some genuinely well researched and reasonably detached books on the Hungarian and Slovak armies in WWII, so I can see why the authors of The Myth of the Eastern Front have cut him some slack.

The second direct mention of Feldgrau is on p.254, where it is presented as a billboard for publicizing books romanticizing German combat and service on the Eastern Front. That Feldgrau publicises books is self evident – it has a review section. Whether this is in any way reprehensible rather depends on the quality of the books in question. Most of those listed I haven’t read, but I can’t help but feel the authors of The Myth of the Eastern Front have cast their net a bit too wide. Surely, whatever their self-justifying faults, Guderian’s Panzer Leader and Manstein’s Lost Victories are pretty much required reading for anyone with any interest in the military history of WWII, whether romantically inclined or not? These were main players whose reminiscences, however self-serving, have wider historical importance.

The authors’ lack of a strong military-historical background has some unintended consequences. By my standards, they seem rather too willing to accept unquestioningly the “elite” and “fire-brigade” status of the Waffen-SS, when in fact these were wider characteristics of the panzerwaffe. Most of the panzerwaffe was Army and most of the Waffen-SS was not in the panzerwaffe. Fortunately for the authors, they are not writing a military history book, but a critique of some other peoples’ approach to German military history. There they are on firmer ground.

Most of the other references to Feldgrau are indirect as part of the background The Myth of the Eastern Front gives on Jason Pipes. I don’t know Jason from a bar of soap, so I will leave him to deal with them in his own time.

What I write above essentially refers only to Chapters 6 and 7 of The Myth of the Eastern Front. The following chapter list gives a better idea of the full range of this book:

1. Americans Experience the War in Russia, 1941-1945.
2. The Cold War and the Emergence of a Lost Cause Mythology.
3. The German Generals Talk, Write, and Network.
4. Memoirs, Novels, and Popular Histories.
5. Winning Hearts and Minds: The Germans Interpret the War for the United States Public.
6. The Gurus.
7. Wargames, the Internet, and Popular Culture of the Romancers.
8. Romancing the War: Reenactors, and “What If History”.

It will surprise no one here that I agree with the basic thrust of The Myth of the Eastern Front. However, I doubt it will have much impact on the so-called “gurus” because, if one accepts the book’s characterisation, their beliefs seem to be virtually religious and not necessarily dependent on rational, dispassionate analysis or exposure to contradictory evidence. The Myth of the Eastern Front also won’t have much impact on the “romancers” worshipping at the feet of the so-called “gurus” because it is not an accessible book to the general reader.

So the Feldgrau Ashram will continue as before, still worshipping the Myth of the Eastern Front…………….Guru Jason-ji will maintain an ethereal and almost invisible presiding presence. His moderating fakirs will continue to defend the purity of his teachings in his absence, visiting pundits will give the occasional audience, the most faithful members will gain access to the inner sanctum, the masses will continue to attend Feldgrau’s rites on an occasional basis and a few of us will continue to be unbelieving kaffirs.

Does The Myth of the Eastern Front make a valid point? Definitely!

Would I recommend that the average Feldgrau poster buy a copy? Probably not. It is not very reader-friendly. The Myth of the Eastern Front is definitely worth a glance in the library, but for most readers here it is probably not worth the purchase. However, if you can be bothered to wade through it, you will at least get a fairly cohesive counter-argument from “the other side of the hill”.

But then to give Feldgrau due credit, it has always been reasonably tolerant in allowing such counter-arguments to be put on its threads anyway, even though one can occasionally pick up the faint sound of some moderators’ gnashing their teeth in the background! Listen very carefully – you can probably hear it now…….

Cheers,

Sid.

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Re: "The Myth of the Eastern Front" A review.

