Category Archives: World War II

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Book Review: The True German: The Diary of a World War II Military Judge

[FULL DISCLOSURE: I received my copy of this book free from the author. I was not paid for this review and the opinion expressed is purely my own]

The True German: The Diary of a World War II Military Judge by Werner Otto Müller-Hill is one of those rare books that come out of war.  A diary written by someone to satisfy themselves with no expectation that it will ever get published.  As such, it provides an almost unique view into the mind of the person writing it.  The vast majority of war memoirs are self-serving and written to make a point.  Diaries tend to be less so, and this one in particular as it was written for the specific purpose of allowing the author to vent his spleen of thoughts and opinions that he simply could not openly express in Nazi Germany without risking death or imprisonment. The book is 186 pages of text and covers the diary entries from March, 1944 to June, 1945.

What is striking about this diary is that it was written by somebody who was part of one of the vital aspects of the totalitarian regime that kept the Nazis in power, a military judge.  Müller-Hill is remarkable in that although he was a military judge, he was not a hanging judge as so many Nazi era judges were.  Indeed, he boasts in the diary that he never sentenced a man to death although he was pressured to do so.  He always managed to find a sentence that avoided the firing squad.

Werner Otto Müller-Hill had served Germany in World War I and was 54 years old when World War II started in 1939.  His age and experience color his observations throughout his diary and he constantly compares the Nazis to the Kaiser era.  This is interesting because he is someone with intimate knowledge of both eras.  He makes several predictions in his diary that turned out to be prescient.

However, the most striking thing that comes out when reading the diary is how Müller-Hill struggled to reconcile his role in the Nazi war machine with his own conscience.  What comes out is the internal debates of an ordinary man who knows he serves an inhuman regime but finds himself powerless to do anything to stop the destruction of the country and people he love.  He does what he can but knows that will never be enough.  This book is a step to putting to rest the myth of a Germany full of Nazis and goes far toward showing that some, if not most, Germans were opposed to the regime but unable to do anything because of the iron grip of the police apparatus the Nazis built.  If anything, the lesson to be learned from this diary and the Nazi era is not that Germans are evil but that if tyranny is not stopped early resistance can become almost impossible.  This diary represents the story of one person who could not fight openly yet still resisted the regime in whatever way they could.

The True German: The Diary of a World War II Military Judge is compelling reading and I highly recommend it to anyone who has an interest in World War II and the Nazi era in Germany.

German Plan for the invasion of Crete, May 1941

The Crete Campaign: 20-29 May, 1941

Last Spring I did a presentation to my local Military History group about the Crete Campaign of 1941 and figured that since I now have the time I would put something up here about it as well because I find the whole campaign to be a comedy of errors by both sides in this misguided, ill-conceived, and poorly executed excuse for a battle. First, we should examine the strategic situation in May of 1941.
In May 1941 England had been run out of Greece with its tail between its legs and was using Crete as both a staging ground for evacuation and they were hoping like hell they could hold it and stop the Mediterranean, or at least the eastern part from turning into a German Lake. For their part, Germany did not know what to do. They were in the last stages of planning the attack on Stalin’s Russia set to commence in June but in the meantime they had all these troops hanging out in Greece with nothing to do. The possession of Crete would have conferred no strategic or even operational advantage to the Germans as the British still controlled Malta and the British navy still controlled the waters of the Mediterranean Sea. Continue reading

Finnish Exceptionalism – Sisu

American exceptionalism is no myth. The 19th century saw some of the greatest minds produce a vastly modern civilization out of a wilderness. Since then we have been in intellectual decline – we have consistent party purges of anyone who doesn’t toe the party line in all areas of life from academia to the military, and narrow ideological constructs such as political correctness have rendered the 1st amendment a relic and a sideshow.

How about our performance in the Second World War? The greatest fighter pilot was a German, the greatest tank ace was a German, and the greatest sniper was a Finn.

The greatest military performance of all time took place in Finland, as well. Historians must acknowledge the organic national character of the Finns to reason with how they gutted the largest military in the world and made them sue for peace after 105 days of conflict.

Americans have their grit, and the Western Europeans have their sangfroid, but the Finns have something that defies translation. Sisu is an organic concept born from the frozen tundra of the North.

This concept defies the idea of universal equality among cultures. It helps us understand not only why Finns were capable of military prowess that puts the rest of us to shame, but also why a barren, rocky arctic nation could turn into the leader of educational and technological excellence after the war.

Finns are not ideologues, nor chauvinists. They are a people who learned to survive in an isolated, sub-zero wilderness and how to apply a can-do attitude to everything in life. Sisu is not only a kind of fatalistic amor fati, but also a simple method of troubleshooting. Life is expected to be brutal, frustrating and people are expected to try to drain us of our energy and resources. It is how we face these obstacles that define our character and our reputation.

Sisu represents not the final goal, but taking a deep breath as you walk the plank. Sisu defies the inner cries for peace as well as the external. Sisu is an inner battle that manifests itself outwardly in feats such as holding the Mannerheim Line, while brandishing relic rifles from 1905 against the largest army in the world.

