Leading Holocaust Literature scholar, Dr Christine Berberich reviews the latest instalment of Graham Hurley’s ‘Spoils of War’ series of novels.
The Battle of Stalingrad
Since the end of the Second World War, Stalingrad has become the byword for the horrors of war: over the course of more than five months, between late August 1942 and early February 1943, German and Soviet divisions battled for control of the city of Stalingrad (now Volgograd) in Southern Russia that promised easy access to the oil fields of the Caucasus. The Nazi offensive used the 6th Army, previously victorious at the Western Front, under the Command of General Friedrich Paulus, Panzer Group 4, and large numbers of Italian, Romanian, and Hungarian forces.
Before the ground offensive, the Luftwaffe had conducted an intense bombing campaign that saw much of Stalingrad reduced to rubble. By November, and with perishing winter weather already making life extremely difficult for the largely unprepared German army, the Russians succeeded in cutting off the 6th Army from its supply chain. The remainder of the battle was conducted in house-to-house fighting, with the starving 6th Army expressly forbidden by Hitler himself to attempt breakouts or even to surrender.
Stalingrad and popular culture
The Battle of Stalingrad is widely regarded as one of the worst battles of all time, with an estimated two million casualties on all sides. As such, it has entered the collective cultural consciousness and has been represented and assessed in countless movies and novels from different socio-political vantage points. Particularly noteworthy here are Josef Vilsmaier’s acclaimed 1993 German film Stalingrad, Fedor Bondarchuk’s Russian film of the same title (2013), and the more mainstream Enemy at the Gates (2001), directed by Jean-Jacques Anaud and starring Jude Law and Ed Harris.
In fiction, Stalingrad has also been well represented: particularly important are Jonathan Littell’s epic novel, The Kindly Ones (2009) and Vasily Grossman’s masterpiece, Life and Fate, ‘arrested’ by the KGB in 1960 and only published in Russia in 1980. An English edition appeared in 1985. It is no surprise, then, that Graham Hurley’s most recent WWII novel also turns to this rich and dark subject: Last Flight to Stalingrad is historical fiction at its finest, taking readers straight to the heart of the beleaguered city and allowing us to share the main character’s increasing sense of doom.
Graham Hurley – from Pompey crime to Second World War thrillers
Graham Hurley is an acclaimed British novelist with a close connection to Portsmouth where he wrote regular columns for The News for many years. Hurley has published over thirty novels and first made a name for himself with a series of crime novels focusing on Pompey DI, Joe Faraday. From early childhood, however, Hurley has been fascinated by Second World War history – and, in more recent years this passion has found an outlet in a series of historical novels. Last Flight to Stalingrad is the fifth in his Spoils of War series that began with the publication of Finisterre in 2016, and that so far comprises six novels.
Last Flight focuses on the character of Georgian journalist, Mikhail Magalashvili, who lives and works in Berlin under an assumed name, Werner Nehmann. His fearless reporting paved his way to becoming a confidant of no other than the Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, but Nehmann soon learns that this comes at a price. Having inadvertently crossed the Minister, Nehmann finds himself dispatched on a suicide mission to Stalingrad where the remnants of the Sixth Army are under daily fire from the slowly-advancing Russians. Hurley’s novel is meticulously researched, with plenty of historical details: the fictional Nehmann mingles with real-life characters such as Generaloberst Wolfram von Richthofen, for instance, and learns about battle strategies from those in command.
Not just a Historical Novel
Last Flight to Stalingrad is an engrossing read, a historical thriller that, the reader senses, can only end in disaster for its beleaguered main character, marooned in encircled Stalingrad and battling on two fronts: against the Russian enemy, and against winter and hunger. Hurley masterfully conjures up the atmosphere in a city reduced to rubble, where soldiers from both sides have to burrow down into cellars or underground dug-outs in order to protect themselves against snipers and the cold, and where the former pride of Hitler’s army are now scavenging among the ruins, fighting each other for scraps of food:
A sudden silence descended on what remained of the city, punctuated by occasional small-arms fire and the sharp bark of exploding landmines, often triggered by horses. In the aftermath, as Nehmann discovered, ration parties would descend on the corpse of the dead animal, men with axes and combat saws, everything muffled against the cold but their eyes. They’d kneel over the still-streaming entrails, hacking at the body, stealing away at the half-crouch, a foreleg or a haunch on each shoulder.
But Hurley’s work goes beyond mere historical detail. It also subtly engages with the moral fall-out from the war in ways that few war novels, obsessed as they often are with battle scenes, manage. Several of the novel’s characters find themselves horrified by and even attempting to hinder the work of the SS, pondering that the crimes of those black-uniformed Einsatzgruppen will ultimately tarnish every ordinary soldier’s reputation:
He’s a monster. A sadist. The SS breed them. […] We should have nothing to do with those people, nothing at all. No one loves you if you invade, if you steal their country, but the SS will be the end of us. One day, the world will take a good look at what they’re up to and blame us. All of us.
The novel’s finale, with Nehmann and his friend Schultz actively dealing with Kalb, a particularly nasty SS leader, ends, quite literally, in butchery, and is not for the faint-hearted. Readers find themselves in an instructive moral dilemma: the SS officer, we know from history, might have escaped just punishment after the war. Yet rooting for Nehmann’s form of Selbstjustiz (vigilante justice) that sees him planning to dispatch the despicable Kalb in the chaos of the last days of the battle of Stalingrad means accepting – and perhaps even endorsing – yet more violence.
With a moral quandary such as this, Hurley’s novel is in fitting company alongside other historical novels dealing with the war and its aftermaths – Bernhard Schlink and Walter Popp’s Selbs Justiz (Self’s Punishment) of 1987, Philip Kerr’s The Pale Criminal of 1990, for instance, or, more recently, Ferdinand von Schirach’s Der Fall Collini (The Collini Case) of 2011. Novels such as these ask searching questions about crimes committed during the war and how they ought to be dealt with. To some extent, Hurley’s novel pre-empts questions about the failure of post-war justice. But it certainly shows the questionable lengths people are or were prepared to go to in order to ensure some sort of ‘punishment’ for war criminals.
Last Flight to Stalingrad thus works on a number of levels. For aficionados of war writing it offers an evocative insight into the run-up to the Battle of Stalingrad. For History buffs it offers glimpses into the manipulations in the ministerial offices at the heart of the Third Reich. But, possibly most importantly, for readers interested in what is termed Vergangenheitsbewältigung, the coming to terms with the crimes of the Nazi past, the book asks serious questions about how Nazi criminals ought to be brought to justice. Graham Hurley has produced an excellent addition to the genre of the historical war novel that ought to find a wide readership.
Dr Christine Berberich is a Reader in English Literature at the University of Portsmouth, specialising in Holocaust Literature, fictions of Englishness and national identity, and Brexit Literature.
Christine is the author of The Image of the English Gentleman in Twentieth-Century Literature (Ashgate 2007) and the editor of The Bloomsbury Introduction to Popular Fiction (Bloomsbury, 2014), Trauma & Memory: The Holocaust in Contemporary Culture (Routledge, 2021), and Brexit and the Migrant Voice: EU Citizens in post-Brexit Literature and Culture (Routledge, forthcoming), as well as numerous journal articles.