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Survival of the Cowardice
'The Stalin Front' by Gert Ledig
Darwin’s Curse on the Eastern Front
What does Darwin say? Darwin says, in loose terms, that a heritable trait—whatever heritable trait at all—most favourable to survive in its respective environment allows its bearers an increased rate of survival and therefore reproduction compared to those lacking the favourable trait. Thus, the presence of the favourable trait in question, through the propagation of its associated genotype in a greater and greater percentage of individuals, is increased in a given population over time. Traits are not only elements of physical appearance, but anything that is hereditary including character, temperament, and aspects of personality. For example, the hereditary T-type personality is sometimes considered a ‘thrill-seeker personality,’ wherein some sort of dopamine disregulation incites individuals that carry this trait to pursue extreme risk. Taken altogether, involving not one trait but tens of thousands, this process of genetic alteration in populations lays the foundation of the theory of natural selection.
Herbert Spencer coined this mechanism of natural selection as ‘survival of the fittest,’ which must be understood as the survival of the most fit to survive, rather than the most fit outright, per se. As Darwin describes, based on the surrounding conditions that determines the relative favourability of traits, the ‘most fit’ are thus ‘naturally selected for’. Crucially, if traits can be selected for, then traits can be selected against too.
Darwin’s theory of natural selection, like Gert Ledig’s novel The Stalin Front, rests on the border between chaos and order. Order; because of its cold, hard science, and chaos; because of the actual nature of the cold, hard science, that is, which traits in what environments can be considered suitable is always changing. Likewise, Ledig applies ordered, cold, hard descriptions to the combat scenes set before him, which are forced to become incomprehensible when the setting, in the chaos of war, becomes impossible to describe.
An important similarity at play is that Darwin, by his scientific theory, and Ledig, by his literary technique, both commit to a method that operates independently of anywhere it might lead to. It is this commitment to method that allows Darwin and Ledig to exist at the border between chaos and evil. Another way of explaining this quality is to say that the scientific method is not necessarily a moral method (e.g. you can use science for eugenics, or science for medicine), and the method of accurate narrative description is not necessarily a romantic approach (e.g. you can use the method to describe good or evil). There is no good or bad in nature, as Jung says. Above all, like a method, nature just is. There are two sides to every coin, and both sides share the same ridge that is the border between them.
What doesn’t Darwin say? Darwin doesn’t tell us much of—or at least we don’t hear much of—the flip side, the other side of the coin. In loose terms, the ones that possess the favourable traits that permit survival and enable a greater rate of reproduction that allows those traits to be passed on are not necessarily the ‘fittest’ or most desirable at all. That is, the ‘favourable’ traits are sometimes not what we would be consider to be favourable at all. In other words, that which makes us better people, that which allows us to be principled citizens, decent, respectable, admirable, etc, not only does not actually help us to survive (and therefore reproduce) but in fact can function quite strongly in the other direction.
Perhaps there is a heritable gene that urges someone to run up the stairs of a skyscraper about to collapse. Perhaps there is a heritable gene that encourages someone to run into a burning building, jump into a fast-flowing river, or blow up a bridge, along with yourself, to prevent enemy advance. You would agree that the those that possess this heroic gene, those honourable individuals, simply have a harder time surviving, and thus a harder time passing this gene along than others. The logical extension of this impression is revealed in the devastating proclamation made in the title of the infamous New Yorker article about 9/11 hero Rick Rescorla: All of The Real Heroes Are Dead.
Darwin’s curse is that, in this world, favourable (desirable) traits are ‘unfavourable’, and that unfavourable (undesirable) traits are favourable. Darwin’s curse is that various heritable traits we would ideally wish to be selected for are selected against, and various heritable traits we would ideally wish to be selected against, are selected for. Darwin’s curse is that cowardice, not absolute cowardice, but cowardice nonetheless, is selected for, while the honour is selected against. Darwin’s curse is that the honourable men—all the heroes—are already dead because not only is honour the trait not selected for, but specifically selected against.
None of this is Darwin’s fault, of course, he was just the one that pointed it out and gave a name to the mechanism that had existed independently of anyone else realizing its precise methodology. Darwin’s curse, in its total form, is that humans are capped in the collective honour that they could ever achieve. Evil swallows absolute good, who perhaps swallow absolute evil in exchange, but the sequence allows for the the partially evil, and the partially good, to survive. Human nature remains constant because we can neither get better nor worse. In our world, and in The Stalin Front, and one manifestation of ‘survival of the fittest,’ is ‘survival of the “cowardist.”’
