The Declarer (Floyd McWilliams' Blog)

Thursday, November 14, 2002

Just before my flight took off I finished one of the eight books I brought to China -- Alexander Werth's Russia at War 1941-1945. This was a perfect book for a long trip. World War II is a familiar subject to me so it didn't matter if I was a little groggy on occassion while reading. And the book was bucking fig: 1045 pages excluding notes, almost as thick as it was wide. However there is always a problem when reading about World War II, and that is the stomach-clenching factor.

World War II is interesting for many reasons, some noble and some base. The base motive that attracts World War II buffs -- 1000-page book readers, All-Hitler-All-The-Time History Channel viewers, and wargamers -- is the sneaking admiration for the Nazi attempt to rule the world. This often manifests itself as "what if" -- what if the Germans had attacked Russia a month earlier in 1941, had sent more supplies to Rommel, had not conducted so many stupid attacks in 1942 and after? The answer is that millions more people would have been made into soap, but some part of us says "a small, daring nation would overcome incredible odds to create the greatest empire ever seen".

Any history of the war must contain some enumeration of Nazi atrocities, and thus in the middle of daring and bizarre exploits we face the stomach-clenching. In Shirer's The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, another book approaching the proportions of a cube, the black passages reside in Chapter 27, "The New Order". Clench your stomach as you dive into page 1223 (Nazi attitudes toward Slavs) and release after page 1292 (the massacre at Lidice). It's best to come up for air occasionally.

Russia at War starts with high-level descriptions of German and Soviet military actions, and the author's experiences conversing with Soviets at and behind the front. But as Soviet territory is liberated, we hear of Nazi atrocities, and the gut must be firmed. I knew I wasn't going to like the chapter on Ukrainian Deportees, which started with

Valya, a dark little girl of twenty, must have been pretty only two years ago, but now was broken, and looked like a frightened little animal. To get away from Germany she had put her hand under a flax-cutting machine and had all four fingers cut off.

At this point my eyes bugged out a little, but Werth had shown his cards early, and I was able to clench my abdomen most firmly. It's much easier to read about atrocities when you already know what is involved. The next page and a half were what you would expect -- descriptions of Nazis so bestial that they would not let their slaves eat wild garlic to prevent scurvy and their teeth from falling out.

I did not throw myself under a train; and yet, as the days went on, I grew more and more desperate. I knew that if I did not do something, I should die a slow death. And then, one morning, without premeditation, I did it.

Without warning in real life, but plenty of warning in the telling. Thank you Werth; thank you Valya. I was able to get through the next two paragraphs, which had the sort of gory details you would expect.

Not so bad. A few fingers amputated -- an industrial accident! Just like one of the Beavis and Butthead episodes! I was probably panting a bit at this point, but no real problem. I idly scanned the last paragraph:

And then, as an afterthought: "There was another girl in the factory, and she decided to follow my example."

Maybe my eyeballs should stop reading this

But the Germans guessed this time that it had been done deliberately; and she was not allowed to go home.

Maybe my eyeballs should stop reading this

So she lost her hand for nothing.



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