Reviewed by Roger Keeran
July 19, 2018
Stalingrad: The City that Defeated the Third Reich by Jochen Hellbeck. New York: Public Affairs, 2015. 500 pp. $18.99.
On July 17, 1942, the German army began what Soviet historians would call the “200 days of fire,” the battle of Stalingrad, the battle that was the turning point of World War II. It was a conflict that Jochen Hellbeck, a professor of history at Rutgers University, called “the most ferocious and lethal battle in human history.”
Stalingrad represents a highly unusual account of this epic encounter. The bulk of the book consists of verbatim transcripts of Soviet men and women who fought at Stalingrad. Published here for the first time, the transcripts represent a small part of 215 interviews by a group of Soviet historians and stenographers who were part of the Commission on the History of the Great Patriotic War founded by historian Isaak Mints in December 1941 and conducted in the city during the course of the fighting.
Chapter 2 contains the first group of transcripts, a montage of excerpts grouped chronologically and by location. These present different perspectives of the same events. Included in this section is a report by the most famous Soviet journalist in Stalingrad, Vasly Grossman. The Chapter 3 consists of nine complete interviews with a variety of participants including General Vasily Chuikov, commander of the 62nd army and “the best known defender of Stalingrad.”
There are also interviews with Guards Division general, a nurse, a lieutenant, a regimental commander, a history instructor, a sniper, “a simple soldier,” and a captain. Chapter 4 contains reports of the interrogation of German prisoners of war and an excerpt from the diary of a German soldier.
These chapters are bookended by Chapter 1, a thoughtful and informative introduction that provides that background and overview of the battle, the historiography, and a history of the Commission in general and in Stalingrad itself, and by Chapter 5 a discussion of the fate of the transcripts.
As Hellbeck points out in the introduction, the transcripts as well as other recent studies of the Soviet Union, upend much of the history of Stalingrad that has dominated the historiography in the West. This historiography has tended to explain the battle from the German vantage point, stressing German suffering and ignoring or downplaying Soviet losses and often adopting certain tropes taken directly from Nazi war propaganda. The prime example of the German bias was Stalingrad: The Fateful Siege: 1942-1943, a highly acclaimed account by British historian, Anthony Beevor published in 1998.
Beevor could not ignore the astounding victory of the Soviets, but he portrays the aggressors, the Germans, as the suffering victims. To explain the motivation of the Soviet soldiers, who were able to beat the better equipped and more experienced German army, Beevor suggests that “they have been more effectively brainwashed by the Stalinist regime.”
Beevor echoes the Nazi racist portrayal of the Soviet soldiers by saying said the Soviet soldiers’ self-sacrifice “appears almost atavistic.” Beevor also attributes the motivation of Soviet soldiers to the “barely believable ruthlessness” of the Soviet system. To back this assertion, Beevor claims that General Vasily Chuikov ordered the execution of 13,500 Red Army soldiers who were unwilling to fight in the 62nd Army.
Hellbeck points out that Beevor provides no credible substantiation for this figure, whereas “recently declassified materials,” show that “in the period from August 1 to October 15,1942—one of the most critical phases of the battle for the Red Army—278 Soviet soldiers were executed by the Soviet security police (NKVD) on the Stalingrad Front.”
Hellbeck’s book provides “for the first time the voices of Red Army soldiers” and they give a stark view of the suffering on the Soviet side and a different view of the motivation and operation of the Red Army from that of Beevor and others.
In July and August 1942, the Soviets suffered terrible defeats as the German approached Stalingrad. In July Rostov-on-Don fell into German hands. In August, the Germans took 57,000 Soviet prisoners and crossed the Don and reached the outskirts of Stalingrad. In July Stalin issued Order no. 227 with its famous, “Not one step back!” slogan.
On August 24, Stalin placed his most trusted commander, General Georgy Zhukov, in charge of the defense of the city. Zhukov used so-called “blocking detachments” of the NKVD to prevent unauthorized retreats. Hellbeck says that the transcripts show the measures to stiffen the resistance did mean that the threat of violence by the Red Army was real, but that the blocking detachments for the most part simply resulted in the re-education of soldiers not punishment and that the idea of “mass executions” was far from reality.
Hellbeck argues that most historians have misunderstood or failed to appreciate that in the main the motivation of the Red Army resulted from the work at the front lines of the Communist Party and the political commissars, and that their role increased as the war went on.
The Party believed that the more educated and informed the troops were the better soldiers they would be. The transcripts show the Communist Party’s “enormous efforts to condition the troops.” Though the political commissars did dole out punishment, their main intentions were “corrective” aimed to “instruct, motivate and remake the troops.”
The Communists also motivated the troops not just with words but by example. Colonel Nikolai Glamazda, the political representative of the 45th Division recalled: “What we did was talk to the men in person and then lead by example, showing them how to fight. And in absolutely every battle the party members were the first ones to throw themselves into the fight.” The results were reflected in the testimony of the soldiers, who shows themselves as active participants in a “people’s war” with global implications.
As a result the Red Army displayed unbelievable courage and endured unimaginable sacrifices at Stalingrad. In describing the fiercest battle of the entire Stalingrad engagement, a battle to defend a factory conducted by the 308th Rifle Division, a Siberian division, over the course of several days, the eye-witness, Vasily Grossman, said, “Not one man in the division took a single step back during this fight. If the Germans manage to occupy a location, that meant that every Red Army soldier there was dead.”
Hellbeck also disputes the canard that Stalin’s purges of officers before the war had weakened the army. The interviews with soldiers reveal no ill-effects of Stalin’s purge of the officer corps. Hellbeck points out that Nikita Khrushchev and others widely exaggerated the extent of the purges. Of the 34,000 officers who were excluded from the military in 1939, most escaped any severe punishment and by 1941, 11,000 had re-entered the party. The purges actually brought to the fore young and capable officers who had been trained in the Soviet system. The transcripts reveal that most of the commanders in Stalingrad were young, “part of a group of majors and captains who advanced after their superiors were demoted and went on to have impressive careers.”
The only part of the book that problematic is Hellbeck’s speculation as to why the transcripts never saw the light of day until now. Hellbeck argues that the reason was anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union after World War II that led to the demotion of Isaak Mints, the leader of the Stalingrad history project. This is unconvincing. During World War II, there was a relaxation of Party standards, when the ranks of the Party were opened and the main criterion for admission was one’s contributions to the war effort.
After the war, there was a reassertion of the importance of ideology. In this situation, many Party members faced censure that had nothing to do with their ethnicity. This appears to have been the case with Mints. In a footnote, Hellbeck acknowledges that at the time of his demotion, Mints “wrote to Stalin and Malenkov, confessing various errors and offenses in his scientific work.”
Moreover, “on his seventieth birthday Mints was awarded the Order of Lenin, the highest award of the Soviet Union.” Whatever the truth about Mints’s problems, it seems unlikely that his personal fate, let alone alleged anti-Semitism, determined the decision not to publish the transcripts. It is more likely that this decision resulted from the changed priorities brought about by the period of postwar reconstruction and Cold War. In a footnote Hellbeck acknowledges as much: “Many documents were kept secret even after the war due to their detailed description of military operations and fighting.”
Hellbeck’s book deserves a spot on the shelf next to Alexander Werth, The Year of Stalingrad, as the most engaging and informative books on the most important of all battles.