Saturday, June 1, 2013

Book Review 280: Enemy at the Gates

ENEMY AT THE GATES: The Battle for Stalingrad, by William Craig.  457 pages illustrated. Konecky

I read William Craig’s “Enemy at the Gates” when it was published in 1973. Rereading it 40 years later, I was struck by how sketchy the military history is.

It’s there, but details are lacking. In part this was because the Russians had not revealed that much about their great victory. Walter Kerr, who was a correspondent during the battle, did not publish “The Secret of Stalingrad,” based on a visit to the then-new battle museum, until 1978.

But Craig’s outline of victory and defeat stands up well.

Another reason for his approach could have been Cornelius Ryan. Ryan’s “The Longest Day” was a huge bestseller. Craig adopts his technique – then novel but now practically obligatory – following the adventures of a few dozen men and women, with minimal connecting narrative.

Stalingrad may have been, as Craig says, the biggest battle of all time. It provided plenty of incident. Some were memorable. The pilgrimage of the lonely, trapped German soldiers to worship – there is hardly a better word for it – a lathe made in Germany that they found in a Russian tank factory stuck in my mind for four decades.

Yet another reason for the presentation of Stalingrad as a human rather than a political drama may have been less consciously chosen. In 1973, American triumphalism was still near it peak. We had defeated Hitler, and the Eastern Front was mysterious, less important and slightly ridiculous sideshow to the main event in France.

Only a few westerners, mostly European leftists, bought the USSR’s claims that it had been the dominant foe in the fight against Hitlerism.

To accept that stuck in the craw of proud Americans, and especially of the 100% Americans who would (in many cases) have preferred making common cause with Hitler against Russin Bolshevism.

Nonetheless, history really is on the side of the big battalions  and today most historians have come around to the realization that Russia had defeated Germany in 1941, before the United States had begun to fight.

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