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Book Review

The men and their moment


STALINGRAD, ANTONY BEEVOR | Issue Dated: April 5, 2016, New Delhi
Tags : Nazi Germany | anti-USSR |

History, it is often said, is written by the victors. Except when it is not. The chronicles of the role of Soviet Union and its fearsome Red Army in the World War II or The Great Patriotic War, as the Russians like to refer to it, is a case in point of the latter. Serious historians and self-respecting politicians of the era, including the then British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, appear to have a consensus of a sort that it was the might of the Soviet Red Army that tore out the guts of Nazi Germany.

Under the circumstances, it becomes very difficult for the new crop of Western historians, grown up on dollops of anti-USSR bias, to remain committed to facts. They come up with new devices to try and discredit Soviet Union’s role in the War. More often than not, it becomes politics. History is swept aside rather conveniently, not to mention unfortunately.

British historian Antony Beevor is no run-of-the-mill historian. His grasp on World War II in general and the European Theatre in particular is astounding. The kind of original research he brings in, gives a refreshing perspective to what transpired in those tumulus years. A big part of it has been made possible because of events outside his control: the fall of Iron Curtain and disintegration of the USSR. The resulting access to hitherto inaccessible archives in Moscow and the then Stalingrad did provide him a starting advantage over his peers, but it would be prudent to say that he built upon this opportunity and came out with a winner of a book.

Stalingrad by Antony Beevor documents the Nazi Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union, its initial spectacular success, the subsequent faltering of the campaign, and Fascism's rather decisive defeat at the city of Stalingrad.

The book starts at the eve of the invasion as Stalin, in a bout of indecisiveness, refuses to believe stark inputs from intelligence agencies. The next day, in the June of 1941, Operation Barbarossa is launched with the characteristic Nazi blitzkrieg. The book skims through the early triumphs of Hitler rather quickly and reaches at the banks of river Volga where Germany’s 6th Army under army commander Friedrich von Paulus looked all set to take Stalingrad, and then probably entire Russia. But then, as the world knows, the campaign falters. As Germany bogs down to a street by street, building by building battle, Soviet strategists and commanders, including Commander Vasily Chuikov, turn the table on the invading army in a counter operation named Operation Uranus. The Soviet Red Army breaks the frontline at two distant flanks in North and South and quickly marches on – and meeting at the back, traps the entire 6th Army in a noose that they never manage to break.
The kind of military detailing that Beevor brings in is mind-boggling. It’s a delight for those who have keen interest in war and strategy. However, there’s something else, which I doubt most would like to be subjected with: the grim, grotesque details of human suffering. Beevor tells the story of war through the unbearable sufferings of common man and woman.

Pages after pages chronicle the story of hunger, disease, pain and death, and yet, Beevor can’t be accused of having resorted to pain-porn. His handling of human suffering appears to be distant, but it does have its desired effect. He wants to drive home the idea that war is not about fancy gadgets used and strategies implemented. It is a saga of pain and suffering, which everyone must know and experience at least through the medium of reading.
However, the book is not without its drawbacks. The anti-Soviet bias is pretty apparent here too. It is surprising how a seasoned historian, who does not want to condemn even Nazis without first collecting solid evidence against them, easily resorts to rumours and innuendos when it comes to treating the leading Soviet figure. Beevor lets his hatred (disdain, if you may) run ahead of himself a time too many and actually uses the adjective “coward” for Joseph Stalin. Even the fieriest of critics of the Soviet despot would squirm on that particular usage. At one point in the book, Beevor mentions the incident where Stalin refuses to trade his POW soldier son with a German general, saying that only a general can be exchanged for a general. While the world sees this incident as Stalin's unbending integrity' Beevor chooses to use this incident to drive home the point that Stalin was callous, and in as many a word.

And that’s not all. Too many times, he is caught trying to pass off cold military calculations and brilliant strategies of Soviet commanders as sheer luck or fluke. One can win a street battle or two on luck or fluke. One doesn’t win a war like that.
In spite of its shortcomings, Stalingrad remains one of the best books to have ever been written on this topic. Its lucid pace and a novel-like narrative keep the reader bound to the chair; a feat not many historians have managed to achieve.

Edition: Paperback
ISBN: 9780140284584
Pages: 528
price: Rs 1489

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017