If you could read only one book about World War II, it would have to be “Stalingrad”. Its epic high-voltage emotional charge, roller-coasting through tragedy and triumph, has a non-fictional source.
The story seamlessly blends the history of a military conflict with a supremely humane tale of the people who were caught up in it.
Scenes set in German headquarters point to what made possible Hitler’s rise to power but most of the book is given to ordinary Russians coping with an existential crisis.
It is probable that Nazism would not have been defeated if German forces had not been halted and captured in the city of Stalingrad.
Hollywood would have us believe World War II in Europe was won on the beaches of Normandy but this is a piece of patriotic ideology when put alongside the sacrifices and victory that took place at Stalingrad. The battle was a world historical event but the power behind Grossman’s novel lies in showing how keeping the barbarians at the gate depended on people getting up in the morning and attending to often mundane roles in what was happening around them.
He captures the changing tides of human struggle and the precious littleness of private lives under stress.
The tragedies of war pulsate through the novel and there are unforgettable chapters, like the one describing the first firebombing attack from the air on the city.
Grossman was there and he knew the truth value of describing the corpse of a child crushed by an iron girder: ‘There is a power that can raise huge cities from the dust, but no power in the world can lift the almost weightless eyelashes that have closed over the eyes of a dead child’.
The fragility of existence is laid bare and pain is not shied away from but nor is heroism of the undemonstrative kind.
Another of the book’s many poignant accounts drills down to a remaining battalion of 300 soldiers at the city railway station who, all communication cut off , are surrounded by the enemy.
They die, one by one, a 20th-century version of Herodotus’ tale of the Spartans at Thermopylae – the difference being that their sacrifice has been largely forgotten.
Battle plans and questions of morale are central to the book’s narrative but so too are the citizens of the city who grapple with domestic and private concerns amidst preparations for the showdown. Relationships, sex, politics, suffering are thrown into a maelstrom and Grossman recreates all of this as vividly as he does discussions of military strategy.
There is a one-page chapter that sums up Stalingrad’s achievement:
…like the water of a spring; if you look down ….You can see green weeds and pebbles. Yet the pool is also a mirror; in it you can see the entire world where you live, labour and struggle….And the strategy of a people’s war, a war for life and freedom, is no different.
“Stalingrad”, by Vasily Grossman, is published by Harvill Secker