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Always Time to Kill

Stalingrad: The Fateful Siege, 1942-1943

by Antony Beevor
Penguin, 494 pp., $16.95 (paper)

Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland

by Christopher R. Browning
HarperPerennial, 271 pp., $13.00 (paper)

An Intimate History of Killing: Face-to-Face Killing in Twentieth-Century Warfare

by Joanna Bourke
Basic Books, 509 pp., $30.00

The Sorrow of War: A Novel of North Vietnam

by Bao Ninh
Riverhead, 233 pp., $12.00 (paper)

Hitler, 1889-1936: Hubris

by Ian Kershaw
Norton, 845 pp., $35.00

The Iliad

by Homer, translated by Robert Fagles
Penguin, 702 pp., $15.95 (paper)

The First World War

by John Keegan
Knopf, 475 pp., $35.00

The Pity of War

by Niall Ferguson
Basic Books, 563 pp., $30.00

1.

The most arresting detail in Antony Beevor’s anecdotal history of the great Soviet victory at Stalingrad is a propaganda photograph taken in 1942 of a dozen or so German soldiers marching three abreast, heading east, squinting into the July sun. On this fine morning the young warriors are on their way to Stalingrad, where they will destroy its factories and homes and murder its inhabitants, people who have done them no harm and whose names they don’t know and never will. If it worries them that many more than a million German troops have become casualties since Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union thirteen months previously or if they care or even know that in October their comrades murdered 33,000 Jews at Babi Yar near Kiev and are at this very moment murdering millions more in Poland, their boyish faces don’t show it.

They have been told that they are members of a master race who are rescuing the world from a plague called Judeo-Bolshevism. It is unlikely that they know what this term means or why they have gone to war. Yet their eager expressions suggest that they look forward to killing with impunity and a clear conscience, perhaps even with pleasure. One trooper wears stylish sunglasses. From the belt of another hangs his coal scuttle helmet, the sole clue that these troops in their early twenties or perhaps younger are actually German. They are blond and bareheaded, their faces unlined, their expressions confident. Hitler called these soldiers his young lions, but the photographer has not emphasized their ferocity. He wants his subjects to seem carefree and friendly, and perhaps they are. They could be one’s own sons or brothers. Only the helmet and the rifle barrels visible above their right shoulders show that they are soldiers at all and not birdwatchers up at dawn with their web belts and accordion pockets stuffed with cakes and sandwiches.

Within six months they and their comrades will have leveled most of Stalingrad and killed or dispersed nearly all its inhabitants, but they too will be dead or wish they were. The lucky ones will have been pulverized in the icy ruins of the ravaged but fiercely defended city. By late November hundreds of thousands of others will be hollow-eyed, covered with lice and starving, trapped by the Soviet counteroffensive, awaiting death or capture. Their orders had been to shoot their Soviet prisoners or let them starve in icy stockades. They will be treated with even greater cruelty by Stalingrad’s defenders. Most of them will never see Germany again.

The photograph raises existential questions: What turns smiling young men like these into murderers who journey far from home and family to burn and ravage places they know nothing about and kill people who have done them no harm? Like countless warlords before him, Hitler had told his troopers that the people they were going to kill were subhuman, but the soldiers’ own eyes must have told a different story, that the people of Stalingrad were fellow creatures just like themselves. Why did they deny what they saw, and believe instead Hitler’s lie? Why have aggressive armies always done the same?

The motives of individual murderers are no mystery: jealousy, fear, rage, envy, revenge, greed, hatred, the wish to dominate, often to the point of madness, the sheer joy of killing. But why did these presumably law-abiding young Germans ignore every decent instinct and waste their lives in an act of gratuitous aggression? Had any of them come as individuals to Stalingrad to burn and kill they would have been tried as criminals or declared insane. But the fear and shame that would otherwise inhibit them from killing have been inverted by their warrior cult. What had once been punished is now obligatory. What had once been shameful is now celebrated. This peculiar behavior of human beings in their groups, gangs, armies, nations—so remarkable in itself—is too familiar to be much noted, but this inattention is an even greater human peculiarity.1

Yet to declare the actions of the Wehrmacht as a whole criminal or insane raises a difficult question, for how then are other invading armies and the societies that sponsor them to be described: Agamemnon’s Achaeans or Alexander’s Greeks, for example, or Caesar’s or Napoleon’s legions or those Americans who rampaged through Vietnam killing civilians who had done no more to provoke such violence than the citizens of Stalingrad had done twenty-six years previously? Is it possible to segregate such behavior as abnormal despite its constant presence within our species? Or are organized mass murder and the rationalizations employed to justify it simply another human activity as normal as raising families, building cities, and telling stories? And if such behavior is normal, what can its adaptive function be? How does killing one’s fellow creatures contribute to the evolutionary success of the human species? Or, is it the inexplicable fate of humanity to annihilate itself by violent means for no apparent reason?

Since childhood the troopers in the photograph had been warped by Nazi ideology to regard decency as a weakness and ruthlessness a virtue in pursuit of Germany’s territorial needs and its great and noble defense of Western culture, whose centerpiece would be the extermination of Jews and other inferior races to the east and the theft of their property. It would be comforting to think that such malignity is unusual or even unique, but history, especially that of the present century, is a nearly unbroken chronicle of armed violence on the part of nation-states and their tribal predecessors whose ideologies fade and vanish in time, leaving only the dead as their memorial.

