Don’t be fooled by the cover of “Das Reich.” The burning village and camouflage smocked SS Troopers hint at something in the Sven Hassell genre, rather than a sophisticated view of topics given little treatment elsewhere. The stories of the SS Panzergrenadier Divisions in the Second World War are not widely known in the Australian military. There are good reasons for this. One reason is that there are few accessible works on the topic. Another possible reason is that interest in the SS Panzergrenadier Divisions may be seen to correlate to an interest in Nazism. Even if this risk contains a kernel of truth, military professionals should seek to understand the nature of military units aligned exclusively with individuals or ideologies.
Das Reich was an SS Panzer Grenadier Division which by 1944 was structured and equipped in the same way as a German Army Panzer Division and commanded by the German Army. However, like all SS units, Das Reich was raised, trained, encultured and sustained by the SS, the armed wing of the National Socialist Party. The Division fought exhaustively on the Eastern Front and in early 1944 was reconstituting in France, preparing to counterattack Allied landings that might occur on the North or South coasts of France. Allied plans to isolate the D-day landings focused on delaying and disrupting the Das Reich Division with air power, the nascent French resistance and special operations.
You should read Das Reich for three reasons. The first reason is because it is an unusually broad and deep analysis of a single subject. The book begins with the order for the Division to move from its assembly area in Mountbaen, France and ends with its arrival in Normandy two weeks later. The small time period and low tactical intensity allows Hastings room to articulate a variety of perspectives. The movement of the Division becomes the set on which the actors: the culture of the SS, the competing factions of the Resistance and the Special Operations Executive act out their roles. Second, Das Reich explores the behaviour of groups of humans, in fear of their lives and children’s futures, surviving through whatever means they can. A modern reader might be tempted to hope that the behaviours Hastings describes have been extinguished by their own baseness. This is unlikely to be true and military professionals should familiarise themselves with how people act when compelled to choose between death, flight and immorality. The strength of Hasting’s work is that he neither glorifies or grandstands on any group. He is at pains to explore context and in doing so brings the killing of collaborators by the resistance and the killing of civilians by the Das Reich Division into the same moral plane. This proposition might alarm some readers but it also generates the third quality of Das Reich.
Das Reich is a pointed case study in military ethics that also highlights distinction between war and warfare, strategy and tactics. For the SS, all actions are tactical, violence has no meaning beyond it’s immediate military effect. The resistance oscillates between the immoderate, ruthless treatment of collaborators and a wider view of the relationship between violence and power sharing after the war. French officials and the German Army of occupation are curiously aligned, treading a delicate path to normalcy driven by their self interest and desire for safety. Das Reich reminds readers that violence is not universally interpreted and Campaign planning must account for this difference if tactical actions are to lead to the achievement of strategic objectives.
Hasting’s book should hold a place on the Field Grade leaders bookshelf which may be devoid of other works on this topic.
About the author