Tuesday, 12 February 2002

Stalingrad

Listening to:

Beethoven, Variations and Bagatelles, played by Mikhail Pletnev. Just finished Andante favori (WoO 57) and onto Polonaise, op. 89.

Just read:

Antony Beevor, Stalingrad.

This was a birthday present in 2000, so I’m a mere 16 months behind with the List. This book is a detailed military history of the Battle of Stalingrad, which happened in 1942-3, and which saw the German military subjected to its first big defeat. It starts with a brief account of the opening stages of Operation Barbarossa, describing how the summer of 1941 saw the Germans make incredible progress across Russia. Their advance was halted in the winter of 1941, and they didn’t manage to take Moscow. The Russian counterattack that winter was quite successful and relieved much of the pressure. But with the passage of winter in 1942, the Germans were in a position to advance once more.

The book’s focus then shifts to the south-east. We don’t really hear anything about the siege of Leningrad for example. Hitler was obsessed with getting to the oil fields in the Caucasus, and Stalingrad and the Volga River were in the way. Stalingrad is further east than Moscow, so it was quite a lunge for the Germans to be making. It’s a bit difficult to engage in counter-factual speculation, but it would have probably been quite a coup if the campaign had succeeded. It didn’t succeed though, and the Germans never managed to get across the Volga at Stalingrad. Their army got bogged down, principally in fierce fighting in the city itself. Then in the winter of 1942, the Russian Operation Uranus completely cut them off, encircling them simultaneously from the north-east and south-east. Hundreds of thousads of soldiers were cut off, in the middle of a Russian winter, and eventually surrendered, despite Hitler encouraging them to fight to the death.

Though Stalingrad goes into a little more detail than I just have, I believe the above summary captures the gist of the military situation. The book concentrates on describing conditions in the opposing armies, and the dilemmas facing the various commanders, including their relationships with their respective Supreme Commanders. It does this very well, thoroughly convincing me that I wouldn’t ever want to be within a thousand miles of the whole situation. It also suggested to me that Hitler and Stalin were equally murderous and evil, but that Stalin had a pragmatic streak that Hitler lacked. To hear Beevor tell it, Hitler completely deluded himself as to the real situation, refused to listen to contradictory evidence, and spent his time either lying to his subordinates in Russia or imagining implausible plans for their rescue.

Stalingrad inevitably recounts lots of death and destruction, but it’s never a stomach-turning gore-fest. Instead it’s depressing, illuminating and compelling all at once.

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