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Stalingrad (now Volgograd) sitting on the high western bank of the Volga, marked the furthest penetration of the Axis armies into Russia in World War II and the first surrender of Hitler's army. It came at the high-water mark of the Third Reich -- and paradoxically revealed its vulnerability. From August 1942 through January 1943 the Soviets and Germans fought each other among the rubble and ruins of the city, amid starvation and cold, while its citizens hid in cellars and caves.

Operation Barbarossa was launched by the Germans in June 1941 as a crusade against Bolshevism and the Slavic hordes. After the easy conquests of Poland, Denmark, Norway, France and the Low Countries, Hitler turned east and attacked Stalin (a recent ally then), who hours, after the invasion began reportedly still, could not believe it was really happening.

The Wehrmacht advanced hundreds of miles in the opening weeks and overran hundreds of thousands of Red Army soldiers. But soon the harsh weather, great distances, and Russian reserve became counteracting factors. By the summer of 1942, the Germans had to abandon their drive for the Caucasus oil fields. Hitler who reportedly said the war would be lost without the oil fields, now decided that capturing Stalingrad would make up for other disappointments.

With a population of 600,000, it had important war industries and controlled the shipping on the river. Stalin reportedly was determined not to lose it, fearing the Soviet Union would be cut in two.

The officer in charge of securing the city was General Friedrich Paulus. Of middle-class rearing, he had worked his way up through the aristocratic officers' corps. Reportedly, his hobby was drawing maps of Napoleon's campaign in Russia.

The Germans had entered the outskirts of the city at the end of August but could not restrain the defenders, and in November the Soviets counterattacked with their armies surrounding Paulus's command. Hitler reportedly refused to allow his troops to abandon the city. From then until the German surrender at the end of January, two battles raged: one along the perimeter of the German Sixth army, the other at Hitler's headquarters in Berlin, as staff officers and party functionaries tried to duck responsibility for the failing units. Hitler, Goering, and Goebbels knew that it had to appear as though everything that could be done was done. The Germans were haunted by visions of Napoleon's retreat from Moscow in 1812, and so the military defeat of the Sixth Army would be turned into a victory of the spirit, and the troops portrayed as martyrs.

On the day that Paulus surrendered, Hitler promoted him to field marshal. Upon learning the news, Paulus is reported to have said: "It looks like an invitation to commit suicide, but I will not do this favor for him. . . I have no intention of shooting myself for this Bohemian corporal." When word of Paulus's surrender got back to the Fuhrer, Hitler was furious. "What is life?" Hitler asked. "Life is the nation. The individual must die anyway. . . What hurts me most, personally, is that I still promoted him to field marshal. I wanted to give him this final satisfaction. He could have freed himself from all sorrow and ascended into eternity and national immortality, but he prefers to go to Moscow." In April 1945, Hitler himself did commit suicide in Berlin.

 

Source: The Wall Street Journal Book Shelf July 8, 1998 pg. A13