Ben Wilson's Metropolis is an editorial event that coincides with a large-scale military operation in lands once again stained with blood. In his work published by Dioptra publications, the historian investigates how the megacities of the planet have been formed, evolved and consolidated, with their growth or demise coinciding with the achievements or repeated mistakes of man.
The author intertwines the stories within the 608 pages of the work, building a smooth, unified narrative, which makes the reader feel the past, the present and the future of the great city in which he lives. After all, Athens couldn't be missing from here. Just as they could not be missing the landmark conflicts that affected entire nations, and to a large extent founded the urban fabric as we know it today. If there is one cohesive element that runs through Wilson's narratives, it is the shared sense of "belonging" provided by the city itself, against the scope of urbanization. A feeling that seemed decisive for many events that left their mark over time, either as points of reference, or as memorials to avoid repeating the same mistakes.
Below, NEWS 24/7 publishes an exclusive excerpt from "Metropolis" (translation:Violetta Zevkis), which sheds light on what it means to "besiege a great city", but also resistance until the last moment, in defense of freedom, but also of common sentiment.
How to Kill a City:Total War
As writer Ben Wilson notes in the "Annihilation" chapter of Metropolis, "conquering a great metropolis is often synonymous with winning a war. What one does next is another matter." This formulation is more than relevant today, with Russia invading Ukraine, while of course Kyiv was the main target from the beginning.
It is commonly accepted that no realistic comparisons can be made between today and yesterday, especially when we are talking about going back to the Second World War, or otherwise to totalitarian conditions formed 80 years ago. However, the conquest of the Metropolises, the capitals, will forever be the number one demand of every conqueror, as in this case Vladimir Putin is (no matter how much he wants to say otherwise).
80 years ago, Hitler withOperation Barbarossa he was launching the largest military operation in history, as if successful, Germany would have succeeded in destabilizing the economy and morale of the Soviet Union, and would have used its land.
As Wilson notes, "Without food supplies, the Germans estimated that 30 million people in the Soviet Union would die. The Russian urban population had increased by 30 million between World War I and 1939. Thus, by using Russian lands as a source of food and fuel, Germany would degrade Russia to its pre-urban past by clearing out its "redundant" population. The destroyed Soviet metropolises would be replaced by German colonial cities surrounded by productive fields, the Aryan "Garden of Eden".
The Wehrmacht had three points of attack:Leningrad, Moscow and the long-suffering Ukraine, which is still at the center today.
Then some "70,000-80,000 citizens of Kharkov were forced into starvation, a grim foretaste of what the Nazis intended to do to countless cities in their new empire. There, and in countless other towns and cities, the Jewish populations were rounded up and executed or methodically exterminated in gas trucks". Wilson's narratives highlight here the horrors of war, and although they cannot be considered as a framework for comparison with today and the methods of Russia, they bring to the surface strategies of occupying big cities which, in an urban environment, remain timeless. At the same time, they show why an attacking army is not favored when it decides to attack a target that is densely populated, or with dense urban development.
Of course, Hitler's goal in '41 was to completely destroy Moscow and Leningrad, which is not the case now in Kyiv, or at least we could not imagine that such is in anyone's intentions" great leader". After all, Putin himself claims to be... a "liberator".
On how Leningrad tried to survive, Wilson's descriptions are revealing:
"Leningraders fed on cats, pigeons, crows, seagulls, and then on pets and zoo animals, boiled wall hangings to extract the glue, and ate leather shoes and petroleum jelly. They made soup and bread from grass and sold them. "When you walk outside your house in the morning, you come across corpses," Scriabina wrote in her diary. "They are everywhere:on the streets, in the yards. The corpses lie there for a long time time. There is no one to collect them." Scurvy ravaged the populace and the people went frantic for every scrap of food. They scraped the flour dust off the walls and off the boards on the floors of the flour mills. The "cakes" of cottonseed, which usually burned in the ships' burners, they were used to make bread. The entrails of sheep and the skins of calves were boiled to make "meat jelly." In October the portion of bread reduced to 250 grams per day for workers and 125 for everyone else.
