Stalingrad

Recommendation: It’s probably slightly niche, but it’s an excellent read so who really cares

Where to read: Ideal for a quiet rainy weekend at home

Read with: Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 8 in C minor (see the playlist on the right) and a Black Russian as you head into the evening

In brief: Now this is more bloody like it (contra Upheaval).


Repeat after me: “I will not campaign in Russia in winter. I will provide troops with anti-freeze and proper winter gear just in case. I will consider the effect of epidemic typhus on casualty numbers.”*

Stalingrad could easily have become nothing more than a list of attacks and counterattacks, battle groups and generals. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that approach, of course, particularly in the kind of study which puts the “military” into military history, but Beevor is far more interested in conveying experience than he is tactics.

Perhaps unsurprisingly then, the treatment of tactics is the only real weakness in the work as a whole. Unless you spend half your time referring to maps (and I don’t think even that would help substantially), the geography and the ebbs and flows of battle can be quite confusing. I’d be tempted to find a good documentary about the battle before reading the book just to get the visuals. I spent quite a long time, for instance, trying to understand why the tractor factory (tank factory, let’s be real) was such a major concern for both sides.

Despite this weakness in the “middle”, Beevor is brilliant in conveying both the very big and the very small picture. The German and Soviet strategies are clearly explained (I’d say “make sense” but that would probably give an overly generous impression of Hitler’s insanely bad planning), the city’s role in the broader conflict is set out and Hitler and Stalin sit as central figures in the debacle.

In counterpoint to this “grand” narrative, the treatment of the day-to-day lives and deaths of the soldiers on the ground is devastatingly effective. Reflecting the old truism about tragedy and statistics, the emotional heft in Stalingrad lies in the small details, particularly Beevor’s use of letters home and direct accounts from soldiers on the front line. A couple of times each chapter, he finds ordinary soldiers and civilians, from the little girl injured while her class built defences to German soldiers like Kurt Reuber, and tracks their stories as far as he can, offering little vignettes and sub-narratives within the broader narrative. Particularly heartbreaking is the realisation that most of the letters Beevor quotes never made their way to families and loved ones – they’re available for archival research for precisely this reason. It’s a beautiful work of restoration as well as history.

Here is an excellent New York Times review from 1998 (when the book was first published) I heartily agree with.

*Also if someone could combine infectious disease epidemiology and military history in a book that doesn’t cost about $600, that would be lovely, please and thank you. I cannot be the only person interested in both.

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