Revisiting Stalingrad: An Inside Look at World War II's Bloodiest Battle
A German historian has published a collection of unusually candid interviews with members of the Red Army that provides the first precise account of the battle of Stalingrad from the perspective of ordinary soldiers. They show that this chapter in history deserves a reappraisal.
At dawn on Jan. 31, 1943, the bloodiest battle of World War II came to an end for the top German commander in Stalingrad. Russian soldiers stood at the entrance to the basement of the Univermag department store in which the top-ranking German officers, including supreme commander Friedrich Paulus, had taken refuge. One day earlier, Adolf Hitler had promoted the leader of the German troops in Stalingrad to the rank of field marshal -- not so much as a sign of recognition as an implicit order to end his life rather than allow himself to be captured.
Lieutenant Colonel Leonid Vinokur was the first to catch sight of Paulus: "He lay on the bed when I entered. He lay there in his coat, with his cap on. He had two-week-old beard stubble and seemed to have lost all courage." The final hideout of the commander of the German 6th Army resembled a latrine. "The filth and human excrement and who knows what else was piled up waist-high," Major Anatoly Zoldatov went on record as saying, adding: "It stank beyond belief. There were two toilets and signs above them both that read: 'No Russians allowed'."
It was only after a while that the Germans were forced to hand over their weapons. "They could have easily shot themselves," said Major General Ivan Burmakov. But Paulus and his staff chose not to do that. "They had no intention of dying -- they were such cowards. They didn't have the courage to die," said eyewitness Burmakov.
A Turning Point
The battle of Stalingrad marked a psychological turning point in Nazi Germany's war of conquest and annihilation. "The news from Stalingrad had a shock effect on the German people," admitted the Reich minister of propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, on Feb. 4, 1943. As British historian Eric Hobsbawm summed up the situation: "From Stalingrad, everyone knew that the defeat of Germany was only a question of time."
Hundreds of thousands of people lost their lives in the duel for prestige between the two dictators, Hitler and Stalin. Some 60,000 German soldiers died in the siege. Of the 110,000 German prisoners captured in Stalingrad, only some 5,000 ever returned home. On the Soviet side, between half a million and 1 million Red Army soldiers died.
Now, nearly 70 years later, it's possible to grasp with unprecedented clarity how the victors experienced this fateful battle on the Volga River. These new insights were originally the work of Moscow historian Isaak Izrailevich Mints. In 1941, he founded the Commission on the History of the Patriotic War. The idea was for everyone in the armed forces, from common soldiers to high-ranking officers, to express their thoughts, feelings and experiences as a model for others -- but with no embellishments.
In 1943, three historians interviewed over 20 Soviet soldiers who were on hand when Paulus and his men were captured. This is the first precise account of this event from the perspective of ordinary soldiers.
Researchers conducted interviews with a total of 215 combatants in Stalingrad -- some during the battle and some shortly thereafter. Some of the statements reflect the official character of the interview situation, but the soldiers also spoke of their fears and cowardice, and even criticized decisions by their superiors.
The accounts were so candid that the Communists later only published a small portion of them. After 1945, the Soviet leadership was not interested in impressions of bloody battles, but rather in glorified heroic epics in which Stalin played the leading role. The roughly 5,000 protocols compiled by the historians' commission disappeared into the history department archives at the Soviet Academy of Sciences. In 2001, German historian Jochen Hellbeck, who teaches at Rutgers University in New Jersey, heard about this treasure. Seven years later, he was able to secure over 10,000 pages in Moscow.
A New Version of Events
Hellbeck has now published "Die Stalingrad-Protokolle" (or "The Stalingrad Protocols"), which consist of interviews, including in some cases photos of the interviewed soldiers, along with background information on the interviews. In light of these documents, the history of the Battle of Stalingrad may not have to be rewritten, but it does need correcting on a number of points. These latest findings completely undermine the argument -- put forward by the Nazis and repeated by the West during the Cold War -- that the Red Army soldiers only fought so fiercely because they would have otherwise been shot by members of the secret police.
There is no doubt that there were executions on the front. Lieutenant General Vasily Chuikov, supreme commander of the 62nd Army, personally told historians how he dealt with "cowards": "On Sept. 14, I shot the commander and commissar of a regiment, and shortly thereafter I shot two brigade commanders and commissars. They were all astonished."
But the extent of the executions had apparently been overestimated. For instance British historian Antony Beevor cites over 13,000 executed Red Army soldiers in Stalingrad alone. By contrast, documents discovered in Russian archives show that there had been fewer than 300 executions by mid-October 1942.
The "Stalingrad Protocols" reveal that the Soviet soldiers' willingness to make sacrifices could not be solely attributed to such repressive measures. A key role was played by so-called "political officers," who repeatedly assured the enlisted men that they were risking their lives for their people's freedom. They endeavored to motivate the soldiers and address their concerns to boost their fighting morale.
The interviews also show that devoted Communists felt that they had to play a leading role everywhere. Brigade Commissar Vasilyev said: "It was viewed as a disgrace if a Communist was not the first to lead the solders into battle." At the front in Stalingrad, the number of card-carrying party members rose between August and October 1942 from 28,500 to 53,500. Political officers distributed fliers in the battle zone portraying the "hero of the day," including large photos of the honored soldiers. They sent portraits of the award winners to the proud parents.
The concept was that this was a people's war. "The Red Army was a political army," says historian Hellbeck.
- Part 1: An Inside Look at World War II's Bloodiest Battle
- Part 2: Believing in a Higher Purpose
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