Myth of the Eastern Front in American Popular Culture

ORIENTAL REVIEW publishes an intriguing interview with Professors Edward Davis and Ronald Smelser, the American military historians, authors of the book “The Myth of the Eastern Front: the Nazi-Soviet War in American Popular Culture” (Cambridge University Press, 2007). They thoroughly researched why Wehrmacht was generally romanticized in American popular culture since the start of the Cold War in late 1940s. We suppose that perusal of this interview together with the chapters of ORIENTAL REVIEW’s Episodes series disclosing the clandestine liaisons between Nazis and the UK/US establishement, would shed some more light on the issue why so many Nazi criminals excaped to the USA after the WWII. The interview was taken by the Russian journalist and political analyst Victor Olevich.


Victor Olevich: What is the genesis of the American myth of the Eastern Front?  How is the interpretation of the war between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany in American popular culture different from the historical record?

imagesEdward Davies: First, there is a notion of a clean Wehrmacht and that includes the Waffen SS, that the war in Russia was fought by the army and Waffen SS for defense of the Fatherland, that neither the Waffen SS nor the Wehrmacht were involved in the atrocities and, in fact, those were conducted by the Nazis, the regular SS.  So the military aspect of it was cast in this nationalistic ethos, that it was defending the country, fighting against its enemies.  Secondly, those who wrote about the Wehrmacht claimed that they were politically naive, that in serving the political leadership, which they did, they were unaware of the politics of that leadership and they were completely unaware of what was discovered later – the death camps and the Einsatzgruppen, which operated on the Eastern Front as mobile killing machines.  So the Wehrmacht then comes off as a neutral and, if anything, very nationalistic force, defending the Fatherland, fighting for its interest, for their families, their friends, their culture.  As a result, when this notion gets transferred to the United States, which really comes about in 1945, when the German generals and officers, faced with a formidable task in that they were culpable for what happened on the Eastern Front, not just the killing of Jews, but the killing of so many Russians, millions and millions of them.  So how would they in fact divorce themselves from that, at the same time making themselves appealing to Americans.  They began to promote this entire idea of a clean Wehrmacht and that matched up with American interests, since at that moment they were looking for allies in the emerging Cold War with Russia.  So the combination allowed the Americans to embrace these German generals, and as my colleague wrote about, they began writing volumes in Germany in 1946, into 1947, on how to fight against Russia.  The Germans had just spent years doing that, although loosing, they were incorporated into our military system, our camp.  Basically, then what happens is in popular culture, as it moves out of these high circles, and this notion moves from Germany into the military and political ranks of the US, then down into popular culture, these generals began publishing their memoires, in which they basically made the case that they were not involved in the slaughter, didn’t know anything about that, and in fact if you read these memoires carefully, they claim that they tried to help Russians, tried to liberate them from brutal communists, that they were on a mission to help people, liberate them, rather than kill them.  So that moves widely into American culture, popular publications in the 1950-1960s, eventually getting down to very cheap paperback novels that cost $1.90 and that notion was embraced by a large part of the American public. In the process, this narrative becomes the narrative of  the war in the East and for the US there is no narrative from the Russian side.  There is no other, alternate position, which is such a strange contrast, because during the war, the battles were covered in detail and the atrocities were covered in detail.  Those are conveniently forgotten and this new vision comes in where the atrocities are being committed, but not by the Wehrmacht and the Waffen SS, but by the Soviets.

Ronald Smelser: With the onset of the Cold War, Americans suddenly had to make a serious psychological adjustment from viewing the Russians as their allies, which they were during the war, and the Soviet marshals were household figures in the United States during World War II, to the Russians as potential enemies, and a similar type of psychological adjustment for the Germans as enemies to the Germans as potential allies.  As my colleague pointed out, the former German generals jumped into that process in order to make their case, which in most instances consisted of lies, deceptions, and exaggerations and so on.  Former German general Franz Halder who formed a group of German officers who wrote over two thousand publications for the Americans.  He is a good example of a German general who lied about his past.  He said that he did not support the war against the Soviet Union, but he supported it fully.  He made plans well in advance of Hitler’s orders for the invasion of the Soviet Union.  He was well aware of Hitler’s murderous plan and helped to lay the foundation for genocide, and he also shared Hitler’s assumptions about a quick victory.  All these generals said after the war that they did not want to invade the Soviet Union and Hitler was foolish in doing so.  While in reality they were even more optimistic than Hitler that they could finish that war in a matter of weeks or several months.

