Military history

Stop Dancing! Stalingrad Has Fallen

At midday on 2 February a Luftwaffe reconnaissance aircraft circled over the city. The pilot’s radio message was immediately passed to Field Marshal Milch: ‘No more sign of fighting in Stalingrad’.

After Voronov and Rokossovsky’s first interview with Paulus, Captain Dyatlenko returned to interrogating the other captured generals. Contrary to his expectations, they reacted in very different ways. General Schlömer, who had taken over command of XIV Panzer Corps from Hube, arrived limping on a stick and wearing a Red Army padded jacket. He won over his interrogator with an easy charm and remarks about ‘the Corporal uneducated in military problems’ and the ‘untalented careerists in his entourage’. General Walther von Seydlitz, on the other hand, whom the NKVD ‘later discovered to be the most energetic defender of disobedience to the Fürer during the encirclement’, conducted himself ‘in a very reserved way’.

For Stalin, 91,000 prisoners, including twenty-two German generals, were better trophies than flags or guns. Paulus, still in a state of shock, at first refused to appear in front of the journalists brought down from Moscow. ‘We have our own rules,’ retorted Colonel Yakimovich of Don Front headquarters, with Lieutenant Bezyminsky interpreting. ‘You are to do what you are told.’ One compromise was, however, permitted. Paulus would not have to answer questions from the journalists, he only had to show himself to prove that he had not committed suicide.

The foreign correspondents were rather surprised by the appearance of the German generals. ‘They looked healthy, and not in the least undernourished,’ wrote Alexander Werth. ‘Clearly, throughout the agony of Stalingrad, when their soldiers were dying of hunger, they were continuing to have more or less regular meals. The only man who looked in poor shape was Paulus himself. He looked pale and sick, and had a nervous twitch in his left cheek.’

Attempts to put questions were not very successful. ‘It was rather like being at the zoo,’ wrote Werth, ‘where some animals showed interest in the public and others sulked.’ General Deboi was clearly keen to please, and immediately told the foreign journalists – ‘as if to ask us not to be frightened’ – that he was Austrian. General Schlömer was the most relaxed. He turned to one of his captors and, patting the officer’s shoulder boards, which had just been reintroduced by Stalin, exclaimed with a comic look of surprise: ‘What – new?’ General von Arnim, on the other hand, was chiefly preoccupied with the fate of his luggage and what he thought of Red Army soldiers as a result. ‘The officers behave very correctly,’ he announced, but the soldiers he described as ‘impudent thieves!’

The strain of capture also made for undignified behaviour in the two peasant houses at Zavarykino. Adam deliberately provoked Senior Lieutenant Bogomolov one morning with a Nazi salute and a ‘Heil Hitler’. Schmidt, however, was the officer most disliked by the Russians. Bogomolov forced him to apologize to a mess waitress whom he had reduced to tears as she served their lunch. A few days later, trouble broke out across the way in the izba which housed the other generals. Lieutenant Spektor of guard group No. 2 telephoned Bogomolov, begging him to come quickly. A fight had broken out. ‘When I opened the door of the house,’ wrote Bogomolov, ‘I saw that a German general was grasping the wrist of a Romanian general. When the German saw me, he let go, and then the Romanian hit him in the mouth. It turned out that the quarrel was about the Romanian’s knife, fork and spoon, which he claimed that the German had tried to take.’ Bogomolov, in contemptuous disbelief, sarcastically warned Lieutenant Spektor ‘that if he allowed such behaviour to continue, he too would have his spoon confiscated’.

Latent rivalries and dislikes between generals had come out into the open. Heitz and Seydlitz loathed each other even more after Seydlitz had allowed his divisional commanders to make their own decisions about surrender. Heitz, who had ordered his soldiers to fight to ‘the last cartridge but one’, had himself surrendered, and then accepted dinner from General Shumilov at 64th Army headquarters. He also spent the night there. When he finally joined the other captured generals at Zavarykino, there was an uproar because he arrived with several suitcases packed ready for imprisonment. When tackled about his order to fight to the end, he replied that he would have committed suicide, but his chief of staff had prevented him.

For the Wehrmacht, it was a time of counting the cost. Field Marshal Milch’s staff estimated that they had lost 488 transport planes and 1,000 crew members during the airlift. The 9th Flak Division was destroyed, along with other ground personnel, to say nothing of Fourth Air Fleet’s losses in bombers, fighters and Stukas, during the campaign.

