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The War of the Rats (1999)
I found myself liking this book significantly less than did most of the critics. David L. Robbins presents a fictional take on the true life battle between two master snipers--Heinz von Krupp Thorvald and Vasily Zaitsev--who hunted each other through the rubble of Stalingrad in 1942-43. The German Army, of course, had won it's greatest victories by relying on Blitzkrieg, utilizing superior mobility and supply lines to overwhelm the enemy. But when their attack on Stalingrad met with ferocious Russian resistance, they were reduced to door to door street fighting, which the troops derisively called Rattenkrieg--the War of the Rats. Under these conditions solitary Russian snipers were able to inflict significant losses on the attacking Germans, so the German High Command sent their best marksman, Thorvald, to hunt down the best of the Russians, Zaitsev. But Thorvald was something of a dilettante, not truly a soldier. He had been a sniper instructor in Berlin, more concerned with Wagnerian Opera than actual combat techniques. Robbins recreates the battle between these men in great detail and tries to get inside the characters to explore their motivations. Despite his efforts, I simply found myself unable to connect with these characters.
By way of contrast, the brilliance of Jack Higgins' The Eagle Has Landed lay in his ability to co-opt our loyalties and get us to root for the German troops who were hunting Churchill. In the case of The War of the Rats, my allegiance was unengaged. I ended up rooting for everyone to die--what the heck, they're all Nazis or Commies--it'd save us the trouble of killing them later. Despite some scenes of genuine excitement that do grip the attention, this lack of real engagement made the story seem curiously distant.
There is one aspect of the novel that I really like though; it seems like a subtle and devious way to impart some history to the ill read masses. There has been much anger directed towards Pat Buchanan as a result of his assertion that Nazi Germany was never a threat to the United States (see Orrin's review of A Republic, Not an Empire). Most of the commentators and critics who took him on betrayed an astounding lack of historical knowledge. You need only read about the Battle of Stalingrad to realize that Hitler was toast by the end of 1942. If for no other reason, this makes the book worthwhile. In addition though, I did enjoy some of the action scenes and the portrayal of the technical aspects of the sniper's art.
-Encyclopaedia Britannica: Stalingrad
-INTERVIEW: An Interview with David L. Robbins by Doug Childers, John Porter and William Shinault IV (The Wag)
-EXCERPT: War of the Rats
-REVIEW: WAR OF THE RATS By David L. Robbins (RICHARD BERNSTEIN, NY Times)
-REVIEW: (DENNIS J. HANNAN, Book Page)
-REVIEW: of War of the Rats Stalingrad: the Hinge of Fate (John Porter, The Wag)
-REVIEW: (Tom Walker, Denver Post)