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New Scholarship on World War I, 2000–2014: Eastern Front

By Frederic Krome

Eastern Front

The eastern front was often treated as either an adjunct to events in the west, or as a teleological story of the superiority of the German military versus the incompetent Russians on the latter’s destructive path to the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917.  The fall of the Soviet Union opened up previously inaccessible archival material in both Russia and the former Eastern bloc nations.  Meanwhile, as the global dimensions of the war are brought into stark relief, it seems absurd not to recognize that the eastern front has to be examined in greater detail, and not merely from the perspective of the Russian revolutions or the retrospective of the Nazi era.

The creation of the Supreme Commander of All German Forces in the East, abbreviated as Ober Ost, is sometimes regarded as a precursor to events in World War II.  This vision, however, falls back on the notion that there is some grand Drang nach Osten (yearning for the East) that characterizes German history from the reign of the ninth-century Emperor Otto to Hitler.  Students seeking a more coherent vision of the connectivity of ideas in the modern era should first turn to Paul Weindling, Epidemics and Genocide in Eastern Europe, 1890-1945; he demonstrates the interrelationship between racial and environmental assumptions about eastern Europe and its peoples.  Weindling’s book also represents a trend to look for connections over the period of the two world wars based on actual German policies, rather than reading back into World War I events from World War II.  For the wider perspective of the significance of Ober Ost, Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius, War Land on the Eastern Front: Culture, National Identity and German Occupation in World War I, blends together a skillful analysis of how “the East” was perceived in Germany prior to 1914 with an examination of how the German military and occupation authorities actually governed.

The old image of a frail Austro-Hungarian Empire teetering from one crisis to another prior to its actual collapse has been revised somewhat by studies of the military history of the eastern front.  The picture that emerges is not necessarily a complete revision of the Habsburg war effort, but it does often provide the details necessary to understand the process of disintegration.  Graydon A. Tunstall’s Blood on the Snow: The Carpathian Winter War of 1915 is a harrowing account of the destruction of the old Austro-Hungarian army during the first major winter campaigns, in which more men starved or froze to death than were killed in combat.  While the Habsburgs faced defeat in early 1915, Richard L. DiNardo, in Breakthrough: The Gorlice-Tarnow Campaign, 1915, tells how a combined Austro-German offensive later that year drove the Russians back and stabilized the front.  Each of these works provides details of the inner workings of the k. und k. army and General Staff.  (The acronym refers to kaiserlich und königlich, which means Imperial and Royal, referring to Franz Joseph’s dual status as Emperor of Austria and King of Hungary.)

Timothy C. Dowling’s The Brusilov Offensive, about perhaps the most successful Russian campaign of the war, and also one of the few named for a military commander, demonstrates the seesaw nature of the war in the east.  Michael B. Barrett, Operation Albion: The German Conquest of the Baltic Islands, details the war’s most successful amphibious operation, which seized the strategic islands that opened a path to Petrograd for Ober Ost.  Such campaigns as this are largely forgotten today, making Barrett’s book a useful addition to library collections.

On the other end of the eastern front, the Serbian experience has not received much examination, at least in English-language publications.  One major exception is Jonathan E. Gumz’s The Resurrection and Collapse of Empire in Habsburg Serbia, 1914-1918, which examines how the k. und k. officer corps attempted to “de-nationalize” occupied Serbia in order to more fully incorporate the region and its natural resources into the Austrian war effort.  Gumz provides an interesting counterpoint to Liulevicius’s study of Ober Ost.

Romania’s role in the war is comprehensively dealt with by Glenn E. Torrey in The Romanian Battlefront in World War I.  He juxtaposes his depiction of the Central Powers failing to coordinate strategy and German manpower resources being stretched too thin to exploit significant breakthroughs with a stubborn Romanian army hamstrung by inept leadership.  Michael B. Barrett, Prelude to Blitzkrieg: The 1916 Austro-German Campaign in Romania, focuses primarily on German war planning and implementation for the Romanian invasion, followed by a detailed campaign history.  Barrett sees this campaign as one of the precursors to the infamous blitzkriegs of World War II, and his book is especially appropriate for libraries that cater to ROTC students.  Meanwhile, Richard C. Hall, in Balkan Breakthrough: The Battle of Dobro Pole, 1918, argues that Bulgaria’s collapse in the fall of 1918, before that of any other Central Power, was the result of poor morale among its troops combined with the Bulgarian government’s overly ambitious expansionist policy.

Works Cited