Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 13, 2012

Stalingrad (1999), by Antony Beevor

The trouble with reading Antony Beevor’s Stalingrad is that after a while, you can’t help but become overwhelmed by the human misery of it. There is just so much of it, atrocity piled on atrocity, gruesome details of death and destruction,  massacres of POWs, civilians and soldiers alike dying slowly of wounds, starvation and the cold.  Carnage beyond belief, fuelled by the obsessions of political leaders who thought themselves military tacticians.

We didn’t visit Stalingrad on our recent trip to Russia, but we learned from our tour guides how the epic battle that took place there in 1942 is seared into the Russian collective memory.  For Russians, the German defeat on the Eastern Front is the defining moment of the war, not D-Day on the Western Front in 1944.  It was the first time the Germans had been halted in their march across Europe and it paved the way for the return of occupied Soviet territory and the eventual triumph at Berlin.

The ferocity of the clash between the Soviets defending their iconic city and the Germans determined to take it at any cost is beyond imagination.  Beever’s calm retelling, plotting the military tactics of various military units while also detailing the human cost begins to blur after a while, overwhelmed for me  by what I saw and heard in Russia: the genuinely melancholy voice of our tour guide explaining that Russia lost 27 million people in World War II – more than the entire population of Australia;  the sculptures at the war memorial in St Petersburg; and the photo displays in museums, of the destruction caused by the scorched earth tactics in this theatre of World War II.

I finished it, but military history books are not for me.

Others felt the same way, so it’s not just me: see also reviews by A Boy and His Books and BlogCritics.

Author: Antony Beevor
Title: Stalingrad
Publisher: Penguin, 1999
ISBN: 9780140249859
Source: The Spouse’s Personal Library (yes, we share!)

Fishpond: Stalingrad


  1. I read Stalingrad many years ago and really really enjoyed it. I’m not big on military history either but for some reason Beevor hit me just right. The sheer stubborn stupidity of both Hitler and Stalin was mind-boggling. I understand that Stalingrad is why the Russians still love Stalin – for him to have got a country from the famine of 1932 and zero military strength to stopping Hitler in under a decade is almost miraculous.


    • Hello Becky, thanks for stopping by, it’s good to see you here:)
      You’re right about sheer stubborn stupidity of Hitler and Stalin, but there was also plenty of stupidity from those who kowtowed to them. I don’t think I will ever understand how these two monsters managed to mesmerise everyone around them into craven obedience.
      But I don’t think you’re right about Russians still loving Stalin: there are some in Russia who are nostalgic for the security of living standards under ‘Soviet Times’ (according to our tour guide mostly older people who haven’t coped well with the transition to a capitalist economy) but that doesn’t mean Stalinism, and anyway they were defeated in the elections. Khrushchev denounced him and the associated ‘cult of Stalin’ in 1956 though this was not made public in the USSR till 1988 (see and there would be few Stalinists around to defend him now that his atrocities are widely known. Any status he has as a ‘war hero’ is not like Winston Churchill’s, I think it’s more like Beevor’s attitude, admiring his tenacity and determination and proud of his having reversed Hitler’s advance but appalled by the unnecessary and wicked human cost of it: the way he used civilians mercilessly, the way he continued the murderous repression of countless numbers of his own people suspected of dissent or defeatism and had them arbitrarily shot, and the way he was responsible for the unnecessary deaths of thousands of his own people because he wouldn’t let civilians evacuate and because he was ultimately responsible for the failure to provision both the military and the civilians with food, fuel and winter clothing. There are still statues of Lenin around but not Stalin, and they have renamed the city Volgograd.
      As a tourist I can’t make any claim to generalise, but I got the impression from the four tour guides we had that there is a dignfied reticence about ‘Soviet Times’ because it’s a painful, conflcted period of their history that they are still coming to terms with. Somehow they have to reconcile the great achievements of this period (defeating Hitler, Sputnik, being a nuclear superpower) with the human cost that still scars even young people.
      But they do like Stalin’s architecture: we were told that the most favoured apartments are those built under his regime: they are bigger and generally better quality than those built later and they are highly prized!


  2. I ve not read this but would suggest the German film of the same title from a few years ago that follows a group of German soldiers from italy to the siege of stalingrad a very powerful film ,all the best stu


    • I don’t think I could bear to watch it, Stu. Saving Private Ryan was the last war movie I saw and I thought that opening scene was too gruesome to watch.


  3. I’ve never read any Beevor but I know my Dad has, and he’s the favourite author of a friend’s husband too. Military history aficionados both … I’d be interested to read this book but in terms of priorities it would be low so I probably never will.

    You do read war novels though don’t you? Like Malouf’s Fly away Peter? And Zusak’s The book thief? I tend to like war stories – if “like” is the right word because they provide a great setting for teasing out the best and worst – as well as the ordinariness – of people.


    • Oh yes, novels are a different matter. I’ve read both of those too, but my all time favourite would probably be All Quiet on the Western Front. A slim book, compared to Stalingrad, but weightier IMO in terms of its impact.
      WW2 is one war that I think was not futile, and probably not preventable except by ordinary Germans themselves in the way of an Arab Spring. The war was justifiable because facism had to be stopped, and stopped within Europe. Imagine if all of Europe and Britain had fallen and Germany had control of all those colonial possessions in Africa and Asia and South America and was in league with Japan) and the only great power left standing was the US? The human cost of preventing that has to be borne.
      But there were unnecessary human costs on both sides at Stalingrad. I wonder if anyone has ever written a novel about it. Such a novel could not have been published in Soviet Times, but it’s not too late for it now.


      • Yes, I was wondering as I wrote my reply about novels about Stalingrad.

        And I agree with you re WW2. Everytime I say I’m a pacifist I think, hmmm, WW2. Was there any other answer? Im still a pacifist but a realistic one.


        • Oh, doh, I am such a fool, of course there is a novel about Stalingrad, I read and reviewed it just before I left: Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman. And yes, of course it was banned in the USSR. (I’m going to blame jetlag for this memory lapse).


          • Haha, the older we get the longer jetlag lasts I reckon!


            • I dragged myself away from Gerald Murnane’s oh-so-wonderful! Tamarisk Row yesterday and spent most of the day outside in the garden teaching my body-clock about daylight hours. So I got five hours sleep instead of two…


              • Good for you … Not back at work yet?


                • Not yet, thank goodness!


  4. I am a great fan of Beevor’s work and rate this book very highly indeed. Why people bother with the fantasy genre I don’t understand when real life has generated such incredible history. Thank you for your review which has reminded me of this great tome!


    • Thanks Tom – I’m not fond of fantasy either:)
      (Unless you count Lord of the Rings but I thnk that is an allegory anyway).


  5. […] moved by it.  As I explained to Randal, I’d also read Antony Beevor’s military history Stalingrad but that just overwhelmed me with the human misery of […]


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