Having read Anthony Beevor's "Berlin The Downfall", my eye was drawn to this book, being as it is, a significant historial source for the Russian experience of the German invasion and its aftermath.
Grossman was despatched by his editors to the locations of most of the key events in the Russian war with Germany, and the book is particularly interesting because it runs right through from the invasion, to the defeat of Germany.
Grossman describes countless small events which fill in the broad picture with illuminating detail. He records the capture of a Russian deserter who tried to sneak back home in full peasants rags, but had the misfortune to be recognised by troops of his own unit. He met with brave peasant women who gave their all in order to survive the terrible events that came upon them. There are many stories of Russian military officers and men, snatches of conversation, descriptions of their appearance and behaviour, which all fill out the picture of "Ivan" and show their loyalty to their homeland - and their ignorance of how utterly their political masters were failing them thought lack of foresight and planning.
The book benefits from a fine commentary by Beevor - the diaries are not just edited, they are interpreted for us by a great historian who sets them in context and explains the background to the events, so that the book builds up to a complete history of the Russian war.
I highly recommend this book which reveals a compassionate and humanistic man who recorded the lives of "everyman" on the Russian front and enables us to understand more about the events of those terrible years.
I walk mid shamble smear and stench, The dead I mourn." John Finley.
The Soviet journalist and author Vasily Grossman did more than kneel behind the soldier's trench. He lived with the Red Army from the catastrophic summer of 1941, through the defense of Moscow, the apocalyptic carnage of Stalingrad, the hard-won liberation of Soviet territory, the horrible discoveries of Nazi genocide in Madjanek and Treblinka, and the final bloody, triumphant march into Berlin. Anthony Beevor and Luba Vinogradova's "A Writer at War: Vasily Grossman with the Red Army 1941-1945" is a marvelous examination of both "Grossman's war" and the war itself.
Vasily Grossman is something of a forgotten, unsung giant of Soviet literature. Born in Berdichev, Ukraine in 1905, Grossman rose to prominence and received national acclaim as a war reporter for Red Star, the official newspaper of the Red Army. Although never a member of the Communist Party, Grossman was, for most of his life, a strong supporter of the Soviet Union. Grossman's reporting was realistic (despite editing by Party censors) and was enormously popular among both high ranking officers and foot soldiers. After the war, Grossman returned to writing. His magnum opus, Life and Fate was not published in the USSR until 1988. When it was originally submitted for publication the Soviet authorities `arrested' the book and told Grossman that it would not be published for 200 years. Fortunately, a copy of the manuscript survived, was smuggled to Switzerland and published in Europe in 1980, fifteen years after Grossman's death. Life and Fate was based, in good part, on Grossman's wartime experiences. Consequently, Beevor's work provides both an historical, ground-level examination of the war generally and a great deal of insight into the life experiences that formed the moral foundation of Grossman's novels.
Beevor (and his translator and collaborator Vinogradova) have taken Grossman's notebooks, war diaries, personal correspondence and his Red Star articles and set them out as part of their narrative. The transition from Grossman's text to the commentary is well thought out and seamless. Beevor is no stranger to the Eastern Front, (he has written two well received books"Stalingrad" and "The Fall of Berlin") and he does an excellent job of putting Grossman's writings into the context of his times.
Grossman is swept into the war as a reporter for Red Star immediately after the German invasion in June, 1941. Grossman's writing (and Beevor's commentary) takes us through that first disastrous summer of defeat, despair, death, and retreat. The magnificent and bloody defense of Stalingrad follows and the success of Operation Uranus in November, 1942 that resulted in the encirclement and destruction of General Paulus' Sixth Army follows. The next portion of the book has Grossman writing about the Red Army on the offensive, from the Battle of Kursk through the liberation of the Ukraine and then Poland. It is here that Grossman first learns of the horror that was the holocaust.
Grossman's reports from Treblinka were the first, first-hand accounts of the Nazi death camps and what Grossman saw changed his life. Although Jewish, Grossman had always considered himself a secular citizen of the USSR. The death camps and the murder of his mother at the hands of Nazis and Ukrainian collaborators reawakened his sense of a Jewish identity even though he remained totally secular. Grossman's experience of the camps and the evidence he saw there of man's innate inhumanity to man stunned him even after almost 4 years of living with brutality on an unfathomable scale. In ending one of his reports Grossman writes: "It is infinitely hard even to read this. The reader must believe me, it is as hard to write it. Someone might ask: "Why write about all this, why remember all that?" It is the writer's duty to tell this terrible truth, and it is the civilian duty of the reader to learn it."
