Monday, October 10, 2011

Life and Fate: How was this possible?

How was this possible? The Germans knew about these troop movements. It would have been no more possible to hide them than to hide the wind from a man walking through the steppe.

Any German lieutenant, looking at a map with approximate positions for the main concentrations of Russian forces, could have guessed the most important of all Soviet military secrets, a secret known only to Stalin, Zhukov and Vasilevsky. How was it then that the Germans were taken by surprise, lieutenants and field marshals alike?

Stalingrad itself had continued to hold out. For all the vast forces involved, the German attacks had still not led to a decisive victory. Some of the Russian regiments now only numbered a few dozen soldiers; it was these few men, bearing all the weight of the terrible fighting, who confused the calculations of the Germans.

The Germans were simply unable to believe that all their attacks were being borne by a handful of men. They thought the Soviet reserves were being brought up in order to reinforce the defence. The true strategists of the Soviet offensive were the soldiers with their backs to the Volga who fought off Paulus’s divisions.

The remorseless cunning of History, however, lay still more deeply hidden. Freedom engendered the Russian victory. Freedom was the apparent aim of the war. But the sly fingers of History changed this: freedom became simply a way of waging the war, a means to an end.

- Life and Fate, Vasily Grossman, translation by Robert Chandler (New York Review Books), page 488.

Grossman uses the example of the Soviet soldiers in House 6/1 as an example of both the freedom and the fanaticism necessary for the successful defense of Stalingrad. The men (and woman), temporarily exempt from Party oversight, experience an unexpected freedom because of their situation. Commissar Krymov’s appearance threatens that freedom in ways the men could intuit but couldn't fully understand because of the second requirement—fanaticism. This isn't a fanaticism for state or ideology, but the flip side of freedom and part of man’s nature. The soldiers in House 6/1 were fighting as much for the love of fighting, of killing as many Germans as they could, as they were in conscious defense of their country.

I highly recommend this tribute to Grossman I included in my links post because the speakers address the defense of Stalingrad and the use of the word “freedom” in his novel. Grossman uses the word often and the speakers highlight the many meanings he layers into the word (similar to several levels of meaning for “fate” I’ve looked at in some posts).

Ikonnikov, the holy fool, wrote “Kindness is powerful only when it is powerless”, extolling kindness for its own sake. In his view, ideologies, no matter how well intentioned, would use and pervert kindness to advance their goals. Grossman, by extension, believes that man increases in power when what he has to lose decreases. The opening quote is sly in its juxtaposition: History did not change the aim of the war but only unveiled what was there all along. Just like the German’s unwillingness to see the Soviet troop build-up as a new offensive, people refused to recognize that the shackles they wore were little different from their enemy. Grossman focuses on the equivalence between Fascism and Communism, not in their methods but in their outcome. The stripping of freedom for others' aims strangles man’s capabilities, which Grossman highlights in his paean to the short-lived moment when ideology was muted:

Every epoch has its own capital city, a city that embodies its will and soul. For several months of the Second World War this city was Stalingrad. The thoughts and passions of humanity were centered on Stalingrad. Factories and printing presses functioned for the sake of Stalingrad. Parliamentary leaders rose to their feet to speak of Stalingrad. But when thousands of people poured in from the steppes to fill the empty streets, when the first car engines started up, this world capital ceased to exist.

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