Wikipedia:WikiProject Military history/News/August 2012/Op-ed

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Reichskommissariat Ostland

By Bomzibar
Administrative divisions of Reichskommissariat Ostland as of 1 January 1944. The Reichskommissariat is divided into four Generalkommissariate which are divided into Gebietskommissariate.

This month's Op-ed is a more detailed book review. Why write a book review as an opinion article and not as one of the reviews published in The Bugle's review section? Because the book I want to present has until now sadly only been published in the German language, and there are probably not many editors able to read German. I will discuss the book's intentions and why it was published, and describe the publisher itself, before discussing its content. After that I will discuss why the book is a good example of the German method of handling military history topics.

The book's name is Reichskommissariat Ostland. Tatort und Erinnerungsobjekt. (Reichskommissariat Ostland. Site of Crime and Object of Remembrance.) and was edited by German historians Sebastian Lehmann, Robert Bohn and Uwe Danker. As the title indicates, the book handles with the Reichskommissariat Ostland (RKO), the German occupation entity from 1941 to 1944 in what today are the Baltic states and parts of Belarus. It was written as a record of an international symposium at the University of Flensburg in 2009. Flensburg is situated in the northernmost german state of Schleswig-Holstein (S-H), which is important in the choice of the RKO as theme for the symposium. There are three main reasons for this theme named in the book. The first is that the history of the RKO is poorly researched until now, especially in comparision to other topics as the General Government and its administration. If you compare the articles regarding the General Government and the RKO you can see that this mirrors the situation here at Wikipedia as well. As many of the most prominent personnel in the administration of the RKO's Reichskommissar (Reich-Commissioner) Hinrich Lohse were from S-H, the University of Kiel has a particular interest in describing and explaining the the exploitation of the occupied areas and the Holocaust by people from S-H. The second important reason named in the book is that the collaboration of the public in the occupied areas, especially in relation to the murders of the native and deported jews in the RKO, has not received sufficient attention in the young independent baltic historiography. The final important reason for the symposium was to discuss the post-war prosecution and sentencing, or not, of those responsible for war crimes in Germany and Europe.

The book was published in the Verlag Ferdinand Schöningh as part of the series Age of the World Wars by the Militärgeschichtliches Forschungsamt der Bundeswehr (MGFA, German Armed Forces Military History Research Office). The MGFA was established in January 1957 as part of the Bundeswehr, to deliver research for the armed forces, the Department of Defense, the rest of the government and the public in Germany and abroad. As such, it is the prime historical institute in Germany. The most prominent titles published by the MGFA in the last 30 years are part of the series The German Reich and the Second World War, which comprises 13 books with 12,000 pages of text. This series is the main German work about the Second World War to date, and many Wikipedians interested in military history at de:Wiki see it as must-read standard literature.

Reichskommissariat Ostland. Tatort und Erinnerungsobjekt consists of 17 articles, each between 15 and 30 pages long. As the articles are based on the presentations held at the symposium, they are seldom connected with each other and as a result there is some duplication. The topic most frequently covered is the role of the SS in the RKO and recruitment in the Baltic legions. This may be, in the context of 'classic' military history, the most interesting topic of the book. The main article handling this is "Rekrutierung der Waffen-SS im Reichskommissariat Ostland: Der Versuch einer schwer fassbaren Synthese" ("Recruiting of the Waffen-SS in the Reichskommissariat Ostland: The attempt of an elusive synthesis"). Beyond this the book follows a straight line with its articles. It starts with contributions about the politics of the occupation authorities and their organization of the Holocaust, examines the local population and how the behaviour of the Germans vis-à-vis them changed from 1941 to 1944. After these themes, which occupy about 2/3 of the book, it looks beyond the end of the war and the handling of possible war criminals in the western states. It is shown that former officials remained uncharged and had the possibility of influencing the historiography of the RKO, a problem still existent, especially because of former Wehrmacht officers that later held positions in the Bundeswehr; there were efforts to shift the responsibility for the most serious war crimes from the military solely to Hitler. I was particularly impressed with three of these later chapters that cover the post-war life of Hinrich Lohse, who was never charged, the role of Sweden, which didn't extradite suspected war criminals of Baltic origin, and the role of the Baltic dissident organizations in the West, trying to hide war criminals and the Baltic involvement into the Holocaust. The last chapters discuss the historiography about the RKO up to current times in Germany, and in the newly established Baltic states since 1990.

So, why do I consider the book a good example of the German kind of military history? It is easy to explain: Reichskommissariat Ostland is a major military history book that does not take the military as its main theme. The administration of the RKO was a civil one, and despite some anti-partisan operations and the recruitment of Waffen-SS units, no direct military formations or operations are named. For historical reasons in Germany the scientific community merges military occupation, civil administration, racial mass murders, deportations and the Holocaust into one sector of research. To release a book about military history that should be acknowledged as a good, scientific book, you have to look at all the themes important for the topic you have chosen. English publications about war are often criticized for only describing military operations, drawing only on English-language sources and for being are Anglocentric. You can all prove another difference between English and German works: have you read a book about a modern military conflict that gives an insight into combat from both sides of the battlefield? And are the civilians in the combat area handled in the book? (The civilian issue is an enormous gap regarding the island battles of the Pacific War; if you read books about this topic have to think there were no civilians on the islands, which is not correct - and no, they only seldom were Americans!) After thinking about this, take a look at the articles you have written and which may be featured. They are good articles, for sure and I really enjoy reading most of them, but have a look at them.

As I'm translating the featured article Air raids on Japan at the moment, I have a good insight on it. It is a good article but: every American-led bombardment mission is named, with numbers of aircraft and the area damaged in the cities they targeted. In comparison, the Japanese reactions are described briefly, and the civilian responses are only allocated a few sentences. There are no quotes about how individual Japanese felt at the time, what American pilots thought about killing thousands of civilians with their bombs, and so on. There are things that would be expected in modern German military historiography. The main problem for the named article could be the use of a 1953 book as main source. It can be a good and complete source of military operations but there are some problems:

  • it is 60 years old next year
  • it was written by one of the victors of the war and highlights the role of this nation; the British are only mentioned in a minor way
  • it is an official history written during Cold War, and was probably not interested in bringing the not-so-brilliant events and actions that were committed to public attention.

In conclusion, I hope this op-ed was interesting for you to read. Don't understand it the wrong way; all of you are writing great articles, I only wanted to show why most of them in the German Wikipedia wouldn't be seen as the Non-plus Ultra. If you are able to read German books, maybe you give this book or another one published by the MGFA a try. Otherwise I strongly recommend that you read books about the Second World War written by Japanese or German authors and subsequently translated into English. They can be eye-openers.

  • Lehmann, Sebastian; Bohn, Robert; Danker, Uwe (editors)(2012): Reichskommissariat Ostland. Tatort und Erinnerungsobjekt. Zeitalter der Weltkriege. Volume VIII. Paderborn: Verlag Ferdinand Schöningh. ISBN 978-3-506-77188-9.

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