Das Reich V 1943-1945, 2nd SS Panzer Division Das Reich by Otto Weidinger. J.J. Fedorowicz, 2012.
When one finds a new title from Fedorowicz in the mailbox, still in the original shrink wrap and therefore untouched by human hands, the discerning book lover (and military history buff, since that’s their forte) instantly feels the electric thrill that comes from knowing what a fantastic experience awaits. Not simply the unique and reliable information within the text that is candy for the mind of the historian and historian wannabe, but also the immense tactile joy that comes from handling a book that is constructed from the finest materials and the finest paper. Fedorowicz titles are beyond first-rate in all respects.
Such exhilaration is doubly great when dealing with a title that is so long-coveted as Weidinger’s concluding volume in the history of the original Waffen-SS division, 2nd SS Panzer Division Das Reich. For those who are not World War II buffs, and more specifically buffs of the German units and the Eastern Front, where Das Reich spent most of its operational life, this may seem like an odd book. After all, the Germans were the enemy, the Waffen-SS did some horrific things, and Das Reich is the division that is directly responsible for the attack on the French village of Oradour-sur-Glane. It was even Weidinger’s regiment, the 4th SS Panzer-Grenadier Regiment Das Reich, that was responsible for Oradour. So, why even read this book, much less review it?
Well, there’s two reasons. First, I’m a military historian and I look for the best possible references for my work. Weidinger is a primary source for the period I am researching, he was there and was directly involved in the action, and primary sources are never to be overlooked. The astute historian will have to try and identify and compensate for biases, yes, but facts are facts, independent of interpretation. If Weidinger says Das Reich was in a certain place at a certain time, and his statement contradicts that of a lesser source, then Weidinger’s account gets the benefit of the doubt. Just as Josephus is the best account we have of the Jewish revolt in the reign of Nero, despite the fact that historians see bias in parts of his work, Weidinger’s account is the best we have for the movements of Das Reich during this period.
Second, the writing of military history divorces itself as much as possible from the other streams of history, such as social history. Military history covers the movements and actions of military units. I try to flavor my accounts with local histories and insights from the civilian population, but in the end the work is about the soldiers. This book is military history of the first order, and thus is very appropriate for the work at hand.
Weidinger writes in a very clear voice and a very matter of fact style. He uses quotes from famous Waffen-SS veterans, such as Ernst Barkmann, very effectively. Indeed, one such quote completely cleared up a confused situation that I have been researching for years. With the Waffen-SS being declared a criminal organization in toto, and with Weidinger himself having been tried as a war criminal (he was acquitted), Waffen-SS veterans who were reluctant to share their experiences talked openly with Weidinger, and those accounts are priceless. Not only that, the book was fact-checked by one of the highest ranking Waffen-SS men to survive the war, Paul Hausser, which means that the actions described are almost certainly what took place. Yes, the historian has to try and filter out the author’s biases, but that’s true for any source, not just this one.
Weidinger was not one of the good guys, but on the Eastern Front there were no good guys. Just serving in the German or Russian Army, however, did not make you automatically a villain. Just as soldiers of the Red Army had zero choice about their fate, so were many of Das Reich’s rank and file during this time drafted into the division from other services, such as the Luftwaffe and Kriegsmarine, and had no choice except to serve where they were told to serve. Refusing would have meant a firing squad
There is one glaring error to the book, but it was not made by Weidinger. Rather, whoever wrote the back cover blurb describing the book should be sent to remedial classes; after all, when you edit for a publishing house that specializes in World War II history, you should at least know the basics. Here’s the offending passage on the back cover: “…in March it participated in the three efforts to relieve Budapest.” Well, good grief. Those three efforts were Operations Konrad I, Konrad II and Konrad III, and even a quick glance at Wikipedia would show they took place in January, before Das Reich had left Belgium headed for Hungary, not in March. Not only that, Budapest fell on February 12th, 1945, so by March there was nothing to relieve since the city was already in Soviet hands. The only operation in March was Unternehmen Fruelingerwachen, Operation Spring Awakening, the last German offensive of the war, and that had nothing to do with Budapest and everything to do with protecting the oil fields at Nagykanizsa.
Aside from this, however, the book is a long-awaited gem of military history from a man who lived through that history, produced in a costly volume that is more than worth its price.