The Stalin Front is one of the most unsparingly honest accounts of the Eastern Front. It’s accurate and graphic in its depiction of the horrors of the battle field. The wounds, the cold, the fear and the utter uselessness of it all is captured in spare prose. It’s hard to find another novel which is as explicitly anti-war as this book. Interestingly it is exactly this unpolitical but strong anti-war statement for which Ledig would be criticized later. In his book there are no beastly Nazis or inhuman Russians, but living, breathing, suffering humans, some German, some Russian. At the end of the day, it’s not important. What is important is to show that war is awful, that it saves nobody, literally rips apart the “good” and the “bad” alike and turns each party into a suffering mess.
Ledig chose a rather impersonal way to tell his story. Most of the people in this novel have no name – with the exception of the Russian officers – but are introduced with their ranks. This makes it easier to follow them and also helps to keep the story at arm’s length at first. Later in the story, with little remarks here and there, which reveal the men’s unique stories and characters, we start to see them not only as ranks but as individuals. There is for example the Major whose every hope is crushed when he is informed that his wife and only child have died.
The central story, set during two days, somewhere near Stalingrad, focuses on the defense of a hill. This is a totally futile and senseless thing to do. The Germans can’t keep the hill, their lines have been broken through by the Russian tanks but the orders are clear; they have to stay. The losses on both sides are equally heavy, morales are low everywhere.
I was afraid The Stalin Front would be hard to read but it wasn’t. It was a surprisingly quick read and although it is very graphic it was bearable because Ledig isn’t a manipulative writer. It’s much more as if he had painted with words and I was often reminded of the work of Anselm Kiefer.
Ledig’s book was successful when it came out but soon forgotten because it was considered too dark, too bleak. There is no hope in this book, no heroic figures, there isn’t even right or wrong, just suffering and futility. The absurdity is underlined by small things. Seeing the tanks approach and knowing there would be certain death, many of the men try to escape. Some cross the line and flee to the Russians, others desert or simply look for an outpost which is farther away from the front line. Doing this without explicit order is like deserting. Although everything collapses, the hill is lost, most of the men will die, the high command gives stupid orders like fighting to the last moment and has people who try to save their lives courtmartialled.
The Stalin Front has been compared to All Quiet on the Western Front and I agree, it is equally good but even less sentimental as Ledig chose to have more than a handful of main characters and did not just focus on one person. This makes identification more difficult but I was glad for that. It may sound weird but I really liked this book. I think it’s important and should be much more widely read. No matter what reasons contribute to starting it, ultimately, war is ugly for all the parties involved. The Stalin Front exemplifies this eloquently and forcefully.
Rise (in lieu of a field guide) - not part of the readalong per se but worth reading all the same.