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Stettin Station by David Downing – A “Sort of Review”

June 28, 2016
Tank Trap - anti-tank barrier used extensively by the Soviet during the Battle of Moscow - October 2, 1941 - January 7, 1942

Tank Trap – anti-tank barrier used extensively by the Soviet during the Battle of Moscow – October 2, 1941 – January 7, 1942. This is at the site of the memorial to that battle just outside of the city.

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Anyone traveling from Moscow’s main Sheremetyevo Airport the approximate twenty miles to Red Square  couldn’t miss it, “it” being the anti-tank barrier sculpture marking the memorial to what is referred to as “the Battle of Moscow.” Despite the Cold War rhetoric of the times (late 1980s) downplaying the Soviet role in defeating the Nazis, every time I sped by the memorial in those years, it gave me chills. Still does more than twenty-five years since my last visit to what now is simply named Russia.

The memorial marked the precise place little more than ten miles from the center, a vivid reminder of  just how close the Nazis had come to storming the Soviet capitol in those cold and unpredictable days between October 2, 1941 and January 7, 1942, with the fate of Moscow, and perhaps, the world hung in the balance. But the Nazi army was over-extended and increasingly poorly supplied, denied winter clothing and equipment. Hitler had not just underestimated the weather, but  Soviet military strength.  Nazi overconfidence that the USSR would collapse like a house of cards in the face of the Nazi blitzkrieg led the German war machine into a “quagmire.” Hitler’s armies were unable to make the final thrust. By January 7, they were pushed back in some places more than 100 kilometers from the capitol.

The Battle of Moscow was supposed to be the culmination of the Nazi offensive against the Soviet Union. Called “Operation Barbarossa,” the offensive, began on June 20, 1941 as Nazi troops smashed through defense lines in Soviet-Occupied Poland and went on to seize large chunks of Byelarus, the Baltic states and Russia. Early on in their blitzkreig the Nazis took Bialystok and Grodno. Their mobile killing units, the einsatzgruppen exterminated what remained of both sides my extended family in short order. Three and a half months later, after heavier fighting than the Nazis were then accustomed, the German armies had reached the outer edges of the Moscow region.

But there, the offensive stalled.

The human and material costs of the Battle of Moscow were immense. While the exact casualty figures will never be accurately known, the modern estimates give a hint of the ferocity of the fighting. Overall easily more than a million people died, at least 650,000 on the Soviet side, 400,000 estimated German losses. (The Soviet losses in that one battle exceed all of the U.S. casualties in the entire war which were put at 418,000).

Although the siege of Leningrad would continue for two more years and the fighting on Eastern southern front (Kiev, Rostov) would be harsh and unpredictable, the Soviet military had defied the predictions of collapsing like a house of cards – as the French had the year before. At the gates of Moscow, Hitler’s armies suffered their first major defeat and one from which it would not recover.

Russia - Battle of Moscow

Battle of Moscow Map

From January 7, 1942 on, Hitler’s armies would get bloody nose after bloody nose, including at the epic seven month Battle of Stalingrad (July, 1942 to February 1943) and soon afterwards at a place called Kursk (July and August, 1943) 286 miles from Moscow as the crow flies. The Battle of Kursk  involved as many as 6,000 tanks, 4,000 aircraft and 2 million fighting men and is remembered as the greatest tank battle in history. Four years later, in late April, 1945 Soviet troops would storm the Seelow Heights east of Berlin and in a bloody finale in which, again, more than a million Soviets, Poles and Germans would die, Nazi Germany would breathe its last putrid breaths before collapsing.

More than seventy years later, historians debate which of these battles represented the decisive turning point. Much attention has been given to the Battle of Stalingrad, one of the few epic battles, not just in World War II, but in world history where the myth and the reality are essentially the same. Unquestionably by Stalingrad, the myth of Nazi military invincibility imploded. It was an obvious major defeat that the whole world could see, the dimensions of which Hitler could not hide. More recently though, some historians, among them the Belgian born, Jacques Pauwels, has suggested an earlier turning point, at already at Moscow’s entrances in that severe winter of 1941-2 that Nazi Germany’s fate was sealed, that Hitler and much of the German high command knew it and did whatever to hide the fact from the German people and the world.

Stettin Station

Stettin Station, the third in David Downing’s John Russell spy-mystery series.

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The Battle of Moscow is not the main theme of David Downing’s Stettin Station, but a secondary theme which is being played out in the background and yet in its own way influencing the flow of events. Last night a friend labeled this kind of novel “faction,” ie – fiction based on solid history. Like that of Elena Ferrante, Henning Mankell, Hilary Mantel, Robert Merle and my old favorite, Stefan Heym (who wrote about East Germany while living it as few could or did), “faction” combines weaving an imagined narrative with historical events. Few do it better, or as well, as David Downing.

To have the ability to create readable fiction within a certain social/historical context takes both a profound understanding of history, imagination, local geography and customs, etc. It is no easy thing. I suppose on some level all literature can be viewed as such,  reflecting such realities – a specific moment in history at a specific place with a specific set of social, political and psychological realities.

How to “package” history? How to “package” what was up until now the most destructive war in world history, World War II? Sixty Million dead, single battles (some discussed below) where more than a million soldiers died? Auschwitz? The Truman Administration dropping two atomic bombs on Japan? The Nazi savagery in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union? Japan’s savage record in China? The siege of Leningrad? The Bengal Famine of 1943 where more than three million died? The scale of the horror and suffering, psychological torment, torture are on such a scale that they become abstract, difficult to absorb or comprehend.

