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Book Forum: HISTORY   |    
Stalingrad: The Fateful Siege, 1942–1943
Am J Psychiatry 2001;158:2099-2100. doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.158.12.2099
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Houston, Tex.

By Antony Beevor. New York, Penguin Books, 1999, 493 pp., $16.95 (paper).

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Saturday, 21 June 1941, produced a perfect summer’s morning. Many Berliners took the train out to Potsdam to spend the day in the park of Sans Souci. Others went swimming from the beaches on the Wannsee or the Nikolassee.…In the Soviet Embassy…an urgent signal from Moscow demanded "an important clarification" of the huge military preparations along the frontiers from the Baltic to the Black Sea.

British historian Antony Beevor begins his narrative quietly, steadily, uneasily. Moving briskly between rapidly intensifying German and Russian scenes, Beevor provides some of the historical context for the events leading toward the terrible battle of Stalingrad. It was the eve of "Operation Barbarosa," Hitler’s long-planned attack on Soviet Russia. The frightening speed and inexorable efficiency of that day’s Blitzkrieg found the same swift success in Russia that it enjoyed in France, Poland, Norway, and the Low Countries. The German Panzers raced almost unopposed to the gates of Moscow. Hitler’s hubris in delaying Barbarosa by 6 weeks (and the onset of the coldest Russian winter in 50 years) cost the Nazi’s immediate capture of the Russian capital. With warming weather in 1942, the Wehrmacht renewed its offensive and sped to the Volga River at Stalingrad. Hitler coveted the city as a strategic and symbolic prize, and his staff believed it could be taken easily and quickly. Stalin resolved to defend his namesake city at all costs, and the ensuing horror became a personal battle of wills between two tyrants demonstrating their limitless capacity for inflicting cruelty.

Both armies suffered huge losses and unspeakable hardships as Hitler and Stalin interfered continuously with their generals’ decisions, always with catastrophic results. The protracted ferocity of the round-the-clock, house-to-house, hand-to-hand combat in a city reduced to rubble introduced an unprecedented style of warfare. The technologically superior German army could not win the war of attrition as Stalin ordered wave after wave of poorly trained, inadequately equipped troops into the cauldron. Hitler’s insane refusal to allow the encircled Sixth Army to retreat assured its destruction and made Stalingrad a turning point in the war in Europe as well as a landmark in the cruel history of warfare.

Working from official Russian and German state, military, and civilian archives, personal interviews with survivors and families, and a vast number of letters, diaries, and memorabilia, Beevor writes about the soldiers and citizens engaged in all levels of combat who were swept up into one of history’s most vicious maelstroms. The tragedy proceeds in five dramatic sections—The World Will Hold Its Breath, Barbarosa Relaunched, The Fateful City, Zhukov’s Trap, and Subjugation of the Sixth Army—and 25 chapters. Factual, concise, with a historian’s impartiality, Beevor nevertheless tells these stories of agony, terror, and suffering with empathy and affecting detail. An eyewitness account provides a moving vignette of high school girls repeatedly barraged while manning antiaircraft batteries but resuming their fire after each attack. They were silenced only after intense bombardment by German artillery and Stuka dive bombers: "This…was the first page of the Stalingrad defence."

From under the debris "Ivans" rose up to decimate passing German patrols. The constant artillery bombardment and air strikes from both sides, meager supply lines, and onset of the Russian winter (–30°F) led to hellish conditions for everyone. The air in command bunkers became almost too stale to support life. Russian soldiers fought for days with only a piece of bread and insufficient, polluted water for rations. German soldiers, poorly equipped for the extreme winter, froze to death, lost limbs to frostbite, were tormented by fleas and lice, and were gnawed by rats. Both armies ignored Geneva Convention requirements, and prisoners, especially the wounded, were murdered, starved, or left out in the cold to die. Desertions and defections were rampant on both sides despite summary executions of anyone caught trying to leave by waiting German SS and Russian NKVD cadres. The German commander, Field Marshall Friedrich Paulus, surrendered as his command position was finally overrun. While the conflict ended, horror and cruelty continued. The emaciated German survivors froze, starved, and died on "death marches" and in unsheltered prisoner of war camps (which easily matched the barbarous conditions and treatment inflicted by the Germans on Russian prisoners of war). Many of the freed Russian prisoners were executed by the NKVD for the "treason" of allowing themselves to be captured.

The final chapter begins approximately 1 year after the conflict and chronicles the apotheosis of the battle and its heroes, the postwar lives of some of the leading actors, and the enduring effects of it all.

Beevor’s narrative is so engrossing that readers will feel in doubt of the outcome, sympathizing with combatants on both sides without regard for the better or worse of the two hideous political regimes. Though an exact body count at Stalingrad will never be known, the author includes appendices summarizing the appalling civilian and military losses, another on source notes, and a 10-page select bibliography to help readers pursue special interests in greater depth. Two sections of photographs heighten the pathos of the saga, and multiple area maps provide useful references for understanding the rapidly changing battle scenarios. After more than half a century, Stalingrad is remembered as one of the most horrible and historically important sieges in the annals of modern warfare. Antony Beevor will show you why.




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