As models for their own violence the Nazi leaders, bending their racial doctrine, had studied the legendary cruelties of the Mongol invaders as well as the crimes of the Bolsheviks. Like Lenin, the deformed child of the Enlightenment, Hitler wanted to cleanse the world of its impurities and create a “new Eden.” As Nazis became right-wing Leninists, Leninists became left-wing Nazis, twin monsters marching toward paradise through rivers of blood. The ideologies of left and right were a façade, seriously debated at the time but absurd in retrospect. Whatever else they may seem to have been it has long been obvious that Hitler, Lenin, Stalin, and their followers were mass murderers, who implicated as accomplices in their crimes nearly their entire populations and criminalized those few who dissented.

Five years before Stalingrad, the Japanese, in the name of their Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, had inflicted enormous, ingenious, and unprovoked cruelties upon Chinese civilians as well as soldiers, behavior as destructive of Japan’s declared, if disingenuous, interest in shared prosperity as Hitler’s violent campaign in the Ukraine was of his own plan to create a pacified German province in the east. A generation later, Mao, to preserve his disastrous regime, declared war upon his own people. Millions of innocent Chinese died in the name of his Cultural Revolution. The recent mass murders in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, and Kosovo have been compared to those of the Nazis for their terrible cruelty and for the élan with which they were carried out. Did the killers of East Timor go mad only when they began their rampage or had they always been mad? Or are they no more mad than other rampaging armies, and therefore normal?

Cold war scientists in the United States and the Soviet Union, inspired by Japan’s wartime experiments in China, developed tons of pathogens for use as weapons of mass destruction until the United States saw that these technologies could be used by poor countries to disable rich ones. For this reason among others the United States closed its laboratories. The Soviets, citing their inferior resources and the memory of the Nazi invasion, expanded theirs. Christopher Browning concludes Ordinary Men, his study of a German military police battalion made up of “ordinary” Germans too old for the regular army, most of whom were also too old to have been exposed as schoolchildren to Nazi doctrine, but nearly all of whom willingly shot to death thousands of helpless Jews, by asking, “If the men of Reserve Police Battalion 101 could become killers… what group of men cannot?” Indeed, what group of men have not?

The photograph of the young Germans in Beevor’s book raises a broader question than the evil acts of Hitler’s soldiers: Why have human beings, alone among animal species, repeatedly formed aggressive bands to ravage their own kind in defiance of all civilized constraints, as if the force of the Sixth Commandment measures the intensity of the will to violate it? The question is naive, perhaps absurdly so in its breadth, in the tantalizing simplicity of the obvious, if unthinkable, reply—that we kill our kind because we are killers—and in the reminder of the extent to which we don’t know what we are, much less what we mean by “normal.” Yet the image of Hitler’s invaders on the road to Stalingrad, an image expressed throughout history and in all parts of the world—on Egyptian temples, on Greek pottery, in Roman histories, in Renaissance paintings and Shakespeare’s plays, in Chinese tombs, on Civil War monuments, in Star Wars films and children’s computer games—raises a question that requires an answer whether one can be found or not.

2.

Beevor is a popularizer of military history, not a moral philosopher or an anthropologist interested in the peculiarities of human behavior, much less an evolutionary biologist. Existential questions about human aggressiveness are not his subject. His modest ambition is to entertain readers with a story of tribal violence, the most ancient of literary genres, of which our weak and fearful species never tires. His retelling of the Battle of Stalingrad was a best seller in Great Britain, where it was originally published, and winner of the first annual Samuel Johnson award for the year’s best work of nonfiction. It has now appeared here in paperback. Yet there is little to recommend Beevor’s book beyond its provocative photograph of the soldiers on the road to Stalingrad. Beevor makes careless errors (“On December 9…the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor,”2 ) commits barbarisms (“one German pilot… managed to bale out…,” “Goncharov …accompanied by his old father whom he assumed was coming to see him off…”3 ) and redundancies (“Speer accompanied his wife to a performance of The Magic Flute at the opera…”), and omits important details. He neglects, for instance, to identify Marshal Aleksandr Vasilevsky as leader of the counteroffensive in which the Soviets encircled and destroyed the German Sixth Army at Stalingrad but gives credit instead to his front commander, A.I. Eremenko.

A more serious error is Beevor’s reliance upon the disingenuous claim made in his memoirs by Georgi Zhukov, Marshal of the Soviet Union and the architect of Hitler’s defeat, that his bloody month-long campaign beginning in late November 1942 to destroy German Army Group Center, which threatened Moscow from its forward position in the Rzhev and Vyazma regions 160 miles west of the capital, was a mere feint meant to deter the Germans from reinforcing their vast army trapped at Stalingrad.

  1. 1

    See Dave Grossman, On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society (Little, Brown, 1995), a meditation on a subject that needs further study.

  2. 2

    Corrected in the paperback.

  3. 3

    These errors and others are not corrected in the paperback.

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