War in the East: weird twilight

, | Game diaries

It was often said in the Stalingrad pocket that it was better to have a cousin in the Luftwaffe than a Father in Heaven.

–Heinz Schroter

Seventy years ago this month, in a place between the Don and Volga Rivers, the Soviet Red Army broke through the front lines of the Germans and their Italian, Rumanian, and Hungarian allies. The 250,000 men of the Sixth Army were encircled, and over the course of the next ten weeks, starved, defeated, and destroyed. Few of its survivors saw their homes again.

Some years later, people with overactive imaginations and a lot of time on their hands invented a way to recreate these events using cardboard squares with numbers on them, paper maps covered in hexagons, and some six-sided dice. Want to drive a make-believe German tank over your dining room table? At one point in time, you could walk into many Toys R Us in the United States and buy a boardgame with a panzer and some German landsers on the cover, or Hitlerian code name for a title, like “Wacht Am Rhein”. Right down the aisle from Raggedy Ann and Andy. Now we download complete games about the war on the Eastern Front from the Internet and leave the stuffed dolls by themselves.

After the jump, we’re doing the War in the East thing again

I always wondered if the people represented by the half-inch square marked “26th Panzer Division” thought the whole enterprise grotesque, or just ridiculous. Until one day I organized a multiplayer game of GDW’s Fire in the East, a monster game about the invasion of Russia, and found that the player commanding Army Group Center in our cardboard recreation was the editor of the wargaming magazine Fire & Movement. And a long-time wargamer. And had invaded Russia in real life while serving in the Wehrmacht, ending the war as an officer in the 26th Panzer Division.*

So I’m always careful to think twice before drawing any lessons from anything involving wargames. That’s not to say that there aren’t lessons to be drawn, just that they probably aren’t what you or I think they are, or maybe for you and me they’re different. Some games have more to say to me than others. But in an escapist hobby like gaming — and I’m not just talking wargaming — it’s easy to go off to some imaginary land of history and spend the whole afternoon and evening there, and return feeling sort of empty-handed. Lately, I’ve been thinking about trying to bring something back.

When I was in high school, I worked at the local public library as my part-time job. Now I think most high schoolers make extra money by streaming videos of League of Legends, so I don’t think there’s much hope of anyone replicating my experience. Think of it as a weird story from the time of microfiche and typewriters. One of my jobs was something called “shelf-reading”. That’s where you make sure all the books are in sequential order, like Dostoevsky comes after Dos Passos in the fiction section. In nonfiction, I arranged to be in charge of the 900s, which if you know anything about the Dewey decimal system is the history part. I spent many weekday evenings and weekend afternoons pretending to be putting books in order, but really reading about the Roundheads, or Reconstruction, or important people named Roosevelt.

One book, Dewey number 940.54, was written by a guy named Heinz Schroter and entitled Stalingrad: The Battle That Changed the World. I picked it up because it had the magic word, “Stalingrad”. It immediately drew me in with its straightforward but bitter account of the common solider being sold out by the top brass, who were all in it for themselves, you betcha. I devoured it from cover to cover while shelf reading, and returned time and again, eventually rescuing it from the discards when its then thirty-year-old binding came apart. It still sits on my shelf at home.

The book jacket, from the 1955 English translation published by E.P. Dutton, has this dramatic description:

Heinz Schroter was there with the German Sixth Army, as a war correspondent. In 1943, he was ordered to write the official history of the battle, and all official records were made available to him. His frank and dramatic account, however, was banned by Goebbels as “unbearable for the German people”. Only after the war was Heinz Schroter able to rescue the manuscript, and since then he has expanded it with much new material. Besides studying all available written sources, the author has talked with many other survivors. He tells his terrible story clearly and factually, but also with the vividness and impact that only an eyewitness could bring to the subject.

Yeah, I know. It’s a little overdone. And I’ll have some things to say about eyewitness accounts in a future post. But Schroter’s writing carries a mix of bitter lament and clear-eyed wisdom irresistible to a high school junior mesmerized by a different kind of tragedy than the one he was reading in English class.

Yet there’s more to it than just tragedy, because the Battle of Stalingrad has something that transforms it from history into myth while you’re still learning about it. Unlike battles of comparable world-changing significance, like Waterloo or Gettysburg, it happened in a place that isn’t easily decoded with battle monuments and tour guides. The thing we call “Stalingrad” actually took place along a front over a thousand kilometers long, where historic points ranged from the 5,642-meter summit of Mount Elbrus, the tallest mountain in Europe, to a four-story fortified apartment building in the center of Stalingrad dubbed “Pavlov’s House” after the Soviet sergeant who was awarded the title Hero of the Soviet Union for his defense of the structure. Two locations so disparate that if you type them into Google Maps right now, it doesn’t know how to get you from one to the other. You’d think Sergey Brin would be able to give you directions.

