Monday, 24 July 2017

Review: 'Where the Iron Crosses Grow: The Crimea 1941-44' by Robert Forczyk

Where the Iron Crosses Grow: The Crimea 1941–44Occasionally the time comes when a good non-fiction book is needed. Although I love reading fiction, I often find myself craving something "real", something tangible, and that is when I reach for history books. I am fascinated by our world and everything that has occurred in it so far and love learning more, both about my own history and that of other countries and cultures. Being half-German, I have always considered it my duty to learn about the World Wars and to let them not be forgotten or cast aside. However, in such gigantic historic events, often stories are left behind, and the fierce battles over the Crimea is one of those stories. I am incredibly grateful to have had a chance to read this book and fill a gap in my knowledge. Thanks to Osprey Publishing and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 23/09/2014
Pulisher: Osprey Publishing

Nazi and Soviet armies fought over the Crimean Peninsula for three long years using sieges, dozens of amphibious landings, and large scale maneuvers. This definitive English-language work on the savage battle for the Crimea, Where the Iron Crosses Grow sheds new light on this vital aspect of the Eastern Front. 
The Crimea was one of the crucibles of the war on the Eastern Front, where first a Soviet and then a German army were surrounded, fought desperate battles and were eventually destroyed. The fighting in the region was unusual for the Eastern Front in many ways, in that naval supply, amphibious landings and naval evacuation played major roles, while both sides were also conducting ethnic cleansing as part of their strategy - the Germans eliminating the Jews and the Soviets to purging the region of Tartars.
From 1941, when the first Soviets first created the Sevastopol fortified region, the Crimea was a focal point of the war in the East. German forces under the noted commander Manstein conquered the area in 1941-42, which was followed by two years of brutal colonization and occupation before the Soviet counteroffensive in 1944 destroyed the German 17th Army. 
I originally requested this book back in 2014 when the Crimea had been brought to the front of the stage due to Russia's landgrab. Up until then, the Crime had been something of a blank for me. I had heard of it but probably wouldn't have been able to very accurately pinpoint it on a map. I felt very deeply, however, Russia's desire to own Crimea, the outrage about this in Ukraine and the major cultural and ethnic divisions that showed themselves in the Crimea. Where the Iron Crosses Grow was the perfect read to dig further into this small peninsula that, for a while, was thought to be the birth place for a second Cold War. Forczyk's book is meticulously researched, whether it's intimate contemporary anecdotes or the precise movements of different battalions. As with many way history books, the numbers and dates are so plentiful they make you dizzy, but Forczyk does his best to bring order to the chaos. Russian military groups are named in English, whereas German ranks are referred to in German, making the small difference between "the infantry" and "the infanterie" something of a lifesaver. For those more used to reading these sorts of history books, the plentiful references to different sorts of canons, air crafts and battleships will be more familiar, but as a relative novice I frequently became a bit overwhelmed by it. Forczyk attempts, though difficult it might be considering his subject matter, to let the reader breathe by interspersing the recounting of battles with aside descriptions of relevant history or persons.

Where the Iron Crosses Grow focuses mainly on the years 1941 to 1944, the very height of the Second World War, but Forczyk is also conscious of the need for background information. Starting in the 18th century, he details the history of the Crimea, its Tatar origins and its initial position as a power base. He also goes into its role during the war between the Whites and the Reds after the October Revolution in 1917 and slowly leads up to the beginning of the Second World War. By doing so, he is able to set up a number of links which only become relevant later on. The clearest example of this is his mention of the OZET, the Society for Settling Toiling Jews on the Land, set up between 1925-38, which created tensions between the resettled Jews and the local Crimean population which felt its land was being taken away. This tension survived until the German occupation in 1943 when it had disastrous consequences for the Jewish Crimeans. This linking back and forth between different time periods really adds to a reader's awareness of how tightly linked these different historical periods truly are. The main chunk of the book is dedicated to the three years of intense fighting that occurred in the Crimea, chronicling the waves of invasions that washed over the Crimea, first the German invasion in 1941-42, which finds many comparisons to the invasion of the Red Army, and then the Russian "liberation" in 1943-44. The hundreds of thousands of lives lost on both sides, the countless rounds of ammunition spent, the indescribable wreckage that was left behind, Forczyk finds a way to describe these in a way that allows both the horror of it to seep in, while also not wallowing in it for the sake of sensationalism. In between the two invasions, he also describes the terror of the ethnic cleansing by the Nazis, as well as the Soviet's very own cleansing after WWII. In a way, Where the Iron Crosses Grow is a horrible book to read, but ignoring this suffering would just be another injustice done to the Crimea.

The final chapter of the book, and its shortest, is a musing on the events of 2014, fresh when the book was written. I can't help but quote one of the final paragraphs of the book here:
"Despite the fact that competing efforts to gain control over the Crimea have yielded negligible strategic benefit to anyone for the past century, the idea that owning the Crimea is worth shedding copious amounts of blood and oppressing others for is going to retain ideological saliency for some time."
Perhaps the key thing that Where the Iron Crosses Grow taught me is that the Crimea has become a symbol. Holding it suggests power, the power over the Black Sea, the power over the Ukraine, the power to cross the border between East and West. While owning it now really does hold almost no strategical benefits, it means something bigger. It's why Hitler wanted to drive through the streets of defeated Paris, why Napoleon insisted on trying to conquer Russia, why the British Empire but the Koh-I-Noor diamond in the crown of its royals. It's an act that suggest primacy over others, and that is what despots send soldiers to their deaths for. As said, reading Where the Iron Crosses Grow, or any book on the world's long history of wars, makes you despair at humanity and at what it is willing to do to itself. But I firmly believe that learning your history is the first step in preventing it from repeating itself.

Forczyk, throughout Where the Iron Crosses Grow, consistently manages to keep the reader engaged. This sounds like it should be a given, but whereas a fiction author can use all their imaginative faculties to keep the reader happy, a history writer has facts he has to stick to. And a war historian usually has pretty grim facts as well as occasionally boring statistics he needs to convey. For someone like me, who is mainly interested in cultural history, the recounting of a battle, the shifting of fronts, the number of cannon balls fired, etc. is not always thrilling, and there were times in Where the Iron Crosses Grow that Forczyk lost me  a little. However, as said above, he himself seems very aware of this likelihood and attempts to intersperse history with as many asides as possible. I found it fascinating to learn about a German general who could only serve in the Crimea because he had been personally "pardoned" by Hitler for being of Jewish descent, or of a young Crimean girl joining the partisans. He doesn't lose himself in the numbers, doesn't lose track of the overall picture and tries his hardest to make it understandable to a novice like myself.

I give this book...

4 Universes!

For those interested in the Crimea and its WWII history, Where the Iron Crosses Grow is the perfect read. Incredibly well-researched and written, this book will give its readers a brilliant oversight, as well as an empathic insight, into the battles fought and the lives lost on this peninsula. I'd recommend this to those interested in the history of WWII and non-fiction.

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