Post by Tom Houlihan » Mon Dec 10, 2007 9:57 pm

sid guttridge wrote: And I write this as one who actually agrees with its general line of argument.
Sid, I will confess, when I got that line, I cringed, thinking I could hear the next line...
These authors combine a careful attention to detail and authenticity when it comes to battles, dates, uniforms, and decorations, with either a slanted or revisionist historical context – or none at all – imbedded in an heroic ethos”.
I think this paragraph says a lot. If one wants to study military history, then one studies military history. Political history is an entirely different discipline. Are there overlaps? Most certainly! However, I'm not a sociologist. I'm not studying the overlaps. I believe that is the disconnect the authors hit.
So the Feldgrau Ashram will continue as before, still worshipping the Myth of the Eastern Front…………….Guru Jason-ji will maintain an ethereal and almost invisible presiding presence. His moderating fakirs will continue to defend the purity of his teachings in his absence, visiting pundits will give the occasional audience, the most faithful members will gain access to the inner sanctum, the masses will continue to attend Feldgrau’s rites on an occasional basis and a few of us will continue to be unbelieving kaffirs.
This paragraph has me laughing aloud, though, Sid! I know we don't always agree on a lot of points, but I never expected to laugh at one of your posts like I just did!
But then to give Feldgrau due credit, it has always been reasonably tolerant in allowing such counter-arguments to be put on its threads anyway, even though one can occasionally pick up the faint sound of some moderators’ gnashing their teeth in the background! Listen very carefully – you can probably hear it now…….
Not from my quarter. I think this was a very well written review. I'd probably know better if I had a copy of the book to hand, but I don't. Still, it comes across as well done, Sid.
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Post by Jason Pipes » Wed Dec 12, 2007 5:15 pm

I couldn't disagree more with your so called analysis of this book, Sid.

I will present my review and analysis as soon as I can complete the undertaking of writing and researching it.

The fact remains that nothing is presented in the book that concretely lays any foundation for factually referring to people as "romancers" or "gurus" which are negative connotations made up by the authors and applied in vague and overly broad strokes to entire groups of people regardless of how unrelated they are. Some of the comments in the book strike me as amazingly illogical and stunningly un-academic. The only evidence used to support the suggestions is their repeated use over and over! You don't support a thesis by simply repeating the underlying assumption a few hundred times, you do so by laying down a series of facts and establishing a cause and effect relationship or some sort of corollary connection. The authors of this book have not done that. Therefore the book fails in its stated purpose and gets a lot of other stuff wrong in the process.

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Post by phylo_roadking » Wed Dec 12, 2007 5:34 pm

Yes, the "Big Lie" as its called. Which is something Sid normally rails against here and elsewhere, yet is amazingly supportive of these authors who employ it now.
"Well, my days of not taking you seriously are certainly coming to a middle." - Malcolm Reynolds

pzrmeyer2

Post by pzrmeyer2 » Wed Dec 12, 2007 6:44 pm

phylo_roadking wrote:Yes, the "Big Lie" as its called. Which is something Sid normally rails against here and elsewhere, yet is amazingly supportive of these authors who employ it now.
guess it only matters to Sid in which direction the lies are flung at.

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Post by Andy H » Wed Dec 12, 2007 8:06 pm

As yet I've not read of any specific threads/posts used by the authors to 'prove' there viewpoint. Am I to assume that as such they dont exist, and that Feldgrau is just lumped in to the 'Romancer' category becuase it's a US site that deals with German Military History?

What were the authors specifics about What If's? in relation to there viewpoint?

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Post by sid guttridge » Thu Dec 13, 2007 4:30 am

Hi Guys,

Jason has at least got the book and is most directly affected by it, which is why I left him to deal with those parts himself. I shall be interested in what he says.

However, Phylo and pzrmeyer, you don't appear to have seen the book at all. By all means attack my review, but unless you have seen the book itself your coments on it are essentially superfluous. Or you could always ask questions like Andy H.

Anndy, in the the Introduction (pp.5-6) in the book gives the following precis of Chapter 8 "which investigates similar people who choose to more actively carry out their fantasies of the "clean" Wehrmacht by donning the uniforms of their heroes and spending weekends and vacations in reenactments. They, like the gurus and other "romancers", also insist on authenticity in uniforms, equipment, and organisation. One authenticity they lack is that of historical accuracy; they also dream of a different outcome of World War Two, if only the mistakes made by Hitler, but never the generals, could be avoided. The chapter ends with a brief discussion of "what-if-history," like that written by R. H. S. Stolfi, which envisions the possibility of a Germamn victory in the East under different circumstances. The "what-if" histories fuel the imaginations of the romancers in all the subcultures."

Cheers,

Sid.

