Enemy at the Gates

Just finished reading Enemy at the Gates, by William Craig. It’s about the World War II battle for Stalingrad (also made into a recent film, loosely-related, film). I seem to be enjoying grim histories at the moment, having recently finished the equally grim The Earth Shall Weep, about Native American history.

The battle was one of the bloodiest of the entire WWII, with around 2 million lives lost, thousands upon thousands dying in vicious street fighting, going from one building to another. The flagship German army, the 6th Army, was cut off, and in a series of military blunders (many made by Hitler), left to die in the city instead of breaking out to rejoin the supply lines. It’s well-written, and if you’re the slightest bit interested in that part of history, it’s a must-read.

I know the history fairly well. I used to play wargames a few years ago, all-weekend affairs poring over a board moving little pieces around. I was usually pretty good at them, but one I mostly lost, and therefore is all-too embedded in my memory, was called Clash of Steel, about the German invasion of the Soviet Union. The 6th army was one of the most powerful pieces in the game, and its demise usually precipitated my demise as the German player.

The army consisted of 250 000 men. The army fought its way into Stalingrad in August 1942, and until then the Germans had not really tasted defeat – Soviet morale was at its lowest, the Germans assumed the war would be over by the end of the year. With Stalingrad conquered and the Volga crossed, the Germans could sweep down towards both Moscow, and the oil-rich lands to the South, cutting the heart out of Soviet industry.

Instead, the army got caught up in vicious street fighting, and was eventually cut off. Instead of prudently fighting back to rejoin their supply-lines, Hitler in his arrogance assumed that the Germans would soon break through, and ordered them to stay put. Surrounded, and with supplies, dwindling, the army suffered horrendous losses, and by the time they surrendered only about 100 000 remained. Of those, only 5000 returned from Soviet captivity.

The story is well told, with hundreds of individual accounts from both sides, horrific stories of war, a baby held by its legs and arms and being torn apart, men shooting themselves in the stomach in order to be hospitalised and sent back home, doctors cutting off frostbitten, gangrenous legs with scissors.

One part that struck me was the letters the trapped soldiers wrote back home, and how the tone changed as time wore on, and they became aware of their abandonment. I remember a comment Walton made when he said that he thinks things are getting better, citing as evidence the fact that before World War I, millions went onto the streets to demonstrate for war, while for the recent Iraq invasion millions demonstrated against war.

Perhaps the attitude of soldiers can be used as evidence too. In Stalingrad, so many of the soldiers showed blind faith to Hitler, assuming that he would make the right decisions and rescue them, that their victory was inevitable. So many on both sides did not question the morality of killing their enemies, did not even consider the question, so brainwashed were they into blind obedience.

While all armies today still practice the same techniques, breaking the individual down, turning them into an unthinking killing machine, I wonder if there hasn’t been some progress. War is a terrible beast, and exposure to the horrors can desensitise anyone. The Soviet Union top brass created set of guidelines for the humane treatment of prisoners, but these were almost completely ignored by the traumatised soldiers and officers on the ground, powerless to deal with the horrors they’d seen, and attempting to claim some power back by the cold-blooded killing, torture and mistreatment of their prisoners. I’m struck too by voices of wisdom from within the chaos. A German soldier with a gun pointed at his head, having just seen his colleague shot at point-blank range, is spared when a Russian tells his colleage ‘Comrade Stalin will not like that’, perhaps the only way to stop the action.

So how much have things changed? In Ethiopia, citizens recently marched against the peace treaty with Eritrea, seeing it as a slight against their national pride. And today’s wars are still terrible, prisoners being beheaded, abused, civilians caught in the crossfire, and targeted, mere ‘collateral damage’.

The technologies have changed, the influence of the press is greater, the political systems more robust. But I’m still unsure. I like to think things are better. I live in South Africa after all, where in my lifetime things are hugely better than they were. There’s been nothing like the destruction in Stalingrad since, but humanity seems to keep trying to repeat its mistakes, taking steps both back and forward. Europe is undoubtedly a better place now than 60 years ago, but will we say the same in another 60 years?


  1. This book sounds amazing, and I’d love to read it. I also like your books page. However, I think it would be more interesting if there was some kind of comment space, where clicking on a book title would take you to a page where anyone who’d read the book could comment or make recommendations.

  2. I agree, comments would be useful. I have my own comments captured in the database, but some of them are a bit silly for publication 🙂 I’ve been thinking of linking to Amazon’s comments, but that’s quite a lot of work, and I’d also prefer to link to a Free comment repository rather than simply support Amazon’s business.

Comments are closed.