Antony Beevor’s Stalingrad

Antony Beevor, Stalingrad (2004, Penguin 2008)

Antony Beevor visited Sydney for the Writers’ Festival in 2007. His talk was interesting, and it evoked high-quality audience questions that came from a whole world of War History geekiness previously unknown to me. Although he’d recently published a book about the Spanish Civil War, it was Stalingrad that generated the serious senior fanboy passion. We bought the book not much later, but didn’t start reading it until July 2008. Now here we are, in mid 2011 and it’s done!

Notice I said ‘we’. The reason I took longer to read the book than Anthony Beevor took to write it is that I read it exclusively on long car rides, aloud to my regular driver, usually known on this blog as The Art Student. Apart from the reading being disrupted by our lamentable failure to do much travelling by car in the last three years (two return trips to Canberra, perhaps one southward, and just now north to Red Rock and surrounds), it was an excellent way to read this book.

As with Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel, another car-journey book, the flow would be interrupted frequently by one or other of us exclaiming, querying, drawing parallels or pronouncing judgements. Once or twice, we had to stop the car so the driver–listener could peruse a map. After a certain point I stopped reading out the full name of every military unit, and occasionally I would give up the struggle to pronounce a German or Russian name in full. But such bumpy moments in no way detracted from the book’s holding power. It manages to move, apparently without effort, from close-up accounts of human cruelty, brutality and suffering to a broader strategic narrative; from the obsessions and denials of Hitler and Stalin, to the petty rivalries, quirks and duck-shovings of the officers on both sides, to the German troops’ sentimental yearning for family or the Russians’ pursuit of alcohol.

The wonderful Barbara Ehrenreich said on her blog recently, ‘War has been, and we still expect it to be, the most massive collective project human beings undertake.’ Having just read about the sheer logistics of attack and counter-attack, siege and counter-siege at Stalingrad, I can only say, ‘True, that!’ ‘But,’ Barbara Ehrenreich continued, ‘it has been evolving quickly in a very different direction, one in which human beings have a much smaller role to play.’ If that’s so, we can only be glad of it. The human participants in Stalingrad endured almost unbelievable extremes of cold and hunger: men literally dropped dead from hunger, wounded soldiers froze to death by the cartload. They performed acts of understandable but almost unimaginable cruelty and callousness: Russian prisoners-of war starved in scenes that foreshadowed the images of Jewish prisoners at the end of the war; German prisoners were shot at random by their Soviet guards. There was plenty of heroism as well, of course, and an extraordinary episode of contact between individuals from both sides.

I turned down two page corners. The first was to mark the account of Hitler’s speech on 30 January 1943, the 10th anniversary of his accession to power, when the German army at Stalingrad was surrounded, starving, under-equipped, low on ammunition and facing almost certain defeat (Hitler expected them to fight on and the generals to commit suicide). The speech, delivered for some reason by Goebbels, made just one mention of Stalingrad:

The heroic struggle of our soldiers on the Volga should be an exhortation to everyone to do his maximum in the struggle for Germany’s freedom and our nation’s future, and in a wider sense for the preservation of the whole of Europe.

Of course there’s no comparison with the circumstances of Australian troops in Afghanistan, but doesn’t that rhetoric sound awfully familiar, and isn’t it equally hollow?

My other turned-down corner marks that contact between individuals I mentioned. In early January, when things were already obviously hopeless for the Germans, the Russians sent envoys under a white flag to offer a truce. The whole episode, drawing on an unpublished manuscript by Nikolay Dmitrevich Dyatlenko, one of the envoys, is marvellously told, full of poignant detail, but one moment grabbed my imagination.The envoys approach the German lines. They call out that they have a message for the German commander-in-chief.

‘Come here then,’ [a warrant officer] said. Several more heads popped up and guns were levelled at them. Dyatlenko refused to advance until officers were called. Both sides became nervous during the long wait. Eventually, the warrant officer set off towards the rear to fetch his company commander. As soon as he had left, German soldiers stood up and started to banter. ‘Rus! Komm, komm!’ they called. One soldier, a short man, bundled in many rags, clambered up on to the parapet of the trench and began to play the fool. He pointed to himself in an operatic parody. ‘Ich bin Offizier,’ he sang.
_____‘I can see what sort of an officer you are,’ Dyatlenko retorted, and the German soldiers laughed. The joker’s companions grabbed his ankles and dragged him back into the trench. Smyslov and Siderov [the other envoys] were laughing too.

And then back to the serious business of war, of the truce being offered and refused as per Hitler’s orders, and thousands more deaths being decided by the event. But in the middle of all that, with the stakes so high and the conditions already so desperate, that short man, bundled against the terrible cold, could stand tall and mock the whole catastrophe.

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