– Was there official or semi-official U.S. government support lent to the distortion of the historical record of the Second World War?

Davies: Absolutely, for example during the war and even right after the war, we were very much aware of the activities of the German army right alongside the Einsatzgruppen and the SS.  We supported the Nuremberg trials, in which two German field marshals, Keitel and Jodl, were both tried and executed.  We tried the generals in several cases after Nuremburg, case 7 had to do with hostages and case 12 had to do with the Wehrmacht itself.  And there were very few Americans who were against those trials.  I would mention senator Robert Taft, senator William Langer, who was from a heavily German-populated area in the Midwest.  Almost everybody else was for them.  It was only as the Cold War started to take shape that Americans who formulated policy began to say to themselves “well, we may go to war with the Soviet Union and if we do that, we may need German support.  The Germans were well-aware of that, that is why they were willing to step in and in a sense the Americans helped them make a compromise – either they got German support with the eventual creation of the West German army, the Bundeswehr, or they had to fend for themselves.  And they decided to make that compromise, so the Americans stopped the trials, particularly of the German officers, German generals, cut short the sentences already levied on them in exchange for which the Germans said that they will help.  At that point, in 1947-48 and into the 1950’s top American authorities changed their position and made the trade, the trade of Russian good will for German support.

– Did German war crimes receive treatment in American academic publications?

Smelser:  In terms of scholarship, West German historians fairly early on, in the 1960’s  and 1970’s, some of them, but by no means all, tried to tell the truth about what happened on the Eastern Front.  American scholars pick up on that in the 1970’s and 1980’s with American historical publications.  But most Americans don’t read those publications, they rather look at other things, like novels, memoires, that are written on a more popular level.  So yes, scholars were writing about Nazi policies in Russia, including the involvement of the Wehrmacht, other scholars read those, but nothing popular was published that would carry that message to a vast majority of the American people.

Davies:  I would like to add that my first encounter with the war in Russia came in 1966, I was in a bookstore looking for a book to buy and I saw the back cover of something called “Hitler moves East” by Paul Carell, thats a pen name of Paul Karl Schmidt.  He worked with von Ribbentrop and others in the Nazi hierarchy, was a very prolific author, and that book is in many ways one of the iconic pieces of the war from the German position.  I really didn’t know very much about Russia’s participation in the war, and at first I thought it was about Poland, then I picked up the book and looked at the front cover and it was Russia.  I became mesmerized, he was a very electric writer, very engaging, I read Carell’s book in several days and then went on to buy more than 400 books on the Eastern Front from the German position.  And I fully embraced that viewpoint for many years until I later got into the academy and began to read alternative sources, but for a long time that kind of literature from those who participated remained the bread and butter reading for many and many Americans and still does today.

– What is Lost Cause Mythology  and why do many Americans still sympathize the Wehrmach effort on the Eastern Front?

Smelser:  For one thing, Americans have a fascination for lost causes and we pointed out briefly in the book that there are a lot of similarities here between the American Civil War  of the 1860’s.  The South, of course, lost the war, but managed to romanticize their involvement in the war, especially its virtue as opposed to the industrial North, and to this day Americans, including northerners sympathize in many ways with the lost cause of the South in the Civil War.  Part of that, of course, is also tied up with racism, because although Lincoln freed the slaves, there were probably as many racists in the North as there were in the South.  So they feel sympathy for the South.  So Americans are in the habit of doing this and this situation with the Eastern Front in the Second World War gave them an opportunity to renew this idea of the Lost Cause Myth, that is to say Hitler may have been bad and Hitler’s Germany may have been evil in attacking the Soviet Union, but the German soldiers were full of virtue and combat readiness and they could take per man 5 or 6 of the enemy.  So this whole romancing thing began once again in the context of the Cold War.