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Post by Tom Houlihan » Thu Dec 13, 2007 4:44 am

sid guttridge wrote:...the following precis of Chapter 8 "which investigates similar people who choose to more actively carry out their fantasies of the "clean" Wehrmacht by donning the uniforms of their heroes and spending weekends and vacations in reenactments. They, like the gurus and other "romancers", also insist on authenticity in uniforms, equipment, and organisation. One authenticity they lack is that of historical accuracy; they also dream of a different outcome of World War Two, if only the mistakes made by Hitler, but never the generals, could be avoided. The chapter ends with a brief discussion of "what-if-history," like that written by R. H. S. Stolfi, which envisions the possibility of a Germamn victory in the East under different circumstances. The "what-if" histories fuel the imaginations of the romancers in all the subcultures."
Makes one wonder what he thinks of the guys wearing grey at ACW reenactments?
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Post by Geoff Walden » Thu Dec 13, 2007 11:37 am

Tom Houlihan wrote:
sid guttridge wrote:...the following precis of Chapter 8 "which investigates similar people who choose to more actively carry out their fantasies of the "clean" Wehrmacht by donning the uniforms of their heroes and spending weekends and vacations in reenactments. They, like the gurus and other "romancers", also insist on authenticity in uniforms, equipment, and organisation. One authenticity they lack is that of historical accuracy; they also dream of a different outcome of World War Two, if only the mistakes made by Hitler, but never the generals, could be avoided. The chapter ends with a brief discussion of "what-if-history," like that written by R. H. S. Stolfi, which envisions the possibility of a Germamn victory in the East under different circumstances. The "what-if" histories fuel the imaginations of the romancers in all the subcultures."
Makes one wonder what he thinks of the guys wearing grey at ACW reenactments?
The academics continually have a field day with reenactors, no matter what uniforms they wear. And no matter that the reenactors often know more (MUCH more) than the academics do about weapons, uniforms, tactics, battle history, material culture, etc. It's a simple matter of academic snobbery - "you don't have any letters behind your name, so you can't possibly be able to interpret the historical record as well as we can."

Geoff Walden

pzrmeyer2

Post by pzrmeyer2 » Thu Dec 13, 2007 5:53 pm

However, Phylo and pzrmeyer, you don't appear to have seen the book at all. By all means attack my review, but unless you have seen the book itself your coments on it are essentially superfluous.
kind of like each and every comment you made in the Westemeier thread. Sid, are you truly this blind to your obvious hypocrisy? show some consistancy, man.


Chapter 8 "which investigates similar people who choose to more actively carry out their fantasies of the "clean" Wehrmacht by donning the uniforms of their heroes and spending weekends and vacations in reenactments. They, like the gurus and other "romancers", also insist on authenticity in uniforms, equipment, and organisation. One authenticity they lack is that of historical accuracy; they also dream of a different outcome of World War Two, if only the mistakes made by Hitler, but never the generals, could be avoided. The chapter ends with a brief discussion of "what-if-history," like that written by R. H. S. Stolfi, which envisions the possibility of a Germamn victory in the East under different circumstances. The "what-if" histories fuel the imaginations of the romancers in all the subcultures."
I'm interested to know how the authors (and you, presumably as their chief spokesman and apologist) happen to know what re-enactors and others interested in the German war machine "dream" of and what "fuels thier imaginations".

PS What about modellers, readers, video-game players, and watchers of films such as "Das Boot", "Cross of Iron" and "Stalingrad". Wonder how they've escaped scrutiny?

Paddy Keating

Post by Paddy Keating » Thu Dec 13, 2007 6:07 pm

Are you paid by the word, Sid? Or do you just receive a monthly retainer? Maybe you should consider ghostwriting for Smelser and Davies. At least you can string the English language together in a reasonable manner and you clearly worship at the same temple, so to speak.
Chapter 8 "which investigates similar people who choose to more actively carry out their fantasies of the "clean" Wehrmacht by donning the uniforms of their heroes and spending weekends and vacations in reenactments. They, like the gurus and other "romancers", also insist on authenticity in uniforms, equipment, and organisation. One authenticity they lack is that of historical accuracy; they also dream of a different outcome of World War Two, if only the mistakes made by Hitler, but never the generals, could be avoided. The chapter ends with a brief discussion of "what-if-history," like that written by R. H. S. Stolfi, which envisions the possibility of a Germamn victory in the East under different circumstances. The "what-if" histories fuel the imaginations of the romancers in all the subcultures."
This is just bad writing: split infinitives, misspellings, mangled syntax, bad grammar, incoherence and questionable historical perspective. And that's just a short paragraph in the intro?

