Duty, courage, fear and bravery are words known by soldiers in battle. In World War II, Americans joined the fight against Hitler and his cruel regime. These soldiers, when face to face with the highly organized, technologically efficient enemy, learned the meanings of other words—brutality and wastefulness.
This is my review of Christoph Fromm’s book, Stalingrad—The Loneliest Death, about the battle of Stalingrad in World War II, told from the point of view of German soldiers.
This powerful story rips the façade of honor and glory from war while meticulously exposing its true nature. Fromm’s book is a no-holds-barred dissection of the machinations of megalomaniacs, the complicity of ordinary citizens, the myths of war, and the lies we hold dear at a terrible cost.
In the beginning, the young German Leutnant Hans von Wetzland and his small band of soldiers believe this attack will follow the time-honored rules of warfare. Very soon, though, they discover that atrocities are being committed against Russians, including civilians. Because the Germans have committed these atrocities, they’ve destroyed any expectation of being treated humanely by the Russians, who respond with equal savagery. As the grim reality of Stalingrad sinks in, the soldiers find any advances or moments of peace are quickly followed by brutal retaliation or fatal mistakes by their own side.
Fromm vividly depicts the moral challenges each soldier in this group faces. He also shows that people with greedy and evil, as well as those with generous and good intent and actions, meet similar fates in the hell of war. Having human feelings can lead to fatal results, but also offer the only way out, although it’s a slim chance of survival. The images of freezing weather, hunger, illness, small acts of kindness, egregious acts of evil, hand-to-hand combat, and the senselessness of it all, are told from multiple points of view within this group, and are unforgettable.
While describing the horrors of war, Fromm delivers much beautiful and effective writing: “Shells and bullets tore to shreds not only the body, but the senses and the spirit, too.” And: “Figures swayed in the glow, as if in slow motion, as if some sadistic deity were holding back the passage of time for his own pleasure.” And: “Everyone had their own way of weeping.” There is also humor, bitter and obstinately humane. These far outweigh repetitious descriptions and unlikely chance meetings, as well as occasional grammatical errors.
After months of struggle against lack of food, clothing, and shelter, and merciless slaughter on both sides, the soldiers begin to realize things have gone terribly wrong. They discover officers who are corrupt, selfishly pragmatic, or incompetent. Their previously held beliefs break down beneath the weight of betrayal and unbridled brutality. A turning point comes with the realization they have been abandoned by Hitler. As an army in defeat, they are to expect no support from their leader. Instead, they are being sent to their deaths.
One soldier, Gross, who is attuned to the irony of the situation, says, “You thought Hitler was clearing out just Jews and Bolsheviks? Wrong. The Führer does the whole job. Now it’s the German soldier’s turn, and next it’s the German people!”
When the soldiers comprehend that all is lost, they rebel, and try to survive as best they can. Some rant about Hitler and the generals. Others realize they have been duped by propaganda. But many knew full well what they were going along with. Some are disgusted by their Hauptmann who still believes in the myths of war, or chooses to do so in order to salvage some sense of meaning. Young von Wetzland mutters, “It’s all been a lie.” All “his life it was untruths he had loved, and the more he knew them to be untruths, the more he loved them; and he loved them with a lust that could not be satisfied…” One by one each soldier reaches his breaking point.
As Fromm writes, “The calculations came in hundreds, thousands, the noughts multiplying; the horror of the death count would stretch the ability of those left behind to imagine and to feel pity, would stretch them to destruction as had the shells the bodies. How could anyone determine the fitting degree of mourning for more than a million dead, men who had perished for just one ruined city, when the ordeal for just one man alone was impossible to measure?”
This is war without mercy or honor, where courage, sacrifice, and morality count for nothing, as every action fails to improve the situation, leads to more destruction, and finally, loss of hope. In short, this is warfare on a grand scale which exposes its inanity. Anyone who is concerned with the survival of humanity as we glide into the future—whether unheedful or willingly supportive of the real motivations and consequences of war—should read this book.
I received a copy of this book from the author. This is a voluntary review. While I’m not an avid reader of war novels, I am interested in the causes and outcomes of World War II, which I think are still relevant today.