Davies: To add to that, another similarity is that after the Civil War, beginning in the 1880’s and 1890’s, the writing on the Civil War becomes dominated by Southerners, particularly former Confederate officers and sympathizers.  Their writing really supersedes that of African-Americans trying to argue that the war was a liberating event in getting rid of slavery.  By the mid-20th century, the Civil War was a war without African-Americans, it was a war of independence, a war of noble armies fighting each other.  This comes out of the ways the southerners dominated the writing about that event.  Similarly, after World War II, particularly in the 1950s and 1960s, as I said earlier, most of the writing being done for popular culture was done by Germans and those sympathetic to the German position.  As a result, that narrative of “fine, welcome home” in the United States and in many ways praises the German soldier much like the Civil War literature praised the heroic, virtuous southerner fighting for independence of his region.  They both leave out disturbing facts.  In the case of the South, they leave out that fact that millions of people had been slaves for decades and centuries.  In the case of World War II, they leave out the fact that the Wehrmacht and the Waffen SS were implicated in killing 25 to 30 million Russians.  When you remove those, you have a very different agenda and a very different narrative.

– What was the general view of the American officers, military staff and generals who took part in World War II and were later on to serve through the Cold War?

Smelser: One dramatic event that starts some of that is the fact that American soldiers who were actually fighting in the last several years of the war, fought their way into Germany from the West, saw the concentration camps, helped liberate some of the concentration camps, and were very angry with the Germans about what they did and understandably so.  But then some younger soldiers were coming in with the occupation authorities, who had no wartime experience, did not see what the Nazis had done, even in Germany itself, and they found themselves attracted to the German population, they related to middle-aged German women, like they did to their mothers.  The Germans flattered them, anyway.  We have a lot of records of how much more comfortable, ironically, some young American soldiers were in occupied Germany than they were in England or France, which had been their allies.  As far as higher-up officers are concerned, they changed their mind in a sense, too.  During the war, Eisenhower often said how much he hated the Germans and how German high command should be either shot or sent off to an island like Napoleon.  As the Cold War starts to evolve, they changed their mind.  They began to accept the German definition of what happened in the East, in Russia.  Younger American officers coming in the 1950’s got together with the Bundeswehr officers and developed quite a pattern of contacts with each other.  So there was a lot of interaction on a friendly level between the Bundeswehr and the American army.  It is ironic because in the beginning, in 1955 almost all the officers in the Bundeswehr had been officers in the German army in World War II.  Both sides overlooked that fact.

Davies:  I would add that many young Americans in the army of occupation ended up marrying German women, obviously creating a very sympathetic bond with the German nation and with Germany’s past.  At the same time, the emerging Cold War created very emotional events.  The blockade of Berlin, the candy bombers – these tied Germany and the United States in a new way that had not been possible before the war.  Then Germans began to be seen from a very sympathetic viewpoint by American by American popular culture and also by young American soldiers and officers.  They came home with those women, had their children, creating even further bonds deep in society.  The Russians were being reinterpreted by policy and in popular culture very differently.  A classic example of that was when the army published a series of books, including “The Rape of Berlin”, which were written by American authors for occupation forces.  “The Rape of Berlin” talks about the ways in which Asiatic Bolsheviks were violating white women in Germany.  They used the term Asiatic Bolsheviks because they cold not use Jewish Bolsheviks anymore.  This created sympathy on the part of Americans for the Germans, whom they were theoretically occupying.  So, at all levels, the merging of German and American interests, the merging of popular emotions converged to create a viewpoint that is distinctly pro-German, and Germany now gets reinterpreted as an emerging democratic society fighting against communist hordes in the East.  It becomes racial and also ideological.