The army’s exact losses are still uncertain, but there was no doubt that the Stalingrad campaign represented the most catastrophic defeat hitherto experienced in German history. The Sixth Army and the Fourth Panzer Army had effectively been destroyed. In the Kessel alone some 60,000 had died since the start of Operation Uranus and around 130,000 had been captured. (Again the confusion over statistics appears to be due mainly to the numbers of Russians in German uniform.) These figures do not take into account the losses in and around Stalingrad between August and November, the destruction of four allied armies, the defeat of Manstein’s rescue attempt and the losses inflicted by Operation Little Saturn. Altogether, the Axis must have lost over half a million men.

Presenting such a catastrophe to the German people was a challenge to which Goebbels had risen with frenetic energy, using all his talent for shameless distortion. The regime had not admitted that the Sixth Army was encircled until 16 January, when it spoke of ‘our troops who for several weeks have been heroically fighting enemy attacks on all sides’. Now, it chose entirely the opposite direction, claiming that not a single man had survived.

Goebbels mobilized wireless stations and press to unite the country in martial grief. His instructions to newspapers on how they were to portray the tragedy poured forth. They must remember that every word about this dramatic struggle would go down in history. The press must always employ the word Bolshevik, not Russian. ‘The whole of German propaganda must create a myth out of the heroism of Stalingrad which is to become one of the most treasured possessions in German history.’ The Wehrmacht communiqué, in particular, must be phrased in a way ‘which will move hearts for centuries to come’. It had to rank with Caesar’s address to his troops, with Frederick the Great’s appeal to his generals before the battle of Leuthen and with Napoleon’s call to his imperial guard.

The communiqué was broadcast as a special announcement on the wireless twenty-four hours after Strecker’s surrender. ‘From Führer headquarters, 3 February 1943. The supreme command of the Wehrmacht announces that the battle of Stalingrad has come to an end. True to its oath of allegiance, the Sixth Army under the exemplary leadership of Field Marshal Paulus has been annihilated by the overwhelming superiority of enemy numbers… The sacrifice of the Sixth Army was not in vain. As the bulwark of our historic European mission, it has held out against the onslaught of six Soviet armies… They died so that Germany might live.’

The regime’s lies proved counter-productive, especially the idea that every member of the Sixth Army had died. No reference was made in any announcement to the 91,000 prisoners already proclaimed by the Soviet government, an item of news that had been rapidly broadcast all round the world. Inevitably, many more people than usual tuned into foreign stations.

A period of three days’ national mourning was ordered, with places of entertainment closed and all wireless stations playing solemn music, yet the newspapers were forbidden black margins and no flags were to be flown at half mast.

The Security Service of the SS did not underestimate the effect on civilian morale. They also knew that letters from the Kessel, describing the horror and the squalor, fundamentally contradicted the regime’s heroic treatment of the disaster. ‘The farewell letters of Stalingrad combatants’, ran one report, ‘spread great spiritual distress not only to relatives but also to a wider circle of the population, the more so because the content of these letters was passed round rapidly. The description of the suffering during the last weeks of fighting haunts relatives day and night.’ Goebbels had, in fact, foreseen this problem much earlier, and decided to intercept postcards from those taken prisoner. In his diary on 17 December he wrote: ‘In future, cards to relatives should no longer be delivered, because they offer an access door to Germany for Bolshevik propaganda.’

Soviet efforts proved too energetic to stop. The NKVD’s prison camps provided postcards, but because the German authorities would not allow them in, their contents were printed in small type, many to a sheet, and dropped over German lines as propaganda leaflets. When these were dropped, German soldiers at the front picked them up, although they risked severe punishment, and sent anonymous letters to the addresses on the list to say that their man was alive. They signed themselves ‘a compatriot’ or just ‘χχχ’. Sometimes, to the horror of the Nazi authorities, families even received a copy of the Soviet leaflet and contacted others in the same situation.

Paul’s himself seems to have sensed before the surrender that the regime might try to twist the Stalingrad disaster into a new version of the stab-in-the-back myth. (Whether this influenced his decision to refuse the surrender terms on 9 January is impossible to say.) This time, however, the scapegoats for defeat would not be Communists and Jews as in 1918, but the general staff and the aristocracy, still closely associated in the popular mind. Those about to come into the line of fire had an inkling of the storm ahead.

Otto, Fürst von Bismarck, the German minister at the embassy in Rome, slipped away with his wife for a holiday at the end of January to avoid the official celebrations of the Nazi regime’s tenth anniversary. Like most German diplomats away from Berlin, he had little idea of the true horrors of the Stalingrad debacle. On the evening of 31 January, they were in the Palace Hotel in St Moritz when an urgent telephone call from the German ambassador in Berne was put through. ‘Stop dancing!’ the ambassador warned. ‘Stalingrad has fallen.’ They both knew that St Moritz had become the favourite resort of senior officers from the SS. Nothing more needed to be said.

