Stalingrad – How The Red Army Triumphed, by Michael K. Jones
I loved it, I hated it. First, let me give you the thumbs-down part, and then finish on an uptick.
The book is promoted as that awful battle seen, not through the eyes of generals and strategists, but through the eyes of the little guys who actually fought the war. The problem with this is when Jones resorts to quoting these Red soldiers – and this is probably true of most boots-on-the-ground warfighters – he gets little in the way of perspective. The author apparently realized this at some point of the writing, and began to drift back to the generals, principally Vasily Chuikov, the commander of the USSR’s 62nd Army, which was handed the dicey job of stopping Germany’s Wehrmacht at Stalingrad.
Too, as so often occurs with memory (even Chuikov’s), the glorious aspects of repelling such an enemy tend to be emphasized over the terror, the starvation, the continual hand-to-hand fighting, the cold, the noise, the lice. That is, the real impact of first-hand witnesses is made rosy by time.
And finally, telling this story from the grunt’s standpoint would have been so much more compelling had Jones given a lot more of the German-eye view from the trenches. To his credit, he did point out the rote nature of the Wehrmacht’s campaign in the east, and the German soldiers’ reluctance to engage in hand-to-hand fighting. Also, Jones makes much of the improvisational nature of Soviets’ approach to this overlong battle. But I’m certain there was much to say in a similar fashion about General Paulus’ approach to the fog of Stalingrad’s war.
Despite these issues, the book was worth writing and being read. I’ve read fairly extensively on the Eastern Front battles of WWII, and Jones does break new historical ground here. From the personal testimony of the battle’s survivors, as well as from memoirs and novels written in Russia of this debacle, a couple of things stand out. First, the Soviets very nearly lost the battle. Second, the battle strategy from the Soviet viewpoint was extremely freewheeling, and driven to a surprising degree by the troops themselves.
A case in point: the Soviets’ famous sniper strategy has always been presented as a foreordained attempt to terrorize the German soldiers (it did). Actually, this rose spontaneously from the lower echelons out of frustration with the battle’s progress and out of pure hatred for the Germans. Chuikov simply observed that the sniper strategy was working, and he approved its further use. The Soviets’ small attack group strategy within the city, praised by historians as a stroke of genius is, in Jones’ telling, a from-the-bottom-up case of spontaneity as well.
Of course, Stalin wished to save “his” city as dearly as Hitler wanted to destroy it. This ultimately resulted in Operation Uranus, and a massive troop commitment to the city by the Soviets. As above, had not Uranus been launched, Stalingrad – and possibly Russia – would have been overrun in toto by the Wehrmacht.
The real story is partly Soviet resolve versus that of the Germans – meaning, from the standpoint of the troops. But more importantly, this version of Stalingrad’s story hinges on Soviet generals fighting, eating, and drinking with their men, as opposed to the Prussian standoffishness of Germany’s officer corps in relation to their soldiers. This in turn resulted in the Soviet brass entrusting to soldiers and lower level officers the opportunity to initiate the constant tactical changes that allowed the 62nd Army to survive until Operation Uranus.
I doubt there’s a clear line between these two phenomena, but the Soviets' bottom-up manner of prosecuting this battle is also the strategy employed by today’s most successful business and governmental ventures. The U.S. suffers today in large part from elitism in business and government, and I can’t help but wonder – were one to directly link Soviet efforts at Stalingrad to today’s business wars – whether this bottom-up strategy wouldn't be Stalingrad’s and WWII’s most significant legacy to the world.
My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars
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