– How is the war on the Eastern Front treated in American school books?  What impressions of the war does an average American student graduating from high school today leave with?

Davies: My own experience is that we were taught very little about Russia’s participation in the war in the schools.  Thus my astonishment when I picked up Carell’s book, and it was about 600 pages, and I opened the book up and knew virtually nothing about what he was discussing.  Not much has changed since the 1950’s and 1960’s in that sense.  Just in the past 10-15 years did books start to appear stating that the German army was not particularly noble on the Eastern front, that it was horrific.  But my sense is that there is still a very strong sentiment against that viewpoint and will probably remain there for some time to come.

Smelser:  Let me just add to that.  I have some experience going out to public schools, talking to students and my experience has been that particularly among male teachers there is that same romanticization of the German army.  On one occasion, they were having the Second World War as a theme in a high school history class, and when the students came in, there was hanging from a wall a big flag with a swastika, that the teacher had gotten from his father or grandfather during the war.  The teacher thought he would make the discussion more colorful and actually he was sending the absolute wrong message.  So there is very little knowledge of the war on the Eastern Front among Americans, including young Americans.  One indication of that is that every year we celebrate D-Day, the British-American landing in Normandy in 1944.  Ceremonies are held to commemorate this event and veterans travel to attend them in France.  But never one is it mentioned that while we were held up on the beach in Normandy, the Soviet Army unleashed a major offensive in the East that swallowed up 47 German divisions in the end.  The divisions that would otherwise have been throwing the British and Americans off the beaches in France.  Never mentioned in news coverage or documentaries.  Young people and the population generally here are simply not told about these dramatic events, even though they had a strong impact on us.

Davies:  It took years for the Holocaust as an idea to penetrate into the American popular culture and to crystallize as a horrific event.  Yet, at this point, there is still no recognition of millions and millions of Russians who died at the hands of the Germans during World War II.  Almost no acknowledgment at all.  Period.  While certainly we know, as we should, about the various camps like Auschwitz, there is very little discussion about the hostage order, where you shoot 50 Russians for every dead German you find, no discussion at all about the starvation orders, none of this appears with any frequency.  It is simply not known very widely in American culture today.

– A number of non-German ethnic police and Waffen-SS units participated in the war on the Eastern Front, took part in war crimes.  These included Latvian, Estonian, Lithuanian and other units.  How are they and their fate viewed by Americans?

Smelser: Americans know even less about that fact tan about other facts we were talking about.  The only reminder Americans get of the involvement of these units in war crimes are the civil trials around the United States of former concentration camp guards, who came over illegally and face denaturalization and deportation.  John Demjanjuk was one of them.  We deported him to Germany and he is going on trial there on criminal charges.  That is the only way Americans pick up at all the idea that people from the Baltic states or from Ukrainian units were involved with the Germans in committing these war crimes.

Davies:  From the American perspective, those within the romancer community, address this issue of ethnic minorities like Latvians, Lithuanians, and particularly populations of southeastern Europe, from the standpoint of those people fighting for independence, fighting for autonomy, and later fighting against the Soviet-imposed communist government, which in their mind were horrific visitations of the evil coming from the East.  We find these ideas showing in the journal such as Siegrunen, published by Richard Landwehr and others, who really don’t discuss what was the dynamic, why these people joined or were sympathetic to the German viewpoint, but they discuss it from the standpoint of an anti-Communism, an attempt to achieve independence, autonomy, they talk about them being victimized by the Soviets and attempting to redress that, seeing the war as a chance to free themselves from the Soviet rule.  That is the way this subject has come across in American popular culture, although I can’t say that these groups get a great deal of attention other than among those with a specific interest in the war and in the activities of these peoples.

– What is the role of internet and wargame reenactments the popular interpretation or reinterpretation of the results of World War II?

