Gert Ledig: The Stalin Front – Die Stalinorgel (1955) Literature and War Readalong Meets German Literature Month November 2012

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.

Other reviews

Danielle (A Work in Progress)

Lizzy (Lizzy’s Literary Life)

Richard (Caravana de recuerdos)

Rise (in lieu of a field guide) – not part of the readalong per se but worth reading all the same.

*******

The Stalin Front was the eleventh book in the Literature and War Readalong 2012. The next one will be Michael Herr’s Dispatches. Discussion starts on Friday 28 December, 2012.

57 thoughts on “Gert Ledig: The Stalin Front – Die Stalinorgel (1955) Literature and War Readalong Meets German Literature Month November 2012

  1. As I said on Richard’s post, I’ve just had enough WW2 books for now – there are eras I’m much more interested in (for example, the interwar years). Sadly, I think I made the right choice in giving this one a miss…

  2. Books like this are so very important. So many people in modern society (at least in the United States, I am not sure if this is true everywhere) still glorify war and see it as some kind of game. It is amazing how the reality of war is so easily ignored.

    This seems like a book that I should read. I have always had a particular fascination with the Battle of Stalingrad. It would be interesting to read a fictional but realistic seeming account of it.

    • He participated in the battle and that can be felt. This isn’t the imagined account of someone who has never been at war. It’s palpable that he was there. I should have mentioned this. And he writes well. It’s also a short book.
      I’m very interested to find out how others liked it.

  3. Interesting, especially as I am currently reading Vasily Grossman’s novel Life and Fate. It is the story of Stalingrad from the Russian side. Grossman was a Russian war reporter during World War II and he was actually there. Grossman’s book is more of an epic — lots of characters and situations.

  4. Thanks for choosing this book Caroline. It really got under my skin and horrible though the events are I couldn’t put it down. You do come to care about the characters and in my case especially the Runner. I thought it was remarkable that even though he’d fought against them Ledeg was able to portray the Russians as being just like the Germans. I want to read more of his work now.

    • My pleasure, I’m glad you liked it. I had a feeling you would. It’s true I started to care about the characters as well but obviously with so many different characters it’s a bit less intense.
      I had afew favorites, one of the Russian officers, the runner and the major as well.
      Ledig’s integrity is admirbale. If had taken more openly position againts any one he would have been far more successful. I want to read his second most important book Paybeak soon as well.
      I alos liked the prose. It’s unadorned but still artful, just like Rise commented.

  5. Nice review, Caroline! I found it interesting that the author doesn’t give names to his characters and still manages to give individuality to some of the characters. I haven’t read any novel about the eastern front during the second world war. I will look this one up. Thanks for this wonderful review!

    • Thanks, Vishy. i think it is a fascinating book but very graphic. I’m interested to read Payback as that’s about the bombing of the German cities at the end of the war.

  6. Ledig’s “impersonal” approach, as you have put it, Caroline, and the fact that he isn’t manipulative at all, as you have also mentioned, help make this an extremely effective anti-war novel maybe just as much as the barrage of images of dismembered bodies and sudden death and such. However, his medicine is so strong to partake of that I can’t believe he could have hoped for many readers in postwar Germany–would love to find out about how the work fared in sales when it was first published (just out of curiosity). I also found it interesting that he chose to personalize the Russian characters by using their names, a tactic he dispensed with for his own countrymen. An interesting book but still one I’d be somewhat reluctant to recommend–to some readers at least–in a way…

    • I agree, you cannot recommend this to anyone but compared to Ibuse’s Black Rain it was almost an easy read. What he describes is horrible but he doesn’t do it in an invasive way. Not sure that makes sense.

      • I’d have no hesitation recommending this to anyone who’ s thinking of walking into an army recruitment office in response to those join-up-for-an-adventure campaigns. They have to know what they’re really signing up for.

          • Caroline and Lizzy, the characterization of The Stalin Front as an anti-war novel is a characterization I certainly agree with to a large extent. However, given Lizzy’s comment about recommending the novel as an anti-military recruitment aid, I’m curious whether either of you thinks Ledig’s message would have been stronger in this regard if it had been written as a memoir rather than a novel. What do you think?

            • Richard, I don’t think Ledig could have written an autobiography, given the intensity of the passion that lies beneath the story. Fictionalising his own experience must have created the distance necessary to put it coherently on the page.

            • I’m not sure it was about distance. I think he was on a mission and didn’t want this to feel like a purely personal book. I’m also not sure that writing memoirs was as common then as it is now.
              Plus he doesn’t strike me as the kind of writer who wanted his perosn in the spotlight.

