Gert Ledig's horrific portrayal of a battle in the trenches, between German and Russian forces near Leningrad in 1942, in which a humanly insignificant hill position near an exposed swamp was the site of ghastly slaughter and anguish, bears an uncanny resemblance to accounts, both verified and fictional, of the battles for Cemetery Ridge and Little Round Top at Gettysburg in the American Civil War. The similarities are to be found chiefly in the desperate sufferings, both physical and mental, of the men on both sides. At Gettysburg, at least 8000 soldiers were killed outright on the battlefield, with as many as 50,000 gravely wounded or missing, roughly a third of all combatants and well over a third of all the officers of the rebel Confederate States army. The weaponry of the Civil War was not archaic; artillery makers had been highly stimulated by 'demand' and one could arguably claim that the Civil War was the first ever fought with really potent "weapons of mass destruction".
The "Stalin Organ" of Ledig's title was a weapon of clumsy mass destruction, a rocket launcher with multiple barrels. It was crude but effective, and much of the gore on both sides of the 'front' resulted from incessant, blind bombardment by artillery. The first machine guns had been developed in the American Civil War, but by World War II their design had made terrifying advances; machine gun fire rips through every paragraph of 'Die Stalinorgel'. Aerial flares and balloon observation had also appeared in the Civil War, but they were childish sparklers compared to the fearsome flares than illuminate the terrified faces, German and Russian, in Ledig's depiction of this stubborn battle between two companies of men deemed dispensable by commanders far out of hearing of their screams. And then there came the airplanes, the dive bombers of the Luftwaffe.
The exponential growth of the power of mass destruction is a salient difference between the Battle of Gettysburg and the battle of Leningrad. Almost as a corollary, the soldiers of the former have "lived on" as heroic names, known to school children 150 years later, though the losers have better memories than the winners. The staunch courage of the First Minnesota Volunteers at Cemetery Ridge and of the 20th Maine at Little Round Top has been celebrated, along with the futile self-sacrifice of Confederate troops in 'Pickett's Charge." The commander of the 20th Maine, Joshua Chamberlain, lived to become the icon of heroism in the post-war Union. As a very telling contrast, in Die Stalinorgel there are few names of individuals, and those few are chiefly among the Russians. The Germans are strongly individuated; their pre-war backgrounds crop up in their moments of horror. We 'see' their personalities, but they are identified only by the ranks - NCO, Corporal, Captain, Commander, und so weiter. There are no heroes; there are only casualties and survivors, both accidental, both demolished as human beings. Unless informed by 'history', one can't even be sure whether the battle was in any way conclusive, whether the bloodbath was 'tactically' worthwhile to either side.
Gert Ledig wrote three "war" books, of which Die Stalinorgel was the first. It was briefly well-received but then neglected, as were the two subsequent books. I've already reviewed his second book, Vergeltung, titled "Payback" in English. Die Stalinorgel is not as consummately written as Vergeltung. There are passages that seem melodramatic in Die Stalinorgel; nevertheless, the total book is remarkably 'tight' and almost symmetrical, for a depiction of mayhem. Ledig was writing out of experience. He was there, a soldier under fire at the battle of Leningrad, and a human trapped in a city under carpet bombardment, the horrible scene of Vergeltung. His prose is taut, harsh, merciless to the reader's sensibilities, yet also astoundingly poetic at times, making a kind of verbal beauty out of barbed wire and severed limbs. Once again I'm reminded of the American catastrophe of 1861-65; the great novel of that war was Stephen Crane's "Red Badge of Courage", written like Die Stalinorgel many years after the fighting stopped. The newer book sheds light on the older -- magnifies its meanings -- and vice-versa. Both are unanswerable denunciations of the stupidity and corruption of war.