With the recent release of the movie Enemy at the Gates, Penguin Books Ltd. has re-released William Craig's 1973 non-fiction historical work, Enemy at the Gates: The Battle for Stalingrad. Curious about the apparent discrepancies in the movie, which deal almost solely with the sniper duel between Zaitsev and Konigs, I purchased the book it was "based" upon to see how the original story of the Zaitsev duel was presented in the original work.
The new cover art comes right from the movie, with Joseph Fiennes and Jude Law front and center on the cover, complete with an image of a M-N 91-30 rifle on the right. As an aside, it is interesting to note that the rifle, as presented in the art work, is left handed, due I believe, to the accidental flip-flopping of the art by the editorial staff, sadly counteracting the obvious skill and detail the illustrator put into the artwork.
Reversed image aside, the work is an excellent historical presentation of one of the most disturbing battles ever to take place among the major combatants of WWII. One that showed, yet again, man's total inhumanity to man. While lacking the emotional heart-rending tone of fictional works set in this hell, it presents a fairly gripping tale of the abandonment and devastation of the German 6th Army on the Russian Steppe. The author traveled the world during his research, interviewing an amazing list of surviving participants: Russian, German, Italian, and Romanian. Interestingly, he even followed up with their current status as of the time of the book's original printing, 1973. This event haunted many and for good reason. It brought out both the best and the worst in the participants, often in the same day. The brutality of war is patently obvious in this work, and anyone foolish enough to aggrandize war and think thoughts of glory should spend a few evenings with this book. While it cannot place you there in person, any individual of moderate intellect will "see" and feel just how desperate the situation was. From babies being ripped apart for sport to surrendering soldiers being shot just for the hell of it, the rabid face of warfare is exposed at its ugly worst.
For students of history, the book presents a clear-cut and excellent chronology of the ill-fated and ill-advised, not to mention pointless, battle for the city. It traces the eventual collapse of the German forces trapped within the pocket created by the 19 November 1942 Soviet counter-attack in which six Soviet armies cut off and surrounded the beleaguered German forces fighting tooth-and-nail for the city. Through the eyes of all combatants, Craig presents the reader with visions of the chaos created in the personal battle between the maniacal egos that were Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin. That one battle can be considered the turning point for the war in Europe. Until that fateful event, the German forces truly were considered invincible by many - and until that point, the inane military leadership of Adolf Hitler was hidden by the continued success of his excellent troops. Stalingrad was a turning point, not only for the outcome of the war, but for the way many Germans, both military and civilian, viewed their government.
For students looking for more information on the sniper dual itself, there is very little information to be gleaned. The work is well worth the read as a historical perspective on the overall war and the battle for the East, but understand going into it that if you were looking for more details on the famous dual, this is not the best source for that story. Oddly, you will more than likely glean more "factual" information from the fictional work, War of the Rats by David L. Robbins, which deals almost exclusively with that event and the events surrounding it. Do not be confused. Even though the movie Enemy at the Gates uses the title of William Craig's book, only a few small paragraphs are dedicated to the life of Vassili Zaitsev and his lover, Tania Chernova. Theirs is a remarkable story unto itself, and certainly deserved a deeper review. But to be honest, that was not the reason for writing Enemy at the Gates. It stands perfectly well on its own merits as a historical work covering the entire battle, not just one man and his duel.
I highly recommend the book Enemy at the Gates to any reader who wants better insight into what happened during that fateful winter in 1942. The brutality can never be exposed with deep enough emotion on paper, but to anyone not wanting to repeat the mistakes of the past, or wanting to see how deeply humanity can fall in the name of a cause, a book like Enemy at the Gates is worth every moment of time spent reading it.
As a final note, just to illustrate the fog of events, you will note that in my reviews of Enemy at the Gates (the book,) Enemy at the Gates (the movie), and War of the Rats, certain principle names appear with various spellings. The name Konig, Koenigs, and Konigs all represent the same individual, yet the name appears differently in several articles and works on the man. Likewise, Tanya sometimes appears as Tania Chernova, and Vassili as Vasely Zaitsev. I view these all as minor inconsistencies on account of translations between the Russian and German languages into English. One thing is certain: if you want to read the most about Zaitsev, Chernova, Kulikov, and the others, read War of the Rats. While sold as a fictional work, most of the individual events of import DID take place and are documented in that work. Of the books I have read thus far on the duel or the man, it is the only one to leave me feeling like I know a little more about the participants and their story.