Enemy at the Gates, a 1973 book by William Craig, is the story of the battle of Stalingrad, the bloodiest conflict in human history. I have searched high and low for a readable book about this battle, and, while it’s still dense in places, this book comes closest to describing the cost of the battle in human terms.
First off, it’s necessary to distinguish this book from the movie of the same name, starring Ed Harris. While the story of the dueling snipers is told in the book, it only comprises a few pages. The sprawling book is about much more, from the plans of the generals to the fuming of Hitler to the freezing nights the soldiers on both sides faced as they prepared for another dawn blood bath.
Like no other book I’ve read, Enemy at the Gates brings Stalingrad to life, from the first tanks rolling into the city in August, 1943 to the last German prisoner being herded off to Siberia the following March. Some estimates put the number of casualties at two million. That’s almost beyond comprehension. But somehow, William Craig puts a human face on the battle, and makes the monstrous Germans and blood-thirsty Communists human. It’s not often achieved in a war story.
Enemy at the Gates traces the history of the German Sixth Army, the first to invade the city and, at the last, abandoned and destroyed. It explains how, through hubris and miscalculation, the Germans blew several opportunities to defeat their adversaries, and, later, ignored several opportunities to escape. And, make no mistake, Stalingrad was a death trap. German soldiers hid out in cellars, and were slaughtered when the Russians invaded their cubbyholes. Buildings collapsed. Rats and lice chewed away on living soldiers.
It’s difficult reading, for a couple of reasons. It’s a bit hard to understand the military maneuvers. What’s clear is that the German’s blew it. And sometimes, it’s necessary just to put the book down and start again a few hours later. Craig interviewed hundreds of survivors who were still alive at the time the book was written. Most put a positive spin on their lives, glad to have survived what must have been the test of a lifetime.
Craig has been criticized for putting too much emphasis on the humanity of the German soldiers. If he had not, it would have been impossible to tell the tale in the fashion he did. The book includes the letters of numerous German soldiers who perished at the front. The letters are written mostly to their wives and parents, and are, for the most part, full of the knowledge that they are about to perish where they are. I’m not sure you could call it touching, but it highlights the human condition in warfare.
What remains after the long slog through Enemy at the Gates is Hitler’s attitude: he did not care much about his soldiers, and sacrificed an entire army to make a point — that it would strengthen other soldiers elsewhere. Really? At any rate, the battle turned the tide of the war, and paved the way for the Russians to become a superpower, all because of their mere doggedness.
It’s a recommended book.