The horrors of war have been well-documented. For some reason, war can cause the basest human instincts to raise their ugly heads and show just atrocities we are capable of. But war also can bring out the inherent goodness in people, the day-to-day heroism of just getting by in the most stressful times imaginable. Out of the darkness sometimes comes the brightest light. Michael Jonesí new book, Leningrad: State of Siege highlights one of the starkest examples of all: the intentional destruction of a city by starvation and disease rather than conquest. It tells the story of both horror and salvation, mostly using the words of the people who actually lived through it. It's a phenomenal book, one which puts almost any other human suffering, at least to those of us who live in relative comfort, in perspective.
While I certainly can't say that this story has never been told, it's never really been part of the popular history of the World War II. That the siege happened is, of course, common knowledge to anybody who has studied the war to any degree, especially the Eastern Front. But the details told so vividly by the personal accounts Jones uses aren't that widespread.
Jones begins with the story of Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of the Soviet Union, and how it affected Leningrad. He details the military maneuvering as Army Group North forced its way through the Soviet lines, Leningrad its target. He shows how the Soviet army was in disarray, falling back in panic. Most chillingly, he uses German documents, or collections thereof, to show how Hitler decided that Leningrad would not be taken but instead besieged - how the German army could not afford to feed all the civilians and refugees that would surely inhabit a conquered city the size of Leningrad, and thus that it should be starved to total destruction. Civilians were ordered shot on sight if they tried to approach German lines, and German artillery was used to make sure that German troops didn't falter by having to shoot too many face to face.
Jones effectively details not only the German military maneuvers but also the ineptitude of the Soviet defense. The military purges of 1937-38 left few competent commanders, with the defender of Leningrad chosen more for his loyalty to Stalin than for his military leadership. Even the great general Zhukov is shown in a bad light as directly causing the deaths of thousands of Soviet soldiers by maintaining and futilely ordering attacks from an untenable position on the other side of the Neva river. From Jones' descriptions throughout the book, it's no wonder the "real" story of Leningrad didn't come out until the Soviet Union was falling. City fat cats remained behind barbed wire walls, keeping themselves well fed while thousands died each day in the city around them. This sort of thing doesn't lend itself to public satisfaction with its leaders.
The shining light of Leningrad: State of Siege, though, is how Jones lets the inhabitants of Leningrad tell their story. Once the siege begins in September 1941, the winter also sets in and the city becomes a tomb awaiting its inhabitants. Bread rations are reduced to as little as 125 grams of bread, and people resort to boiling glue and other almost unbelievable things just to get through the day. People begin wasting away, collapsing on the street and being left there to finally falter. Jones uses published diaries as well as first-hand interviews with survivors of the siege to vividly illustrate what went on in the city for those fateful six months before the brutal Russian winter finally relented.
Jones clearly shows readers both the depravity and the heroism of these people. Most often, he alternates between good and bad so as not to make the horrors too oppressive. Every time he brings up how some residents of the city had to resort to cannibalism to stay alive, he balances it with an anecdote about somebody who successfully resisted becoming one of these hardened souls, living through the sheer determination to survive what the Germans were doing to them. Even so, the brutal winter is a constant companion - no electricity, no heat, and dwindling supplies of firewood.
The book is told almost totally through illustrative anecdotes from various diaries or people who Jones interviewed, showing what was happening in the city and bringing the story to life a lot more than a dry historical recitation would. These anecdotes make the story more immediate, immersing the reader in the horrors of what was going on. Jones pulls himself away occasionally, especially whenever he talks about the bigger picture around Leningrad.
Leningrad: State of Siege is also interesting in the manner in which Jones cites his sources. Rather than a "notes" system where we are given the citation for individual lines or thoughts, there is instead a "notes" section that goes chapter by chapter, with Jones providing all of his sources for that chapter in a paragraph. The anecdotal nature of the narrative lends itself to this sort of citation, and I found it extremely interesting. Since the source is always cited in the chapter itself ("Faina Prusova had less luck with wallpaper paste," for example), he can get away with this system.
Leningrad: State of Siege can be both chilling (the horrors of cannibalism, or the sick fact that the Nazis were almost using the siege as a psychological experiment to see how people under this sort of pressure react) and inspiring (people almost literally collapsing on the streets themselves pull it together enough to help someone else having the same problem). Despite the heroism involved, it can be a depressing read at times. Nonetheless, it's a story that needs to be out there.