Though the Second World War was decided in battles waged over several years and in multiple regions, the most important front of the war was the one in eastern Europe. There the German war machine which had conquered so much of Europe with seemingly little effort was ground down in an extended clash against the Soviet Union. Millions of soldiers — not just Germans and Russians, but Hungarians, Romanians, Bulgarians, Croats, Italians, and others — fought and died on an unprecedented scale, with the slaughter ending only with the final defeat of the Nazi regime in the ruins of Berlin.
While numerous battles defined the course of events, the decisive clash on the Eastern Front came in the autumn of 1942 in the city of Stalingrad. There the German Sixth Army fought a grinding campaign to conquer the industrial center, only to be encircled by a surprise Soviet counter-offensive in November. Debilitated by the twin forces of battle and winter, tens of thousands of troops surrendered in February 1943, inflicting the greatest defeat yet suffered by the Third Reich. One of the strengths of Antony Beevor's history of the battle is in its detailing of the experiences of the men who fought and died on both sides. Drawing upon letters, diaries, and other records, he describes the nearly unimaginable conditions they faced during their long months of struggle against each other. To this he adds a perceptive explanation of both the events leading up to the battle and how is was that the sides sustained such a debilitating effort, both on the national and personal level.
By clearly detailing its events and recounting the lives of the soldiers who fought in it, Beevor has written an excellent history of the battle that is a must-read for anyone seeking to understand it. And yet the book falls short in one important respect. For while Beevor conveys well the human side of the conflict, it doesn't quite capture its truly epic nature. Scale is missing, as the war-defining nature of the event lost amid the stories of the men and the details of the campaign. While the effort to do so would result in a very different book, perhaps only then might it be possible to fully appreciate the importance of the titanic struggle waged there, both for the people involved and for the broader war itself.