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Friday, September 7, 2012

“Stalingrad: The Fateful Siege, 1942-1943”, by Antony Beevor

560 pages, Viking, ISBN-13: 978-0670870950

This is, quite simply, one of the finest accounts by a historian to convey the personal hell, the Dante's Inferno of Stalingrad, and is the most vivid and chilling I have ever read. The author describes the horrific conditions faced by both the Russians and the 6th Army, and this book occupied my thoughts for weeks afterwards like no other book has ever done. Mr. Beevor is masterful in his description, weaving facts with personal accounts that puts the reader in the trenches. His access to previously closed Russian files on this brutal battle has allowed the author to write the finest story ever on Stalingrad. His story on Winrich Behr (who by the way is still alive today) I have found to be as unforgettable as the rest of the book. He vividly describes how the desperate situation has convinced the top leadership in encircled Stalingrad to fly out Capt. Behr, proud in his black SS Panzer uniform with Knights Cross. Behr is flown to see Hitler, to explain how a breakout from the Kessel must proceed immediately. Behr is warned on how Hitler tries to overwhelm his guests with the "overall" picture, and how his vast knowledge leaves little room for compromise. Behr is prepared when Hitler steps to the map, and shocked when Hitler quits talking and is attentive while Behr further protests the utter hopelessness of fighting on. Field Marshall Keitel, Hitler’s sycophantic lackey, angrily shakes his fist at Behr when Hitler looks away, and then Hitler returns to the map, and produces phantom divisions to rescue the trapped 6th Army. It is then when Behr realizes the war is over. The only other book that compares to this in the horrors of battle is "The Forgotten Soldier" the story on a soldier in the Das Reich SS division who sees destruction and death on the Eastern front, but this autobiography is not nearly as well written. I have read this book twice, and will enjoy it many more times. Superb.

This book, taking advantage of unrestricted access to Soviet archives, re-tells the story of the events that led up to the siege of the German 6th army, describes the siege itself, and it’s tragic aftermath. There are three main reasons why this book is such a triumph of history for a wide audience:

The first is that the author, Antony Beevor, has the gift of the best historians, which is to make the reader want to know more about the people and events within his work. He neatly balances the details of camp life with the nature of the combat as seen by all those involved, and the personalities of the officers with the fears and hopes of the rank and file, expressed through song, cartoon, and letter. The second is that this book suffers from no preconceptions or illusions about the events within, and it avoids that worst peril of military histories, the will to argue with other military histories, and to portion out blame and praise. Beevor tries, and at least partially succeeds, at showing the confused and imprecise nature of the conflict, the multiple perspectives of its many participants. One of the worse traps of history is to establish the false causality of hindsight, to forget that the peoples of the past had no greater ability to see into the future than we do, and that their capacity to learn is often outpaced by events. The third and best reason for reading this book is for its subtle reminders of the actuality of these events. Beevor does his best to dissolve the seemingly mechanical nature of conflict and to place you in the battle bodily, smelling nitrite, being bitten by lice, and hunted by snipers. Those who would have us believe that battle is made by leaders with maps, and that it all comes down to mathematics of guns and coats and oil, will receive a powerful rebuttal from this chronicle, and the rest of us will receive a salutary reminder of the whirlwind that is war.

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