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.