Monday, 3 July 2017

Survivors of Stalingrad: Eyewitness Accounts from the Sixth Army, 1942-1943 - edited by Reinhold Busch

This review has been submitted to the British Army Review

Title: Survivors of Stalingrad: Eyewitness Accounts from the Sixth Army, 1942-1943
Author: edited by Reinhold Busch
ISBN: 978-1-84832-766-2
Publisher: Casemate
Year: 2016
Pages: 264
Photos/ Maps: 38/4

The Eastern Front campaign was fought by both sides with a ruthlessness and brutality seldom seen in what is recognized as a modern conflict. Perhaps by virtue of its scale, certain events and battles have come to be seen as ‘key’ and ‘turning points’. Names such as Kursk, Moscow, Leningrad and of course Stalingrad have become synonymous with callousness, endurance, heroism and loss. Such was the calamity of the Eastern Front campaign both physically and psychologically that it is difficult for the reader of today to fully appreciate the extent and nature of the struggle without the benefit of having experienced it. Many of the survivors of this conflict were reluctant to share their experiences outside of the closed circle of comrades with whom they shared this bitter cup. Busch, while undertaking research on the medical system of the Wehrmacht was able to come across a number of these survivors and to gather their experiences almost by accident. The stories draw forth a spectrum of emotions in the reader, made all the more poignant by what is not said.

The recollections are raw but not self-pitying or melancholic. There is a recognition of their good fortune at surviving but no glorification of the event. In many cases the stories are almost too matter of fact. Perhaps the passage of time has provided for a more nuanced perspective; with the shock and horror diminished but not forgotten. It is clear that the men writing these renditions do not see themselves a special, merely lucky to have survived. It is important to note that the recollections are not exclusively from those who escaped from the pocket but also those who survived not only the Battle itself, but also years of brutal imprisonment that followed.

The author provides an introduction and background about how the project came about and then the rest of the book is given over to the stories themselves. Each chapter is a standalone recollection by the writer. Thus the book may be read in stages without losing any of its flow or impact. It is both humbling and fascinating to read of the different experiences. Where possible, the author has provided a picture of the soldier thereby adding a ‘face to the name’. What is particularly noteworthy are the efforts many of these men made to rejoin their units inside the Stalingrad pocket despite being on leave or somehow outside of the ring. This dedication to duty and comrades underscores the level of unit cohesion and morale typical of the German army of the period.

This is a book that sheds light upon the best and worst of the human condition. It stands as testament to the baseness of mankind as well as the astonishing levels to which it may rise; both its greatest strength and its limitation. Busch’s book is disturbing and thought provoking and is a memorial to those who sacrificed for their country and their comrades.         

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