About Der Arzt von Stalingrad

Konsalik's grave in Köln, Germany
CC Raimond Spekking 
The novel begins with the sense of smell, “Alles riecht heute wieder nach Kohlsuppe.” (trans. Everything here smells again like cabbage soup.) My father detested anything to do with cabbage. Cabbage soup, cabbage rolls, cabbage salad … cabbage was not welcome at our house. Too many years of Soviet captivity ruined any of the vegetable’s goodness for him. Sensory details like this bring immediacy and authenticity throughout the novel. 

So who was the author? Heinz Konsalik was born in 1921 (making him 3 years younger than my father). A prolific writer (155 novels), he was the most popular author in Germany during the 1950s. As a war correspondent during the war, he was able to witness, firsthand, the atrocities of war. His novels emphasize the human side of war and are non-political. 

Konsalik, however, could not control the racial superiority that ekes of this novel. The moral judgment against non-white characters in the book reflects Konsalik’s immersion in the Hitler Youth and his time in the Gestapo. He displays unchecked Nazi attitudes towards women who are idealized as sexual animals, saintly innocents, or brave mothers. I’m not sure what he would do with the real-life German women who gave up waiting for their missing men and who lost their moral compass during the chaos of the Third Reich’s collapse (women like my father’s first wife). 

In fact, Konsalik’s view of both women and of Asians is prejudiced to the extreme. Reader beware! Russians, on the other hand, are seen as equals. Victims, like Germans, of cruel leaders and political systems. 
Memorial to Stalingrad battle in modern Volgograd
Aleksander Kaasik, CC

Our world has changed a lot since 1956. While it’s easy to dismiss Konsalik’s work as racist and anti-feminist (which it is), he’s still a darn good writer. With engaging characters and emotional nuance, he created a page-turner. More than sixty years later, I read this book with a critical eye and an appreciation of how literature reflects change in our societies. 

Oh, and because I’ve been spending more time than usual visiting hospitals, lately—while reading this book—I really grew to appreciate the challenges for medical professionals in Soviet-era, prisoner of war hospitals. No wonder my dad never wanted to go see a doctor here in Canada! I’d like to read more of Konsalik’s novels. He’s given me insight into the German psyche and some of my own father’s war experiences.

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