It is clear from reading A Writer at War and two of Grossman's novels, "Life and Fate" and "Forever Flowing" that Grossman took his duty to tell his terrible truth seriously. Beevor has done Grossman a good service by letting Grossman's voice be heard again. I hope this book creates renewed interest in Grossman's life and writing.
on 17 January 2010
This is such a superb collection of wartime observations, interviews and analyses of the sweeping panorama of war. Grossman was the voice of the Eastern Front. A 'heroic' writer for the Soviet War machine and a man of sensitivity, humanity and compassion. He takes us through the unrelenting horror of Stalingrad with an eye for small details, a view of the ordinary man always foremost in his mind, and with a moving patriotic love and compassion for his suffering comrades. The Russian wears white in war. Is expiated for his past sins with suffering. The Russian knows how to die in war, where he struggles to live in peacetime. We are taken through other battles- Kursk with a detailed eye for military movements in their contemporary and historical contexts. Grossman understands profoundly the historical importance of the experience he is going through. We reach Berdichev and the horror of genocide against the Jews which is worsted by his experience of Treblinka. Here is writing which is extraordinarily poignant for its simplicity, its candid observation and the internal anger that is so well disciplined and marshaled by his analytical writers mind that swells like a rising tide.
The book is a window into a world of so much horror and suffering, that is at times poetic, profoundly insightful and unrelentingly honest. Poignant moments are so many. The taking of Berlin is a tragic end where his compassion and humanity maintains its dignified head. Grossman feels and conveys human suffering so simply and yet so movingly and powerfully internalising so much pain, that his writing is an elegy to the gracefulness of suffering.
Beevor provides much vital explanatory material between references, since much of the observations can range from one line observations, to character portraits to interviews, that the reader can get lost in the material occasionally, and i think in the first 100 pages in particular. However this book really takes off from Stalingrad and becomes a masterpiece of journalism that educates and harrows as it does hold the reader tight to it, till the end. A brilliant and crucial piece of work to understanding the monumental horrors of war in the Eastern front, and to understand the warped monstrosities of the holocaust which murdered culture, history and thousands of years of professional skills and artisanship.
on 6 July 2007
I think I would rather have read a long introduction by Beevor or whoever, and then a proper collection of Grossman's articles - rather than a series of fragments inserted into a narrative history of the War on the Eastern Front written not by Grossman but by Beevor. Maybe this is because Beevor assumes that the reader just won't know the history; even so it's annoying way to handle it.
That said, Grossman is a very interesting and sympathetic character, and there's nothing wrong with Beevor's narrative either. I was very moved both by the enormous privation and sacrifices of some Red Army soldiers - and the powerful contrasts between those who were prepared to sacrifice and suffer, and those who seem to have happily deserted and then "un-deserted" back. It made me think of those who sacrificed themselves to cap the reactor at Chernobyl, and to wonder whether there was something special about the Soviet system after all, to command such self-sacrifice.
on 17 April 2012
I bought this book having read Vasily Grossman's novel, "Life and Fate", an epic account of the battle of Stalingrad. "Life and Fate" is a modern-day "War and Peace". His novel was based on his experiences as a War Correspondent during the Second World War. Many of the incidents which take place in the novel appear at first-hand in "Writer at War".The story is inter-twined with the history of his own family. The book was banned by the Soviet authorities.
"A Writer at War" reproduces many of Grossman's notes made at the time of Stalingrad, and the subsequent progress of the Red Army towards Berlin. He gives a searing account of the effects of the battles on the places he visits, and the people that he meets. He himself narrowly avoided capture on more than one occasion. His writings, warts and all, did not tally with the official versions given of events at the time.
The background to these events is explained by Antony Beevor, author of many books on the Russian history of the time.
These two books make fascinating reading for anyone who is interested in these events, and to anyone who knows nothing of this history, they would be a revelation.
on 7 February 2006
There is no denying that this is a good book and a very interesting read. Parts of it (more details below) are exceptional and truly great writing. However, it didn't quite hold together as I had expected it to and lacked a coherent narrative that made for rather disjointed reading. I guess if one reads the description carefully (that this a collection of writings from Grossman's works and in particular his notebooks), then that is to be expected.