David Glantz, our hero from last time, covers the German catastrophe of 1942 in his so-called “Stalingrad trilogy”, of which apparently only the first two books have actually been published. Volume I is entitled “To the Gates of Stalingrad” and covers the period from April to August, before the fighting in the city itself began in earnest. German Army Group A was tasked with racing south from the city of Rostov, at the eastern edge of the Sea of Azov, through the Caucasus to capture the oil fields which Hitler saw as key to German victory.

Simply stating the vast distances does not begin to suggest the challenges posed by the terrain. Although the area immediately south of Rostov, traversed from east to west by the mighty Kuban River, was one of rich collective farms, the cultivated region rapidly tapered off to the east into a high plateau, virtually a salt desert. Here, both sides would need not only food, ammunition, and gasoline, but also water, an essential to keep both men and draft animals alive. In turn, this hostile, boiling wasteland gave rise to the Caucasus Mountain range, 1,100 kilometers long and 100-200 kilometers deep, whose peaks rose to heights of more than 5,600 meters and where supply routes became even rarer and more valuable.

I don’t know how many movement points it takes to drive a PzKw III through Mordor, but that’s the same kind of feeling I get when I take out a map of Middle Earth, or of the World of Greyhawk, or Glorantha. There is something about the geography of extremes that fires the imagination, or at least the imagination that resides in the brain of certain people who send their D&D characters on voyages to an imaginary nowhere. The primitive nature of Russia at the time, combined with the location of the battle on the empty steppe under unremitting elements gives the whole thing an unreality that makes it feel almost like a battle of antiquity rather than something you may have heard about from survivors. I can’t think of a close second for geography and totality in the past few hundred years. Isandlwana? But the prolonged death throes of Sixth Army give this drama a pathos Aeschylus could only imagine. You can’t beat life for art.

There is a photograph in Heinz Schroter’s book of German prisoners walking down a snow-covered road after the end of the battle which almost reifies this limitlessness. Taken from behind the soldiers, they appear to be marching into a featureless horizon with just their huddled bodies providing silhouettes as they support each other on the seemingly endless trail. Their destination appears beyond comprehension. They could be marching to Pluto.

Stalingrad has so much in common with the things we use to construct our own Azeroths of dice that it’s probably the closest historical parallel to every last stand of space marines on a hostile planet in defense of an insane emperor you’re ever going to get. Nine out of every ten bad game stories about how there is no hope but we’re going to hold out to the last anyway could probably be re-written better as straight recounts of Dzerzhinsky Tractor Works or the Grain Elevator. How about a Stalingrad roguelike in which you fought your way to the Volga, each success taking you closer to the inevitable abyss of entrapment in a land with no escape? Call it Death of the Leaping Horseman. Eat that, game art theory thinkers.

If you read my previous War in the East game diaries, you know what’s coming. If you didn’t, then you don’t, and might want to check them out here. Either way, the Operation Blue scenario of Matrix Games’ War in the East starts next week. It’s always a cold winter in the Stalingrad pocket.

I said earlier that I wanted to bring something back from the weird twilight we visit when we inhabit a computer game. I have no idea what that is going to be. If you read along with me, maybe you’ll find something different than I do. I hope you’ll share.

*While I never met Fred Helfferich, I did correspond with him, and he was the editor who accepted my very first published magazine review back in 1985. I never realized that he had also been quite an accomplished chemist. When he signed up to be the commander of Army Group Center in the multiplayer game of Fire in the East I was running by mail, he pointed out to me the exact hex on the map of Russia in which he remembered spending a very miserable winter of 1942. You can read more about this remarkable man here.

War in the East game diary
How I learned to stop worrying and love the detail
Excuse me, which train goes to Voroshilovgrad?
Shklov’s labors lost
The rout report
Sid Meier’s Heinz Guderian’s Railroad Tycoon
State of siege
Baba Yaga’s Hut
The diablo is in the details
1-2-3 leader check check
Gaia ex machina
Race to the Finnish
Is Taifun that movie with the giant robots?
I shiver in my bones just thinking about the weather
Dreaming of a red Christmas
The reckoning