Saturday, August 23, 2008

Stalingrad I: Reading History

Once every few months, a bell rings in my head reminding me that I used to be smart and am getting less so each passing day. For instance, the other day I stood in my kitchen and gestured feebly at a hand towel and said, "Hand me the... hand me the, uh... uh... drying flag." When this happens, I spend 20 minutes doing Wikipedia searches until I stumble across the entry for aphasia, swear this is the last time I'll forget to bookmark it, then pick a serious book to read in order to do some heavy brainisthenics.

This time I lucked into having someone to read a serious book with. I get to see my friend John about once a month, and while it seems he's the only person who reads as much as I do, he rarely if ever reads the same things I do at the same time. If he and I have both read de Tocqueville, it means I just finished it, and he read it in 1997. If we've both just finished something fictional, he's read something called Llanath, and the Transswaard Blood-Oath, which he swears is actually an excellent novel with literary qualities that just happens to be a fantasy novel, and which I would not read even if I were on fire and only the sight of its words could relieve my torment.

By chance, after having an idiot moment just a short bit ago, John called me and mentioned he wanted to read Stalingrad by Antony Beevor. My choice was clear. Without hesitation, I picked up Beevor's book, read a third of it, read a baseball book, read another third of Beevor's book, started another baseball book, read two issues of the New Yorker, then finally found out how the war ended. (Spoiler Alert: the Russians win.)

Before addressing the book itself, there are two truisms of historical writing and one of historical reading that must be mentioned. First, that of the thousands of master's and doctoral theses, books, textbooks and biographies written every year, 90% of them tell you something another book could tell you just as well. Thousands of people every year manage to revisit interesting topics unnecessarily, often on the flimsiest of pretexts. ("A new Jefferson laundry bill has been discovered! Here's my chance to argue he was America's first Reagan.")

Second, of the 10% of books about fascinating new topics or reviewing familiar material in dynamic new ways, 90% of them will be written very badly. Most of the authors probably can't be blamed. George Orwell wrote about this phenomenon in 1946 in "Politics and the English Language": something about academic and political language flogs ideas to death and drives all vitality from the page. By the time someone's sitting down to begin his Ph.D thesis, he probably can't answer the question, "Are you hungry?" without prefacing the answer with, "It may be fair to say...." If you ever have the privilege to read a history book both well-researched and well-written, chances are you heard about its name and author from non-academic sources, because it's a rarity that people will rave about.

Third, if you've never been a serious history student, the thing to remember about academic history reading is that you're not really reading for history: you're reading for historiography. If you get to the point where you've figured out you want to give someone tens of thousands of dollars for a paper that says you're an expert in telling other people about things that have already happened, you already know the Five W's of whatever you're studying. The reasoning behind the historian's stance, his motivation for rehabilitating one character and condemning another, whether he has access to new materials that others do not, these take primacy over "and then what happened?"*

* — The cheapest and quickest way to get the historiography out of a book requires reading no more than the introduction, the concluding chapter, and the first and last pages of every chapter. The first and last chapters usually feature the author saying, "Here is my point," and, "Here was my point," respectively. The opening and closing of each chapter tends to do the same in greater detail about specific facets of the historian's argument. History students, the ones with personal lives at least, discover this trick somewhere during finals freshmen year. Once you know five general facts about an event and two historians' opinions about it, you have ten different arguments to make and can fill bluebooks for hours at finals time. Unfortunately, this ploy can provide mixed results if you haven't read much history.

For instance, if you want to pull this trick on a book about the origins of the Second World War, you need to already know the Five W's about it. You're not looking for facts; you're looking for interpretation. You need to have already figured out what the hell a Hossbach Memorandum is, since that's probably the thing everyone's going to be arguing about anyway. Also, it's a good idea to know the principal arguments being thrown about. Sometimes a historian's point reads more clearly when you know whom he's arguing against. Knowing the opponent's thesis makes the bitchier elements of the book you're reading that much clearer. So without knowing names like A.J.P Taylor and terms like Sonderweg, you're going to wander helplessly in the wilderness. Still, once you have a little background, you can go to a bookstore an hour before meeting someone, spend thirty minutes flipping through introductions and conclusions and cobble together a brief opinion to give on that "functionalist jackass Kershaw."

This explains why history wonks are apt to tell you that an entertaining history book is actually terrible. Typically, if the author produces a text whose every semblance of liveliness hasn't been crushed to death, chances are he:
  • is an idiot whom no graduate school wanted, allowing him to walk away with his purple prose and bad ideas unscathed;
  • is an ideological idiot who's omitting fact in order to make punchy points and make room for punchier sentences (the right wing tends to produce rather more of these — mainly, I think, because writing a book is a long-term commitment and eventually liberals would start to feel guilty about the dishonesty, but also because republicans just seem to really enjoy making up hateful bullshit);
  • authored a book you found at the Barnes & Noble $4.99 bargain table, home of such tomes as Lincoln: America's Second Reagan, Roman Emperors Who Were Also Spies, Cop/Hooker: A Memoir, and Ignominious IV: The Pope Who Totally Killed This Dude Who Was Going to Be an All-Pro Running Back for Penn State;
  • or, if you're very lucky, you're holding in your hand one of those 1-in-100 works in which the writing and scholarship are top notch. Antony Beevor's Stalingrad qualifies as one such book. Unfortunately, I doubt the reliability of my rating, mostly because my Battle of Stalingrad knowledge is fairly slim, owing to a sharp dislike of military history.

