BOOK REVIEW by Willard Manus

In what is surely the publishing event of the year, New York Review Books has just released STALINGRAD, Vasily Grossman's 1000-page novel about WW II. The book, translated from the Russian by Robert Chandler and Elizabeth Chandler, is actually a prequel to the author's LIFE AND FATE, which has been hailed as a 20th century "War and Peace."

Grossman reported on WW II for various Soviet newspapers, writing from the front lines the entire time. His knowledge of war is vast and deep, but even more impressive is his skill as a novelist, the ease with which he not only creates characters but brings them to vivid, three-dimensional life. His range is remarkable: there are hundreds of characters in STALINGRAD, not just foot-soldiers and officers, but physicists, doctors, biochemists, mathematicians, wives, nurses, children, farmers, coal miners, CP functionaries, lumbermen, deserters, war correspondents, and more, many more. Grossman also writes several chapters from the POV of the Nazi high command, which included General Friedrich Paulus, commander of the 6th Army, and General Richthofen, commander of the 4th Air Fleet.

STALINGRAD begins with a meeting, in April 1942, between Adolph Hitler and Benito Mussolini, at which the two dictators gloated over the triumph of fascism in Europe and Africa. Once we crush Russia, Hitler tells Mussolini, "we will establish the eternal dominion of the Aryan Prometheus over all human and other earthly beings."

There was only one obstacle in their path: Stalingrad. Its capture, Hitler believed, "would mean the achievement of certain strategic ends: the rupture of communication between the north and south of Russia, and between the central provinces and the Caucasus. It would allow German armies to make broad advances both to the north-east, bypassing Moscow, and to the south, thus achieving the ultimate goal of the geographic expansion of the Third Reich."

Commencing with an ill-fated blitzkrieg attack in the summer of l942 and followed in September by an all-out, ferocious assault, the Nazis threw everything they had at Stalingrad. But despite their superior manpower and weaponry, they were unable to conquer the city; in fact, it was the other way around. The Red Army not only stemmed the Nazi armada but ultimately defeated it.

"Hitler's initial success blinded him to the true nature of the granite, of the spiritual and material forces, that he had chosen to attack," Grossman writes. "These were not imaginary forces; they were the forces of a great nation that had already laid the foundation of a future world."

Grossman's praise for the Soviet Union and its citizens is heard often during the course of this epic, remarkable novel. Although he had spent much of his life being attacked and censored as a writer, not just by editors and publishers, but by the KGB and even Stalin himself, Grossman recognized that the revolution had given Russians the pride, courage and strength to fight like lions against the Nazis. "The brotherhood of all Soviet workers continued to live and breathe in the churned-up mud of the front line, in half-flooded trenches, in summer dust and winter snowdrifts. This was the law that brought men together, that united companies, battalions and regiments. The most ordinary of men had created this law and at the same time they obeyed it unquestioningly, often unaware of it yet always seeing it as the only true measure of character and deed."

It's safe to say that the fate of the world was decided at Stalingrad. By halting and then destroying the Nazi army on the banks of the Volga and in the streets of the blighted city, the Soviet Union showed mankind that fascism was not invincible, that good could eventually triumph over evil.

Hats off to Vasily Grossman, the greatest novelist of the 20th century.