“Altogether Too Reflective”

Søren Kierkegaard

I am well aware that as a human being I am very far from being a paradigm; if anything, I am a sample human being. With a fair degree of accuracy, I give the temperature of every mood and passion, and when I am generating my own inwardness, I understand these words: homo sum, nil humani a me alienum puto [I am a human being, I hold that nothing human is alien to me]. But humanly no one can model himself on me, and historically I am even less a prototype for any human being. If anything, I am someone who could be needed in a crisis, as a guinea pig that life uses to feel its way. A person half as reflective as I would be able to be of significance for many people, but precisely because I am altogether reflective I have none at all. As soon as I am outside my religious understanding, I feel as an insect with which children are playing must feel, because life seems to have dealt with me so unmercifully; as soon as I am inside my religious understanding, I understand that precisely this has absolute meaning for me. Hence, that which in one case is a dreadful jest is in another sense the most profound earnestness. Earnestness is basically not something simple, a simplex, but is a compositum [compound], for true earnestness is the unity of jest and earnestness. —Søren Kierkegaard, Stages on Life’s Way


The Bludgeon

German POW Surrendering to Russian Defender at Stalingrad

For us, it was the last “Good War.” For the Russians, it was “The Great Patriotic War,” in which 20-30 million soldiers and civilians died defending the Rodina, or Fatherland. I am currently reading David M. Glantz and Jonathan M. House’s When Titans Clashed: How the Red Army Stopped Hitler.

I’m not going to say we had it easy on the Western Front: There’s a lot we don’t know and perhaps never will know about some of the horrors of the Sicilian and Italian campaigns, as well as D-Day and its aftermath in France, Belgium, and Germany. (If you can, see John Huston’s WW2 documentaries, especially The Battle of San Pietro.) But there was something particularly horrible in the way that the two great 20th century dictators, Hitler and Stalin, moved great numbers of men and materiel across the Russian steppe as if it were a chessboard:

The superb German fighting machine was defeated by more than distance. The German rapier, designed to end conflict cleanly and efficiently, was dulled by repeated and often clumsy blows from a simple, dull, but very large Soviet bludgeon. That bludgeon took the form of successive waves of newly mobilized armies, each taking its toll of the invaders before shattering and being replaced by the next wave.

Stalin had a huge supply of manpower at his beck and call. Once the Nazis invaded Russia during Operation Barbarossa, their forces kept getting farther and farther from their source of supply, while, at the same time, the Russian supply lines were getting shorter and shorter as the battle zone neared Moscow, Leningrad, and Stalingrad.

It was not just a matter of manpower, however.The Russians were developing new tanks that could take on the best that the Panzer divisions could throw against them, new fighters and bombers that harassed the rapidly dwindling Luftwaffe, and bringing terrifying new weapons such as the Katyusha rocket launchers that helped to turn the tide against the hapless Germans, who were stuck fighting a two-front war once the Americans and British invaded North Africa, Italy, and France.

We don’t think much about the Eastern Front. After all, we weren’t there. And we were taught that the real show was in Western Europe. The Germans knew, though, that it was in Russia that the coffin nails were pounded into the Thousand-Year Reich. Hitler wound up blowing his brains out, while Stalin died in bed.

No, we don’t like to credit the Russians for their victory; but they deserved it. They certainly gave up enough to achieve it.