The first person we meet in this German war novel is already dead. Like most of the characters he is identified only by his rank (Lance Corporal). Killed by a rocket salvo, he dangles from a tree in a forest outside Leningrad. His hands and one foot are missing. A machine gun burst cuts down the tree and slices him in half. A Soviet tank rolls over the mangled corpse, which is finally strafed by a fighter plane. "After that, the Lance Corporal was left in peace," writes Gert Ledig, not without a certain pitch-black humor.
The missing hands and foot are a typical Ledig detail, both gruesome and clinically precise. Ledig fought on the German side during the siege of Leningrad, a notably bloody three-year struggle that killed more than 600,000 soldiers and civilians, most of them Russian. Later in the war he was sent back to Germany, where he studied naval engineering and was caught in several air raids. The Stalin Front was Ledig's first novel. After being rejected by fifty publishers, it appeared in 1955 under the German title Die Stalinorgel (The Stalin Organ), a Wehrmacht slang term for the Soviet multiple rocket launcher that has already killed the Lance Corporal as the story begins.
There are no heroes in this book, only terrified soldiers fighting to survive in a world of grotesque ultraviolence that makes A Clockwork Orange read like Jane Austen. Many of the characters are also haunted by private miseries that color the mayhem in which they exist. A German major is ordered to the front after receiving a telegram announcing that his wife and daughter have been killed in an air raid. An attacking Russian captain walks over German corpses while flashing back to his dead mother and his unhappy childhood in a Murmansk orphanage. In a particularly macabre moment, the body of a dead German corporal jerks back and forth outside a dugout, "adding to his collection of shrapnel. Each time, he moved, and it looked as though he was still alive, or maybe being electrocuted." The corporal's breast pocket contains a letter from his wife, who mentions that she has taken in a male lodger. Ledig then tells us that the corporal's superior officer had decided not to give him another letter from the corporal's neighbor, detailing the wife's affair with that same lodger.
Although Ledig's material is relentlessly horrific, there is beauty in the formal rigor of his plot. The book alternates symmetrically between German and Russian perspectives on the same battle, a confrontation in a marshy forest clearing where the two sides wind up surrounding each other. The climax of the novel is a scene of bureaucratic rather than military mayhem, as a German officer orders the execution of a sergeant who has inconveniently been found alive after his death was announced on the radio and his relatives notified. The sergeant must be shot, according to this logic, because he is already dead on paper.
Ledig published two more novels in the 1950s and then abruptly stopped writing. He died in 1999, in time to see a resurgence of interest in his work but four years before the U.S. invasion of Iraq. One wonders what Ledig would have made of that conflict. The nearly pornographic dispassion with which he describes combat violence on the Eastern Front seems superfluous today, as jihadi snuff videos compete for viewer mindshare with news reports that the Pentagon seeks to discipline American soldiers who apparently posted their own pictures of dead, mutilated Iraqis on a pornographic website.
The Stalin Front begins with a corpse and ends with a funeral. In the last scene of the novel, listless German soldiers stand at an open grave while a field chaplain tries to comfort them with Christian doctrine. "I actually find it rather pleasant," says a character known as the NCO. "Makes a change. Anyway . . . I secretly hope there's some truth in it." His commanding officer agrees: "'Yes,' said the Major. "'I'd hate to think that was just another trick.'" Depending on their point of view, modern combatants might say the same thing about jihad, or the march of freedom.
Richard McGill Murphy is a senior editor at Fortune Small Business magazine, covering technology and politics.