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Book Review: "Enemy at the Gates: The Battle for Stalingrad"

I wanted to take it – and you know we are modest – we really have it. There are only a very few small places left there. Now the others say, ‘Why don’t you make faster progress?’ Because I don’t want to create a second Verdun…but prefer to do the job with small shock troop units…

Adolf Hitler, excerpt from his speech regarding the Battle of Stalingrad during the Nazi Party’s celebration of the 29th anniversary of the Beer Hall Putsch, November 1942 (pg. 156)

(According to Encyclopedia Britannica, Axis casualties totalled 800,000 to 900,000 casualties, including 80,000 Axis POW deaths after the battle, including Italians, Hungarians, and Rumanians)

I purchased this book on clearance in a Barnes and Noble in Clarendon (a neighborhood in Arlington County). I didn’t think I would get it any cheaper on Amazon (it was $9), and it seemed like a good read. I watched the movie adaptation and it was a bit Hollywood-ish and personality-driven. After reading the book, it’s safe to say the book is a lot better.

The book is divided up into two parts, and I was surprised at how short Part I (the Sixth Army attacking Stalingrad) was. Most of the book is in Part II, devoted to Operation Uranus where seven Soviet armies destroyed the weak Nazi flanks and surrounded and starved Sixth Army to death.

It kind of makes sense. Stalingrad was absolutely leveled in the first two days, when 40,000 civilians died. However, this produced the ideal conditions for defenders, because everything was unrecognizable and anybody coming in had to tread carefully. Hence, the majority of the casualties came after the city was destroyed. The Nazi commanders are portrayed as first confident of victory, and then wondering how exactly they lost 30% of their troops (dead, not wounded) a few hours after they arrived from Kharkov or another Nazi supply point. This then turned to panic as they were surrounded, which eventually turned into the five stages of grief as the Sixth Army was starved into surrender. If either side had valued the sanctity of human life in their military planning, Stalingrad would have been the graveyards of far fewer men.

The author does a great job with displaying the “he said, she said” depictions of the battle. As the book was published in the 1970s, when plenty of Nazi and Soviet generals from the battle were still alive, there was much investment into touting one’s own side or blaming others. However, there are plenty of footnotes describing how trustworthy every witness is, and the author traveled all over Europe in order to get as many different perspectives as possible. It shows in the richness of the imagery from the witness testimonies. In doing so, he portrays the difficult work of teasing the byzantine, lossy nature of historiography into history and the truth.

I was mildly surprised to notice just how much Hitler’s character traits betrayed the fact he didn’t deserve the chancellorship of Germany (and like many dictators failed upwards):

  • High arrogance: Hermann Goering promised Hitler that the Luftwaffe can fly in 200+ tons of supplies into the Kessel (Stalingrad pocket) every day to keep the Sixth Army supplied until relief forces broke through. Hitler believed Goering’s boasts without question. Previously, Sixth Army had 750+ tons of supplies provided via railroad for an optimal operational tempo. After Soviet anti-aircraft batteries had been entrenched and the Red Air Force seized air superiority, the Luftwaffe suffered more than four hundred transport planes shot down. In the end, only about 80 tons of supplies came into Pitomnik airfield every day to feed, fuel, and arm 250,000 troops. When the last Junkers supply plane landed at Pitomnik Airfield (Sixth Army airbase in the Kessel), the Nazi airport handlers didn’t even have the physical strength to lift the supplies off the plane, and the plane left Pitomnik with a full load.

  • Goal shifting: Hitler originally ordered Sixth Army to remain in Stalingrad, denying Paulus “freedom of action”, because of Goering’s promise as stated above. Afterwards, Sixth Army was ordered to remain put in order to tie down seven Soviet armies that would otherwise lead the drive to cut off other Nazi armies in the Caucasus. Then, after Sixth Army officers protested that Sixth Army could no longer provide any useful resistance in case Soviet armies peeled off guarding the Stalingrad pocket anyways, Sixth Army was ordered to die for ideological reasons (in order words, Goebbels’ propaganda and benefit).

  • Supreme pettiness and intellectual laziness: Hitler and General Albert Jodl got into a screaming match September 7th, 1942 about the overextension of Nazi supply lines, poor communications, and exposed flanks. Hitler then proceeded to eat the rest of his meals without including his generals, eventually leading to an irreparable divide between the Nazi commander-in-chief and OKW (the Wehrmacht high command) regarding military strategy.

  • Indecision and cowardice: In the beginning of the battle, Hitler ordered Fourth Army towards the Baku oil fields, leaving Sixth Army to attack Stalingrad alone. Then he ordered Fourth Army to join the fight after a few hours, leaving both armies uncoordinated and crossing each other. Paulus also had to wait for Hitler’s orders to close the pincer movement destroying the Soviet 62th Army, which allowed tens of thousands of Soviet troops to withdraw into the city and conduct urban warfare, nullifying much of the Nazi’s tactical advantage in blitzkrieg and field warfare. This is similar to the Nazi strategic failings at Dunkirk and D-Day on the Western Front.

    At the end of the siege, Sixth Army aide Captain Winrich Behr pointedly asked Hitler whether “it may count on…support within the next fourty-eight hours”. Hitler smiled and said he would talk it over with his advisers. That support never came.

  • Disdain towards the weak: When Hitler’s train crossed a troop train full of wounded Nazis, the Nazis all gathered next to the window to see their Fuhrer. When Hitler noticed, he “angrily ordered the curtains shut, leaving the wounded to be reminded of their predicament”.

I definitely got the impression Fredrich Paulus is a “good person” (the kind I described in my blog post making the case against good people) – a lemming who follows orders without question even when they make no sense. Paulus eventually converted to Communism and preached anti-Fascist propaganda from Moscow after his capture, and spent his last days living in East Germany railing against all his detractors, cut off from all the friends and family he betrayed.

The top quote reminded me of something Donald Trump would say. I was saddened by that; history really does rhyme. Don’t get me wrong. Donald Trump is also not Adolf Hitler (much less competent and less megalomaniacal). I just hope the power brokers in the U.S. who think they can handle/control a POTUS remember how the Junkers thought the same thing about Hitler, and annihilated themselves and their country. I really don’t want to go down that path.