Stalingrad: The Fateful Siege, 1942-1943
© 1998 Anthony Beevor
In June 1941, Hitler demonstrated the truism that evil will oft evil mar by launching an invasion of the Soviet Union. Though initiated later in the year than planned, the Wehrmacht’s assault achieved rapid success, partially because Stalin believed Hitler’s saber-rattling to be an attempt at intimidating him at the trade-table. Even so, Russia’s vastness and Hitler’s competing commitment in Italy stalled the offensive, the initial momentum never to be regained. On the banks of the Volga, at the city of Stalingrad, part of Hitler’s army provided a foretaste of the German state as a whole: overextended, surrounded, starving, dying, and defeated.
Initially, Stalingrad was only notable to military strategists for two things: its position on the Volga river, and its armaments factories.Simply breaking Russian command of the river and destroying the factories would suffice for victory, leaving the ever-more accomplished panzers and men to take on the Soviet south, with its attractive oil fields. As is well known, however, the Germans were unable to achieve the coup de grace before the Russian winter set in, and soon the final pockets of resistance in Stalingrad were proving ever more obdurant. Their resistance provoked stubborness in Hitler, now remote-managing the battle from Germany: the attempt to take Stalin’s City was becoming increasingly more personal.
Unknown to the Germans, the Russian general Zhukov saw a greater strategic value in the city. He urged Stalin to gamble: let him maintain only a paltry defense in the city, just barely enough to keep it from falling completely, while secretly building an offensive army. The gamble would be pursued, and play off wonderfully for the Soviets: a year into the German stall, in November 1942, Soviet tanks launched an all-quarters attack and completely encircled the German Sixth Army in Stalingrad, as well as Romanian and other Axis units which were in the city’s environs at the time. The force was considerable, as Hitler’s obsession with the city meant it was consuming far more men and material than it was worth to keep. Though a half-hearted attempt at outside rescue was made after the Soviets had already consolidated their positions, and although the Luftwaffe gamely attempted to keep the Sixth Army supplied through increasingly thick resistance, the men of the Sixth Army were virtually abandoned. In the bleak midwinter, they decayed while still living: picked off or driven mad by the stress of constant attack, attempting to live on rations as small as 200 grams per day, eaten alive by lice, constantly exposed to the brutal winter of the steppes, and utterly exposed to disease. Not until February 1943 did the Soviets finally move in for the killing blow.
Stalingrad is a grim book, depicting as it does first the plight of civilians being tread underfoot by two armies of ideological orcs, then the extensive suffering of civilians and soldiers in Stalingrad during the wintry siege. There are moments of odd gallows humor, like the instructions written to German soldiers returning home for leave.(They are urged, upon entering a building back home, to use the doorknob. Grenades are a last resort.) Largely, this is a work of prolonged suffering, first merely through the Russian winter and then through a second winter of isolation and death. As the last remnants of the the Sixth army were marched into captivity, a Russian soldier urged them to look at the ruins of the city behind them: “This is what Berlin will be!”, the Soviet cried. Unfortunately, it would be so: Stalingrad and the Russian campaign helped begin the downfall of the Nazi regime, but would ultimately empower an ogre just as foul on the continent: Stalin.
While it doesn’t cover the whole of the Russian campaign, Stalingrad is a visceral and deeply-researched history of the campaign for the city, and the siege which followed. The armies of both state reveal their wretchedness, chucking civilians out of their homes as winter set in, and shaking them down for supplies. There is nothing as beastly as man at war, but as Stalingrad demonstrates, man at war with the unction of the imperial state achieves superior horror. Yet Volvograd — thanks be that the city now bears a name worth uttering — is a moment of triumph for the Russians worth noting. Once on the retreat and dependent on the Allies for war material, by 1943 they were producing enough tanks and planes to completely dominate the Wehrmacht and launch their own bid for command of Europe. That is quite the comeback.