The Nazi science of mass murder was first put to the test in occupied eastern Europe. Hitler’s plan to acquire “living space” for German settlers in Russia required the elimination of entire Slav populations. This was done by gassing, shooting or by a slow death from hunger. Though historians have paid it little attention, Hitler’s “hunger plan” was integral to his war against the Jews and other “useless mouths”. In this impressive book, Anna Reid turns an appalled eye on the German’s two-and-a-half-year-long siege of the city.
Leningrad: Tragedy of a City Under Siege, 1941-44
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With scholarship and narrative verve, Reid makes effective use of diary accounts and other material kept by survivors. Inevitably, hers is a chronicle of human loss; what happened in Russia’s pre-revolutionary capital was unspeakable, inhuman. By January 1944, when the Wehrmacht finally began to retreat, around 750,000 civilians had been deliberately starved to death. This amounted to a quarter of Leningrad’s population.
At this book’s terrible heart is a warning to those who deliver facile judgments or condemnations: only those who survived the siege have the right to judge or condemn. And even they may not be properly fit to do so, for those who fathomed the depths of human degradation in Leningrad did not survive to tell the tale. From KGB files, Reid has uncovered the extent to which Leningraders resorted to cannibalism, for many years a taboo subject in the Soviet Union. The typical Leningrad “cannibal”, though, was neither the Sweeney Todd of legend, nor a bestial lowlife, but a housewife seeking protein to save her children. In the agonised hunt for food, sustenance of sorts could be got from the bodies that lay unwept-for and disregarded in the snow. Contrary to the official Soviet narrative, the siege did not sanctify its victims.
During the early months of the siege, Leningraders were dying at a rate of 100,000 a month. Hitler had blockaded all supply routes to the city; temperatures plummeted to -30C. In desperation, some blokadniki killed their neighbours for ration cards. German army intelligence gloatingly reported on the effects of famine diseases such as dysentery and typhus.
As well as a vivid documentary, Leningrad is a key to understanding totalitarian incompetence. Disastrously, Stalin failed to evacuate Leningrad before the siege ring closed and made little attempt to stockpile extra food when it was still possible. As starvation set in, inhabitants began to boil calf skins for hoped-for nutrition or eat joiner’s glue made from the bones and hooves of slaughtered livestock. Fantasy menus or succulent meats were dreamed up in conditions of appalling isolation. “Hunger has changed almost everyone,” a diarist despaired. A windfall piece of bread could make all the difference between life and death.
As Reid reminds us, Hitler’s invasion of the USSR on 22 June 1941 had taken Stalin by surprise. In spite of their ideological differences, the dictators had been united in their determination to destroy Poland, having carved up the country in the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact of 1939. Without this opportunist alliance, Hitler would not have been able to implement the mass killings of Jews in Poland, or Stalin been able to deport thousands of Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian “enemies of the people” to the frozen immensity of Siberia. Now, unexpectedly, the former allies were at deadly loggerheads.
For all that Reid conveys horror, her book is filled with tales of ordinary heroism and fortitude. A family at death’s door learns Pushkin by heart: Hitler could make their bodies starve, but not their minds. Orthodox Christians convinced themselves that the siege was sent as a test for mankind – an intolerable but manifest mystery of His will. Thus religion served as a defence against dehumanisation. Even today, Leningraders are learning to understand the wartime demolition of their city and its inhabitants. There have been other military sieges in recent times but none so ferocious, so total in its effect. Having starved the city into submission, the Nazi plan was to raze it outright. Leningrad is magnificent living history: all life and death is in these burning pages.
Ian Thomson’s biography of Primo Levi is published by Vintage