The propaganda ministry’s party line about general and grenadier fighting shoulder to shoulder soon changed. On 18 February, Goebbels organized a mass rally in the Berlin Sportpalast, with the theme ‘Total War – Shortest War!’ A huge banderol carried the great call of 1812: ‘Let Our War-Cry be: Now the People Rise Up and Storm Break Loose’. The very different historical contexts made this glaringly inappropriate to all but the most committed supporter of the regime.

‘Do you want total war?’ Goebbels yelled from the podium. His audience bayed its response. ‘Are you determined to follow the Führer and fight for victory whatever the cost?’ Once again the party faithful roared.

Goebbels, during the weeks following Stalingrad, set the agenda. He demanded an end to half-measures, with mass mobilization, yet symbolism was almost more important in the rash of measures. The copper cladding over the Brandenburg Gate was removed for use in war industry. Professional sporting events were banned. Luxury shops, including jewellers, were closed. All fashion magazines were to cease publication. Goebbels even organized a campaign against fashion, with the notion that women did not need to dress up, because they would please ‘victorious homecoming soldiers just as much in patches’. Rumours spread that permanent waving would be forbidden. Hitler, who passionately believed that it was the duty of womankind to be decorative, objected to this, and Goebbels was forced to announce that ‘there is no need for a woman to make herself ugly’. Barter, that first sign of a siege economy, spread rapidly. Scrubbing-brushes, for example, were soon exchanged for tickets to a Furtwängler concert.

Nightclubs and luxury restaurants, such as Horcher and the Quartier Latin, Neva Grill, Peltzers Atelier and the Tuskulum in the Kurfürstendamm, were closed. When they reopened, customers were to be encouraged to restrict themselves to Feldküchengerichte – ‘field kitchen dishes’ – as an act of solidarity with the soldiers in Russia, quite probably an idea inspired by Zeitzler’s forbidden fast. Goering, however, arranged that Horcher, his favourite restaurant, was reopened as an officers’ club for the Luftwaffe.

The barely veiled message that corrupt, upper-class generals had betrayed the Nazi ideal was conveyed in numerous ways. Not long afterwards, all members of German royal families serving in the armed forces were told to resign their commissions. Even riding in the Tiergarten was stopped.

More and more Nazi propaganda slogans appeared on walls, but cynical Berliners preferred the graffiti: ‘Enjoy the war, the peace will be much worse.’ ‘Hold out’ became the most overused word in the propaganda lexicon. A fear grew for the future, above all of Russia’s determination to wreak a violent revenge. An innkeeper from the Black Forest on leave from the Ostfront said to Christabel Bielenberg: ‘If we are paid back one quarter of what we are doing in Russia and Poland, Frau Doktor, we will suffer, and we will deserve to suffer.’

Germans who did not admire the Nazis recognized the grotesque paradox only too clearly. The invasion of the Soviet Union had forced the Russians to defend Stalinism. Now the threat of defeat forced Germans to defend Hitler’s regime and its ghastly failure. The difference was that the Russians had had a vast land mass into which to retreat, while Germany faced war on two fronts, massive bombing raids and a blockade. To make matters worse, Roosevelt and Churchill at Casablanca had declared their intention to fight on until the unconditional surrender of the Axis. This strengthened Goebbels’s hand immeasurably.

The opposition, for a variety of reasons ranging from irresolution and disagreement to sheer bad luck, had not managed to act in time. It was already far too late to convince the Allies that there was a democratic alternative to the Nazi regime, as opposed to a palace coup by generals afraid of defeat. Its members, although well aware of this, still hoped that Stalingrad would at least provide the trigger for revolt, but no army group commander was prepared to move. Less senior, but much more determined, officers were ready to take huge risks, if necessary to lose their own lives in the attempt, but Hitler, who seemed to possess an almost feral nose for danger, was too well guarded, and constantly changed his plans at the last moment.

The only overt sign of disaffection following the collapse at Stalingrad came from a small group of Munich students, known as the White Rose. Their ideas spread to other students in Hamburg, Berlin, Stuttgart and Vienna. On 18 February, after a campaign of leaflets and slogans painted on walls calling for the overthrow of Nazism, Sophie Scholl and her brother Hans were arrested after scattering more handbills at the Ludwig-Maximilian University in Munich. Tortured by the Gestapo, then sentenced to death by Roland Freisler at a special session of the People’s Court in Munich, brother and sister were beheaded. A number of other members of their circle, including the professor of philosophy, Kurt Huber, suffered similar fates.