    As far as historiographical dislikes go, it's hardly an irrational one. Military historians tend to make two major mistakes in writing military histories for a general audience. First, they assume everyone else really, really loves military history the way they do. John Keegan — arguably the best living military historian, and a popular one at that — still suffers such a problem in his First World War, in which pages seem to stretch on with passages like:
    At 8:45 a.m., Col. Beaufort of IX Corps at the Malreaux salient telegraphed to 24th Army HQ that all was prepared. At 8:47 a.m., 24th Army HQ telegraphed back to IX Corps to indicate "message received." At 8:49 a.m., outside the Malreaux salient, Lt. H. F. Jeffaud noticed that some mud had rolled down some other mud, which altered the shape of the salient 0.0000274%. Thus, at 8:51 a.m. Col. Beaufort reported to 24th Army HQ that IX Corps had lost 0.0000274% of the Malreaux salient to either the enemy or gravity. "Quite frankly," he confessed later, in a diary, "it was just too early to tell."
    If you're at all a normal human being, the numbers bleed together, none of it makes the slightest bit of sense, and you're bored to tears. More importantly, you can't visualize any of it, which makes everything the author writes about later seem like a horrible marl of mud and squiggly lines. This is the second problem military historians have: they mistakenly assume that readers can visualize the battlefield with the same clarity they can, despite not having spent the last three years of their lives staring at four-foot maps in a french archive.

    Thankfully, Beevor hasn't picked maps so hopelessly vague as to aid only the specialist. The handful of maps in the book clearly show every major movement you need to know, and they're placed in chapters just at the time that the new troop dispositions need to be visually relevant to the narrative. More importantly, though, Beevor doesn't belabor minute troop movements and company-by-company dispositions of the lines. He's more interested in broad causes, failures in leadership and the horrible conditions in which the troops of both sides lived and fought.

    This distinction makes Beevor unique amongst military historians. Too often, the minutiae of ranks, dispositions and number of guns seem to be the whole point of a military history, with consequences and interpretations tacked on as an unpleasant afterthought necessary to legitimize 500 pages of war pornography. But with Beevor, though he studied under Keegan and at Sandhurst and served five years as a military officer, the military details exist to give you the clearest possible idea of how each force acted and, more importantly, to explain why each action was significant.*

    * — It's a credit to either Beevor's command of language or the quality of my professors that, even eight years since last reading a history book for a serious purpose, the historiographically significant portions of the book came leaping off the page at me in a logically organized manner. I used to be able to read a book for my thesis in one night and write down ten page numbers in a small notebook, reach the end of the book, flip back to the ten pages and write a five-page response paper, with quotations, in about 45 minutes. I'd long suspected that this skill was lost forever, but I suppose it had gone only because I hadn't called upon it. Granted, I'd retained the annoying voice that would pop up while reading history books and say, "This is important and the core of X's point!" (In talking to friends and family of similar backgrounds, I've learned this voice apparently never entirely goes away for anyone.) But I suppose what surprised me most was the rapidity with which I organized these annoying voices into a coherent response, something I didn't have to do at all and something I hadn't done in a long time.

    The credit for my mental rejuvenation also belongs to my friend John. For about three months, every time I spoke to him, he told me about some two-volume 2,000-page history of WWII written by some British historian with such dry detail that he might as well have had a five-page chapter on every single day of the war. Almost everything John had to say about the book came as a revelation. It made me feel like a total moron. I think I read this book with as much focus as I did precisely because I didn't want to talk with him about it, hear him say, "Well, I think Beevor's thesis hinges on Points A, B, C, D and E," to which I'd reply, "Buuuuuuuuuuhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh durrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr ffffffffffffffffsssssssshhhhhhhhhhh" and then stab myself in the face with the bottom end of my ice-cream cone.

    Of course, the star of Beevor's scholarship is the wealth of new material he presents, as well as the breadth of old material finally synthesized in one resource. The fact that almost every book written even peripherally about the subject since Stalingrad's publication cites Beevor heavily testifies to the quality of his research. Beevor drew on personal interviews with survivors from both sides, unprecedented access to Soviet diaries and German letters and written materials that were found or seized by the Soviets.

    Yet despite the wealth of new knowledge on the Soviet side, the impetus for these events belongs to Adolf Hitler, to the German General Staff and, to a lesser extent, to General Friedrich Paulus. It's a German story. The story told in Russia may still be about The Great Patriotic War, and in our minds we may first think of thousands of faceless armed Russian peasants slogging across a punishing white landscape to exact their revenge. But the heart of the story remains more compellingly the high-water mark of the Third Reich. The progression of events stems from the Germans' blunders, without which they would not have broken the Wehrmacht's back on a city on the Volga.

    Review continues tomorrow.