There is a scene, for example, near the end of The Stalin Front, in which the retreating Germans pile into a train in desperation, suffocating and smothering each other to carve out one square inch for themselves in the railroad cars they believe to be their escape. Except, they are really have stuffed into, as Ledig puts it, “The train that wasn’t a train,” for, the train, not that the solders could tell, had no engine, and, perhaps the soldiers could have seen if they looked, the it’s wheels were suspended on wooden blocks. The Germans who successfully made it into the train compartments only succeeded in becoming something akin to fish in a barrel for the advancing Soviets. Other Germans packed into the former division headquarters, having temporarily make the better decision. But Ledig gives the impression that everyone that has survived, should have already died, if they had had any honour. “Amidst all the confusion, the local headquarters was life a lifeboat in a flood. It was where all those assembled, with their guilty consciences, who had already left the sinking ship.”
But can we blame them? For, is it not the human instinct to survive, perhaps more than to be honourable? For, are we not the descendants of those that managed to survive? Not them, of course, but others like them, perhaps, at some point, in the distant, unknowable past, during the rare but certain occasions the spell of Darwin’s curse was told? Darwin’s curse is rare to act, for it lies mostly dormant over the course of time and proliferates to the extreme only in times of tragedy, war, and conflict. In evolutionary biology, these asymmetrically charged short spans of times that carry weighty effects are referred to as ‘rapid cladogeneses.’
When Darwin’s curse speaks does so loudly and brutally, and Darwin’s curse speaks and runs rampant all along the Eastern Front, breathing life, and often death, onto the mangled earth of the Stalin Front. Indeed, the Eastern Front is where the spell of Darwin’s curse is told; the Stalin Front is where the honourable go to die, the cowardly live, the lucky are killed without pain, the unlucky have to look at the ground then their own hand to check that the one strewn in the dirt below them is not their own, then their other hand again to make sure.
The Stalin Front by Gert Ledig (1955) is elegant in its savagery. The novel depicts an indeterminable length of time in an unspecific mass of land between two armies made up of mostly unidentifiable characters. Those armies are the Soviet and German armies, the unmarked land is somewhere in the midst of the always moving Eastern Front, and the unrevealed setting is sometime in the latter half WWII, as the Germans are being pushed out of Russia. There is little contextual description, almost no historical information, nothing that Ledig thinks could detract from the book’s straight-line portrait of chaos.
The tone-setting opening image of The Stalin Front, which depicts the cruel and tragic fate of a nameless Lance-Corporal, cascades in five scattered stages throughout the novel’s first pages, and is too effective and too brutal to not share in full. I have isolated and numbered these five steps for clarity here:
“The Lance-Corporal couldn’t turn in his grave, because he didn’t have one.”
“Some three versts from Podrova, forty versts south of Leningrad, he had been caught in a salvo of rockets, been thrown up in the air, and with severed hands and head dangling, been impaled on the skeletal branches of what once had been a tree.”
“Half an hour later, when the crippled tree trunk was taken off an inch or two above the ground by a burst of machine-gun fire, his wrecked body came down anyway. In the intervening time, he had also lost a foot. The frayed sleeves of his tunic were oily with blood. By the time he hit the ground, he was half a man.”
“Once the tank-tracks had rolled out the Lance-Corporal, a fighter plane loosed off its explosive cannon fire into the mass of shredded uniform, flesh and blood. After that, the Lance-Corporal was left in peace.”
“For four weeks, he gave off a sweetish smell. Till only his bones were left on the grassy forest floor. He never got a grave.”
This opening is a harsh welcome the Eastern Front, the destroyer of all life whether it be flora, fauna, plant, animal, human. The introduction is the first beat of a constant rhythm of distraction that continues throughout the entirety of The Stalin Front, and raises the important themes of anonymity and dehumanization that proliferate within it. Not only does the Lance-Corporal not have a grave, he is not given a name or a side either. We are not told who killed him or what he was doing in advance of his death. We know more about the activity of his body after death than before it. Further, the close association of oil and blood equates man to machine. This pattern of anonymous, dehumanized suffering is repeated throughout the book, just as it is shown here; a nameless, contextless, rank stripped of all identity, suffering until death, and then still suffering, his humanity having been stripped and pressed into nothing except bone. The Lance-Corporal, still in the active tense, has gone from a man with a body, to a dead body without hands, albeit with its head dangling from it’s neck, now without a foot, to half a man, the body severed in two, now rolled out by a tank, now only bones.