Without food supplies, electricity and fuel, Leningrad went from a fully functioning city to a death trap within weeks. The people of Leningrad likened themselves to starving wolves, concerned only with the thought of survival and indifferent to everything else happening around them... Within a year, 2,015 people were arrested for "using human flesh as food ", as described by the police".
80 years ago, Hitler's megalomania proved fatal for his plans. Along with Leningrad, he decided to hit Moscow as well, which was not abandoned by Stalin after all.
"Then, on October 19, Stalin made one of the most fateful decisions of the war. He announced that Moscow was to remain a city that must be held at all costs. In a feat of supply, 400,000 fresh troops, 1,500 planes and 1,700 tanks were rushed from some 4,000 miles (6,500 km) from the Far East to Moscow.With the Germans closing in on the metropolis and air raids causing widespread damage, the annual military parade in Red Square took place on November 7 – a display of considerable superiority captured on film and shown throughout the Soviet Union.
In the bitter cold of the winter of 1941-2, Hitler's military machine came to a halt outside Moscow. On December 5, the Russians launched their counterattack. Within a month Hitler's mighty Wehrmacht had been pushed back 240 kilometers from the capital of communism. Although Moscow was still in danger, Operation Barbarossa had come to an end. In this deadly struggle for a city, 7 million men participated for six hellish months. If Tsar Alexander I had sacrificed the built fabric of Moscow to save the city from Napoleon, Stalin sacrificed 926,000 lives. Like other would-be conquerors throughout history, Hitler sacrificed himself for a city".
"The Road of Life"
"Meanwhile, temperatures in Leningrad fell to -30°C in the coldest winter of the 20th century. Weakened by malnutrition, freezing conditions and the accumulation of human filth, people succumbed to dysentery. Others simply starved to death. By February 1942, the worst month of the siege, 20,000 people died every day. Orphaned children survived by occupying a transient world of bombed-out buildings. But winter brought some relief. When Lake Ladoga froze over enough "In January, the 'Road of Life,' a six-lane highway of ice, broke through the German blockade. Trucks brought food into the city and helped evacuate half a million people, mostly children, women and the elderly, before April." , Wilson states in his book.
"Although the siege, with its constant bombardment and with little food to survive, lasted until January 1944, the worst was over. By the end of 1942, the population of Leningrad it had dwindled from 3 million to 637,000 inhabitants, giving the ruined city the feel of a ghost town. Over three-quarters of the population were then women, who worked in munitions factories and shipyards. Deaths from bombing, disease and starvation amounted to at least a million the city was evacuated by 1.4 million people The numbers of Axis and Russian fighters as well as Leningrad civilians who died in the deadly struggle for the metropolis far exceeded the total number of people killed in air raids in the entire world".
Cities can swallow entire armies. They are the graveyards of military ambition
Wilson then charts the dynamics of the city's own resistance.
"To an army, a city determined to resist to its last man, woman and child is perhaps the most formidable obstacle in the world, a maelstrom of destruction. Cities can swallow whole armies. They are the cemeteries of military ambitions. Napoleon was defeated at Moscow in 1812 and at Leipzig a year later. Hitler was defied by Leningrad, Moscow and, even more devastatingly, Stalingrad.
By 1942 the Wehrmacht was in desperate need of fuel. The seizure of the oil fields of the Caucasus, Operation Blue Case, was essential if Germany intended to win the war. However, the capture of the bleak southern industrial city of Stalingrad was secondary to this objective. But once again, Hitler was fixated on annihilating a symbolic Russian city, diverting vital oil and aircraft away from the Caucasus in the campaign against Stalingrad. Many Russian cities and towns had surrendered or been abandoned in the face of the Blitzkrieg. But Stalin would not retreat an inch from the city that took his name".
"The German 6th Army under Friedrich Paulus reached Stalingrad at the end of August 1942. On the 23rd of the same month and for five more days the Luftflotte IV launched a fierce attack on Stalingrad and its 400,000 inhabitants of, downgrading the industrial city to an urban wasteland.
