Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Review of Between Giants: The Battle for the Baltics in World War II by Prit Buttar (Osprey Press, 2013)

The three Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia have been fought over and ruled over by other states for centuries. They gained their independence in the wake of the First World War, but were under pressure from the political manoeuvring of Russia, Germany, and Poland in the interwar years. They are rocked by the German-Soviet non-aggression pact prior to World War Two and occupied by Soviet Union in 1939, then by Germany in 1941, and again by the Soviets 1944-45, remaining behind the iron curtain as part of the Soviet Union until 1990. With the exception of Poland, no countries experienced as high a population loss through death and deportation during the war as the Baltic states (over 20 percent). To complicate matters, both belligerent armies included large numbers of combatants from the Baltic states, plus nationalist and pro-Soviet partisans were operating. Prit Buttar seeks to tell the complex story of the battle of the Baltics from all perspectives (each Baltic state, Germany, Russia; politicians, soldiers, partisans, civilians) from a somewhat distant, neutral perspective. To a large degree, he succeeds, starting with a general potted history leading up to independence post WWI, a general overview of the interwar years, then a detailed history of actions during WW2, and a summary of post-war outcomes.

Buttar covers a lot of ground and there is a lot of detail, but the narrative suffers from a couple of issues. First, the coverage is somewhat uneven, with great detail relating to particular military encounters, with less in-depth analysis concerning civilian life, the activities of partisans, the deportations and ghettos, and Baltic state politics. In part, this is probably related to access to archives and sources. Second, much of the history is laundry-list is style, noting which units were moving where and engaging which armies, etc., and while there are maps, they only relate to a few of the events. In part, this is to do with the scale of the encounters, involving hundreds of thousands of military combatants over a large area, but it makes following events almost meaningless beyond giving a sense of the scale. The result is an analysis that is broad in scope, packed with lots of detail, but is dry, a little uneven, and sometimes uninteresting to follow, and would have benefitted from more personal stories (which are included as very limited snippets). Moreover, some of the analysis jarred a little, especially relating to Jews, who are always talked about as a different group to Latvians, Lithuanians, Estonians and Russians, as if one couldn’t be Latvian and Jewish, for example. They were no doubt singled out as an ethnicity, which is not nationality. Overall, an interesting read as to how the Baltic states fare in the early- and mid-twentieth century.

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