Posts Tagged ‘Battle of Stalingrad’

Heinrich Gerlach: Breakout at Stalingrad

October 19, 2021

     The Battle of Stalingrad was a turning-point in the Second World War; its history is chronicled well in Anthony Beevor’s book, and the Russian (Soviet) experience of that part of the Great Patriotic War is portrayed very effectively in Vassily Grossman’s two novels, Stalingrad and Life and Fate, the latter being one of the greatest war novels ever, in my estimation. So I was interested to read something from the German perspective.

The history and genesis of this autobiographical novel – for Gerlach is lightly concealed in the character of Breuer the intelligence officer – is astonishing in itself: written during his captivity in a Russian camp, confiscated by the Soviet authorities, re-created using hypnosis for recall after his release and originally published as The Forsaken Army it became a bestseller; then the original – this book – was rediscovered about ten years ago in Russian archives and finally published. It’s apparently rather different from the bestseller.

The most striking thing is the utter chaos, lack of clear information, how overstretched the Nazi forces have managed to get themselves, and the luxurious lives the general staff and higher ranking officers carve out for themselves while the ordinary footsoldiers suffer the atrocious conditions of the Russian winter, poor equipment and lack of food. The picture of what the Germans are trying to do is never clear, and their actions are hamstrung by their blind obedience to Hitler’s unhinged orders and their fear of the consequences of personal initiative. There’s no sense of unity of common purpose here, and you do get a clear image of the moment when Nazi Germany finally overreached itself and sealed its eventual fate.

I have to say that, in the end, this description of chaos became rather tiresome to read. What saves the book is the exploration of the manifold psychological effects of the gradual realisation that there can be defeat, after so many years of success and hubris; intelligent officers finally begin to ask the questions they should have been asking and responding to long before. The focus is largely on the general staff attempting to do the impossible, and unable to face reality or tell the truth.

There are enlightening moments, such as the aftermath of the capture and interrogation of a Russian prisoner, where the German officers begin to see through the propaganda fog which has surrounded their atrocities so far, and yet are unable to realise the hypocrisy of the attitudes they must continue to espouse… And there are moments where you begin to feel sorry (!) for some of the Germans, when they begin to realise how they have allowed themselves to be misled and duped by their leaders and generals, and they have now been abandoned to die, and thus create a heroic myth for the German nation. Faced with the inevitability of surrender or death, scales fall rapidly from eyes… there is powerful stuff here, presented mainly through the thoughts of the author’s alter ego. (I honestly never imagined being able to write those last few lines.)

I wouldn’t describe it as a compelling or necessary read, but it’s worth it if you have the time and interest. Ultimately the message is the same as emerges from any number of novels, really: ordinary folk catch all the shit; leaders are vain, deluded, ambitious, insane but persuasive and are usually allowed to play out their mad ideas.

Vasily Grossman: Stalingrad

July 23, 2019

81OFxzyHYsL._AC_UL436_  Reading the prequel to Life and Fate felt strange: I knew the characters from that novel, and was now meeting them in an earlier incarnation; also, of course, the actual historical events were familiar. The genesis of the novel is very complex, and Robert Chandler has not only done a really good job of translating Stalingrad, he has also provided a very detailed and helpful introduction and notes.

Grossman paints an optimistic and committed panorama of Soviet society, with touching portraits of peasants making their farewells to family, home and village as they set off to war from which they do not expect to return. He takes time to build up his canvas, with a convincing aura of pride and optimism shining though his characters who are committed to the revolution, genuine and sincere in their desires to build a better world for everyone (whatever Stalin may be up to), and clear that Hitler is out to destroy all they have achieved. Here is a patriotism we in the West find difficult to comprehend or accept. And yes, at times some of Grossman’s characters do talk like rather wooden socialist realists: we must remember the times and conditions under which he wrote (he was told by the KGB that it would be two centuries before publication of Life and Fate would be possible!). The propagandist line is there, quite subtle, with positive references to Stalin as a father-figure of the nation.

An atmosphere of foreboding builds up, with the Soviet armies still in retreat from the German advance, and the crucial effort to prevent them reaching and crossing the Volga. There is determination, there is sacrifice, there is a full picture of a country at war for its very survival, aware that their people are considered and treated as sub-human by the Nazis. The colossal Soviet war effort, moving entire sectors of the economy hundreds of miles to safety beyond the Urals is something very difficult to imagine – yet they did it.

