Fact: the Siege of Leningrad | HistoryNet MENU

Fact: the Siege of Leningrad

10/7/2011 • Fire for Effect

I received some good discussion on my last post. Some took me to task, others were supportive, and still others were non-committal. At issue was the notion of how much of history is an eye-of-the-beholder narrative and how much is—to use a term that seems to have fallen out of favor today—objective truth. I was having some fun last time out with my post-modernist friends in the historical profession who very much subscribe to the first point of view.

Look, I am the last person to argue against the inclusion of new, previously unheard voices. That’s been going on in academic history since at least the 1960s. Women, racial and ethnic minorities, the working classes: folks who previously had been missing in action from the histories finally began to receive the attention that was due to them. Back then, we called it “social history”—a more inclusive kind of history that sought a perspective from the bottom up rather than from the top down. Military historians took to it in a big way, so much so that it became common to speak of a “new military history.” Sure, it’s great to know what FDR or Ike or Bradley or Norm Cota were thinking and doing on D-Day, the traditional commanders-only approach to military history. But I hope we can all agree that it’s just as important to know what PFC John Smith was thinking and doing, not to mention John’s wife, family, and friends back on the home front in Cleveland, Ohio.

Post-modernism is a very different animal. It’s not really interested in giving everyone a say. Rather, it claims that–since we all use language in unique and mutually unintelligible ways—there can never be a true reconstruction of any historical event. We will never really know what happened at Pearl Harbor, post-modernist historians believe, so trying to do so is a waste of time. One way they try to get around this conundrum is to focus on the “history of memory”—to study how Pearl Harbor has been memorialized and how the way we remember it has changed over time. It is not about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor at all, but more about how the government and other “memory elites” have succeeded in forcing their views on the rest of society over time, how they have “constructed a cultural icon” of Pearl Harbor that serves their interests. I love different historical approaches, and history of memory can be fascinating stuff to read, but in the end, I’m like most military historians, I suspect. I’m more interested in the event itself, and I guess I’m never going to be completely comfortable with any discussion that down-plays what actually happened.

With that in mind, I recently read a very good book by Anna Reid on the siege of Leningrad in World War II. Frankly, it turned my stomach, but not because it is a bad book. Far from it—it’s a fantastic book, and I learned a lot. Reid is a skilled writer, and she does her share of assigning blame and parsing how the post-1945 Soviet government tried to exploit the memory of what happened. To be frank, however, I just can’t get as interested in those angles as I should.

And the reason is this: I can’t get past the simple fact of what happened in Leningrad. Reid’s book is a page turner, and each page is more terrible than the one before. Consider this scenario: What if you lived in New York during some future war and some enemy force cut off Manhattan from contact with the outside world—closed the bridges, blocked the seaward approaches and rivers, shut down the Metro North Line. How soon would the food on that densely populated island last? How about the clean water? Medicine and other essential supplies? Let’s say that the noose is drawn tight in September. What do you think that following winter would be like? How soon would people begin to starve to death? Freeze to death? What would the final death toll be? During a few short months back in 1941, Leningraders learned the awful answer to all of these questions.

More of this next week. But I have to warn you: it won’t be pretty.

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3 Responses to Fact: the Siege of Leningrad

  1. Mike H. says:

    Many years ago, I read a book called “The 900 Days” that conveyed the horror of the siege of Leningrad. Anna Reid’s book looks like it might be a good read, and eye-opening to those who know little of the story of the “Ostfront”. Thanks, Bob!

  2. Rob Citino says:

    Harrison Salisbury’s The 900 Days is a great book, Mike H! Highly recommended. You can find it linked here:


  3. Derek Weese says:

    I think it’s fairly easy if one isn’t a post-modernist historian or someone who believes in the ‘post-modern’ view of anything at all (as I am) to over-react when you read stories such as this. I come from a military family, a long tradition of service to the country going back to the War for Independence (ironically, both sides) as well as the Civil War (also both sides). As a consequence, having been steeped in the traditions of the military and the respect, admiration and even fierce love I have for it though I myself am not a soldier (they tend to frown on blood sugar disorder kids in uniform…) I am very passionate about military history. So passionate, that I can open my mouth and think later (ready, fire, aim…) when it comes to debates with other historians of a more cultural or social bent.
    I envy you in your ability to remain calm and well reasoned in discussing this especially in light of the fact that it is merely a discussion and there’s no sense in causing bitter feelings amongst fellow historians over disagreements on perspective. But reality as you have been writing about is not perspective. It is, well, reality. It’s real. The computer I am sitting at is real. I am real, I trust you are real. The warmth of a wife or a girlfriends around someone is real. As is the sound of a child’s laughter resonating down the halls of a house. And also so is the Siege of Leningrad. In Normandy, sometime in July, a company of US Armor was ambushed by a platoon of German panzers. The US company was all but wiped out, every single tank was destroyed and almost half the crew were killed or wounded; among them my Great-Uncle. He was a real person. His Sherman tank was a real thing, as was whatever it was that took his life. He was alive before the ambush, he had hopes dreams and friends who loved him in his unit. After the ambush was over he was no more. That was real, my Great-Uncle was a real person. And he really did die in Normandy.
    I think it’s important to point out too (I think you did in the last article) that WWII was a war that HAD to be fought. The Nazi’s were evil, and despite the fact that a post-modernist doesn’t like the concept of good or evil let alone objective truth, it was a reality that the Nazi’s were evil and it took a very long, intensely bloody war to defeat them. I trust everyone agrees that it was worth the effort and loss to do so.
    I am a young man (31) and still in college hoping to follow in your footsteps. But because of my background I am even more biased against cultural and social history as, for the most part, military history was not decided by cultural shifts or social phenomena but rather by individual people making hard decisions that truly shaped history and the culture on the basis of their decisions and the consequences thereof. Mostly I agree with Russel F. Weigley in his forward to ‘Eisenhower’s Lieutenants’ when he states that he is disturbed by the ‘new military history’ not in that it sheds light on the voices previously unheard, but rather in that it takes the military out of the history and allows one to forget that history is not inevitable that we humans truly are in charge of our own fates. Also, I shouldn’t say certain things in the heat of unreasoned emotion concerning those fellow historians who disagree with me.
    I can learn how to do that from a historian such as yourself. Thanks for the posts Dr. Citino and thanks for taking the time to read my ramblings.

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