Friday, August 10, 2012

Theodore Plievier - Stalingrad

After reading Stalingrad it seems inadequate to describe the battle in the way so many military histories do. While it was "the turning point of the war" and "Germany's greatest defeat" this ignores the immense waste of human life, the incredible suffering, the brutality, the bravery and the pointlessness of the battle. Stalingrad is not an easy book to read. In part because Plievier spares the reader nothing in his descriptions of war and the consequences of war. But the novel, like its sequel, Berlin does not follow a normal narrative. Plievier's prose is powerful, florid and complicated at times. It is a shame that he's forgotton today as his books repay reading.

Plievier was no veteran of World War Two though his story is fascinating. As a young sailor He'd taken part in the Wilhelmshaven mutiny that had detonated the German Revolution and ended World War One. After the rise of Hitler he fled, eventually ending up in Russia. From there he wrote about World War II and the interviews he made with German soldiers and his experiences on the front line formed the documentary basis for his classic trilogy of World War II.

Stalingrad is the first of three novels. It depicts the battle from the Germany point of view, focusing on a few individuals who experience the war in very different ways. Ultimately the destruction and violence degrades and destroys them. One of the soldiers, Gnotke, is a member of a punishment troop given the most dangerous tasks. Him and his comrades lose their minds as they constantly bury the dead in the face of withering fire.

Little of the book is devoted to narrative. Most of the story is a series of experiences, vividly painted, as the end of the Sixth Army approaches. Large parts deal with the appalling casualties, the wounded and their suffering as they wait for treatment, for water, for painkillers. None of these are forthcoming and Plievier's account of the suffering of the few doctors who operate on wounded men without bandages, morphine or hope is truly awful.

One of the themes of the book is the failure of the German High Command who can only order the besieged troops to continue fighting till the last bullet. As the Germany Army faces its first significant defeat, the leadership is unable to follow the most logical military tactics. The Nazi command doesn't allow for rational decisions. For Hitler and his cronies defeat at Stalingrad can only be the fault of the army in the field rather than illogical and impossible aims and ambitions. The men who freeze to death in Russia and the senior Officers who are near mad with blind faith in their Fuhrer are the victims.

The book concludes with the appalling march of the tens of thousands of German POWs into Russia's interior. Few returned. Plievier draws parallels with the Nazi death marches of Jews and concentration camp inmates as one of the POWs was a guard on such a march. This soldier believes that what is happening to him and the German Army are retribution for the acts of the regime and his own personal crimes. In a sense this is correct, but it is only a foreshadow of what is to come.

Related Reviews

Plievier - Berlin

1 comment:

RqWright said...

The movie by the same name (Not sure if it's related) is just as good and just as powerful, especially since there are two: one from the perspective of the german's entitles Stalingrad and one from the Russian's entitled Stalingrad: Dogs Do You Want to Live Forever.