              • Thank you both for weighing in on this. With works that seem so strongly autobiographical, I often wonder why an author chooses to go one route (say fiction) vs. another (nonfiction) or vice versa. It was interesting to hear your thoughts about this while the novel’s so fresh in my mind.

          • Would you want to give the novel to, say, a Russian soldier in 1942?

            I wonder if the novel is about something more specific than people are suggesting. Ledig could have picked a different subject than Stalingrad. Say he picked a battle from the invasion of Poland – would the meaning change? War is still hell for the soldiers.

            • If I understand your question correctly, I suspect that the core conflict in the novel and the setting, a battle between Germans and Russians on the Eastern Front, actually had more to do with Ledig’s own experiences and background than anything specific he was trying to say about the particular battle described. Change the hill where the battle took place and set it in another country, for example, and the inferno would still remain the same. Of course, a battle in Poland wouldn’t have carried the same emotional freight for his defeated countrymen of the battle that Ledig described. A complicated question…

                • From a German point of view it certainly has, yes. It was the beginning of the end although they didn’t fully realize it yet. While Poland made them believe everything was feasible.

                  • Tom, what makes answering your question with any certainty more difficult than it might initially seem is that while “the choice still has meaning” for a 1955 German audience as we can all agree, the thrust of the novel (in my reading at least) has to do with the horrors of the battle experience–any battle experience–rather than just this particular battle experience. It’s of course much more vivid because of the experience that Ledig brought to the table and that many in his German audience presumably knew about or shared, but I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it was an anti-German war on the Eastern Front novel more than just an anti-war novel. It’s much more universal in its depiction of the horrors suffered by the common soldier on both sides of the front.

    • Yes, at the time, that’s true, “Payback” didn’t go down well but later, they were both highly criticized and especially the East German critics had a problem with The Stalin Front. International reception was different.

      • Thanks for the links, Tom. From what I’ve scanned of the essay from The Nation, that looks particularly useful as a bibliographical aid so I look forward to finishing it after I get some coffee into my civilian’s body. Of course, “a popular success” is kind of lazy writing without any quantifiable context (what does that mean exactly?) and I’m not all that surprised that the novel would have been more warmly received outside of Germany or Russia–but the proliferation of translations is a good start to understanding what Caroline has mentioned re: the “international reception” anyway.

  7. Excellent review, Caroline. Your description of war is so apt. I’ve read nothing about Stalingrad, but I’m intrigued now. Perhaps after the holidays I’ll give it a try. I wish more books and movies would show people how truly horrible war is.

    • Thanks, Carole. I feel I need to re-emphasize though that it is a very graphic book. But he had to write it like this to make a profound anti-war statement.
      There are always acts of heroism during a war but unfortunetely those are exploited far to often and give such a falsely romantic idea of war.
      I’d be interested to hear what you think of this.

  8. While I was reading your review, I was thinking “this sounds more like a novel about WWI than one about WWII” because of the cold, the battle and the anti-war undertone. And then you mentioned Remarque.

    In France because of the Occupation, we tend to forget that there were battles too, during WWII.

    • I know whyt you mean, yes but there were many awful battles during WWII as well. I just think we think of other aspects more. The Eastern Front was one of the worst. I think it was the worst from the point of view of the Germans and a real punishment for soldiers when they were sent there.

      • This collective “we” refers to the way WWII is taught in school and pictured in French books or movies.

        The battle of Normandy is depicted as the “débarquement”, referred to as the beginning of the Libération and I never suspected how awful it had been before the film Saving Private Ryan.

        We hear about the urban war in Paris in August 1944, the Occupation, the Resistance, how Great-Britain suffered, how America got involved , about the atomic bomb and the destruction of Dresde but not much about the battle fields in Normandy or in Russia or in the Pacific.
        Call it a collective amnesia.

  9. I haven’t read the book but from your review I can say that I would like this book as it doesn’t choose sides. It always annoyed me when a war book depicted one side as evil. I guess that’s why I like Grave of fireflies because it shows h6w war onlly brings misery.
    great review, Caroline

    • Thanks Novia. That’s realy one of the best aspects in this book, the fact that he manages to depcit both sides as equal. There ae more bad officers on the GErman side but we also see many more but othr than that, the individual beings are shown equal. They all suffer, they are all afraid. And it’s well written too.

