July 15, 2008

The War You Never Hear About

When I was a kid, somebody started saying that outfielder Joe Rudi of the Oakland A's was the most underrated player in baseball. After a few years, he was famous for being not famous. By 1974, he was second in the press' league MVP voting even though he was only the second best hitter on his team (OPS .818), well behind Reggie Jackson (OPS .905), who came in 4th in the MVP vote. Rudi was a fine player and he was genuinely underrated for a little while because the Oakland pitcher's park held down his statistics, but it got to be a running gag pretty fast.

Similarly, you always hear about how you never hear about the Eastern Front in WWII.

What you actually never hear about is the Eastern Front in WWI. That was one wild war, with all the second string empires bashing each other about all over the map each year, until the Germans would scrape together the 6 or 12 divisions they could spare from the Western Front and go over and bail out the Austrians with brilliant generalship.

My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer

26 comments:

Andrew Z said...

What's really cool is the Italian-Austrian battles in the Italian Alps. Apparently avalanches were a greater threat than bullets or shells.

Check out August 1914 by Solzhenitsyn.

I'd also recommend the Arsenal war museum in Vienna, which had fantastic stuff about WWI and the Ottoman wars I had never heard of.

Lucius Vorenus said...

Steve Sailer: What you actually never hear about is the Eastern Front in WWI. That was one wild war, with all the second string empires bashing each other about all over the map each year, until the Germans would scrape together the 6 or 12 divisions they could spare from the Western Front and go over and bail out the Austrians with brilliant generalship.

Another one you never hear about is the Polish-Soviet war of 1919-1921 [not 1939].

Outland said...

How about the Russo-Japanese war?

headache said...

My Grandpa died on the Eastern Front. He was a German officer. So its present in our minds and from that memory it made sense that Hitler attacked the Russians in WWII.

Barry Wood said...

Norman Stone wrote at length about the eastern front in his short history of World War One from a couple of years ago.
Particularly interesting was how Russia's improved rail communications increased the threat to Germany by improving troop mobility. He dwelled on the various rail gauges and ornate railway stations in Vienna, Germany and Russia.

The Guardian did a good review "He has an infectious love of quirky detail: the first shots of the Anglo-German war fired in Sydney, Australia; the overnight deployment of German troops on the river Aisne concealed by the croaking of frogs; the Austro-Hungarian dugouts with glass windows and so on.

As well as the novelist's eye for anecdote, Stone also displays the authoritative command of a scholar steeped in his lifelong subject. Who could better his description of Churchill's 'extraordinary quickness and imagination, his wit, his old-fashioned grand accent, his sense of English history'. The First Lord of the Admiralty nailed in fewer than 20 words.

He loves to find 'neurotic homosexual' generals appointed through the court intrigues of superannuated dowagers dripping with fur and diamonds, or 'pop-eyed' Tsarist military commanders attending Russian Orthodox mass at staff HQ, or mystified peasants dragooned into the signing ceremony of Brest-Litovsk. At its best, World War One is a heady cocktail of Tacitus and Waugh. Who but Stone would describe Lenin's famous 'sealed train' to the Finland Station as 'the first no-smoking train in history'?

Behind the jokes and the fireworks, there's a serious argument, though hardly a new one. For the British Foreign Office, the strategic choice in Europe has always been: Germany or Russia? Here, Stone wants to argue that, in the transformation of Europe from 1914-18, the deepest anxiety among the allies was that a disintegrating Russia would allow Germany to dominate the east. Simultaneously, he points out that it was precisely Germany's paranoid fear of Russia's potential strength that, in the run-up to hostilities, inspired Berlin to manipulate the European alliance system into war while time was still on the side of the German railway timetables."

Previous to this he wrote an acclaimed history of the eastern front.

http://books.guardian.co.uk/reviews/history/0,,2146935,00.html
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/arts/main.jhtml?xml=/arts/2007/08/02/bosto129.xml
http://www.spectator.co.uk/the-magazine/books/77456/not-forgetting-the-horses-indigestion.thtml

Barry Wood

georgesdelatour said...

Even during the war, generals on the western front failed to learn the lessons of the east. The Brusilov Offensive should have given them much to ponder. Where the western front was characterized by stalemate and attrition, in the east, Brusilov inflicted losses of 1.5m men and 25000km of territory on Austria-Hungary.

neil craig said...

Part of the difference is between the 12 German divisions in one war & 300 in the second.

Naturaly wars where we had no troops tend to get less coverage.

If you really want a campaign that had no coverage try the Russian invasion of Manchuria in 1945. It happened 2 days after Hiroshima & only lasted a week but it was between Japan's biggest single army & hundreds of thousands of Stalin's veterans.. It was fought on flat tank country & the Russians had massive 1945v era JSII tanks & the Japanese a few little ones not updated 1939 era ones which explains why the Russians advance up to 300 miles in that week.

