Stalingrad by Anthony Beevor

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Most of us know either a little or next to nothing of the experience of war (thankfully), and its futile, pointless waste of life, destruction of society (mentally and physically) and the indescribable horror it creates and ultimately leaves behind. Stalingrad will give you an vivid, terrifying and insightful taste of that experience.

Stalingrad is probably the finest book of non-fiction I have read on the subject of war, without it being overly academic or wordy. Anthony Beevor spares us none of the horrors of the battle but also brings a very human dimension to the warfare, through letters and recollections from the combatants on both sides. Beevor has an incredible ability to take you (from the comfort and safety of your armchair) right into the heart of the action and give you an experience of the truly horrific and dehumanising nature of the battle.

The battle of Stalingrad took place between 1941 and 1942 on the vast open steppes           of southern Russia between the invading German Wehrmacht and the Soviet Red army.             It was one of the most brutal conflicts of WW2 and left tens of thousands of combatants and civilians dead or wounded.

The battle could be categorised as not just a military battle but also as a clash of ideologies: Stalin’s Communism against Hitler’s National Socialism. Two ideologies that differed in some ways but ultimately were very similar breeding grounds for totalitarianism.

Beevor explores and explains the aims, ambitions, paranoia and the absolute lack of humanity of these two brutal, narcissistic dictators. Their egomaniacal lust for total power and control cost in and before WW2 cost millions of lives throughout Europe and the Soviet Union.

Hitler and Stalin both incessantly interfered with the military strategies of the battle, this created even more misery and chaos for the soldiers and civilians involved. Neither of these men knew anything about military strategies and operated purely on hunches, paranoia or egotistical delusions and any generals who dared disagree where belittled, dismissed or worse!

Stalin’s purges before the war cost the Red Army thousands of it’s finest officers and strategists, so when the Germans invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, the Red Army was in total disarray, leaderless, completely at the mercy of the paranoid whims of Stalin and his equally brutal head of state security Lavrentiy Beria.

The Germans were in total control of the war in the Soviet Union in early 1941, they were in striking distance of Moscow, the and Red Army were on their knees, demoralised and beaten when fate intervened or should I say Adolf Hitler. Hitler ordered the advance on Moscow to stop and ordered his forces to head south to the oilfields of the Caucasus mountains and fatefully Stalingrad.

The two huge opposing armies were eventually camped on opposite sides of the river Volga which Stalingrad sits on the banks of. The battle was a savage one even by Eastern front standards. The Germans initially held the upper hand and their brutality towards Soviet civilians but at Stalingrad and right across the western Soviet Union would come back to haunt them over the few years as the Red Army murdered, pillaged and destroyed all on their victorious path to Berlin.

Naturally the battle started to turn the Soviet’s way during the winter as German fuel and supply lines became ever more stretched .All of this was caused by Hitler’s constant, illogical and eventually catastrophic interference which meant his armies got increasingly overstretched and annihilated by the now reorganised and strengthened Red Army.

Stalin (despite his own reckless interference) gained the upper hand, with his massive superiority in manpower and industrial output proved to much for the Germans. Soviet and German generals showed no mercy to the enemy or to their own men, who were used as cannon fodder, especially by the Soviets.

The two sides were merciless with prisoners, many were shot on the spot, sick and wounded were very often left to freeze to death on the Steppes in the middle of the harsh arctic like winter. Men on both sides were monitored and punished by brutal special units and secret police. The Soviets had NKVD and Smersh and the Germans had the SS and the Feldgendamerie. Men were interrogated, tortured and murdered by these units regularly for cowardice, desertion, and lack of ideological fibre be it Communist or National Socialist.

The final play was Hitler refusing to let Field Marshal Paulus’s sixth army retreat so it linked up with German forces that were further back behind the frontlines. The sixth army was surrounded by the Red Army and starved, bombarded and near annihilated. Many thousands of men died unnecessarily because of Hitler’s hubris , pride and lack of humanity.

The battle of Stalingrad was a massive turning point in the war, the Germans were now in full retreat and were driven back into Germany relentlessly and brutally over the next three years. It was Hitler’s Waterloo, ironically he didn’t learn the lessons of Napoleon’s equally disastrous campaign into Russia two hundred years earlier.

Stalingrad is an incredible and moving tribute to the futility of war written in a novel like fashion which makes it very readable despite the brutal facts of the battle. I would recommend this book highly 10 out of 10.

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