  10. I couldn’t wait to weigh in on this one, but I was at a soccer tournament. I guess you won’t be surprised that I loved this book. I think it is my favorite of all the readalongs (what does that say about me?) Your review is excellent, Caroline. Let me add a few thoughts.
    1. The opening is a bit bizarre. The description of the death of the Lance Corporal reads like a cartoon. He is blown into a tree, foot shot off, the tree falls, run over by a tank. What is supposed to appall is almost comical. However, although he has a fixation on battle wounds, there are no more over the top descriptions in the book.
    2. There is a great description of an artillery bombardment in Chapter 3.
    3. I loved his similes. “Life lay ahead of her like a grim road leading to a dump”.
    4. There are lots of insect references. It reminded me of Cold Mountain with all the plants.
    5. Good take on military bureaucracy with the Judge Advocate character.
    6. The sympathetic approach to both units on the hill was awesome.
    7. I loved the short, terse sentences. He is a very good writer.
    8. He has realistic soldier talk.
    9. Don’t be a dead body in this book! All sorts of gross things will happen to you. I noticed the grossness lessened as the book moved along.
    10. I understand the use of ranks instead of names, but did not particularly like it.
    11. Favorite line: “On his face the astonishment of those who die without pain.”

    Thank you for choosing this book.

    P.S, As much as I liked it, it is not in a league with “All Quiet…” which is a much more balanced book.

    • I’m not surprised you liked it, I thought you would. I think Remarque is the better story teller but Ledig is the better writer. As a matter of fact I was amazed how good a writer he is. It was really political that he was forgotten and not published anymore. I can’t wait to read Payback but I will not add it to next year’s list. It’s full and I’ll publish it next week.
      The beginning was over the top, I agree but my father told me a similar story about Algeria and it also sounded wildly comical, those who survived – so he says – were lying on the floor laughing their heads off. Hysterical laughter I suppose. In German this beginning reads almost satirical. I’m glad though, the descriptions were a bit more emotional later on.
      I thought the similes were very well handled indeed.
      All in all it was a positive surprsie, much better than I thought. I said that there was no hope in this book, no hero, but it’s not true. It’s in the writing and the way he described both parties as equals. And that from someone who was there.
      Still, I was glad it wasn’t longer. It was bleak.

  11. My edition has an introduction by the translator Michael Hoffmann. He describes The Stalin Organ as ‘a sort of riposte to Ernst Junger whose 1920 book, Storm of Steel glorified the violence of World War One… Having… translated both books in the space of little over a year, it wasn’t my fault if I sometimes didn’t know where I was…. Ledeg’s account of warfare – most unlike Junger’s – sticks rigorously and programmatically to its ‘low’ discreditable aspects’.

    He goes on to say that having been an initial sucess the book disappeared and Ledeg disappeared but by the time he died in 1999 he knew there was a Ledeg revivial on the way but he didn’t live to see any of his books in print again.

    • I had chosen Jünger at first but he is a very controversial writer. I’ve read a lot of his books and I think it was too long.
      I could imagine that it would take it’s toll being this close in two texts like this.
      No, sadly Ledig, didn’t see any of the later rehabilitation.

  12. I’m reading the book now in earnest (got caught up in other things and didn’t want to try and rush this one). I agree that it is much ‘easier’ to read than I anticipated but it is very graphic visually. It feels surreal really and is hard to imagine that anyone lived through something like this. It’s much more powerful keeping the people at arm’s length I think rather than getting too bogged down in the sentimental. Since you compare it so strongly to the Remarque I really do need to get around to reading him as well.

    • I’m very interested to hear what you will think of it. I think what you refer to as being surreal is what Kevin called comical. It’s the absurdity of battles, i think. It’s so awful and so hard to grasp that it starts to look like a farce.
      All quiet on the Western Front is much more emotional and I remember reading it was a huge blow. It took me days to recover. While The Stalin Front is graphic and there is no doubt about the fact it is very anti-war, it’s not as shattering as the Remarque.

        • I think it was one of the first war books I ever read, that might be one of the reasons why it shattered me like this. On the other hand I find Remarque is a very sensitive writer and we come to like his characters. I liked the voice very much and to read about the main character’s experiences was really harrowing. Not much of a Christmas read. I also find the battle accounts of WWI are usually much harder to take.

    • It really is, it’s right up there with All Quiet on the Western Front, a bit colder, a bit more distant but as powerful. And, as Emma has correctly commented, it’s unususal to read this type of story, like this for WWII.

  13. Pingback: German Literature Month 2012: Author Index « Lizzy’s Literary Life

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