Thursday, February 22, 2007

13. A Writer at War: Vasily Grossman with the Red Army, 1941-1945

Grossman cover picture

Edited and translated by Antony Beevor and Luba Vinogradova

I got this book for xmas. It is the journals of Vasily Grossman, who was one of the major Russian war correspondents in the Russian front during WWII. He wrote a couple of novels, including one about Stalingrad. Riding with the russian army as it entered Poland and Germany, he was also one of the first to see the concentration camps and his writings on that were a significant part of the evidence used at the Nuremburg trials.

Antony Beevor is a well-regarded military historian and his Stalingrad was another book that I really enjoyed. He puts the journals excerpts into context, framing each one with information about the progress of the war, the political context and backgrounds of individuals mentioned. It's just the right amount. The footnotes, especially, are sparse and appropriate. I really hate histories with excessive footnoting. I feel compelled to read them, but they distract from the main narrative. Beevor gets it right here.

The story is just incredible. Stalingrad is an amazing piece of history, but the subsequent German retreat is even more crazy, as captured villages are freed, and the peasants come out from hiding in the forest or households taken over by the nazis tell their stories. When the Russians finally get into Germany, they pick up speed and their revenge is famously fierce. There are roads so deep with german bodies that the tanks just drive on top of them. Grossman was present for all of this and his journals capture more than what he was allowed to write in the official newspapers. He has the perspective of the civilian who has deep respect for the soldier. Because he has lived side by side with them, he also gains their respect and they open up to him more than they normally would.

This book really impacted me for many reasons. It was a reminder of the scale of the Second World War. I know the history, but when you delve back into the details, it is just mind-blowing. It reminds me again of how soft we have become. How minor something like 9/11 is in the world scale of war (obviously not minor to the people directly affected, but no violence is). Just for one example, before the war Warsaw had 1,310,000 people. When the Russians arrived, there were 162,000 living there. 380,000 of the inhabitants were Jews who first held in the Lodz ghetto and then sent to their deaths.

The second thing that blew my mind was Grossman's incredibly detailed and specific recounting of how the extermination worked at Treblinka. I had read his original essay in college "The Hell Called Treblinka" but had forgotten how incredibly powerful it is. I wish this was in the public domain, because I think it should be mandatory reading for all human beings. It goes a long way towards demolishing that myth that humans have some kind of innate moral superiority. The combination of mechanistic efficiency and terror are profoundly frightening. Stayed with me for days.

Finally, the history of that period is so fascinating. It is completely against my nature, but I am growing more and more attracted to Russian stuff, the history, the writers, the culture. Those pretentious kids that decided to be all interested in Russia used to annoy the shit out of me in college, but sort of accidently, through the few Russian books I read and some Russian friends, I am seeing the appeal. Their phlegmatic and tough character is pretty cool and the way it weaves its way through their propaganda, history and politics makes for interesting times.

This was a great book. I strongly recommend it. It reads quickly, is never boring, educational and is a great example of truth being stranger than fiction.

One note, that I had forgotten, and I found very applicable to today, was how the concentration of power made for inept military strategy. Both Stalin and Hitler made absolutely retarded decisions in 1942. Stalin refused to believe the Nazis were actually capable of approaching Russia, despite the warnings of all his top commanders in the field. People were demoted and later sent to gulags for telling him the truth and because he ignored them, the Germans had a much easier time moving on southern Russia. In his turn, Hitler got totally bogged down in Stalingrad, a city that was no longer strategically significant, because he was obsessed with catching it as a prize. The resistance the german soldiers met there (and their unpreparedness for the winter) ultimately caused the turning point in the war, many historians argue. If it wasn't so depressing, it would be funny, how, despite so much historical evidence to the contrary, we still allow our militaries to be directed by our civilian leaders.

Okay, one more thing. Another really amazing moment in this book is when the red army finally arrives in Germany, they are totally blown away by the pristine beauty and wealth of the german villages. The rich, organized farms, the lovely chalets, the stocked larders. Why, if they had all this, did they come to Russia? they constantly ask. A good question.

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