I’ve dreaded writing this column. I’ve been dancing around it, in fact, with a lot of talk about the meaning of history, about post-modernism and the accepted “narrative” of World War II. Frankly, all that intellectualizing–in other words, what I do for a living–rings pretty hollow when I contemplate what happened to Leningrad in World War II.
Let’s start with the operational situation. In the summer of 1941, an onrushing and confident Wehrmacht drives for the great city at the start of Barbarossa. The Red Army is in early-campaign mode, that is to say it is utterly inept. Stalin’s regime is determined to hold the city, but gives little thought–no, that’s wrong–no thought at all to the civilian population. There are half-baked schemes to evacuate it, as if anyone could evacuate a city of this size under wartime conditions. Certainly the incompetent Soviet regime couldn’t. Local communist officials seem more concerned with heroic revolutionary myths of arming the population, as if you and I and our grandpa could defeat the Panzers in open field battle. In the end, Soviet resistance and German logistical inadequacies conspire, just barely, to rob Hitler of a victory on this front. Add it all up and you get a huge city surrounded and cut off from all contact with the outside world by early autumn.
I’ve lived in cities my whole life, and if the census statistics we’ve collected are true, so have you. We don’t grow food–we go to the store and buy it. When our children get sick, we don’t go to the woods to collect herb and simples. We drive to the doctor or the hospital, and they do the healing. We don’t barter–cave man bartered. We collect regular paychecks to pay for all these things.
For all these reasons, the tale of Leningrad holds special horrors for those of us in the so-called civilized world. Food soon disappeared, and so did fuel. I thought about this today as I took a trip to my Kroger’s grocery store in Corinth, TX. The shelves were beautifully appointed–filled with a veritable cornucopia of food, staples like bread and vegetables and meat, not to mention luxuries of every conceivable description. On the way home, I stopped at the gas station. No problem, right?
Problem. Leningrad was a great city cut off from its producing hinterland. Millions of people; no food. It didn’t take long. Within months, the dead started piling up in the street (oh yes, other aspects of civilized life we take for granted: the ambulance, the coroner, a “decent” burial). There were numerous, and now substantiated, incidents of cannibalism. We can, today, analyze them and split them into two groups. With so many dead lying around, some people ate the corpses for food. Then again, some people committed “murder” so they could have something to eat. I want to take this public forum to condemn their behavior, but then again, I wasn’t there. I’ll let the moralists and the ethicists and the theologians hash that one out.
I’ve never been all that interested in statistics. You can manipulate them as you wish. Every now and then, it’s good to have a number, however, so I’ll give you one: in the first horrible winter of the siege of Leningrad, somewhere around 500,000 civilians starved to death. Leningrad “descended into hell” in late 1941, in the words of the old prayer. One writer who was there described it as “falling down the funnel”–perhaps in America we would say, “going down the drain”.
Want to try surviving on 125 grams of bread a day? Three thin slices, often adulterated with joiner’s glue (made from the remains of slaughtered animals) or cold cream or industrial casein? No, neither do I. Want to tell your daughter that’s all there is to eat today?
Neither do I. If a merciful God could promise me a split-second, instantaneous death, I’d rather be nuked.
I’m just like most readers of World War II magazine. Like you, I read and analyze the battles. The big story. The great events. It’s important work. But while we do these things, let’s agree to pause every now and then and think about places like Leningrad, along with all the citizen populations caught up in the horrors of war.
For more discussion of the war, the latest news, and announcements, be sure to visit World War II Magazine’s Facebook page.