Monday, June 22, 2015

Stalingrad: The City that Defeated the Third Reich by Jochen Hellbeck

Jochen Hellbeck's "Stalingrad" is a testament to how much we still don't know about the Eastern Front over 70 years after the war has ended.  Within the Soviet Union a historical commission was created to chronicle the struggles of the Red Army and the Soviet Union during the war years, to create a history that well enough encompassed the courageous actions of men and women in the face of an enemy that few others were able to withstand, less so achieve victories against.  Unfortunately, while much information was gathered by the historians of this commission, little of this rich material ever saw the light of day.  Hellbeck, however, was given the ability and funding to be able to take numerous interviews from survivors of the Stalingrad battle and weave a compelling narrative about the endurance of the Red Army and the fighting for the city that bore Stalin's name.  In many ways Stalingrad became a turning point in the war against Nazi Germany and while initially numerous Soviet publications appeared on the battle, including memoirs, readers must keep in mind (and many already know) that much of that literature was tainted by Soviet propaganda, rhetoric, and adhered to the whims of Soviet censors.  Those histories and memoirs that appeared in the post-Soviet period are recollections that without doubt have been influenced by time (not to say that they should be dismissed, but simply treated with an understanding of their weaknesses and limitations).  Thus, a work that encompasses written interviews with survivors of the battle mere days or weeks after the fact offer many advantages for those interested in this period and these events.  Of course these accounts are tinged with ideology and Socialist cliches, but they are also rather candid about topics like German prisoners of war, cowardly behavior by some Red Army commanders, commissars and soldiers, as well Hellbeck offers a large number of endnotes that help guide the reader through many of the actions, units, and locations that are mentioned and also helps to showcase where readers can find discrepancies in accounts by the likes of Chuikov and Rodimtsev.  Without a doubt this is a fascinating look at the Red Army and its struggle against the Germans at Stalingrad, the fierce nature of the fighting comes through these interviews on a regular basis and some of the descriptions of the courage and loyalty shown by Red Army troops are truly inspiring.  This is a needed addition to Eastern Front literature and I can only hope that this rich archive is further explored and utilized by historians in the near future.

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