The City that Defeated the Third Reich


Edited by Jochen Hellbeck

Translated by Christopher Tauchen

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The turning point of World War II came at Stalingrad. Hitler’s soldiers stormed the city in September 1942 in a bid to complete the conquest of Europe. Yet Stalingrad never fell. After months of bitter fighting, 100,000 surviving Germans, huddled in the ruined city, surrendered to Soviet troops.

During the battle and shortly after its conclusion, scores of Red Army commanders and soldiers, party officials and workers spoke with a team of historians who visited from Moscow to record their conversations. The tapestry of their voices provides groundbreaking insights into the thoughts and feelings of Soviet citizens during wartime.

Legendary sniper Vasily Zaytsev recounted the horrors he witnessed at Stalingrad: “You see young girls, children hanging from trees in the park.[ . . .] That has a tremendous impact.” Nurse Vera Gurova attended hundreds of wounded soldiers in a makeshift hospital every day, but she couldn’t forget one young amputee who begged her to avenge his suffering. “Every soldier and officer in Stalingrad was itching to kill as many Germans as possible,” said Major Nikolai Aksyonov.

These testimonials were so harrowing and candid that the Kremlin forbade their publication, and they were forgotten by modern history — until now. Revealed here in English for the first time, they humanize the Soviet defenders and allow Jochen Hellbeck, in Stalingrad, to present a definitive new portrait of the most fateful battle of World War II.




The battle of Stalingrad—the most ferocious and lethal battle in human history—ended on February 2, 1943. With an estimated death toll in excess of a million, the bloodletting at Stalingrad far exceeded that of Verdun, one of the costliest battles of World War I. The analogy with Verdun was not lost on German and Soviet soldiers who fought at Stalingrad. As they described the “hell of Stalingrad” in their private letters, some Germans saw themselves trapped in a “second Verdun.” Many Soviet defenders meanwhile extolled Stalingrad, a city with a prehistory of bloody warfare, as their “Red Verdun,” vowing never to surrender it to the enemy. But, as a Soviet war correspondent reporting from Stalingrad in October 1942 remarked, the embattled city differed from Verdun: it had not been designed as a stronghold and it possessed

no fortresses or concrete shelters. The line of defense passes through waste grounds and courtyards where housewives used to hang out the laundry, across the tracks of the narrow gauge railway, through the house where an accountant lived with his wife, two children and aging mother, through dozens of similar houses, through the now deserted square and its mangled pavement, through the park where just this past summer lovers sat whispering to one another on green benches. A city of peace has become a city of war. The laws of warfare have placed it on the front line, at the epicenter of a battle that will shape the outcome of the entire war. In Stalingrad, the line of defense passes through the hearts of the Russian people. After sixty days of fighting the Germans now know what this means. “Verdun!” they scoff. This is no Verdun. This is something new in the history of warfare. This is Stalingrad.1

Lasting six months, the battle also unfolded as a global media war. From the very beginning observers on all sides were fixated on the gigantic clash at the edge of Europe, heralding it a defining event of World War II. The fight for Stalingrad would become the “most fateful battle of the war,” a Dresden paper wrote in early August 1942, just when Hitler’s soldiers were preparing their assault on the city. The British Daily Telegraph used virtually the same terms in September. In Berlin, Joseph Goebbels read the papers of Germany’s enemies attentively. The battle of Stalingrad, the Nazi propaganda chief declared with a nod to the British daily, was a “question of life or death, and all of our prestige, just as that of the Soviet Union, will depend on how it will end.”2 Starting in October 1942, Soviet newspapers regularly cited western reports that extolled the heroism of the soldiers and civilians defending the city against Germany’s mechanical warriors. In pubs throughout England the radio would be turned on for the start of the evening news only to be turned off after the report on Stalingrad had aired: “Nobody wants to hear anything else,” a British reporter noted. “All they talk about is Stalingrad, just Stalingrad.”3 Among the Allied nations, people euphorically commented on the performance of the Soviets at Stalingrad. This sentiment not only reflected the spirit of the antifascist alliance; it also owed to the fact that the western Allied soldiers could not offer any comparable feats: for over a year the British army had suffered defeat after defeat.4

