‘Russia’, observed the poet Tyuchev, ‘cannot be understood with the mind.’ The Battle of Stalingrad cannot be adequately understood through a standard examination. A purely military study of such a titanic struggle fails to convey its reality on the ground, rather as Hitler’s maps in his Rastenburg Wolfsschanze isolated him in a fantasy-world, far from the suffering of his soldiers.
The idea behind this book is to show, within the framework of a conventional historical narrative, the experience of troops on both sides, using a wide range of new material, especially from archives in Russia. The variety of sources is important to convey the unprecedented nature of the fighting and its effects on those caught up in it with little hope of escape.
The sources include war diaries, chaplains’ reports, personal accounts, letters, NKVD (security police) interrogations of German and other prisoners, personal diaries and interviews with participants. One of the richest sources in the Russian Ministry of Defence central archive at Podolsk consists of the very detailed reports sent daily from the Stalingrad Front to Aleksandr Shcherbakov, the head of the political department of the Red Army in Moscow. These describe not only heroic actions, but also ‘extraordinary events’ (the commissars’ euphemism for treasonous behaviour), such as desertion, crossing over to the enemy, cowardice, incompetence, self-inflicted wounds, ‘anti-Soviet agitation’ and even drunkenness. The Soviet authorities executed around 13,500 of their own soldiers at Stalingrad – equivalent to more than a whole division of troops. The main challenge, I soon realized, was to try to balance the genuine self-sacrifice of so many Red Army soldiers with the utterly brutal coercion used against waverers by the NKVD special departments (which very soon afterwards became part of SMERSH – counter-espionage).
The barely believable ruthlessness of the Soviet system largely, but not entirely, explains why so many former Red Army soldiers fought on the German side. At Stalingrad, the Sixth Army’s front-line divisions contained over 50,000 Soviet citizens in German uniform. Some had been brutally press-ganged into service through starvation in prison camps; others were volunteers. During the final battles, many German reports testify to the bravery and loyalty of these ‘Hiwis’, fighting against their own countrymen. Needless to say, Beria’s NKVD became frenzied with suspicion when it discovered the scale of the disloyalty.
The subject is still taboo in Russia today. An infantry colonel with whom I happened to share a sleeping compartment on the journey down to Volgograd (the former Stalingrad), refused at first to believe that any Russian could have put on German uniform. He was finally convinced when I told him of the Sixth Army ration returns in the German archives. His reaction, for a man who clearly loathed Stalin for his purges of the Red Army, was interesting. ‘They were no longer Russians’, he said quietly. His comment was almost exactly the same as the formula used over fifty years before when Stalingrad Front reported on ‘former Russians’ back to Shcherbakov in Moscow. The emotions of the Great Patriotic War remain almost as unforgiving today as at the time.
The whole story of folly, pitilessness and tragedy is revealing in a number of unexpected ways. On the German side, the most striking aspect does not lie so much in the overt issue of Wehrmacht involvement in war crimes, still so hotly debated in Germany today. It lies in the confusion of cause and effect, especially the confusion between political beliefs and their consequences. German troops in Russia – as so many letters written from Stalingrad reveal – were in complete moral disarray. The objectives of subjugating the Slavs and defending Europe from Bolshevism through a pre-emptive strike proved counter-productive, to say the least. To this day, many German survivors still see the Battle of Stalingrad as a clever Soviet trap into which they had been enticed by deliberate withdrawals. They consequently tend to view themselves as the victims rather than the instigators of this disaster.
One thing, however, is unarguable. The Battle of Stalingrad remains such an ideologically charged and symbolically important subject that the last word will not be heard for many years.
A good deal of the time spent researching this book might well have been wasted and valuable opportunities missed if it had not been for the help and suggestions of archivists and librarians. I am particularly grateful to: Frau Irina Renz at the Bibliothek für Zeitgeschichte in Stuttgart; Herr Meyer and Frau Ehrhardt at the Bundesarchiv-Militärarchiv in Freiburg; Frau Stang and other members of the staff of the Militärgeschichtliches Forschungsamt library in Potsdam; Valery Mikhailovich Rumyantsev of the Historical Archive and Military Memorial Centre of the Russian Ministry of Defence and the staff of the Central Archive of the Ministry of Defence at Podolsk; Doctor Kyril Mikhailovich Andersen, the Director of the Russian Centre for the Conservation and Study of Documents of Contemporary History in Moscow; Doctor Natalya Borisovna Volkova, the Director of the Russian State Archive of Literature and the Arts; and Doctor Dina Nikolaevna Nohotovich at the State Archive of the Russian Federation.
I owe an incalculable amount to Dr Detlef Vogel, in Freiburg, who was a vital help in numerous ways at the beginning of my research and also lent me his collection of German and Austrian Stalingradbünde veterans’ publications. Doctor Alexander Friedrich Paulus kindly gave me permission to consult the papers of his grandfather, General-feldmarschall Friedrich Paulus, and provided copies of subsequent family contributions to the subject. Professor Doctor Hans Girgen-sohn, the Sixth Army pathologist in the Stalingrad encirclement or Kessel, was most patient in explaining the details of his work and findings there, and the background to the deaths of besieged German soldiers from hunger, cold and stress. Ben Shepherd kindly explained the latest research into battle stress during the Second World War. I am also most grateful for the observations of Kurt Graf von Schweinitz on strategy at Stalingrad, as well as for his comments on the implications of military terminology used in signals in November 1942.
For advice on Russian sources and other suggestions, I am indebted to Doctor Catherine Andreev, Professor Anatoly Aleksandrovich Chernobaev, Professor John Erickson, Doctor Viktor Gorbarev, Jon Halliday, Colonel Lemar Ivanovich Maximov of the Russian Ministry of Defence’s Historical Branch, and Yury Ovzianko. I also owe a great deal to those who put me in touch with survivors of Stalingrad in both Russia and Germany, or who helped and looked after me so generously in both countries: Chris Alexander, Leopold Graf von Bismarck, Andrew Gimson, Major Joachim Freiherr von Maltzan, Gleb and Harriet Shestakov, Doctor Marie-Christine Gräfin von Stauffenberg and Christiane van de Velde.
In Volgograd I owed much to the kind assistance of Doctor Raisa Maratovna Petrunyova, the Vice-Rector of Volgograd University, and her colleagues, Professor Nadezhda Vasilevna Dulina, the Director of Historical and Cultural Studies, Galina Borisovna of the History department, and Boris Nikolaevich Ulko, the Director of the University Museum, as well as Nikolay Stepanovich Fyodortov, chairman of the Volgograd District Committee of War Veterans, and Lieutenant-Colonel Gennady Vasilevich Pavlov.
Translations from the Russian are by Doctor Galya Vinogradova and Lyubov Vinogradova, whose assistance in negotiations over access to archives offered a model of skilled diplomacy, persistence and good humour. Their contribution, to say nothing of their friendship, helped transform the whole project.
I am most grateful to those participants and eyewitnesses who were prepared to devote so much time and effort to recalling the past. A number very generously lent me unpublished manuscripts, letters and diaries. Their names – three others preferred not to be identified – are listed with the References, after the Appendices.
This book would never have come about if it had not been for Eleo Gordon of Penguin, whose idea it was, and also Peter Mayer in the United States and Hans Ewald Dede in Germany, whose enthusiasm and support for the project right from the start made the research possible. I have been particularly blessed by having Andrew Nurnberg as literary agent, adviser and friend.
My greatest thanks, as always, are due to Artemis Cooper, my wife and editor of first resort, who was such a help during my months abroad when she had more than enough work of her own.