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Siege: A Novel of the Eastern Front, 1942 Russ Schneider

Siege: A Novel of the Eastern Front, 1942 by Russ Schneider reviewed by David Cloyce Smith

Hardcover: 420 pages
Publiser: Military Book Club/Book-of-the-Month Club; (April 2003)
ISBN: 1582880468

About the author: Before he died in 2000 at the age of 43, Russ Schneider wrote four books set in the Russo-German front during World War II. In addition to "Siege" (released posthumously by the Military Book Club), he published two collections of short stories and the nonfiction "Gotterdammerung 1945: German's Last Stand in the East."

Vist the author's website at New School UniversityVist the author's website

Review: All too often, novels in the genre of "military fiction" are overwhelmed by formulaic plotting, flat characterization, flaccid prose, and jingoistic ardor. Russ Schneider's "Siege," then, is a bracing exception: the captivating story erases the reader's knowledge of the historical outcome; the reluctant yet resolute soldiers are hardly superhuman; the writing manages to be both evocative and lyrical; and the author empathizes with the misery endured by the troops--without ever sympathizing with the German effort itself.

Even the prologue hints at the uniqueness of this work. Emaciated and wretched Russian prisoners are released from the Siberian Gulag, corralled into cattle cars, and shipped to the front, where they are chained to the inside walls of bunkers, handed guns, and forced to face the German onslaught. After this brief representation of the despair and terror of Stalin's human fodder, the perspective shifts to the German side for the remainder of the novel. Yet the vileness of the opening scene is so searing that most readers won't forget that, for the men forced to fight on the Eastern front, the brutality and senselessness of both sides is indistinguishable.

The majority of "Siege" is based on real events. In January 1942, Russian forces surrounded, trapped, and outnumbered troops under the command of Generalmajor Theodor Scherer--over 5,000 men--in the town of Cholm, where they held out for 105 days during one of the harshest winters on record. Six months later, Scherer found himself frustrated by another siege, in nearby Velikiye Luki, but this time he was on the outside, separated from the remainder of his forces.

While Schneider depicts Scherer as a benign if overburdened leader, the novel's nucleus comprises three fictional characters. The insolent Kordts and the garrulous teenager Freitag are the only men ensnared in both sieges. Freitag is the type of youngster who is liked, and protected, by everyone; the pair's odd friendship provides a shield for Kordts, whose coolness is viewed with suspicion by his superiors and fellow soldiers alike. During the second siege, the two men encounter Sergeant Schrader, who is drawn toward their magnetism, and Schrader's partiality for Freitag increases when his own companion is wounded and when Freitag himself is separated from Kordts. "Siege" is, above all, a tale about the resilience of friendship amidst great peril.

In the minds of all three men, both sieges take place, appropriately, in a geographical, political, and historical vacuum. For the most part, the troops in the trenches rarely knew what was happening in the world at large, and most German and Russian soldiers had little sense of the events that pushed them to slaughter each other. True--Hitler makes a cameo appearance, and the Holocaust is mentioned obliquely when Kordts encounters a group of SS officers sent to the front, but these token scenes seem obligatory rather than intrinsic to the story.

Schneider's style masterfully conveys the atmosphere, the violence, the boredom, the deprivation, the tension, and even the odors of the battlefront. He does, however, tend to repeat words and phrases numerous times within a sentence, between sentences, and from one paragraph to the next. More often than not, this singsong reiteration is a deliberate (and successful) attempt to be lyrical, poetic, or simply emphatic, but occasionally the repetition come across as--well, as merely repetitive. ("The gaps between actions made it somewhat easier to adopt a normal routine, with the actions themselves becoming somewhat more normal, one task among various other tasks.") These stylistic faults rarely detract from the overall impact, though, and perhaps the author would have polished his prose had he lived long enough to see his book published.

Furthermore, a map and a short glossary would have been thoughtful additions, since the Russo-German front is alien territory even for those with a background in World War II history. Nevertheless, because the setting is so claustrophobic-- taking place almost entirely within the confines of two small towns--readers who don't usually peruse military fiction should be able to follow the action without recourse to a reference shelf.

With historical accuracy, compassionate characterization, and (above all) a page-turning finale, "Siege" portrays the unthinkable limits of human endurance amidst the horrors of war. It deserves an audience beyond the membership of the Military Book Club, for which it was originally published, and it's satisfying to report that Ballantine Books will issue a paperback edition later this year.

--- Reviewed by
David Cloyce Smith


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