Compared with southern and western Europe’s experience of World War II, the course of the war in the East has been far less thoroughly researched. But the East is now catching up. The end of the Cold War gave researchers access to Soviet archives and survivors and has made it possible to consider this epic struggle free from the ideological distortions of the communist years and also to describe some of the human stories behind the staggering statistics, as these two books do. Reid begins on the first day of the 1941 German siege of Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg), in which some 750,000 people died as Hitler sought to starve the population out of existence. During the first winter, in particular, the search for nutrition became desperate, descending even into cannibalism, which Reid describes in grisly detail. Meanwhile, the Communist Party and the secret police continued to manage the city in the spirit of prewar purges and propaganda, ready to blame defeatists and traitors for the people’s privations and never their own incompetence. Quoting from diaries, memoirs, and interviews, Reid brilliantly explodes Soviet-era myths and constructs a harrowing, unrelenting account that demonstrates how extreme human behavior can become in a struggle for survival.
Clark describes the Battle of Kursk of July 1943, the last great German Wehrmacht offensive, which was an attempt to recover from the defeat at Stalingrad, five months earlier. The scale was enormous: four million men, 13,000 tanks, and 12,000 aircraft. The Soviets took heavier loses, but the Germans could not complete a decisive breakthrough and thereafter found themselves on the defensive. Clark puts the battle in context, explaining how Hitler’s strategic misjudgments frustrated even his most loyal generals, who coped with the consequences as best they could, often with great tactical skill. Like Reid, Clark makes excellent use of firsthand accounts. Many of those who fought tell of an expectation of imminent death, as tanks fired into one another at close distance. “It wasn’t a battle,” reports a Soviet T-34 tank commander. “It was a slaughterhouse of tanks.”