German Officer: ‘I must compliment you on your street fighting. I fought at Stalingrad and this was a tougher battle’.
British Officer: ‘This was our first try, we’ll be much better next time’.
So went a conversation shortly after the fall of Arnhem Bridge. The quintessentially English response aside, this exchange illustrates perhaps one of the biggest problems for western historians of the Second World War. As brave and hard-fought battles such as El Alamein, Normandy and Arnhem were, compared to the millions clashing in the East, the war in the west was peripheral. And if the war in the east was the Schwerpunkt, the Battle of Stalingrad, as Michael K. Jones shows here, was the tipping point.
I must confess to not having done much reading about the Eastern Front in the Second World War. Aside from the fact that – naturally enough my attention has usually been drawn to the more British aspects of the war, I have found the Russian experience hard to fathom. Apart from the sheer numbers and the epic scale of the fighting from Barbarossa to Berlin, I have found that there are far too many ‘ov’s and ‘sky’s to keep track of!
Perhaps I’m not alone among western historians, and the broader public at large, in not having a brilliant grasp of events such as the titanic struggle at Stalingrad. Aside from the lack of Western involvement and the distance, until the fall of the Iron Curtain an ideological barrier prevented in depth-western study of Stalingrad. During and immediately after the war communist propaganda coloured events, then after the death of Stalin destalinisation affected history to the point where the city bearing his name was changed to Volgograd.
In this book Jones uses research techniques and a writing style very reminiscent of Martin Middlebrook – especially his use of veterans accounts. Of course, until relatively recently the official Soviet version of History has dominated our understanding of the battle, so this reinterpretation, using the words of the people who fought it, is long overdue. Their accounts slice through the lingering clouds of Soviet propaganda.
But what really impresses me about this book is the emphasis given to the psychological factors that allowed the Red Army to triumph against the odds. This is not a mere narrative of the battle. We are taken under the skin of the battle’s participants, including lucid studies of the characters of the respective commanders, Chuikov and Paulus. The most salient point in the book, for me, is the impact of Stalin’s famous Order 227 – no step backwards. It is sometimes hard for those of us who live in a democracy to fathom the motivations of the millions of men fighting in a climactic struggle between two totalitarian ideologies. But to grasp these motivations is more than halfway to getting a feel for exactly how the Red Army triumphed in the bitter street fighting – a form of war that requires iron will and determination.