Life and Fate Read Along, Part 3 Chapter 36

Life and Fate Read Along, Part 3 Chapter 36
Photo by Fabian Mardi / Unsplash

This post, covering Part 3, Chapter 36 is part of The Slavic Literature Pod’s chapter a day read along of Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate. Learn more about our project here.

Throughout Life and Fate, Grossman has repeatedly repudiated a particular passage from his previous novel Stalingrad

You may be familiar with it by now: Viktor and Chepyzhin meet in Moscow, with Chepyzhin mentioning off-hand that he awaits the day that the German people realize that fascism has tricked them. Viktor chides his older mentor for this view — if ideology (fascism) cannot change people fundamentally for the worse, then ideology (communism) also cannot fundamentally change people for the better. 

In Life and Fate, Viktor himself thinks back to that interaction and realizes that he now agrees with Chepyzhin. This novel seems to instead assert that all humans form themselves more holistically, responding to forces of contemporary ideology, material conditions, family, etc. 

I think most readers would find that idea uncontroversial. What they may find more controversial, though, is Grossman’s consummately universal application of this idea. This whole sequence with the doomed 6th Army is meant to illustrate an individual’s naturally-given right to choose how to form an identity. 

In defeat, many of these Wehrmacht soldiers — Bach included — begin to shed their loyalty to the State. The German command’s gift of tinsel trees is a fundamentally useless one, but it does appeal to some core of humanness in them. Ammunition would have been better to fight a war, but their war is ending soon. Perhaps, as Bach thinks, it is far better that they have these useless trinkets to remind them of better Christmases.