These lands, littered with ruins and ruins, became one of the most critical battlefields in history. What usually gave the Wehrmacht its superiority—devastating high-speed attacks and maneuverability—were deprived of in urban warfare. Blitzkrieg was downgraded to what German soldiers called Rattenkrieg – rat war. Every inch of the streets, every pile of rubble, every building and every room within it was to be claimed in close combat. The battles took place in sewers, the Wehrmacht and the Red Army fought over dilapidated roofless buildings, floor by floor. At some points the front line of battle was a corridor between rooms. The hulls of tractor factories and grain elevators became battlefields within a wider battlefield. According to order no. 227 of Stalin, the defenders and citizens of Stalingrad were ordered not to take "a single step back". A Soviet platoon under the command of Sergeant Yakov Pavlov fortified and defended a bombed-out four-story apartment building for 60 days against repeated German attacks.
Vasily Chuikov, the commander of the Russian forces at Stalingrad, jokingly said that the Germans lost more men trying to capture "Pavlov's House" than they lost to capture Paris".
"When approaching this place, the soldiers would say:'We are entering hell.' And after spending a day or two here, they would say:"No, this is not hell, it is ten times worse than hell".
Ukrainians write the same on the banners that "welcome" the Russians in the big cities. "Welcome to Hell".
In yet another contemporary yet timeless analogy, Wilson writes:"Many of the snipers, tank drivers, soldiers and civilians who defended Stalingrad and fought their way through the man-made gullies , the caves and gorges, were women withstood one of the most terrible of all battles". Something that reminds us of women in Ukraine who take a rifle and do not leave their cities, but also the women in Kobani.
History wrote that in the end Stalingrad, which had almost fallen, became a trap for the Germans themselves.
"The Germans pounded the city, house by house, until most of Stalingrad was in their hands by mid-November, with only a few remaining pockets of Russian resistance. At this point, before the Germans were able to claim possession of the city, the Soviets launched Operation Uranus, their massive counteroffensive that encircled Stalingrad.
The German 6th Army – 270,000 men – was trapped inside. In September Hitler had vowed never to leave Stalingrad. General Paulus was forbidden either to attempt to break the cordon or to surrender. Food was transported to the city by airlift for a short period of time. But by late December the German forces in the Caucasus and Russia had completely retreated, leaving the 6th Army to survive on its own. With food and ammunition supplies depleted, the Germans faced a second period of civil warfare. They experienced what the citizens of Leningrad and the Warsaw ghetto suffered at the hands of the Germans:starvation and devastating diseases. On January 31, 1943, the last remnants of the 6th Army surrendered.
The self-proclaimed city destroyer, Hitler, was destroyed by cities. During the Second World War 1,710 Russian cities and 70,000 villages were hit to the point of ruin. As the Red Army forced the Germans to retreat westward in 1943 and 1944, the more violence they displayed in cities and civilians...".
You can read more in "Metropolis:The Story of Cities, Man's Greatest Discovery", by Ben Wilson.
The book description
From a brilliant new historian, a colorful journey through 7,000 years and 26 cities around the world, which shows how urban living has been the motivation and cradle for humanity's greatest innovations.
In the two hundred millennia of our existence, nothing has shaped us more deeply than the city. Historian Ben Wilson, award-winning best-selling author, tells the great, glorious story of how city life enabled the growth of human civilization. Starting with Uruk, the world's first city, dating back to 4,000 BC and depicted in the Epic of Gilgamesh , shows us that cities were never a necessity, but, when they were created, their proximity led to a flourishing of human achievement, creating new professions, new forms of art, worship and commerce – all of which make up civilization.
Taking readers on a tour of famous cities over a period spanning over 7,000 years, Wilson reveals in Metropolis τις καινοτομίες καθεμίας:την ενασχόληση με τα κοινά στην Αγορά της Αθήνας, το παγκόσμιο εμπόριο στη Βαγδάτη του 9ου αιώνα, τα οικονομικά στα καφέ του Λονδίνου, τις οικιακές ανέσεις στην καρδιά του Άμστερνταμ.
Ζωντανό, ευφυές, ευκολοδιάβαστο, το Metropolis είναι μια υπέροχη περιήγηση στα ανθρώπινα επιτεύγματα.
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