In November, a Soviet counterattack trapped more than 300,000 German and Axis soldiers in the Stalingrad pocket, or Kessel. German media abruptly stopped reporting on the battle and did not resume until late January 1943, when Nazi leaders realized they could not pass over the rout of an entire German army in silence. They cast the battle as one of heroic self-sacrifice, fought by German soldiers defending Europe against a superior Asian enemy. The propaganda of fear, reinforced by appeals to German citizens to embrace total war, worked imperfectly. The German security police reported that people spoke of the last bullet, which they would save for themselves once “everything was over.”5 One German official undertook particular precautions in the wake of Stalingrad: SS Chief Heinrich Himmler visited the Treblinka death camp in eastern Poland in early March 1943. He urgently instructed the camp authorities to exhume all the bodies of the 700,000 Jews who had been killed there and cremate the corpses.6 For the next months until Treblinka was shut down, camp workers carried out their grim task while continuing to kill on a reduced scale. Himmler’s order grew out of an awareness that a time of reckoning for Germany was drawing near.7 While it would be another year and a half before the Red Army liberated the camps in Poland, the battle on the Volga disrupted the Nazi death machine. The Dresden newspaper was right, if for the wrong reasons: Stalingrad did mark a turning point in world history.

As long as the battle was raging, no foreign correspondents in Moscow were allowed to travel to Stalingrad. Secretive and distrustful, the Soviet authorities waited until February 4, 1943, before bringing in a first batch of international reporters—British, Americans, French, Czechs, Chinese.8 Among them was Paul Winterton, who aired this report for the BBC:

The streets of Stalingrad, if you can give the name to open spaces between ruins, still bear all the marks of battle. There’s the usual litter of helmets and weapons, stacks of ammunition, papers flattering in the snow, pocketbooks from dead Germans, and any number of smashed corpses, lying where they fell, or stacked up in great frozen heaps for later burial. Stalingrad can never be repaired. It will have to be rebuilt from the beginning. But even though all its buildings are wrecked there is life in it still. Along the narrow stretch of cement, which the Russians held through long months of assault, there is a city of dugouts—dugouts occupied by the soldiers who have not yet left, and by a few women who stayed behind to launder and cook for the men. There is a real party atmosphere among these people today. They are the proudest men and women I’ve ever seen. They know they’ve done a terrific job, and they’ve done it well. Their city has been destroyed, but they have smashed the invader by sheer stubbornness and unconquerable courage. These men and women fought and worked for months, with their backs to the river that they had sworn never to retreat across, facing an enemy who held the only dominating height in Stalingrad and who pounded them with shells and mortars, unceasingly by day and night. They clung to their narrow foothold, and their feet never slipped.9

Winterton opened with a panoramic account of the city and the detritus of war and then moved to what interested him and other journalists most: the defenders of Stalingrad. To Winterton, it was Russian “stubbornness and unconquerable courage” that decided the outcome of the battle; Alexander Werth, a reporter for the London Times, celebrated Red Army soldiers’ “extraordinary [ . . . ] individual achievements,” and for New York Times correspondent Henry Shapiro, Stalingrad symbolized the “triumph of men over metal”—Soviet men over German metal, to be exact.10 Valuable as these reports are as repositories of wartime views and emotions, they are also perfunctory and one-sided. The foreign correspondents were given only a quick tour of Stalingrad, and their Soviet guides were keen for them to meet the captured German generals rather than talk with Soviet citizens.11

The journalists touring the battleground in February 1943 did not know that more than a month earlier, a delegation of historians from Moscow had begun a large-scale project to document for posterity the voices of the Stalingrad defenders. They belonged to the Commission on the History of the Great Patriotic War, which had been founded by Isaak Mints, a professor at Moscow State University.