I refer to The Stalin Front as elegantly savage because it rests laudably, like Darwin’s theory, on the boundary between order and chaos. The Eastern Front is a border between chaos and chaos, no doubt, the border between hell and hell, more likely, but the hellish description of this abyss is made so unquestionable through Ledig’s clear concise, and orderly language.
How to write about chaos? Ledig chooses to let the chaos stand for itself. In this, Ledig shares the qualities of Camus (The First Man) and Milosz (The Captive Mind), in particular, of describing the inarticulable in the most simple language possible. The order of Ledig’s language is itself a brilliant narrative technique, for it is when the language of the novel itself loses its established habit of order and descends into chaos that the chaos it describes becomes so striking and perceptible. By the end of the novel, the characters become increasingly difficult to follow. This complication is not the narrator’s fault, however, but instead Ledig’s commitment to his chosen method. Ledig allows his descriptions to lose precision by explicit intention, for, the land being traversed is in the midst of annihilation, and with it, the novel descends further into the chaotic world it depicts—a slow sinking into the earth that is progressively more and more destroyed.
Of course, the landscape is not alone in its cumulative destruction—the soldiers are actively being blown up in tandem with the solid ground they were just standing on one moment ago. Thus we make an amendment: it is not only the land being annihilated, it is the soldiers too. In the spirit of authenticity, by his method, the narrator can only do so well as to see the disintegrating surroundings from the decaying, struggled, senses of his characters. Markers such as bunkers, sentries, command posts, no longer exist. Take the following example of a solider coming across what turns out to be a tank, “Among the shrubbery, he thought he recognized the outline of a ruined hut. Then another, squatter, outline. Suddenly he knew what they were: tanks.” The narrator can only describe what he can see and speak of what he can tell. German and Russian soldiers are indistinguishable when their faces are ripped off, their uniforms are torn to bloody shreds, and their dead bodies lie facing down into the mud.
The Stalin Front’s original German name was ‘The Stalin Organ’, which is the nickname of a particular MLR (multiple rocket launcher) introduced on the Eastern Front in WWII. German troops coined the nickname Stalinorgel [Stalin's organ] alluding to both the visual resemblance of the weapon’s launch array to a pipe organ and the distinctive howling sound made by its rocket motors.
The Germans developed and used a multiple rocket launcher too, though the German version didn’t make have the same noise, its distinctive “wailing of an out of an out-of-tune organ pipe,” as did its Soviet counterpart. By the weapons resembling organs so closely, you would think it could belt out a D-minor scale if they were not in the middle of a scorched, war-torn land. But that is not the song it plays, for the only song it knows is the song of death. The Stalin Organ stands as left and right speakers to the active field of war, marking the zone of obliteration. The dominant presence of the Stalin Organ on the Eastern Front, allows the term to be used interchangeably with the label, ‘The Stalin Front’, as is done in the English translation of the title.
Gert Ledig himself was one such soldier stationed within the launch and landing zones (they are indistinguishable) of the Stalin Organ. Ledig initially volunteered for the Wehrmacht in 1939 and was transferred to the Eastern Front in 1941, where he was injured later that year right before the start of the Battle of Leningrad. After the war, Ledig worked as a translator for the US Army and then worked as an author from 1953 onwards, publishing his debut novel, Die Stalinorgel [The Stalin Organ/Front] in 1955.
While Ledig fought on the Eastern Front, he is not, or at least not seemingly, a soldier in the field of battle himself. Further to this fact, only a few characters in the novel are granted the honour of names. To be sure, the theme of anonymity may be the most important idea of The Stalin Front. War is depicted to be the onslaught of anonymity; a soldier is a soldier is a soldier, unless he is a Colonel, a Captain, a Sergeant, a NCO. To have identity is to be human, and to be human is not to be a soldier on the Eastern Front: on Stalin’s Front, on the border of evil, on the border between evil and evil, on the field of Darwin’s curse.
