I have read a lot of books in my day, but I have always thought of my reading as being of what I might call a scattergun nature. That is to say, nothing planned about it; nothing coherent. And I think I must have picked up those habits from my quarter-century of work as as journalist.
I don’t know how it is nowadays, but back in the day before they invented these goddamned journalism schools, any journalist could expect at any time to be told to write about almost any subject under the sun: go to the courts to cover that murder case; interview that film star who is in town to sell swimming pools (probably Esther Williams); go to the city council meeting tonight; pick up the cricket results Saturday afternoon; go to Lollobrigida’s press conference; go to the agricultural fair and get the results of all the competitions, not forgetting the Scottish dancing, the two-tooth-wether competition, the contest for the top sow, cow or bull; the horse jumping, and the cabre throwing. You name it, I will have done it at some time or another. And I don’t regret even a smidgen of any of it: it made me what I am today.
All of this is to explain how I have come, in the last two weeks, to have been reading a book on the battle of Stalingrad, even though I have little to no interest in war, and actively oppose all military and their affects. The book was just lying there in the shop, caught my eye, and I bought it and having bought it, I had to read it.
In some ways I wish I hadn’t, because the book is rivetting, disturbing, terrifying, and instructive, snd it caught hold of my interest to an almost obsessive extent. The book in question is called Stalingrad: the Fateful Siege 1942-43, was written by Anthony Beevor, who is apparently now regarded as Britain’s leading military historian, and, perhaps not unexpectedly, it has been denounced as inaccurate by the Russians, who have vowed never to allow it in their high schools and universities, on the grounds that it leans too heavily towards excusing the Nazis. The book was first published in 1998, 45 years after the event, and to judge by the list of sources (more than 200 of them) and archives that were consulted (some dozen or so Russian archives alone), it appears to have drawn equally from all sides of the conflict. It is, in fact, the second book I have read on Stalingrad and what happened there: the first was a novel, Life and Fate, a magnificent work, worthy of the great tradition of the Russian novel, never published in the Soviet Union, by the writer Vassily Grossman. He was apparently a reporter during the battle and is liberally quoted throughout Beevor’s work.
The reason why the book so gripped my imagination is that this battle --- surely one of the greatest battles ever fought in human history, and incomparably the bloodiest ever fought anywhere ---- represents also a peak demonstration of what one might call man’s inhumanity to man. First of all, the battle need not have taken place at all, but arose from the totally incoherent and indefensible decision of Hitler to attack the Soviet Union, after having conquered virtually all of Western Europe. Secondly, the battle was notable for having been ordered and dominated on both sides not by established military experts but by the dominant personality on each side, Hitler and Stalin, a pair of rank amateurs whose instructions and orders were usually so bizarre, counter-productive and damaging to their own side as to make the entire enterprise not just ludicrous, but totally appalling in its effect on those engaged to fight it.
The German army embarked on the Russian invasion on June 22, 1941, quickly put Leningrad under a siege from which they did not emerge for 872 days, making it one of the longest sieges in human history, leaving behind nearly 600,000 casualties on the German side, nearly 3,500,000 on the Russian military side, and more than 1,000,000 civilian casualties. Further south, while all this devastation was going on in the north, the victorious German army swept everything before it, arriving almost the gates of Moscow by early October, and fighting daily thereafter until December, by which time the winter had set in and had begun to make life impossible for the invaders, as had happened to Napoleon’s troops before them.
The Germans now began to realize that to conquer Russia was no picnic. “The vastness of Russia devours us,” wrote Field-Marshal von Rundstedt to his wife. Consumed with self-congratulation over their immense successes ,the commanders nevertheless began to feel almost equal unease. They were conquering huge areas of land, but what remained seemed limitless. The Red Army by this time had already lost 2,000,000 men, but more Soviet armies kept appearing.
The Russians burned everything as they surrendered it, a tactic that put the aim of making life impossible for the invaders ahead of the fate of the unfortunate civilians who found their entire livelihoods going up in smoke. Stalingrad was a city strung along the west bank of the mighty Volga river, with grain silos, tractor factories and other industrial works along the river. The German attack was supported by incessant bombardment of these factories by the Luftwaffe (commanded by General Baron von Richthofen, a descendant of the famous World War I ace flyer), and eventually these factories were demolished to such a degree that the Germans thought no one could possibly have lived through their attack; yet to their astonishment, rifle fire kept coming from the basements, where stubborn soldiers, many of them women, refused to retreat or give way.
Eventually, reinforcements were called up from east of the river, and Marshal Gregory Zhukov, finally enshrined by Stalin as supreme commander, managed to mount an army, made up to a large extent of poorly trained civilians, which succeeded in completely encircling the German armies of more than 600,000 men. The Germans thereafter made strenuous efforts to break through this encirclment, but to no avail. With the following winter bearing down on them, their position became more and more perilous. .They not only ran out of ammunition and supplies for fighting, but for food, medicines and everything else.
After the first winter of the siege Stalin had proclaimed his so-called Order 227, which became known as Not One Step Backwards. In it he declared that “panic-mongers and cowards must be destroyed on the spot. The retreat mentality must be decisively eliminated. Army commanders who have allowed the voluntary abandonment of positions must be removed and sent for immediate trial by military tribunals.” Each army was ordered to form a special force of three to five detachments, each of 200 men “to form a second line to shoot down any soldier who tries to run away.” Altogether, comments Beevor, “some 422,700 Red Army men would atone with their blood for the crimes they have committed before the Motherland.”
A gruesome feature of the confrontation was that on each side the agency of Secret Police held, or attempted to hold, control over the armies, the NKVD for the Soviets, the SS for the Germans, two forces of almost equal brutality.
Yet, one of Beevor’s conclusions is that the Germans, like almost everybody else in the world, underestimated the resilience of the average Soviet citizen. They responded to Stalin’s appeal to their nationalism and sense of history. And, to the astonishment particularly of the German officer class, which all along held the Russian masses in contempt, it was these people who provided the main force for the defeat of the Nazi war machine in he end.
The suffering of the soldiers and citizens trapped in his conflict makes gruesome reading. Both sides made every effort to arouse their citizens and soldiers for the maximum level of hatred of the other side. Beevor records occasional lapses by combatants who, in an extremity, took pity on their adversaries, but the examples of bitter recriminations, leading to brutal murders and reprisals were more common.
I recommend that anyone who would like to understand the background to the modern world should read this book. Apart from anything else, the light it throws on the Russians, their attitudes, their resiliency in face of suffering, and their determination to win at all costs, sacrificing everything to that purpose, should help us not to jump to unfavorable conclusions about modern-day Russia and its aims and purposes.
Admittedly, their present leader Vladimir Putin, is not one of your straight up-and-down democrats of the sort favoured by the West, but I recently heard one of the leading American historians of Russia, asked what if, in 50 years, he were asked how he would classify Mr. Putin, he said he would probably describe him as the outstanding statesman of his generation, a man devoted to the improvement of his country and to the peace of the world.
That same historian, Stephen F .Cohen, a professor emeritus from Princton, said that although he had never met Mr. Putin personally, he knew that if you asked the average Russian his opinion, you would be told that they loved him: he was, after all the man who saved Russia when, at the end of Communism, it seemed everything has been lost, incuding livelihoods, pensions, security and hope.