Tag Archives: David L. Robbins

The End of War, David L. Robbins

Bantam, 2000, 506 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-553-58138-4

Early 1945. The Third Reich is crumbling, attacked from two fronts: The Allies have been in Europe for six months and the Russians are pitting the might of their war machine against a battered German army. Both sides are rushing towards Berlin. Whoever first captures the capital will get to dictate Europe’s geopolitical history for decades. As high-level talks divvy up lines on a map, it’s up to the soldiers to suffer through the consequences of these decisions.

After writing about the battle of Stalingrad in The War of the Rats, David L. Robbins goes back to World War II with The End of War, a novel about the race for Berlin in the last few weeks of the European front. Not only a story about the end of WW2, The End of War is also a portentous narrative that suggests most of subsequent European history.

It is, naturally enough, a big subject, involving millions of men from more than three nations on two continents. The sweep of the events may be epic, but Robbins carefully restricts his characters to only a few. As he point out in the author’s foreword,

The End of War is constructed along the lines of a Greek tragedy: the gods discuss the affairs of man, then their Olympians intents are played at human level. In this novel, the gods are Winston Churchill, Josef Stalin, and Franklin Roosevelt. Lesser deities include General Dwight Eisenhower and Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery. The book’s corresponding mortals are three fictional characters – one Russian soldier, one German civilian, and one American photojournalist.

As the race toward Berlin heats up, the novel describes the high-level negotiations -Malta, Yalta, etc- that led to the Russian takeover of Berlin. Naturally enough, the most interesting storyline is the American one, as photojournalist Charley Bandy is closer to our own viewpoint. As an observer, he witnesses the battlefield as we would, and reacts to the discovery of Nazi atrocities much like we would too. The next most interesting storyline is Lottie’s story: as a female cellist stuck in Berlin as the two armies converge on their ultimate objective, she’s the viewpoint by which we witness the city being bombed in submission. Finally, the third storyline is a young Soviet Soldier’s perspective as he fights his way to Berlin. Some readers will probably find this to be the book’s strongest storyline, but it just seemed dull compared to the more immediate plights of the two others.

Yet, The End of War does a good job at telling the story leading up to the last few days of the European front. The historical credibility of the novel is high thanks to the depth of research demonstrated by the details of the narrative. But what’s even more effective is Robbin’s ability to convey the lassitude of the characters involved in the events. The endgame is as much a matter of endurance as of might, and the fatigue that permeates everyone’s decisions is palpable.

History buffs will undoubtedly devour The End of War as a compelling war story. There is a lot of material packed in those five hundred pages. While not stories here are as equally compelling, they all add up to an impressive historical portrait. It’s another splendid effort by Robbins; maybe not as memorable as the very personal sniper duel in War of the Rats, but impressive in its own right.

War of the Rats, David L. Robbins

Bantam, 1999, 474 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-553-58135-X

For all the horror and the suffering that came out of the period, World War Two is an inexhaustible source of great stories. Manhattan Project, Pearl Harbour, D-Day… The battle of Stalingrad, while less known in North America, stands as an equally fascinating event, a principal nexus of the Nazi’s Russian campaign and a turning point for, indeed, the whole war.

Numbers can only tell you so much: Both armies lost 1,109,000 men in that battle. The city’s population was reduced from 500,000 to 1,500 civilians, “Of the million and a quarter invading soldiers who rode across the Russian steppe to the gates of Stalingrad in August of 1942, fewer than thirty thousand ever returned to their homeland.” [P. 470]

But, as Stalin said, a million death is a statistic but a single death is a tragedy. In War of the Rats, David L. Robbins has found a way to humanize the conflict by focusing on that most personal of military killers, the sniper.

While no soldier is alike, snipers are a special breed themselves. While they carry a powerful scope rifle, their most efficient weapons are stealth and patience. They will burrow in an innocuous spot, patiently wait -sometime for hours- for their target to make a mistake, and then they will take a shot. One bullet, one kill. While they might take a shot from more than half a kilometer away, there’s no real distance between them and their target. While soldiers often have the luxury of convincing themselves that it’s always the guy to their sides who fired the lethal shot, snipers have no such comfort; each killing is theirs.

This sniper mystique is one of the many elements that come together successfully in War of the Rats. Based on real events, this novel is about the duel between a Russian and a German sniper in the ruins of Stalingrad during the fall of 1942. When the Germans become concerned about a Russian sniper hailed as a hero -Vasily Zaitsev-, they decide to take measures and send in their best shooter to track him down. It’s not the only story in the book, which uses this simple conflict as a springboard to describe the battle of Stalingrad, as well as a romantic affair between Zaitsev and an American-born (!) woman he trains as a sniper.

The historical authenticity of War of the Rats is deeply impressive, convincingly representing the atrocious conditions of the battles and doing its best to put us in the soldiers’ frame of mind during it all. Robbins has conducted good research (there’s a complete bibliography at the end of the book), and the results are there for us to enjoy. Zaitsev and Thorvald’s duel comes to symbolize the test of will between the two nations fighting over Stalingrad.

War of the Rats‘s principal flaws are its occasional lengths, which trade off energy for mood. The book is never snappy or flashy, but it does succeed admirably at building psychological suspense. It’s impressive to see what Robbins can do with a conflict in which both parties spend most of their time immobile, peering through a rifle scope.

This is a docu-novel that should immensely please war buffs and thriller readers to no end. Historically accurate yet no less exciting for it, psychologically claustrophobic and filled with suspense, this is a novel unlike any you’ve read before. Worth a detour.

(One last note: There is a recent film called ENEMY AT THE GATES, which also tells Zaitsev’s story though presumably not based explicitly on War of the Rats. Given the choice, see the film before reading the book. Not only will you be surprised at the differences between the film and the book -oh, those screenwriters!-, but the images of the film will help to ease you in the novel’s atmosphere. Though note that the German sniper Thorvalds looked nothing like Ed Harris.)