Part of the reason it doesn't get covered is the short time it lasted but part is that the USA like to say they won that war entirely & part is that the japanesec like to say they only lost because of the Bomb.

Even on the net it is difficult to find anyhting in English on it despite the numbers involved.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for that pointer, barry wood -- I'll have to remember to look up Stone's book.

Apart from the sheer interest of the eastern front, that's where the deepest consequences of the war were felt, with the collapse of the Austrian, Russian, and Ottoman empires.

The further we get from it, the more the the first half of the 20th century looks like an aberration for Europe -- an aberration that could have been avoided, had WWI somehow been avoided.

dearieme said...

"Stone also displays the authoritative command of a scholar steeped in his lifelong subject": very true. But it's not the only thing he's steeped in, mind you.

Anonymous said...

I suggest a visit to Russia. There you'll hear a lot about the "Eastern Front." Except that, to them, it's the western front. Something else you never hear much about is the Murmansk convoys. As far as I know, Russia was the only nation to award a medal for this service (to British sailors!). Another interesting but neglected area is the campaign in sub-Saharan Africa during WW I.

AMac said...

My grandfather, who I never knew, was a lt. in Franz Josef's army. My grandmother would dig out sepia-toned prints--Austrian soldiers posing in front of a haystack in the Carpathians, and the like. On the back, a short description would be scribbled.

Which brings up one of the minor problems of the Eastern Front--most of my grandfather's place-names have passed into history. Nationalism from Versailles on, the sweeping changes imposed by the Nazis and then the Russians, the post-1989 resurgence of Czechs, Poles, Ukranians, etc. Add in spelling variations, and it's usually difficult or impossible to locate any particular village or river. I doubt this is unique to my family's albums.

Anonymous said...

The whole "Forgotten Eastern Front in WWII" myth was created by leftists who wanted to demonstrate how our poor Red "allies" were picked on. This goes all the way back to the agitation among American Communists for a "Second Front" in 1942, and it's a crock. I was reading stuff about the Eastern Front in the late 1960's, and a lot of that was at least ten years old. Incidentally, just try finding anything about the Western Allies' contribution to the defeat of Nazi Germany in Russia today. You would think that the USSR defeated Germany single-handed.

Tschafer

H. said...

As a WWI fan, I would say that the entire 1914-18 conflict is barely known now. Many people have a vague awareness of the western trenches, but certainly nearly all are in darkness about battles such as Kut al Amarah in present-day Iraq. Steve brings up so many things that are ignored.

One relevant episode on WWI's eastern front was the German overrun of Romania in 1916. They did it in winter, when they could spare some divisions from their trenches in Russia.

Another war you never hear about is the Russo-Finnish War in 1937. Little Finland thrashed Stalin's legions, giving Hitler an even lower estimate of the Soviet army ....

Maximilian said...

The definitive work on the eastern front in WWI:

"The Good Soldier Schweik"

http://www.amazon.com/Good-Soldier-Svejk-Fortunes-Twentieth-Century/dp/0140182748

astorian said...

In 1973, all I heard was that Joe Rudi was "the most underrated player in baseball." This questionable truism was repeatedso often that, by 1975, everyone was calling him "the most overrated underrated player in baseball."

As I recall, Rudi was a decent ballplayer, a very good left fielder, and a valuable guy to have on your roster, but NOBODY feared him as they feared Reggie Jackson.

And it's hard to see how a guy with a mere .311 on base percentage (he rarely drew walks) could be underrated.

Blode said...

Ditto what Barry Wood said. Thanks for pointing this out, Steve. I've heard way too many people say WWI's Eastern Front is boring because (a) WWI is boring, and only featured trench warfare and/or (b) Russia at the time had no tanks and was thus boring (tanks being necessary to Russia being interesting, but apparently not other countries).

Of course, nobody had tanks in 1914, and only a handful of belligerents had them in 1918, and trench warfare dominated mainly the Western Front in the middle years, and it wasn't as static as is sometimes thought and....

If Russia was so incompetent, why were the Germans so petrified of them? And why did they whip the Austro-Hungarians so many times? The Russians were no hotbed of professionalism, sobriety, and steely resolves, but the picture is vastly more complicated than warrants the pat on the head given the subject by popular history.

Really, unless you can read Russian, you've got to read Norman Stone to get a good sense of the wonderful and terrible things that happened in that theater. Some of the things Stone doesn't cover much: A unit of Crippled Soldiers. Women's Death Battalions. A regiment of Savages (i.e. Central Asian Muslims). Scary-looking gas masks. Imperial Japan supplying its new ally with thousands of Arisaka 6.5mms ... barely a decade after Tsushima. And, best of all, the Tsar Tank.

