Sunday, May 19, 2013

Reviewing the Last Battle

I read a book review that inspired me to Kindle The Last Battle, by Stephen Harding, which documents one of the last WWII battles in Europe. The story apparently is well known in Europe, but never got that much play in the US. A bunch of French politicians were being held by the Germans in Austria at Schloss Itter, and in the waning days of the war, it looked like they might get executed.  A small group of daring US soldiers, combined with Austrian resistance and, more strikingly, German soldiers held off the SS troops long enough for relief to arrive.  So, you have Americans and Germans and old French soldiers and politicians fighting alongside each other after Hitler's death and when everyone thinks the war is over.

The book  was an interesting read, but definitely felt like it had a lot of padding.  It is only about 170 pages plus footnotes and bibliography and such, yet the beginning of the book was kind of slow at the start with more background than seemed necessary.  The problem for any author is that the battle itself was less than a day from when the firing started to when the relief arrived. So, there is not that much of a story to tell in a book. 

Still, the story was quite interesting and told well.  A couple of interesting pieces to the story:
  • Relief was complicated by the drawing of lines on the map--that one of the units attempting to relieve the castle was entering into the area of responsibility of another American unit, and the commander did not want to do that for fear of friendly fire.  Damn those arbitrary lines.
  • The book documents very well the conflicts among the French prisoners: Edouard Daladier vs. Paul Reynaud, General Maurice Gamelin vs General Maxime Weygand and others.  The stories of these and the other French prisoners (with one exception, Jean Borotra, who played a pivotal role in the battle) hating each other and acting childish were striking.  Indeed, they were stupidly disobeying instructions from the American commander.  As the battle was joined, they put themselves in harm's way, ultimately getting one of the key German officers killed.  With leaders like this, it becomes very clear why the French lost the war so quickly in 1940 and why they were so poorly prepared before that.
    • This gets to a basic gripe I have about Barry Posen's Sources of Military Doctrine.  It was a very influential book in Security Studies in the late 1980s, but the basic argument did not match the reality.  Trying to combine bureaucratic politics with structural realism, Posen argued that countries generally produced poor innovative military doctrine due to bureaucratic politics.  Only when countries face severe external threats do the politicians interfere to force militaries to adapt.  This sounds fine and good, but who faced the most severe threat in the mid to late 1930's?  France, of course.  But it adapted poorly, if outcomes are any measure.  What explains why France adapted poorly?  Not bureaucratic politics but domestic politics--unstable coalition politics led to short lived governments.  Of course, given the quality of the men leading France at the time, as revealed by this book, I am not sure a longer lasting government led by any of these guys would have been any good. 
  • One note for the Canadian folks: a few journalists jumped onto the various American relief convoys because they knew a good story when they saw one, including one young Canadian: Rene Levesque!  He, of course, went on to lead Quebec separatists in the 1970s and has a very windy street named for him in Montreal.  His efforts to get the story were mostly stymied by Daladier and Reynaud who wanted to save their stories for their memoirs, which were mostly aimed at blasting each other and whoever else for whom they had much resentment.  
In a WWII tale of much heroism, initiative, luck and guts about the efforts of the Americans, the "good" Germans, and the Austrians,* the French come off looking the worst.  Of course.
*  I have always been less than thrilled with the Austrian perspective on the war--as the first victims of the Nazis --as too many were way too enthused about Anchluss, Hilter, the SS and all of that.  But in this book, there was apparently a resistance movement that did help to make a difference at the very end of the war.

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