The German Army on the Eastern Front Cover

The German Army on the Eastern Front

An Inner View of the Ostheer’s Experiences of War

Jeff Rutherford and Adrian E. Wettstein

Pen & Sword Military, Barnsely, United Kingdom, 2018, 288 pages

Book Review published on: April 12, 2019

Jeff Rutherford and Adrian E. Wettstein’s The German Army on the Eastern Front: An Inner View of the Ostheer’s Experiences of War examines the Wehrmacht (German armed forces) as it advanced, retreated, and ultimately collapsed on the eastern front between 1941 and 1945. Focused on the mid-level of command—the commanders and staffs at the corps and regimental level—the book is a documentary history of the Vernichtunskrieg (war of annihilation) the Germans fought against the Soviet Union, its people, and the Red Army. Striking an adept balance between analysis and the documents themselves, The German Army on the Eastern Front is a must-read for anyone seeking to understand how the Wehrmacht conceived and executed its war against the Soviet Union.

Rutherford, an associate professor of history at Wheeling Jesuit University, and Wettstein, the senior academic advisor at the Military Academy at ETH Zurich (Switzerland), bring the Wehrmacht’s experiences to an English language audience through their extensive archival research of unit war diaries, orders and directives, and other contemporary documents. The authors have done an excellent job avoiding the largely self-serving memoirs and histories that have dominated the English language historiography since the war’s end. Secondary sources are used throughout, though the book’s specialized focus assumes the reader has a fundamental understanding of the German-Soviet war and the operational picture. Curiously absent are some of the icons of the war’s recent historiography like Col. (Ret.) David Glantz or Robert Citino, both of whom have written extensively on the war from Soviet and German perspectives, respectively.

The book’s seven chapters are organized thematically: combat, command and leadership, tactics, supply and logistics, training and replacements, its role in the Vernichtunskrieg, and ideology and motivation. Each chapter moves across the front, from the Arctic North to the Caucasus, and spans the nearly four years of conflict to elucidate the authors’ analysis. No maps are provided, so readers will need to conduct some of their own research and work to place the narrators in a geographic context. Additionally, the book largely omits the roles played by the Waffen-SS, Luftwaffe (except in its role as an arm of supply), and the Kriegsmarine.

The eastern front revealed the German army to be an evolving and learning organization. Writing at the mid-level of command allows for the analysis to be broad yet understandable while keeping focused on higher-level tactical and operational concerns. This does not mean the writing nor its impact are sterile and removed, rather it allows for a broader understanding of how the German army adapted after campaigns of mobile warfare in Poland and the west, the opening successes of Operation Barbarossa, and the transition to positional warfare that eventually broke it.

Perhaps most insightfully, the authors examine the Wehrmacht’s participation in the Holocaust and its impact on the German military machine. The Holocaust and the myth of the “clean” Wehrmacht has been well documented elsewhere so no new conceptual ground is broken. Where Rutherford and Wettstein succeed is in documenting how the destruction of the native populations, German racial and societal policy, and its occupation policy in the rear attrited Wehrmacht combat and logistical power, resulting in a weaker army despite the belief that these actions were militarily necessary. Their approach, though limited to one chapter, bridges traditional Holocaust and military studies by showing the events were intertwined. This chapter is supplemented by another, which examines the ideology and motivations of the Wehrmacht, showing changes over time as it became increasingly national socialist in tone, leadership, and expectations.

Rutherford and Wettstein’s most astute examination is in their analysis of logistics. Here, supplemented by explanatory tables, they presented the nuanced details of the motor transport, ammunition, spare parts, rations, and medical support needed to keep the Wehrmacht fighting. While not as inherently vibrant as the section on leadership or on combat, the yeoman’s work they have done in presenting how the Wehrmacht was and was not successful helps to elucidate the support services’ role in sustaining combat power in an army.

Facing ever-mounting problems to their front, to their rear, and within their own ranks as veterans and leaders fell at irreplaceable rates, the Wehrmacht was broken on the eastern front. Rutherford and Wettstein’s selection of documentary evidence details the arc of an initially triumphant mobile army that was forced to adapt to positional warfare as the Red Army gained strength and experience. Some German leaders understood the transition while the system as a whole struggled to adapt and was increasingly poisoned by its own ideology and rear-area policies. The complex interactions between ideology, leadership, training, and logistics are well covered by the authors in this in-depth yet concise analysis of the Wehrmacht.

Book Review written by: Maj. Timothy Heck, U.S. Marine Corps Reserve, London