One of war’s most graceful chroniclers (Iron Tears, 2005, etc.) visits the troops in the winter of 1944 as the Germans planned and executed a fierce, desperate attack.
How do men in hell celebrate Christmas? Weintraub (Arts and Humanities Emeritus/Penn State Univ.) explores that question while delineating German strategy and the Allied response, territories he knows well. The author outlines Hitler’s basic intent: to convince the Allies with a ferocious surprise attack that they could not easily win the war; perhaps to earn the Reich a treaty rather than a total defeat. Weintraub alternates regularly between the two sides, quoting from wartime diaries and postwar memoirs of the participants to let us know what is happening; he even pulls away a few times to explain what the Russians were doing on the Eastern Front. He finds space as well for celebrity news. Marlene Dietrich was around, sleeping with an officer or two. Hemingway and his estranged third wife, Martha Gellhorn, were both there; impolitic Weintraub says she “nagged” Papa from the rear of a Jeep they shared. Young Kurt Vonnegut Jr. was captured and sent off to Slaughterhouse-Five in Dresden. The tale’s hero is George S. Patton, whose daring and full-speed-aheadedness the author greatly admires. Field Marshal Montgomery, by contrast, comes off as timorous and tardy; Eisenhower frolics too much with Kay Summersby; the displaced Omar Bradley pouts. The best, most affecting and effective sections are anecdotes about how individuals behaved (bravely, brutally, cravenly, bizarrely), how some men were able to convince other men to run toward gunfire, how soldiers and officers on both sides figured out how to celebrate Christmas in the absence of all evident humanity. Patton’s death closes the narrative.
A dark Christmas card from the middle of some frozen and very bloody ground.