The historians arrived in Stalingrad in late December 1942, and they took up their work on January 2, 1943. They visited various locations along the front line running through the embattled city: the steelworks in the north, General Vasily Chuikov’s command post, the Beketovka settlement at Stalingrad’s southern edge. In trenches and bunkers they spoke with commanders, officers, and soldiers of the Red Army. A stenographer accompanying them transcribed the interviews. The historians had to leave Stalingrad on January 9, a day before the Red Army began its final offensive, and they returned in February to resume their work just days after the Germans surrendered. In the following weeks and months, they conducted many one-on-one interviews, eventually collecting 215 eyewitness accounts: from generals, staff officers, troop commanders, simple foot soldiers, commissars, agitators, sailors of the Volga Military Flotilla, nurses, and a number of civilians—engineers, laborers, and a cook among them—who worked in the bombed-out city or were just struggling to survive there.

Their interviews bring the reader close to the battle and paint a vivid picture of the actions, thoughts, and feelings of the Soviet participants that is unique among known sources. Soldiers spoke off the cuff about their lives, delivering rich and colorful descriptions (some in vernacular idiom) with the immediacy of an audio recording. The interviewees talked about their hometowns, how they ended up in Stalingrad, and their assignments. Candid and firsthand, authentic and nuanced, they described moments of terror and exhilaration, discussed the strengths and weaknesses of the Soviet military leadership, boasted of the honors they received, and depicted the deeds of heroes and cowards. These interviews are also unique in that many of the participants fought side by side and mention each other by name. Regarded as a whole, the interviews convey a unity of place, time, and action, the likes of which are found only in literature.

The historians went about their work systematically. In some cases they interviewed dozens of members of a single division: the commander, the political representative, staff officers, regimental commanders, company leaders, and infantry. These include twenty-four soldiers from the 308th Rifle Division, a unit that suffered heavy losses northwest of the city before being reassigned to Stalingrad to protect the Barricades munitions plant. The historians also spoke with engineers in charge of planning the reconstruction of the Red October steelworks, and with more than twenty soldiers from the 38th Motorized Rifle Brigade who had captured General Paulus and the rest of the 6th Army command. Taken together, these individual perspectives give rise to a finely woven, multifaceted picture of soldiers in battle. Alongside this impressive specificity, the transcripts reveal shared spheres of experience and elucidate—credibly—how the Red Army operated as a combat force. The candor and complexity of the Stalingrad interviews sealed their fate, however. The historians were unable to obtain approval for publication from state censors during the war, and the documents they collected later disappeared in an archive.12 They are presented here in English for the first time.

Like the journalists who toured Stalingrad in early 1943, the historians around Isaak Mints were drawn to the city’s defenders. They hoped to find in their testimony answers to the question that observers around the world were asking: exactly how had the Red Army been able to prevail against an enemy who was considered superior in operational planning, soldierly discipline, and fighting skills? Which resources did the defenders of Stalingrad bring to bear that stopped the unbeatable Germans who had until now forced Europe to its knees? These questions occupy researchers to the present day. The perhaps most debated issue surrounds the motivation of Red Army soldiers at Stalingrad. Did they act freely or were they coerced into battle, even at gunpoint? Did they draw from traditional Russian values, or were they animated by specifically Soviet ones? How did love for the homeland, hatred toward the invader, and devotion to Stalin figure in Red Army soldiers’ willingness to fight and die? The wartime interviews that lie at the center of this book provide rich and at times startlingly new answers to these questions.

Featuring a panoply of Soviet voices from wartime, this book allows English readers for the first time to imagine Red Army soldiers and other defenders of the city as thinking and feeling individuals. As it gives these voices a forum, the book adds substantially to writing on World War II that—in part for lack of access to personal documents—portrays the Red Army as a depersonalized machine and often feeds on unverified clichés about “the Russian soldier.” The book also provides a corrective to the many studies on Stalingrad that present the clash largely through the eyes of the Germans who were trapped in the city. By contrast, the Stalingrad interviews show in compelling detail how Soviet citizens made sense of the battle and located themselves in it.

