I bought Stalingrad January last year because I wanted to read a non-fiction book about the battle of Stalingrad before I read Vasily Grossman’s novel, Stalingrad. Like many books I buy, it takes me a while to get to them. But I decided to read this book earlier than I might have, otherwise, due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on the 24 February this year. I wanted to start this review by talking about that, not only because Russia’s war – let’s call it what it is – has no justification and is appalling, but because I wanted to give some context for my review; to explain why I think returning to the subject of Stalingrad is worthwhile.
The battle for Stalingrad lasted over five months, from August 1942 to February 1943. Under the mission title ‘Operation Barbarossa’, Germany’s 6th Army, supported by 3000 tanks, a massive artillery and thousands of planes – it is considered the largest invasion force in history – passed west to east through Ukraine, in an attempt to secure Ukrainian agricultural production and oil reserves in the Caucasus region, farther west. Hitler knew that if Germany was to continue its war it would need these resources. Stalingrad was not an immediate objective of the invasion, but German forces became stalled at the city, and the battle to subdue it became a symbolic struggle, especially since the city bore Stalin’s name.
For those looking for relevance to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, it lies in some of Putin’s justification for the invasion. The Russian victory over the Germans at Stalingrad was a formative moment for Russian national pride as well as its international standing. Russia’s defeat of Germany – it’s almost total annihilation of the 6th army and its equipment – was a turning point in World War II, helping to alleviate the pressure on the Allies in other parts of Europe. Russia’s international standing was elevated, and its subsequent position in the newly-formed United Nations in 1945 owes something to the prestige the Soviet Union acquired at this juncture in history. Stalingrad is like England’s Battle of Britain or its defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588. England’s role in the defeat of Nazism is still a source of national pride, and it is understandable that this would be the case for Russians, too.
Yet, focussing on this historical moment should not blind us to the fact that the Soviet Union’s victory is historically bookended by darker matter. The Soviet alliance with the Allies was something of a necessity. Soviet ideology was at variance with Western ideals of democracy and free markets. It is well known that the Soviet Union’s relationship with the West degenerated after World War II into the Cold War and eventually a nuclear arms race. And just prior to the war, before Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union, Germany had signed an economic and military pact with the Soviets in 1939 known as Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact. The pact guaranteed that Germany would not act aggressively towards the Soviet Union for at least 10 years (clearly, that promise wasn’t kept), and apart from economic agreements between the countries, also settled each country’s spheres of influence in Eastern Europe. So, when Hitler invaded Poland on 1 September 1939, Stalin followed suite just over two weeks later (the delay might be attributed to the Soviets’ need to conclude a ceasefire agreement with the Japanese over the Battles of Khalkhin Gol) to claim territory as agreed to by the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. This was to be the first of a series of aggressions by Germany and the Soviets in Europe. The Soviets justified the invasion by claiming the Polish government had collapsed and that they were protecting people in the region. The interesting thing about this is that part of modern western Ukraine is territory taken from Poland in this invasion.
This is some of the context for the tale Beevor tells in his book, Stalingrad. But it also serves to remind us that much of Russia’s pride and standing is derived from the defeat of Germany’s 6th army during the struggle for Stalingrad. In searching for a justification for invading Ukraine in 2022, it is less surprising when we remember this history, that Putin, in part, has framed his invasion as a special military operation to ‘de-Nazify’ Ukraine, as irrational as that is.
It is also important to remember context when reading a book like Beevor’s Stalingrad, so that we might understand what Beevor’s book is, and is not. Beevor is an impeccable historian and he writes well. There are moments in the book when it is gripping. But the book does not often place its narrative within the wider context of the war, or of the history between Germany and the Soviet Union that extends farther back in time and is far more detailed than is necessary for this review. Beevor’s account explains Hitler’s need to invade the Soviet Union – he needed its resources – and gives a detailed account of the invasion, beginning with their striking across the frontier and destroying much military equipment and seizing towns, along with early campaigns, including the army’s push towards Moscow. Beevor accompanies his account with a series of maps that help to simplify the major strategic movements of both the German and Russian armies throughout the campaign, which is helpful, since the details of place names and German figures, along with different tank divisions and Luftwaffe, not to mention the many Russian figures, means that a broad outline that a map provides is helpful while reading. But the result of this detail means the opening of the book doesn’t achieve the emotional engagement that Beevor’s story of the defence of Stalingrad evokes later on.
The main part of Stalingrad, the city, is situated on the western bank of the River Volga. A lot of the defence of Stalingrad relied upon Russian forces being able to hold the western bank, even though German forces had infiltrated the city. During the course of the battle thousands of civilians remained, despite the fighting, often house by house, even room by room, as well as suffering Luftwaffe and artillery bombardments. Many civilians somehow lived in the ruined city, huddling in cellars with little to eat and no proper heating as winter set in. The Russians were forced to resupply their army across the Volga, frequently under bombardment. This was often at a terrible cost, but as the war progressed, the Germans’ inability to effectively strike across the Volga was to prove pivotal. The German supply lines were stretched and reinforcement was difficult, whereas the Russians were able to train new armies and manufacture new tanks and other armaments in factories east of the conflict, thereby creating an impression that Russia had an endless supply of men and equipment. It was an impression that demoralised many German troops, especially later, beginning in November 1942, when the Russian army encircled the German army, trapping it and cutting it off from resupply during Operation Uranus.