If you are expecting a flowing narrative and excellent historical resource, something like a Beevor book, then you may be disappointed. You will get some very interesting passages and some great writing from Grossman and some useful texts that act as links and joining narrative from Beevor, but you won't get a coherent read. It would also help to know a fair bit about the subject matter. Hence the three stars.
There is one very important exception to this, the section on Treblinka. Alone this is worth getting the book for. I can't describe it as enjoyable reading, but it is extremely powerful, gripping and basically as good as this kind of writing can get. Exceptional and five stars for that section alone.
I suspect that a better bet for someone interested in Grossman and this period would be to read Life and Fate, as much of what appears in that is based on things included in Grossman's diaries and other writings. That really is a complete masterpiece.
For those really interested in the subject matter, this is still a good book though.
For several years during the Second World War, as Britain and America gathered their forces for the invasion of France, they did no fighting in Europe. Being "at war" with Germany meant battles for the sea, the air and North Africa. All this time, the real war, a huge war, was going on in eastern Europe between the Axis powers and Russia.
Soviet war correspondent Vasily Grossman saw almost all of it: the racing retreat before the Blitzkrieg, months of slaughter and sniping in Stalingrad, massed tanks at the battle of Kursk, the newly liberated Majdanek concentration camp, the hidden horror of the Treblinka killing centre, the raping rampage towards Berlin and the inside of Hitler's bunker. He had a knack of getting generals to talk and to spot the extraordinary in an ordinary soldier's tale.
He was Jewish (although not religious) and his letters to his mother, who was lost in the holocaust, are some of the most moving things I have ever read. His shockingly candid report on Treblinka, which was used at the Nuremburg trials, tells how a few dozen Germans managed to kill almost a million people in around a year. It would be hard to believe if Grossman hadn't interviewed guards, survivors and local people, and put it all down on paper. The battle of Stalingrad too would be impossible to imagine without his eyewitness account.
Since he was Russian, one might expect Grossman's journalism to be so censured and blindly pro-Stalin as to be worthless. But this is not the case. His reports are full of real people, unusual quirks of war, and telling details; and he was just as despairing of the Red Army's failings as he was proud of its successes. And if he couldn't put something in the newspaper, he wrote about it in his notebooks and letters to his family. We are taught in the west that the Soviet system ruthlessly expunged all dissent. But in reality it was also so inefficient that it failed to snuff out all humanity. Although very politically naive at times, Grossman was one of the lucky ones who slipped through Stalin's net. What we are not taught in the west is that the real war was won and lost on the eastern front. This fascinating account is a rare opportunity to correct that balance and to discover what really happened in the Second World War.
Beevor and Vinogradova deserve high praise and deep thanks for giving us this judiciously edited new perspective.
on 28 July 2011
I have for many years been looking for a book that documents the Eastern Front in WW2. I have read many historical accounts on it, yet I have until buying this book, been unable to find a personal memoir.
This book although more a selection from Vasily's larger written works is an expertly hand picked collection of memoirs.
The eastern front in WW2 is probably one of the more misunderstood campaigns of the war in terms of there being little to no english literature on it though now there are increasingly more translations becoming available
This book documents the experiences of a Commissar on the Eastern Front, from the begininng of Barbarossa right to the heart of Berlin. The compilation is well chosen, using good stories from across his works to summarise the experience.
Haunting and hilarious at times it documents a rather different struggle than that which faced soldiers in Western Europe.
I am pleased I found this book, it has led me on to read Vasily Zaitzev's work, Panzer Destroyer and Guns against the reich.
I think that people should start with this book to get a beginners understanding of the Eastern Front, an area of the war that is just as important and absolutely must be told!!
on 4 August 2010
A wonderful book. Grossman's report on the Treblinka death camp was one of the most moving and haunting pieces of writing I have ever read. It really conveys the true horror of the Holocaust - the section detailing the suffering of the arrivals from the Warsaw ghetto was incredible. The Treblinka report should be read by all those fools who deny the Holocaust.
on 21 January 2013
I have rather belatedly become engrossed in World War II history over the past few years and have built up an extensive library. Grossman is an excellent writer and his "A Writer at War" provides an excellent account and point of view from the Russian perspective. I find this a valuable book amongst a wide World War II bibliography. I would highly recommend this book. I loaned out my original hardback which was never returned! Hence I purchased the paperback. So it is a couple of years since I first read it. But it is well worth a re-read.