Battle-scarred and shell shocked: how else to describe my condition after 460 pages of blood, sweat and tanks? Antony Beevor’s book documenting the siege of Stalingrad is not for the faint of heart or the weak of stomach. What with bombing raids, grenade attacks, hand-to-hand combat — to say nothing of frostbite, typhoid and malnutrition — I’m lucky to have escaped with my life.
It’s received a crouching ovation from critics and sold half million in the UK alone. But although there’s no doubting its colossal impact, I have two big problems with Stalingrad.
First, it’s unrelentingly grim. You wouldn’t expect many laughs in a war history, but Stalingrad stands out as one of the most depressing books I’ve ever read. Death stalks every page. Yet even the grim reaper seems preferable to the appalling conditions endured by troops and civilians. If it’s not starvation it’s dehydration; if it’s not infestation it’s amputation. This is war in the raw, where no-one is spared: deserters are shot, women are raped, children are massacred, horses are eaten. It’s not the author’s fault; he’s only recording how inhuman humans can be. But it’s still heavy going.
Then there’s the overwhelming technical and military detail. Of course, for battle buffs this is paradise alley. Tank spotters will salivate at the description of panzers trundling triumphantly across the steppe, while armchair strategists will relish every bomb and bullet. But, just like the Germans, I got bogged down. Encircled by tanks and bombarded by planes, on more than one occasion I had to bail out before sinking in military minutiae.
Keeping up with the cast of characters in the theatre of war was another challenge (the index names over 70 generals). And it didn’t help that both Hitler and Stalin kept replacing officers who were foolish enough to tell them unpalatable truths.
Amidst the doom and detail, the book has some absorbing sections, notably the chapter on the enemy within. Fighting the invaders was challenging enough, but the Russian forces also had to contend with Stalin’s secret police in their midst. The slightest whimper amounted to treachery, and at Stalingrad 13,500 paid the price of doubt with their lives. Well, they did if the firing squad wasn’t incompetent or drunk. Stories of soldiers getting up and scarpering after being executed are not as incredible as they might seem.
Eyewitness accounts and soldiers’ letters vividly capture the mood swings on both sides. These testimonies are never more powerful than in the final weeks of the siege. While expressing confidence in the face of encircling Soviets, between the lines the German troops prepared their loved ones for the worst.
But as the days turned into weeks, the mood of these starving, exhausted, diseased and demoralised men changed. If the early letters home were defiant, the last ones were desperate. As they prepared to face the final Russian onslaught, a few still clung to the hope their Führer would send help. Hitler acknowledged their plight by abstaining from champagne at dinner.
The author uses unemotive language in his assessments of Hitler and Stalin, but it’s obvious that he thinks both were utter nutters. Before a single Nazi jackboot crossed the Russian frontier, a paranoid Stalin had already done away with the cream of his general staff.
Meanwhile, Hitler’s management skills shouldn’t have got him further than running a bratwurst stall in Mönchengladbach. Certain of a swift victory in the Russian campaign, he refused to provide winter clothing for his own troops. We’re left to contemplate the pride of the Reich going into battle wearing fur coats and woolly hats donated by the German public.
The book concludes with a chapter on the aftermath of the siege, but I could have done with more about Stalingrad beyond the bombing, and something of its pre-battle history. And yes, I know Stalingrad was primarily about the clash of two armed forces, but surely some of the finer points of military strategy could have been sacrificed for more on the civilians? A thousand of them, mostly women and children, somehow survived the siege of Stalingrad, and their stories will have been every bit as gripping as those on the front line.
Long before the term was coined, Stalingrad defined “shock and awe”. It was a turning point that saved Stalin’s bacon at home and earned him new respect abroad, with far-reaching consequences for us all. Over a million of the 26 million Soviets killed in the Second World War died at Stalingrad. The staggering scale of the loss gave the Soviet leader an emotional blackmail card to play when it came to dividing up the spoils of war in 1945.
As a battle, Stalingrad left its mark on the world. As a book, Stalingrad had a similar effect on me. Battle-weary and out of ammo, I’ve had to surrender this review and concede defeat. I’ve got post-war fatigue.
Stalingrad: the fateful siege: 1942-1943
by Antony Beevor
Publisher: Penguin, 1999