First published fifty years ago, this novel offers a more devastating picture of the physical and psychological toll of ground warfare as any an embedded journalist could offer.
“The Stalin Front” By Gert Ledig. Translated from the German by Michael Hofmann. (New York Review Books)
By Tess Lewis
Gert Ledig’s novel, “The Stalin Front,” is as exquisite and excruciating as one of Hieronymus Bosch’s visions of hell. But while Bosch’s fevered imagination created fantastic mortifications of sinners’ flesh, Ledig merely observed his surroundings. He witnessed some of World War II’s worst carnage, both on the Eastern front where he fought in the Battle of Leningrad in 1942, and on the homefront in Munich where he survived the Allied bombing raids.
Despite its unrelenting horror, “The Stalin Front” was an unexpected commercial success in Germany when it was first published in 1955. The novel’s rawness, its stern moral vision that nonetheless does not apportion specific blame for the War seemed to strike a chord among a populace still numbed by suffering and shame. It was not too threatening for those who had survived the front or for civilians grieving for lost fathers, brothers or sons in Russia to identify with the novel’s simple soldiers, doing their best to survive the hellish machinery of war.
A year later, however, the tide of Ledig’s appeal turned. In 1956, his second novel, “Payback,” an even darker, more cynical portrayal of the war, which chronicles a bombing raid on an unnamed German city, was met with silence in his homeland. Intent on rebuilding their devastated lives in the postwar period, the Germans had few motional reserves and no desire to dredge up painful memories. But there were also external forces preventing open discussion of the recent past. In the mid-1950s, the Germans were, of course, already beset by the question of collective guilt and were unwilling to comment on their own suffering or to revisit the trauma of the Allied bombing raids which left over 600,000 dead and millions homeless.
At the time, some outspoken critics condemned discussions of German victimhood as attempts to relativize the suffering of those killed in the Holocaust. The complications of Cold War politics were an important factor as well, leaving the West Germans unwilling to condemn the Allies and East Germans unable to criticize their “liberators.”
But four decades and two generations later, the taboo has gradually lifted. The rediscovery of Ledig’s novels was in part spurred by the late W. G. Sebald’s controversial lectures in 1997, in which he asked why so few German writers had tried to describe their country’s “utter material and moral devastation” in the immediate postwar years. But a broader reorientation toward the past had already begun. Over the past decade a number of documentaries, films, and books have appeared chronicling the enormous suffering the German population endured in the last years of the War and the immediate postwar period.
Given these circumstances, it is no wonder it has taken so long for Ledig’s powerful books to be translated into English. Still, they haven’t dated: for all our smart weaponry and precision bombs, the brute facts of war have not changed much since Ledig wrote. Today, “The Stalin Front” is a more devastating and as accurate a picture of the physical and psychological toll of ground warfare as any an embedded journalist could offer.
The story opens with a typically grisly scene, narrated in Ledig’s precise deadpan. “The Lance-Corporal couldn’t turn in his grave, because he didn’t have one. Some . . . forty versts south of Leningrad, he had been caught in a salvo of rockets, been thrown up in the air, and with severed hands and head dangling, been impaled on the skeletal branches of what once had been a tree.” The Lance-Corporal’s indignities, however, are far from over. His corpse is decimated in machine gun cross fire, ground into the dirt under the treads of Russian tanks, then pulverized by the cannon fire of a passing fighter plane. “After that, the Lance-Corporal was left in peace.” But there are scores of soldiers, German and Russian, to take his place.
Ledig covers forty-eight hours of a hopeless stalemate between the Russian and German armies battling for possession of one hill and a stretch of swampland. Soldiers and officers are identified almost exclusively by rank, abstract everymen in their despair and cowardice as well as in their bravery. Only occasionally are they identified by name, and then merely in a brief flicker of humanity before death.
The scenes alternate between Russian and German points of view. Neither side is more heroic or moral, nor is their suffering any different. Severed limbs litter the scene. Survivors are surrounded by comrades with disfigured faces or those suffering slow, agonized deaths from intestinal wounds. That Ledig himself lost two fingers and part of his lower jaw, surely intensified his focus on the physicality of battle.
The few acts of heroism in this book are committed by the soldiers, out of reflex rather than conviction, and to doubtful effect. The superior officers and generals are brutal, petty, and morally obtuse. One general, still in his pajamas, flees with his driver after ordering his men to mount a doomed counterattack rather than retreat. A captain orders the execution of a sergeant who had tried to desert even as their encampment is being obliterated by an artillery attack, simply because the sergeant’s death had already been reported to headquarters.
Offsetting the baroque horror in his fiction is Ledig’s acute visual sense, an aestheticism of minutiae, not unlike Bosch’s, in which finely rendered details draw the eye away from the central scene, only to underscore it. On the battlefield a “beetle in shining armor dragged a blade of grass across the path” and “blueish swarms” of mosquitoes teeter “in the air like veils” over the living and the dead. In other scenes, details pile up in anarchic profusion. A corporal scouting dead positions sees “tree stumps like gravestones. A pool of water like an ornamental lake without water lilies. The labyrinthine windings of the trenches. The vegetation like a cemetery wall.”
Ledig’s vision differs radically from Bosch’s in that the suffering he portrays in such lavish detail is not a matter of divine retribution, but the direct result of stupidity, greed, and cowardice. In “The Stalin Front,” God — if he exists at all — simply cannot be bothered to interfere in human affairs.