The world can look to this nation and truly say “I have something to learn from you.” The world can say “I am humbled to admit that your mental training is superior to mine.”

Among all the battle performances in the world, the Finns of the Winter War are among the world’s greatest, right up there with Leonidas and Alexander the Great.

One reason for their amazing performance was the trust and camaraderie that they showed to each other. The Finns fought in a synchronized fashion, where every man’s effort was appreciated, even if it didn’t translate into Rambo-like kill counts of the Bolsheviks. Love, on the line, combined with intense hatred for the invader created a force that to this day can make a reader’s jaws drop.

For the rest of us scouts, we should sit at the feet of these people, and try to absorb what we can.

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Book Review: Operation Barbarossa: Nazi Germany’s War in the East by Christian Hartmann

[FULL DISCLOSURE: I received my copy of this book free from the author. I was not paid for this review and the opinion expressed is purely my own]

Operation Barbarossa: Nazi Germany’s War in the East, 1941-1945

is one of those rare books about WWII written by a German historian and translated into English.  That is not to say that there are not plenty of books in German about WWII and examining its myriad aspects, there are, it is just that most are never translated into English.  There is generally a flood of new WWII histories every year and almost of all of them are written by English speakers.  That lack of translation leaves most English speaker with a curiously one sided view of the war.  Much has been done to rectify the Anglo-centric view of victory in WWII over the past decade or so and this book is an important contribution to that effort.

The book is fairly short, at 166 pages of text with a chronology, further reading list, and index.  It is separated into nine chronological and thematic chapters.  There are a few large scale theater maps but no smaller scale maps as the book does not delve into operational or tactical movement.

The work opens by talking about the why of the invasion of Russia and the politics behind it.  There is no great operational or strategic discussion of the movement of the vast armies involved in the war in the East.  So if you are expecting a traditional battle history from this book prepare to be disappointed.  What the author offers instead is an explanation of why and how the war was fought and of the way in which it was fought.  This is no apologetic either. This book provides a very good summary of the good and bad on both sides and there was some.  Neither the Nazis nor the Soviets were monolithic despite what decades of WWII histories would have us believe.  In many ways Stalin’s Russia was just as, if not more, evil than Hitler’s Germany and that fact comes out clearly in this book.

Perhaps the most refreshing thing about this book is the unbiased, indeed almost clinical, way in which the methods and motives of both sides are discussed.  This book represents modern German Militärgeschichte at its best and while I am more of a Kriegsgeschichte type historian I must admit that for all its brevity, this book is a valuable addition to the growing body of work on WWII in the East.  I highly recommend this book.


Remember Those who Served both Today and all through the Year

The following is an excerpt from The Sky Behind Me: A Memoir of Flying & Life. Taken from chapter 14, this piece is dedicated to my fellow veterans, of Vietnam and all wars Americans have been involved in through the years. For non-veteran readers, please keep in mind that returning GIs want nothing more than to be welcomed home, that politics and ideology play no part in that welcome. When I returned from Vietnam all those years ago I was expecting hostility, judgement, interrogation and doubt concerning my effort in that conflict, and my behavior in the war zone. Imagine my pleasant surprise when the following event took place instead. This is a true story. It happened at Port Columbus Airport on March 21st 1971 at about four o’clock in the afternoon. Thanks for reading it, and please keep it in mind if you’re ever in position to do the same for a returning GI.



Home from the War

            The airplane landed at Port Columbus and taxied to the gate. It was a full flight. I was seated two-thirds of the way back, in coach. In order to use my military free travel option I had to be in uniform. So flying home I wore my dress greens, which were at that point festooned with medals: Army Commendation, Good Conduct, Air Medal with 24 oak leaf clusters, Vietnam Service, Vietnam Campaign, Bronze Star and Distinguished Flying Cross. Though I was very far from it, according to the decorations on my chest I looked like a damn war hero, Vietnam’s answer to Audie Murphy.

            My fellow passengers on the airplane that day must have thought so. Their courtesy to me is something I’ve not forgotten. The plane stopped at the gate, and the seat belt sign chimed. But unlike the typical frantic scramble of panicked passengers grappling for overhead bags, elbowing each other, scrapping toward the exit, no one moved. Instead, people turned in their seats, looked at me, and waited. Not one of them stirred, or stood.

I stared at them a bit dazed. Then, understanding what they were offering, I got up, grabbed my carry-on and walked off the airplane. It was an odd, but gratifying experience. I still see those people waiting for me, their deference to a returning soldier obvious in their gracious behavior. When I hear about rude and dismissive acts against returning Vietnam vets I think of those people on my LA to Columbus flight that day. And I thank them again. They didn’t have to do that, but they did.

Years later, during the height of the conflict in Iraq, I had a chance to return the favor. On a flight from Columbus to Dallas two troops were seated about where I’d been all those years ago. I asked the flight attendant to make an announcement, which she was happy to do. When the plane stopped at the gate in DFW we civilians waited for those men to deplane. I watched them shuffle up the aisle, desert-camo fatigues, sand-colored boots, small duffels in hand. I knew just how they felt.