(Apropos of this and Steve's column on Wikipedia, check out the different edits of their article on Vladimir Sukhomlinov. Excellent general or nincompoop?)

airtommy said...

When it comes to foreign policy, the right-wing has become a frightening echo chamber in the Internet era. Example:

Incidentally, just try finding anything about the Western Allies' contribution to the defeat of Nazi Germany in Russia today. You would think that the USSR defeated Germany single-handed.

Back in the real world, the Western offensive in WWII has become synonymous with winning wars in general. The Eastern offensive has absolutely no place in our lexicon, zeitgeist, or pop culture.

Blode said...

I barely understand you, airtommy. Do you think the term "D-Day" is synonymous with Operation Overload, aka the 1944 invasion of Normandy? It isn't. D-Day is just the day an operation begins - any operation. One day after D Minus One and two days before D Plus Two. Similarly for H-Hour.

airtommy said...

Do you think the term "D-Day" is synonymous with Operation Overload, aka the 1944 invasion of Normandy? It isn't.

In our current culture, it is.

We aren't discussing facts, we're discussing perception of facts.

steve wood said...

Americans don't know much about the Eastern Front in either World War because we didn't fight in them. Except for historians, who are paid to care, in general people are not very interested in battles their country was not involved in, especially 60-90 years after the fact. (Yes, I know we were "involved," especially in WWII, but we didn't actually fight alongside the Russians.) There's some marginal interest in British wars because of the shared language, history and culture. Other wars? Not so much.

On the other hand, I don't think it's accurate to say that "you ... never hear" about the Eastern Front in WWII. Most Americans who know anything about the war are aware of Hitler's invasion of Russia, the Battle of Stalingrad, the Siege of Leningrad and the various atrocities committed by both sides. They probably don't know the details (that's what Wikipedia is for! :-), but they have heard of them and are taught about them in history classes that cover the war.

The Eastern Front in WWI is, I agree, much more obscure. Americans who are educated about history - a small number, alas - know at least that Russia's losses in the war contributed to the Revolution and the eventual Bolshevik triumph. That's about it.

Americans hardly think about WWI anyway because we were in it for such a short time and because it gets lost in the overpowering glow of glamour and mostly justified self-satisfaction generated by WWII. Even when we do think about it, WWI is often cast in terms of its contribution to the rise of Hitler and the big war we'd really much rather think about.

Most Americans have no idea how atypical the Second World War was in having such clearly identifiable causes and straightforward morality. They imagine that the need for war will always be urgent and obvious (even though it was by no means obvious to many Americans until December 7, 1941). They expect that there will always be a clearly "right" side from a moral (as opposed to national interest) perspective and that the only winning outcome is the utter defeat of the enemy and reform of the defeated nation into a model of democracy and Western ideals ... just like Germany and Japan! I guess one could say that World War II spoiled us for every other war we fight.

Michael said...

Not know anything about Sub-Saharan Africa in WWI???

EVERYONE knows that Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn double-handedly defeated the German Navy in that theater!

Simon Oliver Lockwood said...

One additional reason that there is so comparitively little on the WWI Eastern Front is that history is generally written from two perspectives, "We Won!" or "Why Did We Lose, and How Can We Win Next Time?" The only country that "won" on the Eastern Front was Germany, and it lost the war overall. The other two major states involved, Russia and Austria-Hungary, didn't survive the war so there was no reason for learning the lessons of defeat.

Gc said...

If Ludendorff would wake from the death and look at the 21th century Europe map, he would think that the germans have won some really big war meanwhile when he was under the grass. The big trends in history can be slowed down by two lost wars but the outcome might not be avoidable by them after all.

Simon Oliver Lockwood said...

gc said: "If Ludendorff would wake from the death and look at the 21th century Europe map, he would think that the germans have won some really big war meanwhile when he was under the grass."

I'm not sure that's the case. The first thing he might notice is that the eastern border of Germany is a couple hundred miles west of where it used to be, the cradle of Prussian culture (Koenigsberg) is in a Russian enclave, and that both his birthplace and the scene of his greatest triumph are in Poland.

Gc said...

That`s true, but there is a thing called the map of EU, under which lives over 400 million people and mainly the germans together with french run the whole show. As a finn I surely know that the small countries in EU don`t have much to say what`s going on in EU, even more when the EU`s constitution in put through without asking the people anything.

Gc said...

I`ll add that the land itself is not important. Finland lost 10 percent of it`s land area at the end of the second world war. Nobody want`s it back anymore, even if we could have it empty. The cost to rebuild a huge area would drain our economy, just look what happened to Germany`s economy after the reunification. In the present day germany all the germans live in under the german rule, which is a thing that matters most even for the nationalists. Even the russian goverment try to lure the russian people out of the soviet unions outer posts back to the mother Russia. In Königsberg there lived a lot of german people and it was an important city, but it was lost in the first world war already.