In two previous posts (here and here) I shared quotes from the chapter on France, and I expressed worry that the rest of the book couldn't live up to the descriptions and the shock of learning how much explosive stuff was still left in France after two world wars. Turns out I was wrong to be concerned. Mainly because all of the history I've read about World War II has been written by westerners. I have a feeling if I'd read about how Russians still think about Stalingrad (not that that link tells about the starvation, hardships, etc. on both sides) - and the way the country is still effected by that war - I'd have known what I was going into. Specifically hundreds of thousands of skeletons.
40% in, the first part is about how bodies were left or partially buried everywhere and some farmers just plowed whatever was or had made it above ground back into their fields and planted crops there. The author had previously asked why he wasn't seeing any skulls. Skulls weather and break up quickly, but the rest of the bones are found literally everywhere. Only in recent years has there been an attempt to identify German, Austrian, and Italian soldiers - identification tags can often still be found near the bodies.
"In another few minutes of driving the back roads - after passing an enormous field where a German graveyard was plowed to chaos before the bodies could be identified - we arrive at a pond fed by a small, iced-over creek, the River Rossoshka. Beyond it, a long, flat farmer's field recedes into the distance. This, Shtrykov tells me, was the Pitomnik airbase. "The airstrip was there," he says, pointing to the field. "But what you want is this way."
Ahead of us, littering fields that are blown with snow, the rounded shapes of skulls and the pickets of arm and leg bones are everywhere. There are tens of thousands of bones spreading away from us in every direction. Shtrykov bends forward and lifts a pair of round, white skulls from the earth. Each of Shtrykov's hands cradles one in the air. "Because of the balki, there has been no plowing here," Shtrykov says. "The skulls have not been broken up." He puts the skulls back down, walks two or three steps and grabs up two more skulls, lifting them to show me. "These men all died defending Pitomnik, an airfield where supply planes had stopped landing," he says, putting the skulls back down.
I walk away, looking at the endless skulls. On some of them, I can see only the paleness of their smoothly rounded backs. On others, the ovalesque holes where the spinal columns once attached are pointed toward the sky. Some show eye sockets or the blade-shaped triangles where noses once were, or they show rows of upper teeth and the dark seams of the nasal palates, or the corrugated junctions where two cranial plates have split, leaving the skull cracked wide open so snow has sifted inside. And there are not just tens of these skulls - or even hundreds. There are thousands."
(Balki are ravines. Annoyingly I can't find a quick link for that, but it's referred to earlier in the text.)
The reason it was particularly sad that the soldiers guarding that airfield died - that was where the planes bringing in food, etc. were supposed to land. And the soldiers knew not to expect any more. Planes weren't able to get in, yet Hitler refused to let the men surrender or retreat (a morale thing for the rest of the forces, among other reasons). Not that those who did surrender had things much better - the locals didn't have much food themselves thanks to the destruction of the war.
So far the book continues to be an excellent combination of historical summary of the battles interspersed with the author's current day travel/interviews with locals who show him the areas and explain what it was and is like for people to live and work on the land.
This is one book I don't think I have to explain away my slowness in reading. It hasn't depressed me as much as it has made me realize how inadequate my history reading has been for learning how local people still feel about wars many decades in the past. I feel I've really neglected this area - sort of the social history of wars past - but at the same time it's not one that many history books look to discuss. I also realize how completely westernized my view of these wars are - I feel I need to read more of this history written by people who lived in these countries. Because for me reading how the locals describe the war and the dead is one of the best parts of this book. Or maybe the worst - because those descriptions are pretty bleak.