Today, we wonder how to tell of history. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.
The other day I saw the movie Enemy at the Gates -- about the Battle of Stalingrad. Stalingrad had been a real presence in my childhood. I was eleven when the seemingly unstoppable German Wehrmacht rolled over western Russia and then struck off to the southeast and the oil fields north of the Caucasus Mountains. It seemed only a matter of time before we too fell to the Axis powers.
When Germany reached the city of Stalingrad, the world watched for five months while the Soviet Union did the impossible and stopped the juggernaut. The Battle of Stalingrad was the worst single battle in human history. The better part of two million people died there. Many of those deaths occurred in doorway-to-doorway combat among the ruined buildings of the city. The movie spins a yarn about five characters -- three snipers, a boy who spied on the Germans, and a Russian information officer.
After the movie, I read the book that'd given the movie its title -- historian William Craig's masterful account of the battle. The movie characters are all there, but separately and briefly. The movie is fiction, solidly founded on reality. It all occurred, but in different conjunctions. And I'm left wondering how to tell history -- how to tell of the most brutal event in human history.
The book follows many threads of personal narrative, both Russian and German. The horrors of the event form into a kaleidoscopic view -- one we should have in mind whenever we speak of surgical strikes and quick victories. For this was to have been Germany's surgical strike -- her quick march to victory.
Perhaps the movie fails in that aspect of story-telling. We begin in realism -- surrounded by senseless death, brutality, and confusion. But as we focus on five people and individual heroism, we're distracted from the utter mindlessness of war on this scale.
After the book, after the movie, I found my own indicator of the immensity of it all. A colleague of mine was a toddler when the Germans came through his town of Kletskaya, seventy miles northwest of Stalingrad. His father joined the army and died of wounds afterward. His mother took him into hiding. As a boy, he played with friends on the now-quiet battlefield all around him.
"Everywhere in my childhood I saw abandoned iron," he said. "We kids would reassemble field artillery. We dug up still-live ammunition. When we played soldier, we shot live rounds. We dismantled cartridges to sell the lead, brass and powder. Every year, two or three of my classmates were killed by old land mines."
It troubles me that destruction can occur on such a scale. I keep hearing Mathew Arnold's lines from Dover Beach:
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
And I wonder, more than ever, what language might ever serve to make us know what a terrible thing war becomes.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.
Craig, W., Enemy at the Gates. New York: Penguin, 1973/2001.
I am grateful to Dr. Valery Zimin, UH Turbulence Laboratory, for his powerful personal account of the aftermath of the Battle of Stalingrad.
Photo by Russian war correspondent Georgi Zelma shows fighting in the rubble of bombed out Stalingrad.
(See http://www.stalingrad.com.ru/history/history.htm for more pictures)