To the Editors:
I have just returned from Moscow and found Jason Epstein’s piece, “Always Time to Kill” [NYR, November 4, 1999]. Every author should expect around one eccentric review per book. Epstein’s rambling and inaccurate attack on Stalingrad certainly seems to be mine. For example, I never suggested that General Eremenko was the leader of the great Soviet counteroffensive. It is a preposterous idea.
If Epstein had read my introduction, he would have realized in any case that the point of the book was not to reexamine the strategy of the Stalingrad campaign, a subject which has been written about in endless detail. My objective was to study the battle—one of the most appallingly dehumanized clashes in history—through the experience of the soldiers on both sides and the civilians trapped in the city. This new approach was possible at last thanks to access to key files in the Russian Ministry of Defense archives revealing the true conditions of the battle. If Epstein wishes to dismiss such material as “anecdotal history,” that is his affair, but he reveals the need for this sort of study by his own remarks.
Epstein complains that I am “not a moral philosopher or an anthropologist interested in the peculiarities of human behavior, much less an evolutionary biologist.” This strongly suggests that he thinks that war is much too important a subject to be left to military historians. If this is what he believes, then he should say it openly, because it is an interesting question for debate.
Only a fool would argue that the subject should be reserved for military historians, but the problem is that warfare is now attracting a frenzy of attention from sociologists and so-called “cultural historians,” eager to bring along their own off-the-peg theories. If they were prepared to study warfare and soldiers properly first, as a good anthropologist certainly would, that would be fine. But many appear to have no idea of how armies work and how soldiers react. Worst of all, they seem to show very little interest in finding out, perhaps because they are afraid that the reality will not quite fit their theories.
Epstein, in an unintentionally revealing start to his review, speculates for three long paragraphs about the murderous intent of young German infantrymen in one of the illustrations. He then goes on to state that this “provocative photograph” is the only worthwhile thing in the whole book. He makes no reference to any of the letters from German and Russian soldiers quoted in the text, in fact he does not mention any of the completely new material from Russian and German archives so relevant to “the peculiarities of human behavior” which apparently do not interest me. Stalingrad, which incidentally won not just the Samuel Johnson Prize (as he mentioned), but also a Wolfson Prize for History and the Hawthornden, is being translated into thirteen languages, including Russian and German. Epstein’s review has been the only hostile one in the eighteen months since publication. How is it that so many people, including considerably greater experts on the subject than Epstein, have formed such a different opinion?
Jason Epstein replies:
My main criticism of Mr. Beevor’s book is its failure to observe that the Soviet counteroffensive of winter 1942-1943 consisted of two simultaneous and related operations: Zhukov’s disastrous campaign against German Army Group Center in the Vyazma-Rhzev sector and Vasilevsky’s encirclement of Stalingrad. This double strategy, long denied by Zhukov and his apologists, has now come to light and is the subject of David Glantz’s gripping recent book, Zhukov’s Greatest Defeat. Beevor could and should have been aware of the archives that Glantz used. Had he been, he would not have made the careless error on page 321 in which he identifies Eremenko as “commander of the Stalingrad Front” but would have acknowledged, as he does nowhere in his book, that Vasilevsky was in overall charge of the Stalingrad encirclement and Eremenko was the commander of his Southern Front. Moreover, he would not have accepted the disingenuous claim made by Zhukov in his memoirs that his attack on Army Group Center was a mere feint to keep the Germans from assisting Paulus’s Sixth Army. I did not say and do not believe that military historians should not write about war. But I do believe that they should get their facts right.