What Really Happened at Stalingrad?

By Adrian BonenbergerJune 6, 2015

WORLD WAR II was decided in and around a city on the Volga River, named for the titular head of the Soviet Empire: Stalingrad. From August 1942 until January 1943, the Soviet Union and Germany bitterly contested this industrial city, losing nearly 2 million soldiers and civilians in the process. The Germans had been heavy favorites: they’d experienced battlefield setbacks but never suffered a serious defeat, and were considered the premier fighting force in the world. How did the Soviet defenders prevail?

Most accounts — historical, fictional, and cinematic — claim that the Russians were able to overcome the Germans through superior numbers and brute force. That story is wrong, according to Rutgers historian Jochen Hellbeck. In Stalingrad, his groundbreaking (and extraordinarily timely) analysis of the decisive battle by the same name, Hellbeck uses a unique archive of lost first-person accounts of the battle to argue — quite convincingly — that the prevailing story of World War II needs to be adjusted. In a day and age when Western relationships with Russia seem to be reverting to Cold War stereotypes based on that basic story of World War II, Stalingrad offers an important new perspective on the conflict as it occurred, to the participants. I sat down with Professor Hellbeck at his Brooklyn home on a sunny day in May to discuss Stalingrad.


ADRIAN BONENBERGER: This isn’t the first book about World War II, or the Russians. What makes your Stalingrad different, and what do you hope people will get from reading it?

JOCHEN HELLBECK: What makes Stalingrad different? Well — there are four primary views of the Red Army soldier that inform Western scholarship as well as popular culture. First, that of the Nazis, who viewed Soviet soldiers as subhuman, savage, and primitive. An enemy both cunning and cruel — a picture contrived in part by Nazi propaganda, in part also through German perceptions of their experience fighting the Red Army. Second, there is a more recent British and American view of the Soviet soldier as a prisoner of the Stalinist system. Silent, slave-like, in bondage to a savage and murderous political tyranny, prodded forward by fear of certain death at the hands of a commissar versus likely death by German machine gun. You see this idea expressed in movies like Enemy at the Gates. There is a more positive Western view as well: this third view links the tenacity of the Red Army soldier to the imagined qualities of the Russian peasant soldier as described by Leo Tolstoy, and argues that essential character traits were decisive to the Soviet victory. This view holds that simple, unreflected, but deep love for the homeland was native to common soldiers and was the source of their courage. There is something deeply compelling and emotionally satisfying about this interpretation, but it fails to explain how these timeless Russian features came alive in the Communist Red Army.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, the Communist party was discredited, and with it fell the idea of the Soviet soldier-hero. The opening of the Russian archives brought a much darker reality into view, and it was readily embraced by many researchers as expressing the total truth about the Soviet past: these analyses tended to focus on the punitive nature of the Red Army. This view, the fourth, gave rise to a belief that the Red Army soldiers (and Soviet citizens) successfully defended their homeland in spite of Stalin and the Party, rather than because of them.

And you don’t subscribe to any of those views?

I’m skeptical about each of them. I think that with the revisionist zeal of the 1990s, we threw the baby out with the bathwater. Academics lost view of the party state apparatus that organized the war effort, which quite successfully mobilized millions of Soviet citizens. The party was a huge and largely positive part of the Red Army — it shaped its recruiting to include the military’s best soldiers. So much so that by the end of the war, the Communist party was a party comprised largely of soldiers.

I don’t want to suggest that there was no massive state violence — the interviews and other sources speak of many executions of commanders and soldiers who had been accused of cowardice or treason. These were often conducted in front of the troops, to work as a deterrent. The principal point, however, is that an army of slaves could not have possibly prevailed over the Germans, the most advanced and respected armed force of its time. The documents reveal an astonishing degree of individual heroism: “pull yourself back together, get ready to fight, and even if you’re half dead, if you’ve only got one good arm, use it to shoot the enemy. Deal with that first one coming on the attack. Just deal with that first one. Your first shot will encourage your comrades.” This is the practical advice a Soviet lieutenant gives his soldiers, and it is rooted in Soviet culture, which appealed to individuals to release their innate heroic essence. These cultural resources proved particularly effective in a war against a terrible invader. I don’t see a timeless Russian trait at work here, but rather the results of specific educational efforts that the state cultivated with increasing efficiency as the war went on. Such mobilizing practices registered mostly not with peasant soldiers, but with urban youth — those who had received a Soviet education.

