Saturday, December 09, 2006

Stalingrad: the fateful siege * * * * *

The battle for Stalingrad was the bloodiest battle in the brutal battles on the Eastern front. After surviving a brutal winter and unsuccessful attempt to capture Moscow, the German Army turned its attention to the east and the Caucaus oilfields. They raced forward rapidly in a headlong rush of one success after another. Then they reached the city of Stalingrad on the banks of the Volga. In difficult fighting they managed to capture 95% of the city, but the Russians held on the the north side of the Volga River and a small strip of land on the south side. For months, the Russians and Germans fought a pitiless street battle in the ruins -- while each day winter got closer. In late November 1942, the Russians executed a large counter attack and successfully surrounded the entire 6th Army, by then numbering only about 250,000 men. The Germans were unprepared for winter, and over the next 2 months, they slowly but surely starved to death. When they finally surrendered in early February 1943, they numbered only 90,000. These were taken prisoner and only about 6,000 managed to survive captivity and make it home.

In total, some ¾ of a million Axis troops (Germans and their Hungarian and Romanian allies) were involved and basically all were killed or wounded, except some 6,000 who were taken POWs and managed to survive Siberian work camps. All and all this represented about 1/4 of the men fighting for the Germans on the Eastern front. On the Russian side, some 1 ¾ million troops were involved and about half were killed or wounded.

This book combined reams of archival material such as letters home, memoirs, and official reports to provide not only a sense of the overall battles, but a feeling for what it was like for the individual soldiers. As the film Stalingrad graphically shows, it was grim for the German soldiers. Although I have to say that after reading the book, the film was not nearly as horrific as the truth. One memorable section in the book describes how the doctors had to scrape the lice off injured men with spatulas before surgery. The movie also is from the perspective of only the Germans. The book gives equal treatment to the Russian soldiers. Russian soldiers experienced some 50% casualties, and some references have said that the average survival of newbies on the front was 1 day. The story of the Russian soldiers is that of incredible courage under impossible odds. Of course, lack of courage or allowing oneself to be captured (translation = not fighting to the death) was punished by execution, but that does not by itself explain the willingness to die shown by so many of the men*. I'm not sure what explains the wanton disregard of soldiers lives by their leaders, however. The tendency of the Russians to do frontal attacks against well-guarded positions was shocking.

The one area the book did not discuss, however, was the perspective of the people trapped in the city and those in the surrounding areas. People were not allowed to evacuate, which meant that the 50,000 or so people living there died. Those able to help with the fight were organized into militia or put to use otherwise. In the end, about 2000 civilians survived in the city through the battle which included some 900 children -- of which all but 6 were orphans. Outside the city, the Germans were living off the land, by taking food from the villages and they dismantled all buildings for their own uses. One must presume that the elderly and children in the outskirts did not fare very well either. The book also discusses the anti-Slavic views of the Nazis. They viewed Slavs as ethnically inferior and subjected them to some of the same extermination policies as the Jews. This was seen most vividly in Poland where there were mass killings of civilians, but also in Russia. The treatment of Russian POWs was similar to that of Jews (meaning sent to similar camps and marched into similar ovens) and was dramatically different than that of American or British POWs. The Russian soldiers were very affected by seeing the treatment of Russian POWs and used this as a justification for their later treatment of German POWs. As the same time, in utter Stalinistic perversity, being taken prisoner was a Russian crime since troops were ordered to fight to the death. Obviously you didn't do that if you were taken prisoner. When Russian POWs were returned to Russia after the war, 2/3s were executed or sent to Siberia(!!)

Overall, this book was very interesting. I had not expected to read this book actually, but I was given it as a gift and couldn't put it down. It's like watching a train wreck; it's mesmerizing. I'm interested in understanding the post-war period in Germany. The fall of Stalingrad is immensely important for this because 1) the casualties were so high so this really affected public sentiment back in Germany and 2) what the Germans did in Stalingrad and in Russia fueled the plundering, murdering, and rape that occurred when the Russians made it into Germany. This relentless drive of the Russians to exact revenge lead to a fundamental difference between East and West Germany. One side was laid waste to and the other side not. The next book this author wrote is the Fall of Berlin, which details this.

* It is thought-provoking that such admirable bravery and self-sacrifice can exist in the same people that a few months later were committing horrific crimes against German civilians in East Prussia. Of course, the German Army did worse to Russian civilians. Although on the German side, attacks against civilians seemed to come from the officers and military tactics that used starvation and ethnic liquidation as a weapon. On the Russian side, civilian attacks (rape, murder, pillaging, squashing with tanks) came from the ordinary soldier while the officers were supposed to prevent this. Clearly most didn't try hard to stop it though.

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