Sunday, March 01, 2009

Off Topic---Stalingrad, Soldiers' Voices, and Oral History

Voices from Stalingrad: Unique First-Hand Accounts from World War II's Cruellest Battle, Jonathan Bastable, David and Charles Publishing, subject index, contributors index, chronology, glossary, illustrations, maps, 304 pp., 2006, $24.99.

If CWL had to rank the earth's battles in order of ferocity and casualties, Stalingrad would be among the top three. The Siege of Stalingrad is among the very bloodiest battles in all of history. Combined casualties are estimated to be above 1.5 million. Brutality toward military causalities and disregard toward civilian casualties was a characteristic of both sides. The Nazi offensive against the Soviets began in June 1941; in June of 1942 the German offensive to take Stalingrad began. The campaign lasted from June 28 1942 to February 2 1943. The battle toward the city, then inside the city, and the Soviet counter-offensive which trapped and destroyed and captured remnants of the German 6th Army with European auxiliaries was the first large-scale German defeat of World War II.

Jonathan Bastable's Voices from Stalingrad is a compelling work. The campaign' history told by the battlefront soldiers is difficult to put down. On nearly every page, Bastable offers several paragraphs of a direct quote from a soldier, prisoner, and casualty. He tightly brings the words of the soldiers together with a chronological narrative, photographs and maps. His own text is never extraneous to the voices of the soldiers but firmly and succinctly builds the context for the soldiers narratives. A Soviet rifleman brings down a plan that is 300meters overhead. German soldiers die at night from no obvious cause; autopsies reveal that 20 year olds had the hearts of 80 old men, such was the starvation and fatigue of the armies. Rats are rampant and gnaw on corpses; horse meat is the only meat for soldiers. The war on the Volga River is treacherous: snipers, ice flows, and artillery interrupt Russian support to the beleaguered city in which cannibalism is not unheard of.

From house to house, factory to factory, and street to street, Bastable offers a chorus of voices that describe a 200 day battle in which the distance between life and death is the distance which can be covered by the toss of a hand grenade.

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