Under Siege: Michael Jones’ ‘Leningrad’

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On June 22, 1941, the Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler sent more than 3 million troops across the border with Soviet Russia in the largest land invasion in history. Their mission was to destroy the Soviet armies ranged against them, bring about the collapse of the Communist system, and establish a new racial and social order, in which 30 million Slavic civilians would be left to perish from hunger and disease, while German settlers moved in to set up shining new towns and cities linked by high-speed railroads and freeways to Central and Western Europe and surrounded by German-run farms and landed estates. On July 8, 1941, Hitler announced that he would “raze Moscow and Leningrad [the present-day St. Petersburg] to the ground, so as to prevent people staying there and obliging us to feed them through the winter. These cities,” he declared, “are to be annihilated by the air force.”

By this time, the German armies were already approaching Leningrad, driving along the southern hinterland of the Baltic Sea in a classic war of lightning movement, spearheaded by aerial bombardment and a massive armored thrust that drove back the ill-prepared Soviet troops in panic and confusion. All along the Eastern Front, indeed, stretching more than a thousand miles down to the shores of the Black Sea, they inflicted shattering defeats on the Red Army and captured or killed millions of Soviet troops. Altogether, 3.3 million Russian prisoners of war were deliberately murdered by German army commanders who penned them into fenced-off enclosures and left them to starve to death, had them shot by the thousand, or — if they were officers of the Communist Party — sent them back to concentration camps in the German Reich to be executed. Everywhere, towns and cities were sacked, their food supplies and much more taken off to Germany, their male inhabitants drafted into forced labor schemes, their women and children left to perish. Millions of civilians died.

Yet this huge, murderous offensive stretched the military resources of Nazi Germany to the limit. German bombers were neither numerous nor effective enough to destroy Leningrad as Hitler intended, and many of them were needed elsewhere. Soon after they had succeeded in encircling the city, in September 1941, the German armies settled in for a long siege, bombarding Leningrad with artillery fire but relying on hunger as their main weapon. The aim was not, as in a conventional military operation of this kind, to starve the besieged into submission; it was to starve them to death. The siege began to resemble the static war of attrition that had taken place on the Western Front in World War I. A series of Russian attempts to break the siege was repulsed with heavy losses; but the Germans did not succeed in cutting the city off completely, as the Soviets managed to open a supply line across the frozen Lake Ladoga in December 1941 and keep it going thereafter, against all odds.

Yet the supplies that managed to find their way into the city were never enough to feed any more than a tiny fraction of its inhabitants during the siege, despite the fact that some 440,000 people were evacuated out to safety. Soon Leningrad was starving. On February 4, 1942, one Leningrader noted in his diary:

Everywhere people are dying: cold and hunger are paralyzing the will to live. There are no means of transport or communication and such conveniences as light, water, electricity and gas have passed into the realm of legend. If you stay on the streets for a couple of hours you come across dozens of dead people, lying solitary in the snow, and cartloads of corpses.

In their desperation, people ate dogs and cats and then began resorting to cannibalism, hacking pieces off dead bodies to eat, or even killing people, especially children, who were easy victims. Human meat was to be found offered for sale on the black market. In the first winter of the war there were 886 arrests for cannibalism, and the Germans estimated that a million people died of cold and starvation.

Yet the city did not perish. In 1942, a further 500,000 people were evacuated, and those who remained grew and stored vegetables for the coming winter, while a pipeline was laid down at the bottom of Lake Ladoga to pump in oil for heating and power. Further supplies and munitions were shipped in along the “road of life” across the lake, and the city’s inhabitants were given a further respite by the relatively mild winter of 1942-43.

The story of the siege has been told many times, most notably by veteran American correspondent Harrison E. Salisbury in his book “The 900 Days,” published in 1969. Salisbury was a lifelong student of Russian politics and history, and his book made effective use of interviews he conducted with many of the siege’s survivors. Since then, the military aspects of the siege have been re-examined on the basis especially of Soviet documents that became available after the fall of communism in 1990. This latest study, “Leningrad: State of Siege” (Basic Books, 352 pages, $27.95), by the British military historian Michael Jones, concentrates on the human experience of the city’s inhabitants during the siege. He makes good use of the diaries and letters collected in the Blockade Museum in St. Petersburg and reproduces many harrowing and often moving accounts of their authors’ sufferings.

But it has to be said that this book adds to, rather than supplants, Salisbury’s graphic account. “Leningrad: State of Siege” is disappointingly sketchy and confusing on the military aspects of the siege and does not make sufficient use of recent military histories. It wastes far too much space criticizing the well-known incompetence of the senior Soviet military commander Kliment Voroshilov and not enough on situating the siege of Leningrad in the larger picture of the war on the Eastern Front. It has little to say about the German troops engaged in the siege, so we learn next to nothing about the experiences they went through. There is much about the heroism of the Leningraders, but no awareness here of the material factors conditioning the struggle — above all, perhaps, Germany’s dwindling supplies of oil, mounting losses of military personnel, and growing shortages of tanks, equipment, and ammunition.

It was these that in the end forced the Germans to lift the siege early in 1944. All along the line, the German armies had long been in retreat. In October 1942 they were decisively defeated at the Battle of El Alamein in North Africa; in December 1942 they evacuated the Caucasus; in February 1943 they were defeated at the Battle of Stalingrad; in the summer, the Battle of Kursk and the Allied invasion of Italy showed even more clearly how Germany simply did not have the manpower or the equipment to fight a war on so many fronts. By then, their withdrawal from Leningrad was only a matter of time.

The lifting of the siege of Leningrad was one part of this larger picture, just as the sufferings of its citizens were paralleled by those of others in smaller cities and communities across the Soviet Union. Mr. Jones does not really enable the reader to understand these essential aspects of a struggle whose personal, human dimension his book illuminates so effectively.

Mr. Evans is a professor of modern history at Cambridge and the author of “The Third Reich at War,” to be published by the Penguin Press in March 2009.


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