Thumbnail portraits of individuals are lovingly done, clearly showing their dedication to their tasks, their modesty, their pride in work well done, and their love of their country: you do feel that many millions of people did really have their lives improved under communism. Equally, and perhaps surprisingly, Grossman portrays his German characters insightfully, without hatred or racism, allowing the evils of Nazism to speak for themselves, as well as trying to show the political and psychological reasons for the success of that ideology among the Germans.

There is a very powerful sense of immediacy when the actual German attack on Stalingrad begins; the sudden disappearances and deaths of characters we have grown to know and like are very shocking but obviously realistic: war doesn’t spare favourites. Equally touching are the cameos of moments of reunion and happiness in the midst of warfare. What I found most powerful of all, extraordinary even, were his portrayals of men and women fighting to the death in the ruins of their city, conscious of the fact that they were certainly going to die quite soon. We see how they are transformed by their experiences, and if we find this all rather hard to believe at times, the notes remind us that many of Grossman’s accounts are factually-based.

Stalingrad struck me as a less mature novel than Life and Fate, more propagandist and more diffuse, even naive at times. Nevertheless, it is a stunning achievement when one takes all the different factors I’ve tried to mention into account. It means I’ll have to go back to Life and Fate again soon. I’ve mentioned the excellent critical apparatus in Chandler’s work; I’ll moan about the poor maps which lack the necessary detail to be helpful to the reader in following the action, and the shoddy production values of the UK edition of the book, which is basically a glued-block paperback with a cheap flat-spine cardboard cover…

But, read this book!

Vassily Grossman: A Writer at War

June 12, 2019

51A67VDPEHL._AC_UL436_  While I was waiting for Grossman’s novel Stalingrad to be published (it’s the prequel to the stunning Life and Fate, and I now have my copy, though as it’s a 1000-page doorstop, don’t expect a review too soon!) I decided to revisit this collection of his journalism from the Great Patriotic War, as the Russians call their Second World War, which lasted from 1941-45. It’s not pure Grossman, as it’s edited, selected, commented on and analysed, but this has been done well.

Grossman was medically unfit to serve, so became a war correspondent for the army newspaper Krasnaya Zvedza, and followed the war through all the fronts, from the retreat and loss of Bielorussia and Ukraine almost to Moscow, the battle for Stalingrad, the biggest tank battle ever at the Kursk salient, and the push back which took the Red Army to Berlin.

One is immediately struck by the immediacy and the impressionism of his reportage. He chronicles the horrendous start to the war, with the Soviet Union paralysed by Stalin’s unwillingness to believe his erstwhile Nazi ally had dared to attack. This denial of reality seems to have gone on for a long while, worsening the military collapse. Then there was the tragedy of the Ukraine, devastated by Stalin’s starvation tactics and famine ten years previously, which meant that its inhabitants often welcomed the Germans with open arms, not realising what was about to happen to them.

The hectic nature of life under fire and the uncertainty of war come across vividly, as does the astonishing heroism of so many in defence of their motherland. And Grossman was at the front, among it all. I cannot recall any parallel to the extraordinary callousness and brutality of warfare: Grossman paints a picture of Russians fighting for their very existence, rather than just not to be invaded and conquered: here is a very different sense of conflict.

Grossman’s accounts of the battle for Stalingrad are very vivid; he interviewed commanders and men and wrote up his accounts for the newspaper: the men recognised themselves and the deeds he described, and his reputation grew; he was only censored ‘lightly’ because of the patriotic feelings his accounts inspired. Only when he mentioned specifically what was happening to the Jews – he was Jewish – was the blue pencil heavier; the Soviet authorities did not approve of the Jews being viewed as any different from other Soviet citizens, and such anti-semitism was to worsen after the end of the war.

The accounts of the winning back of Soviet territory from the Nazis, and the discovery of the full horror of what the Germans had done in the territories they had occupied, make very unpleasant reading: it is clear that the Nazi approach to Slavs was that they were subhuman and they were treated as such. This did not happen in Western Europe: there are just too many stories we cannot comprehend, just as in Svetlana Alexievich’s accounts of the same war. You need a particularly strong stomach to read his descriptions of the Treblinka extermination camp, culled from interviews with those who lived in the area.

There are those who say that such events are now so long ago in the past that it’s time to forget them. I’m not one of those. Very many Germans – not all, though – have striven to come to terms with this appalling period of their history and what members of their families did, more or less willingly. We do not have the right to forget what bestialities humans inflicted on each other, nor should we blithely imagine that such things are only part of the past.

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