The Battle of Stalingrad: Gerald McGhie reflects on a famous novel about one of the defining struggles of the Second World War.

AuthorMcGhie, Gerald
PositionCritical essay


Author: Vasily (irossman (translated by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler)

Published by: Harvill Seeker, London, 704pp, 25 [pounds sterling].

The Battle of Stalingrad (23 August 1942 to 2 February 1943) might well have faded in the West into the obscurity of a metaphor had it not been for the publication in 1998 of Antony Beevor's Stalingrad, which brought to a wide audience details of the battle. (1) Now, with a new translation, English-speakers can at last read another work on the subject, by the celebrated Soviet writer and correspondent Vasily Grossman, who brings not only a knowledge of the forces involved but a discussion of the human dimension from a Russian point of view. Before reading Grossman's fact-based novel Stalingrad, (2) it is useful to have at least an outline of the scale of the battle.

Stalingrad (now Volgograd), on the banks of the vast Volga river, was the site of the largest confrontation of the Second World War. Controversy remains on the precise numbers, but it was not only the largest but also the most deadly battle in the history of warfare. The central question is why? Essentially, it came down to German Fatherland versus Russian Motherland. Earlier, in Mein Kampf (which Stalin had probably read), Adolf Hitler had said 'when we speak of new territories we must think of Russia. Destiny points the way there.' For Hitler, Russia was the last frontier and on 22 June 1941, in spite of the 1939 Hitler-Stalin Non-Aggression Pact, Germany invaded that vast territory to the east.

Fourteen months later, the Battle of Stalingrad began. Stalingrad was an important supplier of armaments. Capture would cut off a major Russian supply route. But what clearly drove Hitler was the city's name. German control of Stalingrad would represent a serious humiliation for the Soviet leader.

While it was important for Hitler, it was just as vital for Stalin to retain possession of his name city. This was the town he had fought in with great distinction during the Russian Civil War.

So to back up the seriousness of the situation as the Red Army pulled back Stalin, on 22 July 1942, issued his (in)famous 'not a step back' Order 227. Once the front reached Stalingrad a month later, there was no question of further Russian retreat; the townspeople and troops were now fixed in place. The German forces were also under a 'no retreat' order in what the troops called a Rattenkrieg (rat-like war).

Stalin was aware, however, that success in such a monumental struggle meant that the troops and civilians needed some sort of inspiration. Thus, contrary to almost all expectations. the Soviet leader put to one side the communist internationalist ideal and began to emphasise pre-revolutionary sentiments, such as patriotism and love of the Motherland, with a...

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