Based on my research, I believe there’s a fifth view. There’s an illogical and paradoxical presumption on all sides, Western and Soviet, that the regime was ineffective, yet simultaneously somehow the only mechanism capable of defeating the Germans. When you read the firsthand accounts from the people who were there — the soldiers, officers, and civilians who were present at Stalingrad for the battle between August of 1942 and January of 1943 — you get this sense of a powerful motivating energy, part of which came from the self, but part of which was undeniably tied to the Stalinist Soviet State.

How did you find the archive that houses these soldiers’ voices? And when did you know you had discovered something special?

The archive was compiled by a historical commission headed by a Moscow professor, Isaak Mints. Members of the commission were allowed into Stalingrad in late December 1942 — this was more than a month before the battle would end, and there was bitter fighting going on in the city. Over the next weeks they conducted more than 200 interviews with soldiers and other eyewitnesses. These first-person accounts were so frank and multifaceted that they couldn’t be published at the time. They were locked away, but not destroyed.

I found them quite by chance. Several Russian colleagues who knew about my interest in first-person accounts told me about entire boxes filled with memoirs, somewhere in the basement of a Moscow archive. When I finally received permission to study these documents, my jaw dropped. I first assumed they were recollections of the war written in the 1960s or 1970s — but the archive was full of first-person statements delivered during the war. It shows the interviewed soldiers steeped in the events that they describe. In 1942 nobody knew when or how the Second World War would end, and the interviews show you the horizons of people at war, they bring you closer to their thoughts and emotions than any other source.

Take this account by a young man, Alexander Averbukh — an infantry lieutenant, not a political officer — a nobody, really. But for the tanks, he could easily be an American soldier describing an attack in Vietnam or Afghanistan:

I went with a platoon to the right. We agreed that in the event of an attack we’d fight to the last, neither of us would make a move without the other. We were going to complete our mission or die trying. I briefly explained our task to the men, saying that we had to keep up the defense despite the enemy’s superior strength. At night we made sure the soldiers were all fed, and then we tried to get some rest.


We fought to the last. When we ran out of ammunition, we used grenades to destroy the tanks. Men were dropping off left and right. We’d lost contact with the battalion. I moved to Lizunov’s command post. All I had left was one rifle and eight cartridges. I ordered the men to hold on to them.”

This is only one of countless combat episodes described in the interviews, and it feels quite typical. There is no one pointing his gun at Averbukh and ordering him to fight — he’s fighting for the same reason many other soldiers fight, and doing so bravely and well.

I remember one moment in particular with the archives, when I realized I had something really exceptional: reading the portion where Army commander Vasily Chuikov casually discussed executing several commanders who did not implement his orders. Such episodes are not in his published memoirs from later — and they confirm the immediacy of the interviews, and help validate their authenticity.

How much of this is personal for you?

This may be a particularly American idea, that it would be exceptional for World War II to be personal for some people — it involved everyone in Europe! My father was conscripted into the Wehrmacht at the end of the war, and fought in a series of losses to the Soviets, but was able to limp to safety with a leg wound. My grandfather was too old to serve at the beginning of the war, but by the end was drafted into the “Volkssturm” and taken prisoner by the Soviets, but was released — he was old and infirm, they must have taken pity on him. Nevertheless, I am a historian, and I try to practice what one of my teachers taught me early on: “A historian knows no fatherland.” In writing this book, I have stepped back from single national perspectives and instead sought to show how Soviet and German soldiers viewed each other and how the two war cultures compared and interacted.

Can you say more about that, the different ways in which nations tend to view World War II, themselves, and their character — what that says about us today?

