(DVD) Stalingrad, 2003

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 Documentary

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 SS security detachments (not to be confused with front line SS divisions 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 partially due to the general savagery of the eastern front and to the fact that Soviet commissars were ordered to execute all captured SS soldiers.

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.

6 thoughts on “(DVD) Stalingrad, 2003

  1. One little detail that is easy to miss is that Hungary and Rumania were axis forces. Later, when the Red Army swept through, the puppet governments they installed “declared war” on Germany, and that is what most people seem to think was the case.

    The reality is that at the outbreak of the war, more or less everyone in the world except Churchill and Roosevelt saw the Bolsheviks and their “international” as the number one threat to world peace and national integrity.

  2. I’m only about half-way through, but there’s so much to comment on that I will just do it in little bits and pieces.

    It’s a pity when the Peter Principle promotes guys like Paulus just beyond their level of competence; for, there is a mix of skills that is very valuable in the second-in-command, or adviser to the commander, which very skills render one an inadequate first-in-command. I’m thinking of the line from Gandalf, to the effect that he could see things far off very clearly, but couldn’t see things nearby very well. There is a mind that hovers and dwells, and for that reason is able to gain insights that go beyond the conventional wisdom; yet because of that very habit, is unable to converge on action now.

    The more I learn about Göring, the more I think he must have had a vanity and superficiality about him that allowed him to make wild promises that bore no relation to reality. And if so, then it was surely a corresponding defect in the Führer to not see through that serious deficiency.

    Rather than surrender, Paulus should have broke the Army out of the Kessel at the moment that he saw there was just enough fuel left, and taken his lumps with the Führer, rather than lose all those men.

    Given the desperate situation of fuel, it seems quite understandable that the B group was sent to go try to fetch some more. It reminds me of how Lee felt he had to divide his forces just before Sharpsburg. Fortunately, the man with the distant assignment in that case was Stonewall.

    It’s interesting that one of the Russian interviewees remarks that Germans seemed to them to be quite religious.

  3. Hitler’s reaction to Paulus surrender to the Soviets is interesting. This is from a conversation with Zeitzler, Chief of the General Staff, OKH.

    “This hurts me so much because the heroism of so many soldiers is nullified by one single characterless weakling . . . You have to imagine, he’ll be brought to Moscow, and imagine that rat trap there. There he will sign anything. He’ll make confessions, make proclamations — you’ll see. [Hitler was proved correct about this.] They will now walk down the slope of spiritual bankruptcy to its lowest depths. One can only say that a bad deed always produces new evils. With soldiers the fundamental thing is always character, and if we don’t manage to instill that, if we just breed purely intellectual acrobats and spiritual athletes, we’re never going to get a race that can stand up to the heavy blows of destiny. That is the decisive point.

    “Yes, one has to take brave, daring people who are willing to sacrifice their lives, like every soldier. What is life? Life is the nation. The individual must die anyway. Beyond the life of the individual is the nation. But how anyone can be afraid of this moment of death, with which he can free himself from his misery, if his duty doesn’t chain him to the Vale of Tears? Na!”

    Later he said to Jodl (Chief of Staff OKW):

    “I’ll tell you something. I can’t understand how a man like Paulus wouldn’t rather go to his death. The heroism of so many tens of thousands of men, officers, and generals nullified by such a man who lacks the character to do in a moment what a weak woman has done.”

  4. A culture’s reaction to big historical events can give us a glimpse into its nature. Before German authorities announced the entombment of Sixth Army, Hitler had the national radio play nothing but Bruckner’s 7th Symphony for three days. Imagine that. This music spoke to the German people. And while Germans listened to Bruckner, Americans were absorbed in jazz, swing, and pop.

    Before Admiral Dönitz announced Hitler’s death to the German people on May 1, 1945, the Adagio of the Symphony was played.

    These events may seem trivial to most. They are mistaken. Small things like this reveal much about a nation.

    Contemporary Germans now listen to the musical descendants of jazz, swing, and pop. Germany lost the war, but more significantly, it lost its culture.

  5. Fascinating post. You both seem to have a good deal of knowledge regarding World War II. Could you recommend some good works of military history for me?

  6. Weston and/or Andrew:

    We don’t claim to be WW2 experts.

    What made WW2 incomprehensible to me for so many years was, I now realize, the contradictions surrounding its exposition, at least in the US, that cause a logically-oriented mind to grind to a halt. The contradictions are a result of deliberate lies. Once these lies are exposed, it becomes quite easy to study the period with profit. Here are just a few examples:

    1. “Japan started it (with the US) by bombing Pearl Harbor”

    2. “We had to stop Hitler in his march to gobble up Europe.”

    3. “We were justified in fighting Hitler because of the Holocaust.”

    (1) is simply false. Japan was driven into a place from which she had no choice but to lash out, by the belligerence of the Roosevelt administration.

    (2) is absurd at several levels. Most of central Europe was allied to or sympathetic with Germany in its march against Bolshevik Russia, which was universally recognized by everyone except jews and Churchill as the primary threat to the safety and freedom of the world. The German grievance against Bohemia and Poland was fully justified. Germany did not want war with Western Europe and bent over backwards to prevent it. All the countries that Germany was trying to “gobble up” according to the myth were handed over to Stalin by Roosevelt and Churchill after the war. Then, we spent 50 years in a cold war with the USSR, which could have all been prevented had we joined Germany in dealing a quick knock-out blow to the Bolshevik terror.

    (3) won’t work, because even according to the story, the death camps were not constructed until starting in 1942, after the US entered. If there was a holocaust at all, it was as likely a result of the US entry into the war as a cause thereof.

    Think about it: you enter a bank with intent to rob it at gunpoint; but your gun goes off accidently; lo and behold, it turns out you killed some bank-robbers that got there before you.

    Can you now take credit for “stopping the bank robbers”?

    Of course not. It was happenstance.

    Now add to that, that the men you killed were not bank-robbers at all, and you will start to understand the point.

    So you have to get the basic narrative straight before the facticity will make any sense.

    We have already mentioned various resources. Toland to get the “rest of the story” about Japan; Stinnett to learn about Roosevelt’s deliberate trickery to get the Japanese to attack. Buchanan’s new book “Churchill, Hitler and the Unnecessary War” would not be a bad place to get introduced to the European front, though Buchanan has not fully extracted himself from some of the mythology. As far as the basic sequence of events, the Thomas Childers lectures available in audio or video from The Teaching Company are as good a place to start as anywhere. After that, getting a deeper understanding of the war criminal Churchill will be needed. I have found that you don’t even need to go to “revisionist” histories to gain this insight. Even the hagiographies will do once your mind is dejudaized. I go to Jenkins’ biography first. You can see my beginning of a summary of Churchill’s life in several posts under the history-20th century tag.

    We are still uncovering new connections. WW1 and the Bolshevik Revolution is going to be key. In that regard, even the Mary Phagan case I sent you to before has its important place.

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