Review: Stalingrad – Antony Beevor

Stalingrad Antony BeevorMy version: Hardback
Genre: Non Fiction War, World War Two, Nazis, Russians, The Soviet Union
First published:
1998
My copy:
Publisher:
Viking, The Penguin Group
Published: 1998
Bought


From the cover:

Early on the morning of 23 August 1942, the 16th Panzer Division raced eastwards over the steppe from the river Don. That same evening, it halted on the bank of the river Volga. The tank crews gazed across towards Asia. They had reached the designated boundary of the Third Reich’s eastern territories. Messerschmitt fighters performed victory rolls above their heads. Many soldiers thought the war was won. To their right, the city of Stalingrad blazed from the first of General von Richthofen’s air raids, which killed 40,000 civilians. The only resistance the panzer crews faced came from anti-aircraft guns manned by young women barely out of high school. ‘We had to fight shot for shot,’ the division reported, ‘against thirty-seven flack positions manned by tenacious fighting women until they were all destroyed.’ Thus began the most pitiless, and perhaps the most important, battle in history.

Hitler had told General Paulus that with his Sixth Army, the most powerful in the Wehrmacht, he could ‘storm the heavens.’ But then, in a sudden encirclement, over a quarter of a million men were suddenly trapped far from home. Stalingrad marked not just the psychological turning-point of the war, it was the first major modern battle fought in a city, with thousands of helpless civilians caught up in its horrors. In this titanic struggle between Stalin and Hitler, men were driven beyond the limits of physical and mental endurance. National loyalties were also dislocated. Paulus’ Sixth Army depended on 50,000 Soviet citizens in German uniform, while the NKVD used German Communist writers in its tactics to wear down the besieged. 

Antony Beevor’s completely fresh account finally conveys the reality of one of the most terrifying conflicts ever known. Within a conventional narrative, he concentrates not on strategy, but on the experience of soldiers on both sides. His account is enriched by primary sources never used before, including reports on desertions and executions from the archives of the Russian ministry of defence, captured German documents, interrogation of prisoners, private diaries and letters from soldiers on both sides, medical reports and interviews with key witnesses and participants. It is an unforgettable story.


The Speesh Reads WWII Fact dept reports: Stalingrad was located in Southwest Russia on the Volga River. It was a major industrial and communications centre for the Soviet Union in the south. It was named after the Soviet leader Josef Stalin. This made the city important to Stalin and also important to Hitler, who hated Stalin. Stalingrad was called Tsaritsyn until 1925 when it was renamed Stalingrad in honour of Josef Stalin. In 1961 the city’s name was changed to Volgograd, meaning Volga City.


Stalingrad Antony Beevor signatureIf you don’t know about the significance and the events leading up to, during and after the Battle of Stalingrad, you really should.

The Battle of Stalingrad was one of the largest and deadliest battles in World War II. It was a turning point in the war. After losing the battle, the German army lost so many soldiers and took such a defeat that they never quite recovered.

No matter how much you read about the battle, or how many times I read this book, the horror the soldiers on both sides, but especially the Germans, went through, is unimaginable. When you read this book, any thoughts of “well, they started it, so they deserved what they got” are out of the window. The words can only go so far, the reality was obviously much, much worse. We might describe someone as having lived through it, though I doubt anyone involved was ever able to leave it behind in their past. And forgotten in all this, are the civilians. They probably suffered the most – as they couldn’t do anything about the fighting, on either side. They wouldn’t have been able to imagine it, before they had to live through it. Those who were able to survive it, probably found it hard afterwards, to believe what had happened. All this time forward from it, it must seem like a bad dream, something out of a history book, even to them. To us living our comfortable lives now, we find it hard, even when reading books like this, to imagine, even from the words, that it could have happened, that it did happen. That it was actually worse in every unimaginable way than what you’re reading. You can’t imagine being so cold, for so long, that when someone unwraps the filthy, lice-filled bandage round your hand, several of your fingers come off with it. On top of that, you have been so hungry, for so long, that when your friend dies, you have to eat pieces of them. It can’t be imagined by us now, so it’s easier to throw your hands up, look away and think it can’t have happened like that. Personally, that’s partly why there are know-nothings who can’t imagine a regime deliberately setting out to wipe out a whole people. Several peoples actually, as the idea was to wipe out all the peoples between the Eastern German borders and the River Volga. To create ‘living space’ for the German peoples. The river Volga however, turned out to be a border too far. Stalingrad is on the German side of the river and for a while, it was largely in German hands.

Of course, the real blame for the suffering – on both sides – starts with the leaders and goes, mostly, down the chain of command. Stalin was a paranoid madman, Hitler, ditto, though maybe not quite so paranoid. Both were far removed from the suffering on the front line caused their orders. Both had a very tentative grasp on either tactics, or reality.

The Germans are the bad guys of the piece, but for my generation, knowing what Stalin did to his own people afterwards (‘own’ is maybe a little inaccurate, as he was actually Georgian), and the whole suffering of Eastern Europe in the Cold War, there is still a little spark of hope, as you near the end, that the Germans will pull it out of the fire. You know it. As the Germans are the good guys now and have been since 1945. Of course, then the imagination curls up into a little ball and hides in the corner, as the possibilities of what might have happened if the Germans had won…but it’s there, no denying it.

It’s a lot to take in, there are a lot of smaller battles, personalities, to-ing and fro-ing, but persevere and Antony Beevor’s calm, objective and utterly readable account will reward you. I’ve read and ‘enjoyed’ (if that’s the right word), and met Sir Antony several times now, and he is both a national treasure and a quite superb writer-historian.


You can buy Stalingrad from The Book Depository


I have a Speesh Reads Pinterest Board with images from the battle, of the city and the personalities on both sides

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