Germans’ views of the soldier and of war shifted fundamentally after World War II. The soldier hero of the Nazi period was a twisted but recognizable form of the old Prussian ideal that still resonated with the inter-war population — after 1945, this gives way to the ideal of the anti-hero. Here I think that the Germans and Britons may have had something in common. Their experience in World War I was very similar, and while the Germans lost World War II and the British were on the winning side, the end of World War II coincided with the beginning of the end for the British Empire. So there’s a sense of doom there as well. The Soviet Union and the United States, on the other hand, emerged from World War II as superpowers. Both countries represented themselves centrally through their battle against Nazi Germany, and both presented it as an essentially moral story.

Russian and American writers seem equally prone to romanticizing or valorizing their soldiers. It’s interesting that two nations that seem so similar ended up as ideological enemies.

How does Stalingrad read in the context of our current conflict with Russia?

I think that the history of the Second World War directly intrudes on the terms of our relationship with Russia. Soviet and Russian leaders have complained for decades that the West does not acknowledge the Red Army’s preeminent role in liberating Europe from fascism. These complaints have sharpened recently, as post-Soviet nations that left the Russian sphere of influence (Poland, Estonia, now Ukraine) perform historical revisionism. These countries are nationalizing their history textbooks, and accordingly the Soviet Red Army is slighted or even cast as the true enemy. There is a real and understandable sense that Russians, as the successors to the Soviet Union, feel that their role in World War II is being downplayed by groups or individuals seeking political gain. This does not justify President Putin’s reckless policies and especially his invocation of history for aggressive ends. But it explains why Russians respond to his message so passionately. Politicians and intellectuals in the West have two choices: either acknowledge these sentiments and express respect for the other side, or overlook this fact — but at their own peril. Well — our collective peril!

How has Stalingrad been received in Russia?

As the book has just appeared, it’s too early to tell. I expect a great deal of interest in these personal accounts. There has been a recent trend in Russia: since the fall of the Soviet Union, people have become very interested in biographies of individual soldiers and other participants of the war. This is the same as in Germany and America, and has to do in part with the imminent passing of a generation — so schoolchildren are videotaping testimonies of the very aged veterans at an accelerated pace. There is also a movement of volunteers that travels to Second World War battlefields to recover the remains of fallen soldiers, in an effort to identify them. The Russian Ministry of Defense runs a searchable website with millions of documents that record the dates and circumstances of countless Red Army soldiers’ death or disappearance.

When I began my project I initially wanted to compare the voices and emotions of German and Soviet soldiers. There are many diaries available on the German side, but hardly any from the Soviet perspective. The Red Army forbade personal diaries, and Soviet censors ensured that soldiers wrote only bland letters along the lines of, “Hello, I’m well and alive,” so that the letters couldn’t be used for intelligence or propaganda if they fell into German hands. Consequently there are few sources that present us with a full record of unmediated wartime voices.

The discovery of the Mints archive changed everything, and eventually pushed the Germans into the background, which didn’t trouble me as their side has been covered extensively. One of the things that struck me most was the level of admiration Soviet citizens held for the Germans — their discipline and order in particular. This was mixed with outrage — over German racism (for instance toilets in Stalingrad that bore the inscription “no entry for Russians”), and the invaders’ arrogance and cruelty. Still, the underlying respect for the Germans by the Soviet soldiers who speak on record is touching, especially their desire to be acknowledged by the Germans as “first-class” opponents. And the Germans never accorded the Soviets this respect, as they continued to portray the enemy as beastlike and subhuman after the war, and helped (successfully) transplant this stereotype into Western Cold War propaganda.

To this day, Germans remember the rapes committed by Red Army soldiers, but not the massive violence inflicted by Germans during their invasion and occupation of the Soviet Union. I think the revenge on the Germans could have been much worse, had it not been contained by a longstanding tradition in Russia of looking up to the Germans as an “educated” and “cultured” people. If that image had not been operative, Soviet troops would have been much more brutal. Think of Russia’s recent wars in Chechnya. Russian troops in Chechnya went wild. They went on a rampage in Berlin in 1945 as well, but were reined in after two weeks. And now apply this perspective to the Germans: the Soviet Union was to Germans in 1941 what Chechnya has been to Russia.

