Daniel Bennett’s book is monumental, written with a keen understanding and insight. It encompasses a detailed research and piecing together of thousands of minutiae gleaned from histories, military documents and memoirs, affording an exceptional eagle’s eye view over the whole conflict.
Beginning with a brilliant preface, Bennett presents an overview of the treacherous world of 1940, where countries increased their power grabs, failed at diplomacy and ambitions became more contentious. The preface alone surely would rank at the top of any list for students or history buffs seeking a better understanding of how, after ‘The War to End All Wars’ less than two decades before, those intertwining forces propelled nations into an even more costly and massively destructive world war.
Adolph Hitler changed warfare: no more, the long months and years of wet trenches. The Blitzkrieg was terrifying and successful. With the lightning-fast assaults by airplane, tanks and infantry, most of Europe had quickly folded or intimidated. Hitler was everywhere: North Africa with his Axis; U-Boats sinking the first American-owned marine vessels, while America sat dithering, locked into isolationism.
Hitler, needing more commodities to feed his war machine, and certainly, POW’s to man the factories turning out armaments, wanted all that Russia offered. His grand designs for ethnic cleansing (Jews), the need for more space for the ‘pure race’ to live and work meant forcing ‘ignorant’ Soviet peasants off their lands, were worth a new front. Hitler was on a fast track to world domination.
Looming large on the European stage, he was unaware that he was in over his head. Time and time again, Bennett shows how exultantly Hitler defied his generals and reneged on his non-aggression treaty with Stalin by unleashing Operation Barbarossa: the invasion of the Soviet Union. It became his biggest blunder and eventual downfall.
Unbelievably, the attack on Russia was based on false information, the Soviets stronger than his spies reported. Once the Soviets gathered their wits and strength, Hitler’s armies met with firm resistance and a seemingly unending supply of fighting men. Stalin ordered Gulag prisoners released, though unarmed and untrained, thrown into the front lines as cannon fodder. The Soviets knew their land and they understood the seasons, unlike the Germans.
Hitler got far more than he’d bargained for. Waves of Reds counterattacked with ferociousness, willing to die rather than let Germany win. For once Hitler was forced with the consequences of his deadly sweep over a country and its people: A humiliating, suffering defeat at the edge of human endurance: ‘16 Seasons of Hell!’
With each chapter, Bennett shows Hitler’s egomania, his unbridled conviction that he is a genius strategist who rarely listened to his on-the-spot generals, his refusal to allow retreats, the ‘fight to the death’ orders. Overseeing too many battles, overworked and sickly, more and more dependent on drugs, invariably, failures occur more often. Yet he is the instigator, the mover: even so, increasingly his decisions are being questioned by his generals.
Painfully vivid in 16 Seasons in Hell are the differences between the commanders. Stalin’s generals were free to move, to strike or retreat when necessary and live to fight another day. Hitler’s egomania often kept his forces stalled by indecision or flat-out wrong strategies. One of Bennett’s most interesting stories depicts overworked tanks corps rushing from one battle scene to another, often hundreds of miles apart without rest, all to plug up a hole in a line. War with the Soviets was like nothing the Germans had ever known, hundreds of miles from supply depots, in axle-deep mud or blinding ice and snow, often at forty-below zero weather.
Hitler’s presence, like wallpaper upon which Bennett writes each page, finally weakens and fades. Bennett’s detailing of the many brave commands who fought Hitler’s war, is to see the true horrors and futility of war, and in particular, what happens when a mad man runs the asylum.
Stalin’s steely resolve–and that of the great strategist generals under him–, became so necessary to the Allies in fighting Germany, that, not only did he cunningly procure from America a lend-lease program giving him everything from kitchen utensils to tanks, but a firm future in Eastern Europe. Even though the Soviets did the lion’s share in defeating Germany, it came at great cost. Roosevelt and Churchill ceded far too much. Maps were redrawn even before the end without the knowledge of the countries’ involved. Thus began The Cold War.
The book is nearly weighted down by detail, not really for a casual reader of WWII. It would have been interesting if the author had further explored the actual battle of Stalingrad, but that is a book unto itself. It would have helped tremendously had there been good maps. Those provided were too small and unprofessional, especially for the grand scope and undertaking of Sixteen Seasons of Hell.
It took me awhile to get into the book, but I’m sure glad I hung in there. It was well worth it! For those history aficionados and especially those like me who are serious students of WWII, 16 Seasons in Hell: The Definitive Western Account of The WWII Campaign on The Eastern Front is a must-read.