Bock is not one of the better known of Hitler's generals, but he deserves to be. One of only a tiny handful of men who won both the illustrious Pour le Merite in WW I and the Knight's Cross in WW2, he was also one of only 27 German officers who held the rank of General Field Marshal during Hitler's tenure as Chancellor. He commanded armies in Poland (1939), France (1940) and Russia in both the 1941 and 1942 offensives, and his passionate belief that the greatest ambition of a German youth must be to die in the service of the Fatherland earned him the nickname "the Holy Fire of Küstrin." In this book, the reader gets "Fedi's" view of some of the most titanic events of the Twentieth Century - not merely battles but the bitter interpersonal and political wrangling which characterized Hitler's Reich, and may have cost Germany the war.
Bock's war diary, which covers not only his active military service but his years in retirement, which ended when he was mortally wounded by Allied bombs just days before the end of the war, is a fascinating and crucial historical document. Fascinating because it is an eyeview of war from a man who was running a fairly large chunk of it; crucial because it is a diary, written day-by-day as events unfolded, rather than a carefully sanitized and self-justifying memior of the type penned by so many German officers years after the dust settled. That does not mean it is objective - quite the opposite - but it does make for a certain honesty of thought, not to mention a freshness and immediacy which is beyond the power of a memior to produce.
"Fedi", as Bock was referred to by his intimates, was in some ways the stereotypical Prussian officer: gaunt in appearance and Spartan in his personal habits, he possessed an able tactical brain, an unbreakable sense of duty, and a hands-on leadership style which made certain of his subordinates - notably Guderian and Kluge - distinctly uncomfortable. Not one to shy away from bluntly stating his opinions, he made a habit of ringing up Hitler directly from the field and telling the man what was what, and he fretted constantly at the tendency of his superiors at Supreme Headquarters to violate the sacred strategic principles he had been brought up with - concentration of force, unification of space in time, subordination of economic and political goals to the destruction of the enemy army. When much of the High Command was starry-eyed with success during the opening months of the Russian campaign, Bock's attitude was grim: he saw all too clearly that his superiors not only lacked a consensus on how to defeat the USSR, they were actually improvising a strategy as they went along, with the result that man golden opportunties to end the war before winter were wantonly thrown away.
It would be a mistake, however, not to note that Bock's views on Hitler as a Supreme Commander differ rather sharply from those which he is often alleged to have possessed by historians. Bock seems to have had a healthy respect for Hitler's operational talents and very seldom questioned his decisions - he was one of the few who actively supported Hitler's "hold or die" order in the winter of '41 - '42, and his justifications for this make for interesting reading. Rather, he seems to have been exasperated by the muddled, cumbersome and ridiculously inefficient command system which not only vacillated at crucial moments and made piecemeal decisions, but had failed utterly to make adequate preparation for total war. Hitler's insistence on organizing the German economy "in breadth" for lightning-fast campaigns rather than "in depth" for all-out conflict carried with it a hefty price tag that was paid in full in the snows of Russia - something Bock seems to have been aware of without necessarily drawing any conclusions from it. And this is an interesting characteristic of the man and his Prussian naïvete, which stressed an absolute commitment to the soldierly art at the expense of political sensitivity and sometimes, even common sense. Every time he runs into stupidity, blindness or short-sightedness in Russia his reaction boils down to, "Wann dem Führer wuste!" - If the Führer only knew!
All war diaries have aesthetic problems for the reader, and Bock's is no exception. He has an annoying tendency to leave out details of his meetings with certain high-ups, possibly for security reasons, and like Halder, he often bogs down in extraneous tactical details that are boring and even stupefying to wade through. Every other sentence ends with an exclamation point, which waters down their overall dramatic effect, and there is a terseness to a lot of the entries which reminds me of reading a message sent by telegraph. Some diarists - Goebbels comes to mind - have a gift for analysis that goes beyond the mere recounting of facts, but Bock only occasionally shows this ability, which would have made the book an easier read. A soldier to the core, perhaps he was simply incapable of doing so.
Bock's diary is obviously not light reading. Even with the occasional notes by the Editor, it presupposes a fairly advanced knowledge of the personalities in the German Army as well as military affairs generally, and thanks to its telegraphic style is probably of interest only to historians and hard-core fans of military history. But if you're reading this, you are probably one or both, and I would recommend it to anyone who wants a more complete picture of what it was like to command armies in battle under "the greatest war lord of all times", Adolf Hitler.