You could do better than this, Sid. Why don't you fu...sorry...go off and write a better book than Smelser and Davies. They took almost ten years to produce this. I'm sure the SWC or whoever you work for would give you the time off. And we could sure do with a rest from you.

PK
Last edited by Paddy Keating on Thu Dec 13, 2007 6:14 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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Post by michael kenny » Thu Dec 13, 2007 6:13 pm

pzrmeyer2 wrote:I'm interested to know how the authors (and you, presumably as their chief spokesman and apologist) happen to know what re-enactors and others interested in the German war machine "dream" of and what "fuels thier imaginations".

http://www.ospreyblog.com/blog/2007/08/ ... nd-th.html

"If like me you watched the Panorama special on BBC One last night 'Weekend Nazis' you may be asking yourself some hard questions.

The programme was filmed at this year's War and Peace show and asked - 'why do grown men spend the weekends in out-of-date uniforms rolling around in the mud?' To be honest John Sweeney the reporter wasn't really interested in the answer to that question. He was interested in something much more specific and sensationalist. Why were there ten people dressed as Germans to every one British? Why were so many of them dressed as Waffen SS? And did their uniforms reflect their views?

Harry Pearson, author and wargamer offered, albeit briefly a theory as to the appeal of re-enactment as a whole for British people at least. He explained that maybe British men of a certain age see two versions of World War II, the actual one fought and the one fought in their homes and gardens of the sixties and seventies as they played out their childhoods. From my experience at other re-enactment shows including Salute the vast majority of people practice their hobby with an enthusiasm for history and maybe that sense of nostalgia for some form of ‘dressing up’, without any undertones and somebody needs to play the bad guys right?

But the answer Sweeney offered wasn't pleasant. During the course of his investigation he uncovered a series of individuals, many through hidden filming, who not only espoused seriously fascistic views but links to far-right groups like Combat 18 and Blood and Honour. Dressing as Waffen SS was only the tip of the iceberg for them. He also found some morally repugnant Nazi pamphlets and paraphernalia along with David Irving the Holocaust apologist that just gave the show, reenactment and the study of military history an undeserved bad name.

We work hard at Osprey to report the facts of history as they happened, however unpleasant, without passing judgement as that is not our role. But working for a publisher that does a roaring trade in books on the German Army and with a reasonable sense of responsibility I believe and hope that Harry's version is closer to the truth than John's because if not my passion and profession would make me feel very uncomfortable indeed. "

Paddy Keating

Post by Paddy Keating » Thu Dec 13, 2007 6:35 pm

Ah well, once all the paleo-nazis are dead and Operation "Last Chance" is closed down, jobs will be safe as the full might of the nazi-hunting industry switches focus to fat blokes wandering about in the woods in Waffen-SS kit singing marching songs with comic book accents and claiming membership of Blood, Sweat & Tears or Comedy 88.

I think I will drop John Sweeney a line about the two guys in SS gear with doctors' white coats who drive about in an 1930s Opel bus with painted out windows. Not that they believe in gassing the infirm, you understand, but they feel that it is necessary to keep awareness of the Hadamar programme alive, to prevent such things from happening again. That's what Living History is all about.

There again, Sweeney might put a negative spin on it.

PK

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Post by Tom Houlihan » Thu Dec 13, 2007 7:34 pm

As f*cked up as our world is today, aren't there more important issues to worry about than why a small percentage of the world's population is interested in a particular era in history?

How much of a fuss do you think we could stir up if I put on a nice red coat and white pith helmet, and had Commissar D dress up as one of Shaka Zulu's lads? Who would vilify me then? Well, besides David, because it's too bloody cold to dress like that! :wink:
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Post by michael kenny » Thu Dec 13, 2007 7:54 pm

Tom Houlihan wrote:As f*cked up as our world is today, aren't there more important issues to worry about than why a small percentage of the world's population is interested in a particular era in history?
Exactly!
One wonders why there is so much fuss when the book is not likely to make it into any best-seller list.

Feldgrau seems to have a problem core of posters who bring the same subject up again and again. Yesterday it was the Peiper book and now this one.
Every time it gets locked (and it always does) a week or two later the same thing is sneaked back in and the circle is repeated.
This only seems to happen here. There are many WW2 Forums but this is the only one I know that is paralysed by the subject and it is dragging the forum down. It is but a pale shadow of its former glory and frankly little of real historical value now surfaces.
There must a problem otherwise there would not be so many unremarked post deletions.

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