Monday, 14 April 2014

Terror in the Balkans: German Armies and Partisan Warfare - Ben Shepherd

The information presented was written by Chris Buckham; however, it was published in The Canadian Military History Journal. Therefore, the material is reproduced here by the author with the permission of the Journal. If you would like to republish this information or refer to excerpts please contact CMHJ ( Website for the Journal is:

Title: Terror in the Balkans: German Armies and Partisan Warfare
Author: Ben Shepherd
ISBN: 978-0-674-04891-1
Pages: 342
Publisher: Harvard University Press
Photos/Maps: 16 b/w// 6

Ben Shepherd has written an engaging and very thought-provoking book. Given the relatively recent experiences of the western countries involved in the Yugoslav breakup and the subsequent Bosnian War of the early to mid 1990's, his observations and conclusions bridge the historical gap and provide enticing context for the reader. The similarities between the issues of the Austro-Hungarian period and the period of German occupation relating to intercene rivalries are striking in their close relationship to the modern day events in the region.

Shepherd commences his narrative far before the Second World War, during the period leading up to the First World War, analyzing the makeup of the German/Austro-Hungarian Officer corps. He traces the influences and metamorphoses of the leadership of the Army as it is rapidly expanded beyond its traditional recruiting zone to meet the demands of the First World War, contracted again following the defeat of the Central Powers and then expanded once again as WW2 loomed. What is fascinating about the forty year period with which he introduces his book, is the degree to which he shows the army command being dramatically influenced by the fundamental transformational changes within 'German' (read Austrian and German) nation state and the effect that this has upon, the views and conducts of the junior officers of 1914-1918, transformed into the senior officers of 1939-1945.  

Once he has established this framework, he then delves into the nature and environment of the operations themselves; specifically focusing upon the physical and demographic challenges faced by the Germans as well as the shortcomings associated with their evaluation of the regional issues. Shepherd succinctly relates the evolution of the nature of combat within the region from conventional to asymmetric and is able to convey to the reader the convoluted and confusing nature of the conflict. 

For the modern strategist, a number of lessons may be drawn relating to how and why the Germans enjoyed success in some areas and continued frustration in others. Notably:

a.      The development of hunter groups to track and engage insurgents. The Germans, specifically of the 718th ID, recognizing that they, as an occupation Division, did not have the depth of capability that a normal front line division would have, played to their strengths and developed a concept of highly mobile, well-armed units that would take the fight via swift tactical strikes to the enemy;

b.      The Germans had never been faced with insurgent style of warfare on the scale that they were dealing with in Yugoslavia. Doctrinally, they were not well equipped to deal with how to fight a war of this nature. Therefore their reactions tended to be very heavy handed, generalized and brutal which, while successful to a certain degree, did not facilitate a long term pacification program;

c.       Doctrinally, there did not appear to be a common approach to dealing with the rebels. Thus the success of the hunter group tactics of the 718 ID were not mirrored by other divisions operating within the same region;

d.      As stated above, the Germans had not been faced with a concerted program of resistance before Yugoslavia. They therefore underestimated the forces necessary to keep the region pacified. This lack of resources led the Germans to respond in a number of ways: utilizing surrogate forces such as the Ustacha and Chetniks as well as by overreacting to attacks by judging any civilians in the region as guilty by association and therefore subject to summary judgement. This type of behaviour resulting in a further alienation of the population writ large and an undermining of the credibility of the Wehrmacht as it was seen to be abrogating its authority to groups whose actions were nothing if not more brutal and depraved; and

e.      The Germans divided the command and control of their forces between different regional commands resulting in diverging centres of gravity and an inefficient use of scarce resources. This situation was alleviated later on in the conflict but served to dilute their response power for the early years of the war.

Shepherd identifies six major players in the Yugoslav tapestry: Bosians, Chetniks (Serb resistance), Ustacha (Croat government fighters), Partisans (communist rebels), Italians (occupation forces) and the Germans. The convoluted relationship enjoyed by all of these groups was, to say the least, phenomenally confusing. Each had multiple agenda's and one's enemy today may very well be one's ally tomorrow. This precluded the Germans from developing a consistent long term stabilization strategy as a dearth of resources forced them to rely significantly upon one group or another. Shepherd's relating of this ongoing Gordian Knot saga is commendable.

The author shares his focus between the divisional commanders of the primary German divisions engaged in long term operations within Yugoslavia; their individual histories and influences and the general behaviour of the divisions during their tenure in command. This is very interesting for the reader as it studies the influences that the experiences of the commanders had on their responses to these regional crisis. It is a worthy attempt at connecting the psychological histories of these men with  their command actions.

The book has extensive notes section that provides critical additional information for the reader and a somewhat limited bibliography highlighting primary source material on specific Divisional Commanders. One area that was somewhat distracting was the tendency of the author to make observations relating to extreme forms of behaviour or outlook (such as anti-Semitism or the impact of social Darwinism within the officer ranks) only to mitigate the impact in the next sentence with a moderating comment suggesting that the item should not be over-emphasized.  Also his comments relating to the effects of specialization within the officer corps limiting "out of the box" thinking would appear to be contradicted by the fact that the German army of both the First and Second World Wars displayed considerable ability to improvise.

Overall, I greatly enjoyed this book and feel that it is very worthwhile for aspiring leaders to learn from. The challenges of the Yugoslav region have not changed from one hundred years ago and Shepherd has done a praiseworthy job of making sense out of a tremendously complicated region of World War 2.

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