This first chapter presents a historical context to enable readers to better understand the transcripts generated by the Mints commission. It begins with an overview of the battle and its treatment by historians, followed by a short history of the Red Army and Soviet society that culminates with the war. It then observes political and military events at the Stalingrad front through a microscopic lens. The chapter also features the creation of the Historical Commission, its aims and methods, and its journey to Stalingrad. It closes with a discussion of the interviews included in this book and the form of their presentation.

These interviews were prepared for publication jointly by the German Historical Institute in Moscow and the Russian Academy of Sciences. Under my direction, a small team of historians spent two years accessing and inventorying thousands of pages of interview transcripts, internal commission documents, and other relevant sources. Space limitations dictated that only a portion of the interviews found entry into this volume.13 Ten of them are presented verbatim; many others are woven into veritable tapestries—they tell the story of the battle in the form a chorus of soldierly and civilian voices (Chapters 2–3).

As they talked about how they had experienced the battle of Stalingrad, many of the interviewees shared impressions and thoughts about their German adversary. The historians of the Mints commission were interested in this question, and they additionally collected documents that illuminated the personal horizons of German soldiers at Stalingrad. These documents, which include the transcripts of captured Germans who were interrogated in early February 1943 and the diary of a German soldier that was found on the battlefield, form the bulk of Chapter 4.

The final, fifth chapter covers the aftermath of the Soviet victory at Stalingrad and follows the dramatic fate of the Soviet historians and writers who chronicled the battle.


The battle of Stalingrad marked a turning point in World War II. For six months, two massive army groups, each under orders not to cede an inch to the enemy, fought for control of the city that bore the Soviet dictator’s name.14 The battle ended with the encirclement and destruction of an entire German field army. At the time it was the worst military defeat in Germany’s history—and, in the immediate aftershock, the writing was on the wall for clear-eyed German observers.15 For the Soviet Union, Stalingrad represented its greatest victory to date over the German invaders. It shifted the war’s momentum in favor of the Red Army; after Stalingrad, its divisions would push steadily westward, their sights set on Berlin.

After German advances on Leningrad, Moscow, and Sevastopol had ground to a halt in the fall of 1941 and the Soviets launched their winter counterattack, Hitler started planning a sweeping offensive for the following summer code-named Operation Blue. It began on June 28, 1942, with a major assault along the Russian-Ukrainian front to take control of the region’s strategically important natural resources—the coal mines of the Donets basin and the oil fields outside Maykop, Grozny, and Baku. The German panzer and motorized infantry divisions gained ground quickly, but the pincer tactics they employed often missed their mark: whenever faced with encirclement, the Red Army divisions broke into rapid retreat. Hitler, assuming that the enemy troops had already dispersed, divided Army Group South into two parts: Army Group A, which was ordered to push toward the Caucasus, and Army Group B, which was to head northeast and secure the flanks. The spearhead of Army Group B was the 6th Army, under the command of General Friedrich Paulus. Its mission was to capture the city of Stalingrad, a key center for industry and weapons manufacturing on the Volga River.

By July 1942, the gravity of the situation—as even a cursory glance at a map made plain—had become apparent to many Soviet citizens. The writer Vasily Grossman noted in his diary, “The war in the south, on the lower reaches of the Volga, feels like a knife driven deep into the body.”16 The regime responded to the crisis with severe measures. After Rostov-on-Don fell into German hands with little resistance, Stalin issued Order no. 227, notorious for the line “Not one step back!”17 Henceforth, anyone who retreated from the enemy without an express order to do so would be branded a traitor to the fatherland and subjected to a military tribunal. This draconian edict was enforced at the battle of Stalingrad. The city extended like a ribbon twenty-five miles along the western bank of the Volga. Here “Not one step back!” meant that the river was the farthest point of retreat for the city’s defenders.