The door opened: names arrived. The door closed: names departed. Here, life was given a number, and death a number.
Gert Ledig, The Stalin Front
When they are occasionally found in The Stalin Front, the personal descriptions are viscerally impersonal, and actually almost devastating in their true lack of personality. For instance, Ledig describes a soldier who can no longer remember what his wife of 20 years looks like. We are finally given a story! A soldier has a wife! But alas, he cannot recall what she looks like. Biographical details sneak into the narrative for effect, reminding the reader that each soldier that has been so completely stripped of their identities do still have one, lest they ever recall it. In this manner, we are told of German soldier, having been arraigned by military police for hiding near the front line, being interrogated by a Sergeant on his reasoning for not following orders:
‘You’re a Sergeant...’
‘Yes. Have you received your sentence?’ Maybe he might hear something that came in handy.
‘Not yet,’ said the boy.
‘But you’re waiting to hear?’
‘Yes.’ The boy looked dully, eyes front. The other three were watching them.
‘And what did you do?’
The sergeant whispered: ‘Hid?’
‘We were to storm the Russian trenches, and I hid. On account of my mother.’
‘The Sergeant was disappointed. Fear would have been another matter, ‘your mother?’ he asked, indifferently.
‘She’s alone, and I’m all that she has in the world. Can you understand that.’
The Sergeant looked at the scrawny body, the bony fingers, the yellow skin that pulled across the cheekbones. Suddenly he said, ‘Well, I’m sure you’ll never see your mother again!’
Strikingly, the Sergeant finds it more objectionable that the boy has hidden on account of a family member, on account of an aspect of his personal history—a valid reason, really—than to have hidden out of pure fear. It is almost more of an offence for the boy to have acted as if he had another life, to have done something for his mother, than commit the actual offence he carried out. For a solider in an army, there is no life before the war; war is the start of a new life and the end of a past one. Soldiers cannot be soldiers if they think themselves as sons—the roles are mutually exclusive. Soldiers fight in wars, not sons.
The glass reflected a stranger’s grimacing face. His own face.
Gert Ledig, The Stalin Front
While Ledig fought on the Eastern Front in the German army, as narrator, he does not take the German side. Ledig’s only allegiance is to the side of the soldier. The Stalin Front’s impartiality in this regard is one of its most admirable qualities, especially considering the author did fight for one of the embattled sides, and was injured in the line of duty. The translator of the work, author Michael Hofmann, makes note of Ledig’s impartiality in his introduction, “It is characteristic of Ledig that he treats both sides equally; he is almost democratically impartial in his treatment.” In The Stalin Front there is no moral distinction, no favouritism, ethical preference, bias, good side, bad side, us and them, between the German and the Russian armies. What there is, is war. War, from the soldier’s perspective, is not a battle of morality, it is a battle of bullets. The plot of the book initially finds the armies apart, but converging in the form of a sustained Russian counter-attack and a German refusal, for a time, to surrender their position. The soldiers of both armies end up tangled with each other physically, mentally, and most importantly, equally.
One such instance of the novel’s entangled moralistic equitability is an enigmatically brutish interaction between a Russian Lieutenant and a captured German Captain. After a brief engagement that has resulted in the German Captain being taken prisoner by his Russian captor, a piercingly friendly conversation ensures. “Our battalion had the honour of storming your position. Unfortunately not wholly successfully. As you may have realized yourself,” says the Lieutenant. The Lieutenant’s ultimate aim is to induce his German prisoner to encourage his German comrades to surrender their impossible position, but the brutality of the war is not reflected in this conversation, which perhaps it makes it all the more brutal; the fact that the sense is given that entire war could be solved by a well-mannered conversation between rational actors rather than through the suffering and death of millions.
Of course, there is a threatening undertone, but there is not outwardly threatening action. We might expect the Lieutenant to demand the Captain’s compliance with a gun to the temple but this violent approach is seemingly not the Lieutenant’s desired way of doing things. The two officers are figuratively and literally brought together through the sharing of a cigarette and the by the Lieutenant’s admission, in German, that he always felt more at home in Germany than in Russia. For a moment, they speak the same languages: both German and the language of war.
