They were the five months that changed the war, if not the world. In what Jochen Hellbeck calls “the most ferocious and lethal battle in human history,’’ more than one million people perished, along with Adolf Hitler’s dream of world domination. The Battle of Stalingrad sealed the fate of Nazi Germany, transformed the Soviet home front into the front lines, and created a narrative that sustained the Soviet Union for a half century.
That is the story that Hellbeck, a professor at Rutgers specializing in modern Russia, tells in “Stalingrad,’’ a book whose heroic rhetoric and rhythms match the heroism of the people of Stalingrad, whose city was laid waste even as massive numbers of human lives were wasted. The book, published to rave reviews in Germany, is a kind of Shostakovich symphony in words: bleak but lyrical, haunting yet uplifting.
That, too, reflects the experience of the principals, military and civilian, of the Battle of Stalingrad, which droned on from August 1942 to February 1943. Drawing on new primary source material, especially the remarkable interviews conducted by the Russian Commission on the History of the Great Patriotic War, this book adds unforgettable texture to a struggle between two forces ordered by their respective tyrannical leaders to fight to the end.
Unlike so many accounts of this battle, which focus on the Germans and their failures, Hellbeck’s work — more compendium than narrative — is weighted toward the Russian experience and the Russian eyewitness accounts gathered by a team headed by professor Isaak Mints of Moscow State University.
Like the assaults on Moscow and Leningrad, the attack on Stalingrad began with air and artillery offensives, designed to weaken the city’s fortifications and its citizens’ wills. Stalingrad responded by digging defensive trenches around the city. Stalin himself, fearing a sense of defeatism, ruled out massive evacuations, but before long departures were undertaken, sometimes stealthy trips with as few as five people in a small rowboat crossing the Volga as German aircraft flew overhead.
The city, transformed by frantic industrialization in the 1930s, would be transformed again by fortifications, antiaircraft installations and, apparently very critical to the war effort, rebuilt bath houses. There was desperate hunger — and hoarding. One man wore six pairs of overalls and stuffed 115 packs of tea behind his shirt. He was shot for his efforts.
Nazi occupation followed the German attack. Listen to the testimony of Agrafena Posdnyakova, who lost a husband and two children and who resisted orders to move: “We went to the commandant’s office, we begged them. I’m sick, I’ve got children. They came to take a look and shrugged: you’ve got too many as it is. They’ll all die anyway.’’ They even stole the horse soup.
Still, the courage of those left behind, especially the women, is breathtaking even on the printed page. One woman bandaged 50 fighters in one day. Soldiers employed used electrical wire to keep communication lines open. Exhausted Russians dragged the wounded on tarps to medical personnel. Everywhere there was destruction. A commissar of a rifle division said: “Tanks were burning all around like giant candles.’’
And through it all, this was the prevailing ethos: “[P]ull yourself back together, get ready to fight, and even if you’re half dead, if you’ve only got one good arm, use it to shoot the enemy. Deal with that first one coming on the attack. Just deal with that first one. Your first shot will encourage your comrades.’’
Despite the pressures and privations, allegiance to Soviet-style communism was remarkably resilient. Among the troops, as a party bureau secretary put it, there was “essentially a stimulus for socialist competition: to see who could kill the most Germans.’’
Nine full accounts comprise much of the bulk of this book, and the result is stark and stunning testimony to the nature of this combat. Here’s one excerpt: “People think that urban warfare is a matter of walking down a street and shooting. That’s nonsense. The streets are empty, and the fighting is going on in the buildings, in structures and courtyards where you’ve got to pluck the enemy out with bayonets and grenades.’’
German soldiers play only a cameo role here, but their sense of despair in the winter matches the Soviet sense of despair in the late summer. “By Christmas we understood the utter hopelessness of our situation,’’ said a German prisoner who had been a Nazi party member. “There wasn’t any help and there wasn’t going to be any.’’ Another prisoner, a onetime member of the Hitler Youth, reported: ‘’Those last days in Stalingrad were horrible: thousands of dead bodies, and the wounded men dying in the streets because the hospitals were overcrowded.’’
This is a stunning history, and while not a piece of literature, literary comparisons are irresistible — to “War and Peace’’ inevitably. But that’s not just our contemporary view. “Just as the Red Army drew on pre-revolutionary traditions,’’ Hellbeck writes, “Soviet culture by that time found sustenance in a nineteenth-century novel.’’ How could it not have?
The City that Defeated
the Third Reich
By Jochen Hellbeck
Material translated from the Russian by Christopher Tauchen
PublicAffairs, 512 pp., illustrated $29.99David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He can be reached at email@example.com.