Not to be confused with another movie with the same title, this is a documentary about the Battle of Stalingrad which was fought between the German and Soviet armies during the fall and winter of 1942-43. Before making a few comments, a little background about the battle may be helpful.
Though Hitler is often made the scapegoat for the German defeats from late 1942 onwards, he does deserve a good deal of blame for the Stalingrad disaster. It was his decision to split Army Group South in two (Army Group A and Army Group B). The original plan was to envelop Stalingrad from the north and south, but Hitler decided to capture the Caucuses first in order to take control of the oil fields there. Group B made a rapid advance early on, but eventually slowed to a crawl due primarily to fuel shortages. Soviet resistance eventually stiffened and the German army was unable to clear the region. With Group B bogged down, Army Group A was left to capture Stalingrad without aid. As it turned out, Hitler wanted to do too much with too little.
Another tactical mistake was Hitler’s decision to take Stalingrad by a coup de main. But the Red Army was too well entrenched within the city for the over-extended German army to accomplish this. This having failed, the German 6th Army, the main force of Army Group A, become enmeshed in brutal street fighting for the next six months. The Russian soldiers were well adapted for this style of combat, but the Germans were best at mobile operations in open terrain. The result was that the German forces were bled white. (Although the kill ratio was still about 3:1 in Germany’s favor.)
Hitler also erred in relying on an untried staff officer, Friedrich Paulus, to lead the attack. Paulus, a Hessian of plebeian birth, had a modest demeanor that endeared him to Hitler (Hitler, himself of low birth, never trusted the aristocratic officer corps.) After the campaign he was slated to replace Alfred Jodl as Chief of the Operations Staff of the Armed Forces High Command (Oberkommando der Wehrmacht). Though a competent staff officer, Paulus lacked both the toughness of character and the imagination necessary to make a first rate commander. He proved to be indecisive at critical moments with the result that the Germans lost the initiative. But in fairness to Paulus, even a great general such as von Manstein or Model would probably have had been hard-pressed to lead the army to victory under the conditions that came to characterize the Stalingrad battle.
Paulus was promoted to the rank of Field Marshal just a few days before 6th Army surrendered. Since no German Field Marshal had ever been taken prisoner, Hitler’s promotion meant that he expected Paulus to take his life rather than surrender. Hitler was deeply hurt when he found out that Paulus had been made a prisoner and vowed that no more officers would be given the Field Marshal’s baton until after the successful completion of the war.
Perhaps the biggest blunder Hitler made was to rely on Axis formations (Rumanian, Hungarian and Italian) to protect his extended flanks. These armies were severely lacking in tanks and anti-tank weapons and were not able to withstand the Soviet armor thrust when they launched their envelopment attack. With little resistance, the Red Army broke through the Axis lines and the spearheads of the two pincers met just four days after the beginning of the attack. The German 6th Army was trapped.
Though the encirclement ended any possibility of a German victory in Stalingrad, 6th Army still had enough firepower to break out of the kessel. Both his staff and field officers advised Hitler to give such an order. But Hitler refused. He believed that a relief army could reestablish contact and that in the meantime, the Luftwaffe would keep the 6th Army supplied. (The latter belief was based upon empty assurances from Reichsmarschall Herman Göring, the head of the German Air Force.) Both were wishful thinking. By the time a breakout was seriously contemplated, the Army was incapable of mobile action.
In the end, the entire Army was destroyed. Of the 200,000 soldiers of 6th Army, 90,000 went into captivity. Most of the other 100,000 were killed, but a few (those “lucky” enough to be wounded) were flown out before the end. Only 6,000 of the prisoners made it back to Germany after the war.
Apart from the great loss of men and equipment, the German Army lost the strategic initiative on the Eastern Front. And though they were able to make a few powerful counter thrusts over the next two years, the German Army was in constant retreat. Stalingrad is considered by most military historians the turning point of World War II’s European theater. This is no exaggeration, despite that fact that myopic Americans and British believe that the decisive event was not to take place until the Normandie landings almost two years later.
The film itself combines a narrative of the Stalingrad campaign interspersed with personal recollections from survivors of the battle. The survivors — now, of course, quite elderly — tell what things were like on the front lines. And it was horrible.
All war is hell, we are told, but the soldiers at Stalingrad went through a particularly gruesome hell. The battle took place through the frigid Russian winter. The temperature was constantly below freezing. Without adequate shelter, many of the soldiers froze to death. Since supplies had to be flown in, food became scarce and the troops were often left to forage. Near the end the soldiers ate horse meat and even cats. One Russian civilian even claims that German soldiers eventually turned to cannibalizing the unburied dead.
Then there was the combat. Every street corner, bombed-out building and even sewer became a battleground. Tanks and artillery were almost useless in such close fighting. Skirmishes were fought with the enemy only a few yards away. Sometimes the combat was hand to hand. And even during lulls the sniper was always a danger.
After months of fighting and deprivation, the German soldiers grew apathetic. They were lousy, cold and hungry. But worse than this, there was no hope of getting out alive. Near the end, the dead were not buried and the wounded were not given food rations. Most died alone, unheeded and ungrieved.
One Prussian woman recalls hiding a telegram for her husband ordering him to report back to his panzer division. She believed that when he left, she would never see him again. When a second telegraph came she reluctantly handed it to him. He left the next day and never returned. Sixty years later she told the interviewer, “we both died in Stalingrad.”
The film is open to a few criticisms. While the producers did not pin any moral responsibility of the conflict on the German soldiers, an underlying theme is that the German high command, and in particular Hitler, were not only the aggressors, but were brutal in the prosecution of the war. As to the former, we now know, due to Soviet archives being opened, that Stalin was preparing to attack the Reich –- just as Hitler thought. Stalin was just beaten to the punch. And as for brutality, both sides were guilty of atrocities. On the whole, though, the Germans comported themselves better than the Russians. In fact, with the exception of a few of the SSsecurity detachments (not to be confused with front line SSdivisions such as Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler, Totenkopf, Das Reich and Wiking), the common portrayal of the German soldier as a merciless barbarian is a gross calumny. The Waffen SS did tend to take no quarter, but this was due mainly to the general savagery of the eastern front and to the fact that Soviet commissars were ordered to execute all captured SS soldiers.
No film on World War II is complete without at least one account of atrocities against Jews or Jewish heroism. In this case a Jewish physician is put forward as a heroine. She, against orders, treated wounded German soldiers after the battle was over and probably saved a few of their lives. Not to take anything away from anyone who acts with humanity during a war, but there were plenty of other examples that the producers could have chosen. Why must every account of World War II make special reference to Jews?
Despite these minor irritants, the film is well worth watching. I am glad that a number of participants in the Stalingrad battle have their stories preserved for posterity. In ten more years it would have been too late.
Hitler ordered Göring to deliver the funeral oration for Sixth Army. Though this was mainly an exercise in pomposity and the soldiers in the northern pocket of Stalingrad had not yet capitulated, one line does ring true. “In 1000 years every German shall speak with a holy shiver and reverence of the heroic fight.” Though now almost forgotten, one day the soldiers who fought and died in Stalingrad will be remembered with honor and pride.