In the spring of 1984, I went to the northwest of France, to Normandy, to prepare an NBC documentary on the fortieth anniversary of D-Day, the massive and daring Allied invasion of Europe that marked the beginning of the end of Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich. There, I underwent a life-changing experience.
Ten years later, I returned to Normandy for the fiftieth anniversary of the invasion, and by then I had come to understand what this generation of Americans means to history. It is, I believe, the greatest generation any society has ever produced.
- The Greatest Generation, by Tom Brokaw
Every sentence of this gushing tribute is hogwash, well, except for the part about Brokaw visiting Normandy. This invasion did not mark the beginning of the end of Hitler’s Third Reich. If this is the criterion through which one is to judge “the greatest generation any society has ever produced,” one need look to a time about eighteen months earlier and more than three-thousand kilometers to the east.
Stalingrad: The City That Defeated the Third Reich, by Jochen Hellbeck.
The battle of Stalingrad – the most ferocious and lethal battle in human history – ended on February 2, 1943. With an estimated death toll of a million, the bloodletting at Stalingrad far exceeded that of Verdun, one of the costliest battles of World War I.
So begins Hellbeck. The book is compiled from 215 eyewitness accounts – an oral testimony taken during and after the battle. Testimony is taken from general down to cook, male and female, soldiers and nurses and political officers. The book was prepared for publication by a joint commission of German and Russian scholars and historians.
From this book, there are a couple of different themes I will examine in the coming days. For now, an introduction.
Stalingrad. Almost six months of fighting; between the two sides, over two million combatants; of these, almost two million killed, wounded or captured. A key result of the German defeat: Germany moved significant military resources from west (i.e. where Brokaw’s generation would eventually fight a drastically weakened Germany) to east to deal with the losses and the newfound Soviet momentum.
While Operation Barbarossa did not result in a defeat of the Soviets in one massive operation, the German advance continued – delayed but not halted. In the early days of the battle, there was no reason to believe Stalingrad would hold. From Captain Afanassyev, at Stalingrad on August 20, 1942:
In fact, it was terrifying. When I stepped outside for a look, I was overcome by doubt; the advancing German army was enormous….there’s no way we could hold out against this. That was how I felt then. One look into the periscope would send me into a panic. It wasn’t exactly cowardice but the feeling that destroying everything that was moving at us was impossible.
Had Stalingrad been lost, Germany’s path to Moscow would have been open from the south; Germany’s push into and through the Caucasus and Caspian oil and into the Middle East would have advanced unimpeded.
Newspapers, political leaders, and generals in Germany, Britain and the Soviet Union understood this battle in exactly these terms. For example, from the diary of British General Alan Brooke, Chief of the Imperial General Staff:
I felt Russia could never hold, Caucasus was bound to be penetrated, and Abadan (our Achilles heel) would be captured with the consequent collapse of Middle East, India, etc. After Russia's defeat how were we to handle the German land and air forces liberated? England would be again bombarded, threat of invasion revived... And now! We start 1943 under conditions I would never have dared to hope. Russia has held, Egypt for the present is safe. There is a hope of clearing North Africa of Germans in the near future...Russia is scoring wonderful successes in Southern Russia.
Up until this point, for over a year the British suffered defeat after defeat. The United States had yet to enter the war Europe in any meaningful way. It was the Soviets doing the heavy lifting.
Stalingrad further represented a symbol. The city named after Stalin himself, so-named because of the legend of Stalin’s efforts in The Battle of Tsaritsyn (the former name of the city) between Bolshevik forces and the White Army during the Russian Civil War. Stalin would not lose this symbol, regardless of the cost.
An interesting aside: when things were going poorly for the Bolsheviks in the battle, Trotsky was furious with Stalin – ordering his return to Moscow. As the tide soon changed, this went no further.
Returning to Stalingrad…from a BBC reporter, in the aftermath of the Stalingrad Battle:
The streets of Stalingrad, if you can give the name to open spaces between ruins, still bear all the marks of battle….Stalingrad can never be repaired. It will have to be rebuilt from the beginning…..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.
Consider the circumstances: both Hitler and Stalin ordered no possibility of retreat; for each leader, this was to be a fight to the death. The Soviet defenses had a natural barrier – the Volga River. The river was not used in defense as you might imagine – it was not a barrier between Soviet and German troops. The river was behind the city and behind the Soviets; it was a barrier against retreat.
If this wasn’t enough, the Soviets set up over forty blocking squads – not to block the Germans, but to block those Soviet soldiers who were attempting to leave the battle.
Stalin did not evacuate the city of civilians; it was felt that the presence of civilians would cause his army to fight harder. As if to demonstrate that some men are more equal than others, this order did not include the families of the managerial staff of the city. It also didn’t include horses, pigs, and sheep. It also didn’t include tractors.
Over five months of urban warfare – block by block, building by building, floor by floor, room by room. Hand grenades, bayonets, flame throwers, knives in the gut, hands on necks. First the Soviets with backs against the wall – the Volga River – followed by the Germans hopelessly encircled; and no winter clothes for the invaders.
When the battle was finally over and the last of the Germans surrendered, they were wearing shreds of blankets for shoes and sheets for overcoats. The German command occupied basements covered in filth and human waste.
There were piles of corpses; at the end of the battle, thousands collected every day. Mountains of bodies, thousands of truckloads. In conclusion, an entire German army disappeared from the face of the earth. Germany was on defense for the remainder of the war.
On January 30, 1943, Göring addressed the German people – Hitler could not bring himself to do this. The date is symbolic: the tenth anniversary of the rise of the Nazis to power. He spoke of the Germans at Stalingrad – by now, all lost.
He compared these lost Germans to the heroes in the The Nibelungenlied, translated as The Song of the Nibelungs. The earliest manuscript dates from the 13th century; however the epic has roots in pre-Christian German oral traditions.
The epic is divided into two parts, the first dealing with the story of Siegfried and Kriemhild, the wooing of Brünhild and the death of Siegfried at the hands of Hagen, and Hagen's hiding of the Nibelung treasure in the Rhine (Chapters 1–19). The second part deals with Kriemhild's marriage to Etzel, her plans for revenge, the journey of the Burgundians to the court of Etzel, and their last stand in Etzel's hall (Chapters 20–39).
From a summary of the poem, the final chapters 33 – 39:
A great slaughter ensued: Hungarians and Nibelungs battled against each other. Each side lost many brave warriors, but the Nibelungs were greatly outnumbered, and in the end every one of them was killed. Gunther and Hagen were the last to die. Both were captured by the Hungarians. Kriemhild ordered that Gunther's head be cut off and then delivered to Hagen. Following this grisly act, Kriemhild herself, now armed with the sword Balmung, struck off Hagen's head. Her revenge was complete, although it had come at a terrible price.
What came next for the Nibelungs after this terrible defeat we don’t know; what happened after Stalingrad to their German contemporaries is well documented.
Disregard ideology, the evil of government power, all of it. Stalingrad represents what defense of a national homeland means to people who value their national homeland. Stalingrad represents the will of the natives to defend as a greater force that the will of the invaders to conquer.
Yet the importance of the battle for the Soviets and for the defeat of the Nazis is a tale barely known in the west. Certainly, you would never hear of it from Tom Brokaw.
If one is to use as the scale a defense in the face of all odds, a defense when defeat means total defeat, Stalingrad offers witness to the greatest generation.