From the outset of the battle, Soviet leaders impressed on soldiers the symbolic significance of Stalingrad. It was the place where Stalin had staved off the enemies of the Soviet system during the Russian Civil War. Losing Stalingrad to the Germans would damage the myth of the city and its eponymous hero, and had to be prevented by all means. For the same reasons the city was crucially important to Hitler. Banking on the psychological blow that a Soviet defeat would deliver to Stalin, he framed it early on as a battle between two opposing worldviews. On August 20, 1942, Joseph Goebbels wrote in his diary that the Führer “has made the city a special priority. [ . . . ] Not one stone will be left on another.”18

At the western bend of the Don curve, some distance from Stalingrad, German forces encountered heavy resistance from the Soviet 62nd Army. The Germans took 57,000 prisoners, however, and crossed the Don on August 21. By the twenty-third, the first German panzers reached the Volga, some forty miles away, and barred access to Stalingrad from the north. The news set off alarms in Moscow. Three days later, Stalin appointed General Georgy Zhukov deputy supreme commander of the Red Army and put him in charge of the city’s defense.

At the beginning of the war, the population of Stalingrad was just under half a million, and the city was considered a safe haven far behind the front lines; by the summer of 1942 it was teeming with refugees. The city’s administrators implored Stalin to permit the evacuation of factories and civilians—to no avail. Lazar Brontman, a Pravda correspondent present during these discussions, recorded in his diary “how the boss [Stalin] declared with a glum expression: ‘Where should they be evacuated? The city must be held. That’s final!’ he shouted, and pounded his fist on the table.”19 Only after German bombers had laid waste to the city did Stalin allow women and children to leave.

After two weeks of bombing, Stalingrad was stormed by German troops. On September 14, a regiment broke through the inner city and reached the Volga.20 In the heavy street fighting that ensued over the following weeks, the Germans managed to push the soldiers of the 62nd Army back to the riverbank. Once the Wehrmacht’s shock troops had cleared a path, the German occupation authority set up headquarters, began executing communists and Jews, and prepared to deport the civilian population. On the other side, the Soviet defenders, dug in on the Volga’s steep western bank, held no more than a few bridgeheads. They received supplies, soldiers, and weapons by boat and cover from artillery positions on the east bank of the Volga. The 62nd Army in Stalingrad was part of the Southeastern Front,21 commanded by General Andrei Yeryomenko,22 which consisted of the 64th, 57th, and 51st Armies, the 8th Air Army, and the ships and sailors of the Volga Military Flotilla, all stationed south of the city; it also included the 1st Guards Army and the 25th and 66th Armies, located to the north and northwest. In September the latter cluster tried repeatedly to break through Germany’s northern barricade and meet up with the city’s defenders but never succeeded.

The Soviet plan for a comprehensive counteroffensive took shape in mid-September during the critical phase of the defense of Stalingrad. Zhukov and Alexander Vasilevsky, the chief of the general staff of the Soviet armed forces, proposed to Stalin an operation adopting the German Blitzkrieg method—a combined application of massive force, speed, and surprise—to envelop and rout the enemy. Over the next two months the Soviets prepared for the offensive: another formation (the Southwestern Front), under the command of General Nikolai Vatutin, secretly moved to a position on the upper Don; meanwhile, the armies in Stalingrad (divided since the end of September into two fronts: the Don Front, under the command of Lieutenant General Konstantin Rokossovsky,23 and the Stalingrad Front, under the command of Yeryomenko) received reinforcements of soldiers and equipment. These maneuvers did not go undetected by the Germans, but intelligence officers, believing that the Soviet Union’s reserves of materials and soldiers had been exhausted, assigned them no special importance.24