Davies:  The wargaming culture begins in the United States in the very late 1950’s – early 1960’s and one of the primary focuses of the wargamers, which cover a lot of different campaigns and wars, one of the major focuses was the war in the East.  One of the very first big-selling wargames, published by Avalon Hill was called PanzerBlitz, which is done from a German perspective about small-unit actions on the Eastern Front.  A very, very popular game, which I remember buying.  That really sparked interest, game designers began to focus on producing games about the Eastern Front. A few years later, a company called Simulations Publications issued what they called a monster game, which covers the entire Eastern Front with a huge map with thousands of pieces, again from a pro-German position.  This sparked a flurry of games and an immense interest in the men who led the German army, those who fought in the army, the weapons, the uniforms.  It occurred about the same time as the Gerrman popular accounts were being released by Ballantine books and other publishers in very cheap, accessible form.  So that culture raised awareness among a smaller group of Americans, largely young men who then became interested and mesmerized by the German army, by the Waffen-SS, by the Panzer units.  I was certainly one of them.  I owned 500 or 600 wargames, and kept buying those books, and all this reinforced each other.

In one particular game on the Stalingrad campaign, the German units had specific names on them, German leaders had names, but the Russians had no names.  It didn’t seem to be very important, and in light the Cold War this reinforced this pro-German image.  Later, they moved into the internet, which changed dramatically the ways in which this pro-German position gets promoted.  The internet allows you to cut across time and space, to promote information at any point and any time to an unlimited audience.  As a result, we began to get hundreds of websites that describe the German army in great detail.  One internet site, AchtungPanzer, would write quizzes on the Eastern Front.  And you would have to know the details of the war on the Eastern Front to participate in these quizzes.  They had contests, forums, constant discussions about the Eastern Front.  All this came in a flood in the 1990’s and early 2000’s.  That reinforced the pro-German viewpoint.

As far as reenacting, it began popularly with the Civil War, and particularly during the Centennial in 1961.  As for the Eastern Front, it begins in the mid-1970’s in the Midwest, when a reenactor begins to sew together German uniforms, pick up followers, and sets up what is called the SS Panzer Division Leibstandarte.  That emerges from a handful of men to several hundred. It has a major website.  Then you begin to see SS, Waffen-SS, and Wehrmacht units appear in California and later in other parts of the country.  Then regional associations began to rise.  These units in California also serve second-duty in movies where they need German soldiers.  That gathers momentum in 1990-2000’s.  At the same time, because there is a real emphasis on trying to capture the authenticity of that period, we begin to get manufacturing companies producing uniforms, badges, insignia, and to sell these to this growing legion of followers, who reenact events at US army installations, boy scout reservations, in various parks.  So that combination really makes it into a major force in popular culture and involves people who are now connected electronically across great distances.

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  1. Chris Schultz

    An interesting analysis of American attitudes about the Eastern Front in WWII, and valid. I may point out one other fact. German records and interpretations of the Russian front were readily available after the war. The German generals and soldiers were more than willing to talk about their experiences, especially in the 1970s and 1980s, as passions over the war began to cool. The Soviets, on the other hand, shared nothing, except for some politically motivate hagiographies and false histories to glorify Mother Russia and Magnificent Marshal Stalin. It wasn’t until the 1990s and Glasnost that the true stories of Russian courage and resistance began to reach the West. As someone who was born in the 1950s and was an avid reader of military history at an early age, I can say that I have seen a shift in sympathies from the German viewpoint to that of the Russian soldiers and people, who suffered so much from the Nazi invasion.

  2. Ted Arodt

    What a piece of shit this author Victor Olevich is. A real nasty human being and a hack.

  3. @Ted
    Your coarse and senseless reaction shows that Victor has itched it right.

  4. Walter DuBlanica

    Edward Davies and the book he wrote provide the TRUE picture of the fighting on the Eastern front. Why not accept reality and give credit where credit is due.

  5. Pingback: Il mito del Fronte Orientale nella cultura popolare americana – noicomunisti

  6. maroa joshua

    american cannot n will not change history coz blood was spilled n it really counted.

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