Just finished reading, Stalingrad, The Fateful Siege: 1942-1943, by Anthony Beevor. The battle of Stalingrad has always been a source of morbid fascination for me. Given how much literature there is and how many movies have been made about World War II, it’s shocking how little attention this battle has received.
Perhaps that’s because it’s so grotesque. It’s hard to make a movie about a conflict with no winners and no good guys. And the degree of death and suffering from the battle defies comprehension. More than 1.5 million Germans died and another million went missing in Russia. Meanwhile, even though history tells us that the Russians “won” the battle of Stalingrad, around 26 million Russians died in World War II, and at no point was the rate of attrition worse than during the battle of Stalingrad.
The horrors of the battle are almost enough to make you feel bad for Nazis. After the initial Luftwaffe air raids reduced the city to rubble, the Russians incited the Germans to hand-to-hand combat, to limit the Germans’ weapons advantage. Soon, the Russians figured they could induce more terror by launching raids at night. With callous indifference to their own troops as well as their enemies, the Russians sent wave after wave of regiments into battle at night. Those that refused to fight were executed, with more than 13,000 killed for cowardice. Soviet troops fought with little coordination or organization, but simply out of a sheer animalistic sense of survival.
In November 1942, just as winter arrived, the Soviets encircled the German Sixth Army, creating a 40-60 mile boundary separating the main German army in Stalingrad from its supply lines. With temperatures below zero and little supplies or ammunition, the 290,000 remaining German troops had little option but to freeze or starve to death in the rubble. Two-thirds of them died in the next two months.
By the end, the scene was one of pure misery, with 6’ 4’’ men reduced to 120 pounds and emaciated horses gnawing on wood fragments in a desperate attempt to stay alive. Prisoners of war resorted to cannibalism. In late January 1943, the din of war actually grew quieter, if only because most of the Germans had completely run out of ammunition to fight.
They had been given orders by Hitler to fight to the death, using their last bullet on themselves to avoid being taken alive. A few decided not to oblige their Fuhrer, and surrendered instead. But those that surrendered only had a slightly better chance than their fallen comrades. Of the 90,000 who surrendered, only 3,000 left Russia alive in the years after the war.
The civilian population of Stalingrad was completely annihilated. It’s estimated that around 700,000 lived in the city at the start of the German invasion. In the end, only 9,796 survived. This included 994 children, “only nine of whom were ever reunited with their parents.” It’s truly horrific stuff.
The battle of Stalingrad may seem like a distant, inconceivable event. But it didn’t happen that long ago. The battle reached its climax when the Soviet armies surrounded the German Sixth Army on November 20th, 1942. I was born on November 20th, 1977. All this went down 35 years before I was born. And I’m now 38. The time gap between the battle of Stalingrad and my birth is less than the time gap between my birth and the present.
As you read the letters of soldiers and officers who suffered through the battle on both sides, the overwhelming sense is that they were all pawns being sacrificed at the alter of a lunatic sense of patriotism. The Germans died for the Fatherland and the Russians died for the Motherland. But they all died just the same.
When ideology and national identity trumps humanity, awful things happen.
Let’s hope none of us ever experiences anything like this again during our lifetimes.