After a number of concerted drives in October, the 6th Army still had not taken complete control of Stalingrad. German observers strained to explain the enemy’s unexpectedly bitter resistance. The lead article in the October 29, 1942, edition of the official SS newspaper Das Schwarze Korps began with an assessment of Soviet morale: “The Bolshevists attack until total exhaustion, and defend themselves until the physical extermination of the last man and weapon. [ . . . ] Sometimes the individual will fight beyond the point considered humanly possible.” Everything the soldiers of the Wehrmacht had experienced in their campaigns in Europe and North Africa was like “a child’s game compared with the elementary event of war in the East.” The article accounted for this difference by evoking German racial biology. The Soviet soldiers originated from a “baser, dim-witted humanity” unable “to recognize the meaning and value of life.” Owing to their purported absence of human qualities, the soldiers of the Red Army were thought to fight with a disregard for death that was foreign to culturally superior Europeans. The article concluded by depicting the threat for Europe contained in the “power of this unleashed inferior race,” and turned the battle of Stalingrad into a question of world historical destiny. “It is up to us to decide whether we remain human beings at all.”25

On November 19, 1942, the Red Army finally began its counteroffensive, known as Operation Uranus, with a contingent of over 1 million soldiers. Motorized divisions advanced through the Romanian-controlled Don heights 150 kilometers west of Stalingrad. On November 24, the Soviet tank vanguard joined forces with Yeryomenko’s tank divisions, which four days earlier had begun to push west from the area south of Stalingrad. The Germans and their allies were surrounded, trapped in what they referred to as a Kessel, or cauldron.

The 6th Army command deliberated whether to attempt a breakout, but Hitler ordered “Fortress Stalingrad” to be held at all costs. He called for an air bridge to supply the soldiers in the Kessel with food and munitions. This was not the first time Hitler had taken this route. In December 1941, when the Red Army began its counteroffensive outside Moscow, Hitler, who had recently named himself supreme commander of the army, issued an order forbidding retreat under the threat of severe punishment. Shrouding himself in the mystique of the strong-willed military leader whose job was to embolden his generals whenever they succumbed to “neurasthenia” and “pessimism,” Hitler credited his decision with preventing the collapse of the Eastern Front despite strong attacks from the Red Army in the ensuing weeks.26 In January 1942, Soviet forces nevertheless managed to encircle six German divisions—almost 100,000 soldiers—farther north near Demyansk at Lake Ilmen. Hitler responded by sending in planes to drop supplies. This continued for two months until a relief force broke through the Demyansk pocket from the outside at the end of March. It was this successful precedent that General Paulus thought of when he sought to reassure the trapped men of the 6th Army, concluding his November 27 communiqué with the line, “Hold on! The Führer will get us out!”27

But severe weather and heavy shelling hampered the Stalingrad airlift; the 300,000 encircled soldiers began to suffer from shortages of food and munitions. General Erich von Manstein launched Operation Winter Storm (December 12–23, 1942) in an effort to break through the encirclement with a panzer advance from the southwest,28 but it became bogged down midway in the face of strong Soviet resistance. In the meantime the Red Army had initiated an offensive on the Don farther west known as Little Saturn. Its objective was to break through to Rostov in the south, stymieing the German relief force and cutting off the entire army group, along with the 400,000 troops stationed in the Caucasus. The offensive succeeded in part: although it forced Manstein to abort Operation Winter Storm, he was able to protect the army in the Caucasus from imminent strangulation.

At the end of November Soviet leaders began a massive propaganda campaign to persuade the Germans and their allies to surrender. Soviet aircraft dropped hundreds of thousands of leaflets written in German, Romanian, and Italian, describing the hopelessness of the situation. A delegation of German communist exiles in Moscow traveled to Stalingrad and broadcast political messages by loudspeaker, but their efforts to prevail on their countrymen on the other side of the front line were for naught. On January 6, two weeks after Manstein aborted his relief operation, General Rokossovsky offered Paulus terms for an honorable surrender. Under intense pressure from Hitler, the 6th Army commander ignored the deal.

Operation Ring. Soviet military drawing.

The Soviets’ final push to crush the encircled German troops, code-named Operation Ring, began on January 10. From the west, soldiers on the Don Front gradually drove the enemy back into the city. At the same time, the 62nd Army intensified its attacks from the banks of the Volga, and on January 26 it joined the Don Front at Mamayev Kurgan,29


On Sale
Apr 28, 2015
Page Count
512 pages