Sure, the cigarette is offered to the Captain in a case holding both cigarettes and German dog tags, but the threat is friendly! The German, understanding the threat, hesitantly removes a cigarette from the case. “I would like some information from you” says the Lieutenant. Yes, it’s a business, yes the currency is either one’s treason or one’s life, but there is dignity and empathy amongst these enemies. Yes, the Lieutenant is using the Captain as a tool to encourage the German soldiers to surrender their impossible position but both are acting with a similar purpose and for the same cause. For, they are just being soldiers, they are only carrying out their respective duties and implicitly understand each other in such pursuits. The German captain thinks to himself, “Here we are, two colleagues, teaching the same subject.” The Captain and Lieutenant, in spite of their official opposition, speak without prejudice, without hate, and with only duty; two men doing what they are told.
Perspective is a key element of The Stalin Front, and its distant, yet close, objectivity—Ledig’s ability to zoom in and out at the same time—helps to frame it’s argued unity of anonymous destruction between soldiers, and aspects of common experience in war other than what is expected between two opposing armies. War is so easy to explain when one side is good and one side is bad. Although this very well might be the case, what if both German and Russian soldiers are just soldiers scared shitless taking order from higher command, fighting out the shared death sentences of their duty and the powers that have made it so?
It all depended on circumstances. And circumstances changed.
Gert Ledig, The Stalin Front
Ledig’s objectivity is not the critiqued ‘both sides-ism’, it is simply perspective, it is commitment to the method, and it may even be ridicule. Take the following point of view, for example. “A beetle in shining armour dragged a blade of grass across the path.” Ledig’s image of a beetle carrying a single blade of grass as an analogy to the soldier’s carrying arms on the Eastern Front evokes Walter Kempowki’s infamous exasperation, “What was it for!” On some distant level, the Eastern Front is like a war between beetles, fighting about a single blades of grass. In this view, do we have good beetles and bad beetles? Who is the good side and the bad side in war between opposing groups of beetles? Is it more accurate to say that good and bad does not exist at this level? Or, if a moral determination does exist, it at least cannot be known.
There is a lurking argument that the German and Russian soldiers are superficial enemies to one another, and even fellow comrades under a master they share and against an opponent that is not each other, that they are unified victims to the same belligerents. So who are the real enemies here? In The Stalin Front, Ledig shows that Death is the one true master, and higher command the true enemy.
To wit, Zostchenko, feverish and subdued with pain, imagines an interaction with a General giving orders to whilst protected in a cage Zostchenko can never gain access to. The scene is a playing out of Zostchenko’s known condemnation to death, that is otherwise referred to as duty that higher command demands. It almost seems as if Zostchenko is fighting more against his own General than the enemies he is meant to have.
‘You are a hero, and I need heroes in the wall of soldiers around me,’ said the General. He obeyed. The enemy charged. ‘Be loyal and die,’ boomed the voice from the cage. The soldiers were loyal, and died. The human wall weakened. ‘I will come to your aid,’ said the General. But the cage did not open. ‘May we live?’ asked the soldiers. ‘No,’ answered the General, ‘you must never break your oath.’ There was hand-to-hand fighting between the soldiers and the enemy. ‘No one is to surrender,’ came an angry voice from the cage. He received a blow. Saw blood flowing from a wound. ‘Let me into the cage,’ he implored the General. ‘Back you go!’ shouted the General. He was afraid of the General. He fought on, but his strength was ebbing away. The enemy broke into the wall of soldiers. The soldiers fell. The enemy came ever closer to the cage. He was swimming in blood. Blood mixed with a stream of tears. An army of children was weeping for the soldiers. The General in his cage covered his ears. ‘Is everyone dead now?’ asked the General. ‘I’m still alive,’ he admitted. ‘Fight till you die,’ commanded the General. Zostchenko crawled among the bodies of the dead soldiers, and didn’t answer when the General asked his question a second time. The enemy knocked on the cage. ‘I surrender,’ said the General cheerfully. He saw him step outside. The General was sweating, because it was hot in the cage. The General left the heights behind. He had forgotten all about them…
Gert Ledig, The Stalin Front
Cowardly Generals do not die in war. They likely survive at almost perfect rates. So are their traits not more favourable? Do you understand Darwin’s curse now?