What made Stalingrad exceptional for the Soviets? What was different about this battle?

David Glantz has shown that from the beginning of the German invasion of Russia, Red Army units fought bitterly, and German casualty rates were high — though always only a fraction of Red Army losses. Stalin ordered time and again that the Red Army fight back and not retreat without a fight.

In Stalingrad, there were several things happening at once. Firstly, Stalin issued “Order 227,” the famous “not one step back” order. This had been in operation before, but now resonated with the Russians in a way that it hadn’t previously. Secondly, there was a symbolic political importance to the city beyond its strategic value — it occupied a special significance in everyone’s mind. The early parts of the battle preceded the landing of the Western Allies in North Africa, and so people in Great Britain were listening to the broadcasts from Stalingrad with enormous interest. There was a sense that if the city fell, all would be lost. Hitler himself imagined that the city was filled with a million staunch communists. And, of course, Stalin could not afford to let the city named after himself be destroyed. Thirdly, it was the first time that Germans had been forced into street fighting — something to which, it turned out, they were ill suited. In terms of urban combat, street-to-street fighting, the Soviets were probably superior to the Germans — Red Army commanders in my book time and again comment on how cautious (“cowardly”) the Germans were in this respect, and how their Soviet soldiers were much more daring. Chuikov and others talk a great deal about the successful tactics of using storm troops, small units often operating at night, with surprise attacks. That was a Soviet kind of Blitzkrieg tactic in miniature; it was demoralizing for the Germans, a permanent source of fear. Compare this to the extreme inefficiency of Soviet fighting in the open plains. Here, Stalin’s orders to keep attacking entrenched, fortified opponents or maneuvering German units were catastrophic. In 1941 the Germans had managed to encircle and destroy the Soviet defenders of Kiev, before entering the city without much of a fight; they acted similarly with Rostov in summer 1942. With Leningrad, the plan was to starve it to death before Germans would enter. They did not like urban warfare.

Look at where Stalingrad is on the map. It’s on the edge of Europe, not far from the Kazakh border. At Stalingrad, the Soviets fought desperately for very tangible things: their loved ones, their homeland, and even their freedom against an enemy who was executing Communists and Jews, and enslaving and starving Russians. Compare this to the lack of moral goals on the part of German soldiers and the fact that they fought more than 1000 miles away from their homes. And add the fact that the Soviets kept learning from their adversary in military terms and that they fought much better in fall 1942 than a year before. All along, though, their tenacity deserves respect. It’s something that most Western histories of the war do not properly acknowledge. In the account I mentioned earlier, the otherwise unexceptional Lieutenant Averbukh fell back from his command post after it was overrun and, shot, retreated while carrying his dying unit commander:

Captain Lizunov was showing little sign of life, but I could hear him whispering, saying that I should leave him and save myself. Obviously I didn’t leave him. We crawled to Verkhnyaya Elshanka, in the area of the radio station. I sat up to get my bearings and got hit again. Submachinegun fire to the left side of my chest and my left arm. I lost consciousness. I don’t know how long I was out. I woke up because it got really cold. It was late, around four in the morning. It was already starting to get light. I could hear people speaking German all around me. I couldn’t see Lizunov anywhere. I decided to shoot myself because I didn’t have any strength left, and I didn’t want them to take me alive. I figured there was no way out. I pulled the trigger, but the Mauser was clogged with sand and wouldn’t fire. My right arm was still okay. With my right arm I crawled away and by some miracle made it to the division command post. It was already midday.


Adrian Bonenberger is the author of Afghan Post, his war memoirs, and he writes for and co-edits The Wrath Bearing Tree, a pro-intellectual, anti-narrative project in dialogue curation.

LARB Contributor

Adrian Bonenberger is the author of Afghan Post, his war memoirs, and has published essays with The New York Times, The Washington Post, Forbes, and Foreign Policy, mostly on military and veteran-themed issues. Along with three other mischief-makers and combat veterans, he writes for and co-edits The Wrath Bearing Tree, a pro-intellectual, anti-narrative project in dialogue curation.


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