Amanda Foreman reports on the war's worst bloodbath; Stalingrad by Anthony Beevor Viking, pounds 25
There are so many books about this battle or that general, particularly in studies of the Second World War. But once in a while a classic emerges from the pile. Richard Overy's Why the Allies Won (Cape, 1995) was such a book; Anthony Beevor's Stalingrad is another.

The terrible history of Stalingrad has been narrated many times, famously by the American historian Harrison Salisbury. The difference between Beevor and his predecessors is his use of archives. Beevor has had first-time access to thousands of previously blocked Soviet records. The result is an account that is even more harrowing and pitiful than before. Stalingrad is only bedtime reading for those who do not dream.

What is in a name? In 1918, Tsaritsyn - a trading town set between the Caucasus and the Caspian - underwent a bitter siege between the Whites and Reds. It was a young Josef Stalin who saved the day. His reward was to have the town renamed Stalingrad. Twenty-four years later, with the town now a sprawling industrial city along the Volga, its new name had become a fixation for another besieging army. Hitler sacrificed the entire 6th army to his obsession with the name.

Ironically, Stalingrad had hardly featured in Hitler's invasion plans in 1941. His chief aim, after crushing Bolshevism, was to capture the oil and grain fields of southern Russia. In 1942 General Paulus and the 6th army descended on the South like winged mercenaries of the Apocalypse. The suffering that his 250,000 men later endured, during the six-month battle for Stalingrad, must be put alongside the devastation they caused during their unopposed thrust forwards.

First the Luftwaffe bombed Stalingrad to rubble. Since Stalin had refused to allow evacuation, many citizens were burned to death. Without meaning to, the Germans turned Stalingrad into an ideal defensive terrain, impossible for tanks or marching armies to penetrate. They were forced to fight for the city street by street. Temperatures of -40 C caused as much damage to morale and safety as did unseen Russian snipers. Hitler's chief-of- staff, General Halder, had always thought that the objective was too ambitious and left the army too exposed. His fears proved prophetic. While the German army became bogged down in Stalingrad, the Soviet commander-in-chief, General Zhukov, secretly organised a massive counter-attack behind enemy lines.

It is remarkable that the Red Army was able to function as efficiently and bravely as it did, considering the interference it suffered from Stalin's NKVD. In Beevor's account, the Soviet authorities appear as concerned with rooting out anti-Communism as with winning the war. Thousands of soldiers were routinely executed for the most spurious reasons at the height of the battle. "Safety" measures were cruelly counter-productive: every Russian who reported back after escaping from German capture was shot as a traitor for having surrendered. The Soviets did not care about human wastage as long as there were humans to waste.

Not surprisingly, thousands deserted from the Soviet side. The Germans were somewhat suspicious of the Hiwis, as they called them, but as their own losses mounted they were increasingly forced to rely on them in battle. German and Romanian soldiers also deserted. One can only imagine the conditions that forced soldiers from both sides to put their trust in their enemies. However, Beevor does a very good job of recreating them. "Stalingrad is hell on earth," wrote a despairing German soldier.

Zhukhov's forces gradually surrounded the 6th army and cut off its supplies. Goering rashly promised that the Luftwaffe would airlift food and ammunition to the stranded army, thereby reducing a quarter of a million men to one cigarette and a piece of bread a day. Obeying Hitler's orders, General Paulus continued to offer dogged resistance until every bullet and grenade was gone. But the fact that he and his 23 surviving generals did not commit suicide enraged the Fuhrer.

It is enormously difficult to write about murder outside the framework of justice, heroes and villains. Both regimes were mechanisms of genocide. Soldiers on either side behaved without the least shred of humanity. However, Stalingrad is a deeply moral book, impassioned and sensitive. Beevor has drawn a mappa mundi of war so terrible, that in that terror lies its beauty.