The title in Hungarian is Tövispuszta, the name of a fictional village near Budapest. The descriptions of what happened to people living under fascism and then Soviet communism are stark and illuminating. It’s a cautionary tale as we move into the 21st Century with its manifestations of a dystopian world.
This book is much more than a history lesson. It’s a story of how our allegiances and alliances, set against our grounding in what we experience in daily reality, including personal relationships and sense of community, plays out in modern times. This is the story of three boys, Pál, István, and Dávid, as they grow to adulthood and old age. Each one comes from a different social and economic background, and has beliefs formed by experience in their particular families as well as in the village. In each life humor and love occur along with hints of madness and sorrow. They are swept up in the turbulent socio-economic and political changes of the early and mid-20th century. They have to make decisions they determine best for them, their families, their country, and ultimately what they hope is on the side of the greater good. Each one has a moral and ethical sense, which tempered or informed by a survival instinct, is at the heart of their major decisions. And sometimes they make choices that put their freedom and their lives in danger. At the same time these exact same choices are necessary to give them a chance to survive, with or without integrity.
Several women play large and equally interesting roles. Elza is adopted by a Jewish family after found wandering in Budapest and taken to their home in Tövispuszta. She is passionate and independent. Then there is Lucky Gizi, another wonderful character, steadfast and resourceful. She is both lucky, and unlucky, to be married to István’s father. These and other female characters give the story much greater depth.
Kepes takes the characters through the decades of change. World War I “had left people hungry, defeat had left them bitter, and the disintegration of Hungary had humiliated them.” Word of worker and peasant power came with soldiers returning from the Russian front. Inequality between the landed gentry and peasant farmers threatened to blow up into armed conflict. By the 1930s, with Russian communism on one side, and German fascism on the other, Hungarians struggled with a choice of futures. By allying with Germany, some Hungarians believed their country could take back territories ceded to Czechoslovakia after World War 1. Other Hungarians were attracted to communism as a hoped-for improved form of socio-political arrangement. People in the small village took different sides. Some simply tried to survive. Kepes makes it clear that no one—the educated or uneducated, idealistic or pragmatic, rich or poor—escaped harm in the ensuing conflicts.
Another current was anti-Semitism. The Jewish people were blamed by the Nazis for tainting the strong native character of Europeans. Even though, as the author shows with ironic amusement, Hungarian families had tangled ethnic and racial roots, this prejudice became part of the nationalistic movement. The mass killing and deportation of Jews is told in the context of the characters’ lives in chilling detail.
The book has its flaws, but it shines in those episodes where the personal stories take center stage. Some of the most moving stories are about the Jewish family in Tövispuszta. The father’s abiding faith in human compassion is powerful. Although it doesn’t save his life, he faces reality with courage and makes his life positive, so much so that one of the boys, now a young man, is moved to punish his killers and publicly honor his memory. There’s a twist at the end in the tale of one of the other boys, in which his choices are re-evaluated by his family and country, but I don’t want to give too much of the story away.
The Germans and the Hungarian Arrow-Cross were brutal, but the Soviet-backed communist leaders practiced a pervasive and corrosive control of people’s lives. People were imprisoned and tortured for having said the wrong thing or spoken to the wrong person. Then years later they were released and re-instated to their jobs and position, only to have it later taken away again. Under both systems, children were removed from families, names were changed. No one was safe. Personal control and responsibility, and the sense of community, were under siege. Who could be trusted?
While I was reading I wondered at the concerns of George Orwell, Aldous Huxley, and Hannah Arendt. Can evil be institutionalized and made the norm? Apparently it can, to a certain degree and only with popular complicity, for months, even years. Even then its destructiveness is terrifying, though it must be endured as part of the daily reality. Anyone who has experienced brutality knows it’s not banal. Then, sometimes sporadically at first, but always eventually, evil breaks out of efforts to contain and distribute it. But in those moments when it terrifies most, it begins to lose its power. To read this book is to remember those who have gone before in this struggle, and to see how they responded. While cruelty and oppression have often won the day, we can also see the perseverance of people toward what Sartre said is the most fundamental aspect of being human: freedom.