Thursday, October 28, 2021

David A. Harrisville's "The Virtuous Wehrmacht"

David Harrisville is an independent scholar. He has held various academic positions, including, most recently, Visiting Assistant Professor of History at Furman University.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Virtuous Wehrmacht: Crafting the Myth of the German Soldier on the Eastern Front, 1941-1944, and reported the following:
If a reader were to flip to page 99, they would learn about German efforts to frame the invasion of the Soviet Union as a crusade against a godless regime. The page opens by describing how army propagandists spread this message through the articles they wrote for the troops’ consumption. It then goes on to discuss how both protestant and Catholic chaplains reinforced this idea in their proclamations and sermons. Among them was Franz Justus Rarkowsi, the head of the Catholic chaplaincy, who declared that the war was a “European crusade” against a “demonic regime of barbarism.” The page ends by exploring how ordinary soldiers displayed curiosity about the state of religion in the Soviet Union as they marched into the country.

I would say the page 99 test works relatively well for my book. It conveys the central argument of chapter 3—that the Wehrmacht used religion to portray the war as “righteous cause.” This relates directly to the central argument of the book as a whole, namely, that the army and its men relied heavily on traditional moral values (including religion) to justify their participation in a criminal war. One drawback of jumping to page 99, however, is that readers might get the impression that the book is only about religion, when it is in fact only one of several topics under this larger “moral” heading. There is also plenty of background information missing, such as the fact that the Wehrmacht committed atrocities on an unprecedented scale and that for decades the army was remembered as an honorable institution by the German public (this is now recognized as a myth, and the book explains how the myth got started). Still, the page makes it clear that the book is told from the German perspective and deals with the invasion of the Soviet Union, so readers do get some important contextual information. Besides giving insight into the book’s argument and context, page 99 offers a fairly good preview of the kinds of sources I use, which include soldiers’ letters, accounts by chaplains, and the writings of military propagandists. These aren’t the only sources in the book, but they are a solid sample. Finally, I’d like to point out that the page contains one of my favorite details in the entire book—that one of the newspapers the army printed for the troops included a Ukrainian village that troops could cut out with a scissors and play with. For me, nothing better illustrates the nature of Germans’ colonialist ambitions, as well as the hubris that animated the invasion. Overall then, I’m pleased with how the test worked out, even if it has a few drawbacks.
Visit David A. Harrisville's website.

--Marshal Zeringue