My review of “The Retreat: Hitler’s First Defeat” by Michael Jones

The fall of the Iron Curtain and the Soviet Union, and the subsequent release of archives and documents, has been a boon to military historians like Michael Jones. Jones has written several books on the Eastern Front, including my most recent read: The Retreat: Hitler’s First Defeat.

The Retreat does not break any new ground in describing the Red Army turning back Hitler’s armies at the gates of Moscow during the critical months of December 1941-February 1942, but where it stands out is the narrative method. Jones draws heavily from first-hand accounts in diaries, letters, unit histories, and interviews of soldiers and civilians people on both sides, crafting a very human perspective of events.

Of particular note for me was the number of very senior German officers who realized the Nazi’s harsh treatment of Soviet prisoners was creating a human tragedy that would have severe consequences. We could argue whether these officers could or should have done more than simply report the situation — prisoners were starved, beaten, diseased, overworked, and out-and-out murdered while held in ad-hoc camps with little protection from the harsh winter — but the record at least shows they were aware and concerned.

Tens of thousands of Soviet prisoners died in German captivity, and the Red Army carefully ensured its soldiers were aware it was happening — ensuring most Soviet soldiers would fight fanatically and with utter hatred for the Nazi invaders.

Common German soldiers were also aware of what was happening with prisoners, and more directly the civilian populace. There are several instances in The Retreat in which individual soldiers from both sides displayed humanity and compassion, including a spontaneous Christmas mass attended by combatants and civilians from both sides.

Of course these incidents are overshadowed by the brutality and no-holds-barred fighting which is the common — and correctly held — perception of warfare on the Eastern Front. Many German soldiers and senior officers shared Hitler’s rampant racism and hate of the Soviet system, and their actions and words show this clearly. Still, it is refreshing to see the views of a few individuals change over the course of the book, as they come to grips with seeing the results of their actions.

My largest quibble with this book is the lack of photos in the Kindle edition. The author speaks in the preface of obtaining photos during interviews with participants, and the hardcover listing on Amazon.com indicates eight pages of photos, but evidently these were not deemed necessary for the eBook version.

I found The Retreat to be very interesting and I would recommend it to anyone interested in getting a ground-level look at action on the Eastern Front. It was a quick read, with Jones setting the stage by providing strategic updates on the situation before shifting to first-person accounts that added color and drama.

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