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.
Believing in a Higher Purpose
In addition to lecturing the soldiers on the wartime situation, the political officers engaged them in personal conversations. "At night," said Lieutenant Colonel Yakov Dubrovsky, "the fighters are more inclined to speak openly, and one can crawl inside their souls." Battalion Commissar Pyotr Molchanov added: "A soldier is stuck in the trenches for an entire month. He doesn't see anyone aside from his neighbor, and suddenly the commissar approaches him, tells him something, says a friendly word to him, greets him. This is of enormous importance."
At critical moments, the political officers occasionally also distributed chocolate and mandarines to the demoralized comrades. One of them, Izer Ayzenberg, from the 38th rifle division, used to tour the trenches with his "agitation suitcase." Aside from brochures and books, it contained games like checkers and dominoes.
The aim was for the soldiers to no longer be driven by fear, but instead to use their political awareness to overcome their distress. Consequently, the Communists saw it as a sign of weakness when captured German soldiers described themselves as apolitical. In their opinion, the true will to win could only be developed by those who believed they served a higher purpose. The Communists saw the Red Army as more politically and morally steadfast than the Wehrmacht.
But aside from the agitation and propaganda, it was primarily the Soviet soldiers' hatred of the invaders that boosted their morale to fight the initially superior 6th German Army. What's more, the Germans flamed this hatred with their brutal occupation. Already on its way to the Volga, the 6th Army made its contribution to the Holocaust. Civilians were terrorized.
"One sees the young girls, the children, who hang from the trees in the park," said sniper Vasily Zaytsev, adding that "this has a tremendous impact."
Major Pyotr Zayonchovsky told of a position that the Germans had abandoned. When he arrived there, he discovered the body of a dead comrade "whose skin and fingernails on his right hand had been completely torn off. The eyes had been burnt out and he had a wound on his left temple made by a red-hot piece of iron. The right half of his face had been covered with a flammable liquid and ignited."
Hell on Both Sides
Before the war, many Russians had admired the Germans as a nation of culture -- and respected them for their engineering ingenuity. Some of the interviewees said that they were shocked by the Germans that they encountered during the war.
Major Zayonchovsky described the nature of a "the Germans" as follows: "The robber mentality has become such second nature to them that they have to steal -- whether they can use it or not."
An officer in the intelligence agency, who interrogated German prisoners, expressed surprise that attacks on civilians and thefts "have become such an integral part of the daily life of German soldiers that the prisoners of war occasionally told us about this without any compunction at all."
According to Captain Nikolay Aksyonov, one could feel "how every soldier and every commander was itching to kill as many Germans as possible."
The sniper Anatoly Chechov recalled in his interview how he shot his first German. "I felt terrible. I had killed a human being. But then I thought of our people -- and I started to mercilessly fire on them. I've become a barbaric person, I kill them. I hate them." When he was interviewed, he had already killed 40 Germans -- most of them with a shot to the head.
It's common knowledge that Stalingrad was hell for soldiers on both sides. But thanks to these testimonies, we now have a vividly clear idea of precisely what it was like in the never-ending house-to-house combat for which the soldiers had not been trained. How ash, dust and smoke robbed them of all orientation. How individual detonations were drowned out by the constant din of the battle. How they fought for days to take individual buildings, where in some cases the Soviets had taken position on one floor, while the Germans were entrenched on another.
"In this street fighting, hand grenades, machine guns, bayonets, knives and spades are used," said Lieutenant General Chuikov. "They face each other and flail at each other. The Germans can't take it." Nevertheless, the Wehrmacht managed at first to take the city, with the exception of a narrow strip along the Volga.
Then the Red Army encircled the Germans, who were only able to receive meager supplies from the air. The German soldiers suffered from hunger and didn't even have warm uniforms to ward off the bitter cold of winter. Commander Paulus exhorted his troops not to give up: "Hold out, the Führer will smash us out," was the slogan of the day. Operation Winter Storm, which sought to break the encirclement, ended in failure. On Jan. 6, Soviet General Konstantin Rokossovsky offered Paulus an honorable surrender. At Hitler's behest, the German commander rejected the offer.
Four days later, the Red Army began to advance and tighten the ring around the city. After 10 days, the Germans had hardly any food or ammunition. When Paulus and his staff allowed themselves to be taken prisoner at the end of January instead of committing suicide or fighting to the death, Hitler flew into a rage.
"The Earth Breathed Fire"
The price was also high for the winners of the battle. Vasily Zaytsev, for instance -- without a doubt the Red Army's best sniper at Stalingrad -- claimed that he shot 242 Germans, but made the following, sobering comment: "You often have to remember, and the memory has a powerful impact," he said one year after the battle. "Now, I have unsteady nerves and I'm constantly shaking."
His comrade Aksyonov added: "These five months experienced in Stalingrad were the equivalent of five years in our subsequent lives." It seemed to him that "the earth in Stalingrad breathed fire for days."
These are things that the Communists simply didn't want to hear after the war. An "informative, historic book written by the battle participants themselves," as championed by the historian Mints, was never published. During Stalin's anti-Semitic purges, Mints was even stripped of his professorship, allegedly for being a "rootless cosmopolitan." It was only after the dictator's death that he was rehabilitated. He hid the interview protocols.
Hellbeck, who found them along with Russian colleagues, is already planning to release the next volume of interviews, this time focusing on the German military occupation of the Soviet Union. The Russian edition of the "Stalingrad Protocols" is due to be published next year.