As it fades from memory, World War II needs to be studied, analyzed if only as a warning of what horrors humanity is capable of, and today 71 years after the end of that war, the technology of disaster is so much more developed, that should another world war break out, it could easily mean the end of humanity as we know it, or a very large portion of it. There are no winners in the post apocalyptic nuclear war world.

Of course one way to learn about World War II is to read traditional, well written, well documented histories of the war, of the horror. There are plenty of them. My personal favorites on the European theater are Alexander Werth’s Russia at War (despite the fact that he got the Katyn Massacre in Eastern Poland wrong) and Harrison Salisbury’s 900 DaysI mention these as they cover subjects with which American readers are not generally familiar. On the dropping of the A-bombs on Japan – John Hershey’s Hiroshima is still very much worth reading. But then there is the Japanese masterpiece, Black Rain by Masuji Ibuse, made into a masterful film by Shohei Imamura.  Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead and Herman Wouk’s The Winds of War and War of Remembrance resonated with readers here in the USA.

I only mention a sprinkling of works for readers wanting to begin to get a better understanding of that war. And many, many films – many of them crap, but a fair number offering profound insights into different aspects of those years when the world went crazy. It is not at all new that novelists would try their hand at describing World War II, some doing so very well. David Downing, thus, is participating in what today is an aging genre. But to my mind he pulls it off well combining the kind of credible personal angst of people going through these incredibly painful and stupid times with the greater movements of history.

In a series of “faction” novels, invented plots based on real events, David Downing has chosen a particular place at a particular historical period: Berlin over the course of World War II. In a series of six novels he probes the adventures and misadventures of his protagonist, one John Russell, a divorced British journalist living in Berlin with his anti-Nazi German girlfriend, Effi (who stars in Hitler’s propaganda plays) and his Hitler Youth son, Paul. A visceral anti-Nazi himself, Russell  watches with dismay as overwhelmingly, the German population becomes mesmerized by Hitler’s cabal. Between 2007 and 2013 Downing churned out one novel of the series a year (Zoo Station [2007],Silesian Station [2008], Stettin Station [2009], Potsdam Station [2010], Lehrter Station [2012], Masaryk Station [2013]).

Through small acts in individual kindness (and courage) Russell tries to push against the growing tide of Nazism, but at the same time to survive. In his effort to survive both personally and politically in an increasingly complex and seethingly reactionary world of Hitler’s Berlin, Russell essentially becomes a kind political messenger boy for everyone – the Nazis, the Soviets, the British, the Americans, the German Communists. Russell is clever enough, politically quite savvy, but it is not enough; in his efforts to garner favor he is juggling too many roles simultaneously and that his carefully woven plans will, repeatedly, collapse and they do.

The plot of Stettin Station unfolds precisely at the time that the Nazi armies are approaching Moscow. Although  875 miles from Moscow, the outcome of that battle, a subplot in the novel, is a psychologically powerful factor for people in Berlin Russell is watching – or trying to watch – the offensive from Berlin. From his perch in Berlin it is difficult to follow precisely events unfolding on the front lines near Moscow. But at a certain point Russell is perceptive enough to notice how Nazi official announcements of military victories have seemed to have stalled. By the book’s end, it appears more and more likely that the Nazis would not take Moscow, and further, that they had suffered defeat there.

While Nazi and Soviet troops are facing each other eyeball to eyeball near Moscow, John Russell is trying to maintain some semblance of sanity in Berlin as a British accredited journalist sending heavily censored articles back home. He is caught up in all kinds of machinations (some from previous books in the series). On the one hand he has been approved by the Nazi authorities to do a series on what “ordinary Germans” think. Ironically he is paid to write the series by the Soviets who are anxious to know as much as possible about daily life in Germany. At the same time he is passing information on to British (and American) intelligence and doing little favors for the Communist underground. It should be no surprise that juggling so many political balls would eventually be impossible and towards the end of the book, all his little covers essentially collapse and he is forced to flee Germany, and does.

In each volume of the series, Russell stumbles onto a major Nazi scandal that he has no way of reporting on as a journalist. For example, in the initial volume of the series, Zoo Station, documents detailing the horrors of the Nazi eugenics program come into his possession after the American journalist who broke the story is killed by the Nazis. Prior to gassing Jews, Soviet POWs, French Communists, etc, the Nazis were gassing (and starving to death) their physically and mentally handicapped, gays.

Throughout the series, through individual stories, Downing explores the growth of Hitler’s campaign against the Jews. Having obviously studied the evolution of Nazi Jewish policies he gives examples of the screws tightening around Jewish existence in Berlin from “Kristallnacht”  in Zoo Station to the growing awareness in Stettin Station that the processes of physical annihilation had intensified in mid and late 1941. Chilling stuff, handled honestly and with sympathy for the victims.

In Stettin Station another theme is explored: the close relations between the U.S. automobile and energy industries with Hitler’s Germany prior to the formal declaration of war and afterwards(German declared war on the United States shortly after the U.S. declared war on Japan following the December 6, 1941 Pearl Harbor attack). Before war was formally declared, Ford Motors and General Motors, several U.S. oil producers, including Standard Oil (today EXXON) had major contracts with Germany. The military potency of Operation Barbarossa, Germanys’ offensive on the Soviet Union mentioned above, was increased with U.S. made trucks and American produced gasoline. Even after war was declared special arrangements were worked out so that American companies could continue to profit.

Enough. Stettin Station stands alone as a fine work…and for an even deeper understanding of the war, try the whole series. And he has a Kurt Vonnegut-type sense of humor throughout, …which helps.

 

One Comment leave one →
  1. July 11, 2016 3:24 am

    Great article about an obiously great book! Appreciating your blog. Keep it up!
    Regards
    Andreas Schlüter
    http://wipokuli.wordpress.com

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