Both sets of soldiers also have a common master in Death. Ledig describes the united relationship as such, “The master of the hill was Death. The Germans and he, Lieutenant Trupikov, and his men—two useless groups of men, confronted by death. They might have done better to come to terms, like businesspeople.” Death is the master on the Eastern Front, and there are only two important sides; no, not the Russians and Germans, only the dead and the alive, or perhaps more accurately the dead and the dying. On the Stalin Front, “Death [reaps] his harvest.” Through such a depiction, the enemy is not the expected enemy—the other army. The enemies are higher command, duty, Death, and maybe even God. And it is Darwin, maybe. It all depends on circumstances. And perspective.
Anonymity and equitability through dehumanization combine for chilling effect throughout The Stalin Front. In the scene referenced in the opening section of the review, in which a soldier hurriedly looks at his own hand to ensure that the hand lying on the mud, limp and motionless, attached to no arm is not his own. The episode tells us of the nature of pain on the Eastern Front, specifically, that there is no room for any more. The soldier could hardly tell by just feeling amidst all the other active sources of pain whether his own hand was still attached to his arm and he wears the same ring as the detached hand. The soldier looks down to his ring and knows it isn’t, but only by feeling his ring. They key idea it is could have been anyone’s hand, from any side, in this cataclysmic field of anonymity.
In war, the most honourable soldiers never return home. They jump on a grenade to save their comrades. They are first in, up, down, through. They are last back, they are not back at all. They run first, they run fastest, they look the enemy right in the eye. No, the most honourable soldiers in war do not come home. In war, the most absolutely favourable traits are selected against: this, in essence, is Darwin’s curse.
Darwin’s curse is that we are the fated middle, the mass of nameless humanity that moves easiest from past to present to future. The cumulative effect of such movement is that we lose our good and inherent our evil. I am hazard to say that our ancestors to survive were cowards. Perhaps they were not cowards, but somewhere along the line, someone, sometime, through either some action or the avoidance of some action was not as honourable as they could have been. And that is precisely why they survived, and precisely why we are allowed to exist. Humanity’s advance is stunted by the limit of courageousness we have already achieved. Is this not why wars and evils repeat? The honourable died, and die, combatting them. The rest of us live. Absolute evil dies in war, yes, but so does absolute honour. Humanity is condemned to the middle ground, forever. This is the upshot of Darwin’s curse: the ‘survival of the cowardist’.
The soldiers on the Eastern Front do not merely await death, no, they await annihilation. There is no gentle death on the Eastern Front. Their bodies will be blown up, torn to pieces, disheveled, littered with holes, and ground like powder into the destroyed earth. Maybe they will be found. If found, maybe they will be recognizable. If recognizable, maybe they will be identified. But likely not. Perhaps the one escape of Darwin’s curse is total death; what can Darwin’s say if everyone is dead, if there isn’t a favourable or unfavourable trait that makes any difference, if luck is the only thing that determines survival, what does Darwin say then?
Death, this unified experience, is the only release from brutality. And that release is rendered:
Soloviev had stood next to him, blinking his eyes, the way he always did. Was about to say something to him. He could see it from his eyes, his mouth. His whole face told him. But then he hadn’t said it, his eyes had just grown round with shock. As if he had trodden on a piece of glass with bare feet. Not too alarmed. No expression of fear. A disagreeable surprise, nothing too terrible. And it was like that that he had received death. Zostchenko didn’t know where he was hit. Soloviev sat down. Not quite like a man sitting down, but not like a man wounded either. Surprised, but content. He was already dead.
Gert Ledig, The Stalin Front
Darwin can say nothing if everyone is dead and near its conclusion, The Stalin Front takes a slow turn towards this common fate. Death is a tragic release from their suffering but the reader is relieved of a character’s death. Can you imagine how brutal the conditions of war are when death is cathartic? This is the scene Ledig is able to create in The Stalin Front, the best account of war I have read. The Stalin Front says the one question that should never be asked of is whether it is just. For, do we care about the justice of beetles? Does God care about the justice of men? It is all about perspective. Similarly, is the theory of natural selection just, or, can its justice be described by saying that it…just is?
Since I began writing this review, another Eastern Front of sorts has been re-opened upon the Russian invasion of Ukraine. There are new armies, new reasons, new outrage, but the same plight of soldiers and civilians. Death once again reaps it’s plentiful harvest. And what did I say about wars repeating? Darwin’s curse speaks again, lamentably, and not for the last time.