Thursday, October 8, 2009
Stalingrad in History and Literature
After posting on the first days of Russia’s involvement in World War II, I’m thinking that a discussion of Stalingrad might be in order. Antony Beevor’s Stalingrad gives me a good starting place. The book depicts the importance of Stalingrad, the ferocity of the struggle there, and the tragedy it came to represent for the German army. It seems that both Stalin and Hitler made mistakes here, and that their egos became enmeshed in the battle to an unprecedented degree.
This, the battle for Moscow, the siege of Leningrad form the backdrop of Russia’s heroic defeat in Germany, but in each case the result was far from certain for quite some time. Stalingrad looked certain to fall, but Russia hung on. By conventional standards, Germany had all but defeated Russia here, until the conflict degenerated from a class of concentrated forces into a street battle. From there, the Russians apparently made the decision, both individually and collectively, to die rather than surrender. This decision made a final German victory in the ruins of the city much more difficult, if not impossible.
The prolonged conflict (and the geographical convenience of a large river) brought increasingly complex supply problems upon the Germans, who were very far from home, cold, and eventually surrounded by partisans. And of course Hitler made things much worse for Germany by insisting that the German army could not make even a tactical retreat to preserve its escape route. Beevor’s book highlights the German tragedy, as soldiers fought house by house with dwindling supplies as well as dwindling contact with loved ones back home. Hitler preserved the myth of German invincibility as long as possible, refusing to allow his army to retreat or surrender, and telling the German public that a victory was all but certain.
Another book that sheds light on the battle is the voluminous novel by Vassily Grossman. Grossman’s book, which was nearly lost to history, still doesn’t receive the attention it deserves. Its length may be one reason it lacks readership, but perhaps its unrelenting pessimism is another. Grossman, a Jew, lost his family in the holocaust. He was also a war correspondent in Stalingrad and so didn’t have the luxury of seeing war as anything other than bleak and devastating—for souls as well as peoples. The book is complex and modern and brilliant. Moreover, it’s that rare thing, a book about war that is at once sweeping and personal.