Soon after the final surrender at Stalingrad, Hitler saw Field Marshal von Manstein, the first senior officer from outside his immediate circle. Manstein outlined the measures he had been forced to take to avoid total collapse in southern Russia. Hitler wanted to order him not to withdraw any further, but Manstein knew that, in the circumstances, he could set the terms. During their discussions, Hitler said that he alone took the responsibility for Stalingrad, then promptly sidestepped his own confession by adding that he could put some of the blame on Goering, but since he had appointed the Reichsmarschall to be his successor, he could not hold him responsible for Stalingrad. No mention was made of his own confused strategy and attempts to control operations from afar. His greatest recriminations were still reserved for Paulus. He told Goebbels that after the war he would have Paulus and his generals court-martialled for failing to carry out his explicit order to resist to the last bullet.

Hitler now seldom held forth at table, as had been his habit. He preferred to eat alone. Guderian found him greatly changed: ‘His left hand trembled, his back was bent, his gaze was fixed, his eyes protruded but lacked their former lustre, his cheeks were flecked with red.’ But when Hitler met Milch, he showed no regret for the vast waste of life at Stalingrad. He could think only of raising the stakes once again, throwing away even more lives. ‘We will end the war this year,’ he told him. ‘I have accordingly decided on a gigantic mobilization of all German popular strength.’

In Russia, the fierce exultation over the victory was spontaneous as well as orchestrated. The Kremlin bells rang out news of Paulus’s surrender. Rousing martial music was broadcast over the radio and communiqués were published across the front of every newspaper. They lauded the ‘stern lesson in history’ administered to the ‘adventurers of the German General Staff’ by the Red Army’s own Hannibals in this modern battle of Cannae. Stalin was portrayed as the wise leader and great architect of victory.

Morale in the Soviet Union genuinely soared. Throughout the battle people everywhere had asked each other for the latest news of the fighting on the Volga. When victory came after such a terrible battle, people kept telling each other: ‘You cannot stop an army which has done Stalingrad.’ They joked too in delight at the expense of the defeated enemy. ‘I wonder how it feels to be a field marshal caught in a cellar?’ was a popular remark. ‘After Stalingrad, not a single soldier had a single doubt about the outcome of the war,’ said an officer wounded there. Stalingrad divisions were distributed to different armies and fronts to raise morale still further.

Stalin was soon appointed Marshal of the Soviet Union by the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR, a touch which was marginally more modest than Napoleon crowning himself. The history of the war was suddenly refashioned. The disasters of 1941 were made to appear as if they were all part of a cunning plan devised by Stalin. Stalin’s picture and name had been kept out of the press during the bad periods, but now ‘the great captain of the Soviet people’, ‘the genius organizer of our victories’ was back to the fore. All disasters and all evils were attributed to others, rather as courtiers were blamed in tsarist times. Ilya Ehrenburg, with breathtaking cynicism, remarked that the people ‘needed to believe’. Even prisoners in the Gulag wrote to the Great Father of the People, convinced that he would step in to correct a terrible miscarriage of justice, unthinkable under Communism. No leader had a more effective lightning conductor than Beria.

Red Army generals were conspicuously rewarded. The recent suspension of dual command with commissars was crowned with the formal reinstatement of the rank and description of ‘officer’. The euphemism ‘commander’ was dropped. As General Schlömer had noted with amusement, shoulder boards – symbols of privilege which some Bolshevik lynch mobs in 1917 had nailed to the bodies of their tsarist wearers – were reinstated. (Gold braid had been secretly ordered from Great Britain, to the astonishment and disapproval of officials there.) One soldier in a Guards division heard the news about shoulder boards from an old man polishing boots in a railway station: ‘They’re starting these gold shoulder boards once more,’ the man told him in angry disbelief. ‘Just like in the White Army.’ His fellow soldiers too were amazed when he told them the news on returning to the train: ‘Why in the Red Army?’ they asked. Such mutterings were ignored. The new decorations for the Great Patriotic War – the Orders of Suvorov and of Kutuzov – were also distributed to senior commanders in the campaign.

The greatest propaganda success, however, extended far beyond Soviet frontiers. The story of the Red Army’s sacrifice had a powerful effect across the world, especially within occupied Europe. Its effect on resistance movements everywhere and thus its influence on the politics of post-war Europe were considerable. The triumph of the Red Army boosted the status of the Party member and attracted fellow-travellers in droves. Even conservatives could not avoid praising the heroism of the Red Army. In Britain, King George VI commissioned a Sword of Stalingrad to be forged for presentation to the city. The morale of civilians and soldiers alike was boosted by newsreels lauding the victory, with flickering footage of Paulus and the long columns of prisoners of war, snaking across the snow-covered landscape. Everyone knew that the Russians were taking the brunt of the German onslaught, and that the Eastern Front was bleeding the Wehrmacht to death far more surely than any western theatre. The Red Army would push on, as the officer had shouted at the prisoners of war, until Berlin looked like the ruined city of Stalingrad.

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