The worst is death, and death will have his day.
Shakespeare, Richard II.
Death had more than its share of days on the Eastern Front and it is those days during the battle of Leningrad in 1942 that provide the background for Gert Ledig's "The Stalin Organ", first published in Germany in 1955.
Gert Ledig was born in Germany in 1921 and enlisted in the German army in 1939, at age 18. He was wounded seriously during the Battle of Leningrad and was sent back to Germany to work as an engineer. While back in Germany he lived through some of the horrifying air raids unleashed on Germany by the Allies. His experiences in Leningrad found their way into The Stalin Front and his experiences during the air raids informed his other major work "Payback".
It should probably be noted at the outset that the title "Stalin Front" is a bit misleading. The original title in German, "Die Stalinorgel" literally translates into English as the "Stalin Organ", a slang military term for the katyusha rockets that rained death and destruction upon German troops throughout the war. The title is important because the rockets themselves are present throughout the book and serve almost as a deathly Greek-chorus as the story proceeds.
Ledig's writing is direct, brutal, and often poetic despite the horrors he portrays. The book opens with the following: "The Lance-Corporal couldn't turn in his grave, because he didn't have one. Some three versts [a verst is about ¾ of a mile] from Podrova, forty versts south of Leningrad, he had been caught in a salvo of rockets, been thrown up in the air, and with severed hands and head dangling, been impaled on the skeletal branches of what once had been a tree." After eventually falling to the ground "tank-tracks had rolled out the Lance-corporal, a fighter plane loosed off its explosive cannon fire into the mass of shredded uniform, flesh and blood. After that, the Lance-Corporal was left in peace." The matter-of-fact tone accentuates the horror.
The book consists of a number of parallel stories of German and Soviet soldiers engaged in a battle over a small sector of the front over a short period of time. Ledig does not judge any of the characters, he simply tells their stories. They each react to their surroundings in a different way and Ledig accepts that as a simple fact of battleground life. The coward trying to desert or avoid the battle for the relative comfort of battalion command, the preening military bureaucrat trying to hold a court-martial of the wrong soldier, the Soviet or German soldier are viewed simply as participants in an event over which they have no control. Value-judgments are left to the reader, to the extent that anyone who hasn't lived through these particular depths of hell can pass judgment on those who have.
The story-line itself is a bit chaotic but no more so than the events being portrayed. Military historians can, perhaps, find order in chaos by looking at `the big picture' but for the soldier on the ground there is nothing, according to Ledig, but a world in which order, rules, and morality cease to exist. Ledig portrays the lives of these men in a fashion similar to the way Thomas Hobbes portrays men in a state of nature, that in the state of nature they are "in a condition which is called war [and which] is of every man against every man." In other words, life for the protagonists in The Stalin Front is "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short."
There are flaws in the Stalin Front to be sure. Sometimes the chaos conveyed by the story line, the constantly shifting narrative line and the shift in the voice of the speaker or narrator can be disconcerting. In other words the narrative was not seamless, but as noted above that may in fact have been Ledig's intent.
If the reader feels a sense of fear and loathing when reading Ledig's account I think his purpose has been served. To that end "The Stalin Front" can be said to stand alongside All Quiet on the Western Front. There are no heroes, only those that die and those that find a way not to.
Stalin Front should be of great interest to anyone with an interest in war fiction or for anyone with an interest in an examination of the human condition when people are subjected to that great irrational being known as war.