The strength of this book is that it paints a human picture of this conflict, which is why it isn’t as gripping in the first part as it describes the intricacies of the invasion and opening campaigns prior to the siege of Stalingrad. Beevor draws upon a lot of primary evidence in an attempt to get into the minds of both German and Russian players and their troops. He is careful to delineate the political machine of Nazism and the ordinary army which was not entirely an arm of the Nazi party as popular films would have us think. He is able to give an account of army murmurings against Hitler, who had taken control of the military operation, and who later looked for scapegoats for the loss of Stalingrad and the 6th army. With reference to personal letters and eye witness accounts, Beevor is able place us in the ranks of each army, and make us feel the suffering of troops on both sides: of the horrors that each side witnessed; the desire of soldiers to surrender or defect, which affected both armies; the ill-treatment of prisoners on both sides; of disease and death; heroism; and starvation – particularly of the Germans after their encirclement, but also for Russian prisoners of war – so debilitating that some men resorted to cannibalism.
The sense of reading the book from beginning to end, is that we come closer and closer to the action and suffering as we read. Details, like the Germans’ fear of dogs on the battlefield, is unsettling. Russian soldiers trained dogs to run underneath tanks by placing their food beneath tanks. In the battlefield, explosives would be strapped to the backs of dogs, which was a way of taking out a tank. Then there are tales of personal heroism, like the fifty eight day defence of Pavlov’s house in the industrial sector:
Whenever panzers approached, Pavlov’s men scattered, either to the cellar or the top floor, from where they were able to engage them at close range. The panzer crews could not elevate their main armament sufficiently to fire back. Chuickov later liked to make the point that Pavlov’s men killed more enemy soldiers than the Germans lost in the capture of Paris.
As the book progresses we come closer to the main players. The story of Paulus, the German commander, is capable of drawing our sympathy. Paulus was promoted to Field Marshal just before his final surrender. When he was to be interrogated, he sadly pointed out that he had not yet received his new uniform, signifying his rank. Paulus understood that Hitler had promoted him as a sop for his expected suicide, which would help Hitler create a myth about German bravery and sacrifice. Appearing as a pale and sick figure in the hands of the Russians, Paulus was an embarrassment, instead.
Then there are small details that read more like a novel. When Major Smyslov and Captain Dyatlenko are sent as a truce envoy into German held territory, they are almost killed when the Germans open fire. Their dress uniforms, meant to intimidate the emaciated Germans, are ruined when they dive for cover. Later, when the misunderstanding is overcome, the Germans allow them to approach. But an almost equally terrifying moment follows:
The ice on which they were walking was both uneven from shell fire, yet also polished by the passage of boots wrapped in rags. Dyatlenko fell, knocking down the [German] lieutenant. Smyslov, hearing the commotion, shouted in alarm. Dyatlenko reassured Smyslov and apologised to the lieutenant.
The moment of terror then becomes farcical:
German soldiers who came to lift the two fallen men slipped over in their turn, making a sprawling mass of bodies. Dyatlenko compared it to the Ukrainian children’s game called ‘A little heap is too little: someone is needed on top.’
Beevor’s account works because it is a humanistic treatment of the soldiers who fought in the Stalingrad campaign on both sides. While Beevor clearly has the Germans as the aggressors, as he must, he manages to delineate between the ordinary soldiers and their political and ideological divides, to focus on Stalingrad as a humanitarian disaster. Even leaders on both sides of the conflict become more human to us, especially those directing the battles as proxies for Stalin or Hitler, who would either evade blame or take credit, depending on the outcome. At the same time, Beevor does not romanticise any figure or group. German generals, for instance, while we may at times sympathise with some, often deserve our contempt because troops in their command starved while they remained well fed. Paulus was one of the few who physically suffered. But the fate of the German army, including many of its generals, is surprisingly moving, nevertheless. Many suffered death from starvation, from ill-treatment by their Russian captors through actions motivated by revenge, from forced marches, from exposure to the Russian winter, from disease and even suicide. For those who survived the war, many remained as prisoners and subsequently died in Russia. Beevor tells us that as late as 1955 there were still 9,626 German prisoners of war in Russia. They were released in September of that year. During the war, many of the last letters written home by German soldiers were deliberately held back. Hitler needed to portray Stalingrad as a heroic sacrifice, and could not afford the pitiful tone of many of the letters.
Hitler’s army invaded the Soviet Union with the expectation that it would be an all-conquering force. Instead, it became bogged down at Stalingrad, then surrounded, then defeated. Beevor’s book shows the human cost of that. Now, as I write, Russia's army has invaded Ukraine, but the beginning of the war has not gone smoothly for Russia. One wonders whether Putin looks at what happened in 1943 with foreboding. Stalingrad was a terrible tragedy and disaster for the Russian people. It was also a terrible disaster for Germany. Apart from the background to Putin’s claims of ‘de-Nazifying’ Ukraine, Beevor’s book potentially provides an insight into the human cost of the kind of military adventurism Putin has undertaken.