Letter From Crimea: the De-Nazification of Stalingrad

This is the seventh in a series about a journey, by train and bicycle, across Russia to Crimea shortly before the war began.

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During the 1942-43 battle of Stalingrad, these fields west of the city were covered in snow, and it was here that the noose closed on the invading German Sixth Army. Now at Rossoschka, twenty miles from Volgograd, the German military cemetery has been expanded to collect the war dead from what was called the Kessel, the pocket between the Volga and Don rivers. Photo: Matthew Stevenson

I enjoyed my first evening back at the Hotel Volgograd, in which I sometimes felt that I was the only guest, a commissar on a provincial inspection tour. There was a buffet in the dining room, and after dinner, when I was studying my maps and celebrating my bike rides around Volgograd, a friend of mine called from New York on my cell phone (thinking I was home at my desk), and we chatted for thirty minutes as if having cognac in the hotel bar.

A Streetcar Named Traktorny Zavod

The next morning I was better prepared to do battle with Stalingrad. I had a spray to fend off midges, which otherwise descend in blanketing waves. And I had an excellent plan to put the bicycle on a tram and travel ten miles into the northern suburbs, intending to ride from there back along what were once the front lines.

The tram might well have been the vintage of the Streetcar Named Desire, but neither the conductor nor the other passengers minded the presence onboard of my folded bicycle.

After reaching the end of the line, I rode to what are called the Tractor Works (Traktorny Zavod), where there is a T-34 tank on a pedestal in the company parking lot.

I had read that occasionally the factory is open for groups of war buffs to peer out the windows that once held Russian snipers, but I was happy to find the plaques on the building façade and to ride around the factory perimeter and down to the river bank, which up here was more of a bayou (perhaps the breeding ground for all those midges).

Then I began the long ride back into Stalingrad—sometimes in the bus lane of the main north-south boulevard, at other times on sidewalks, occasionally along back alleys in which Volgograd appears as the Pittsburgh of Russia.

Stalin at Stalingrad

On my way back, I decided to detour to the Stalin Museum, which it turned out was on the backside of Mamayev Kurgan, in what was otherwise a tourist motel.

To get there, I had to bike along the fringes of a major road, which in a few sections involved pushing the bicycle through grass beside rushing traffic. Then I had to climb the hillside of Mamayev Kurgan, this time in the direction taken by the attacking Germans in August 1942, when Hitler’s legions looked unstoppable in their march to the oil fields of the Caucasus.

I am not much of a Stalin fan. Who is, besides President Vladimir Putin? But I found his museum useful, as it had many maps of Stalingrad (the implication being that the General Secretary won the battle at his desk back in the Kremlin).

To my knowledge Stalin never visited the front lines during the fighting in his eponymous city. (I suspect he was there after the battle was won to take a few victory laps.) Nor can it be argued that Stalin had prepared Russia well for the coming struggle with Germany.

In the late 1930s, he purged the Red Army of thousands of officers, whose presence might have made a difference when Hitler attacked in June 1941 and pushed more than a thousand miles into the Soviet Union.

In his unorthodox history, On the Precipice: Stalin, the Red Army Leadership and the Road to Stalingrad, 1931–1942, Peter Mezhiritsky argues: “Of course, had there been no purges, which boosted Eremenko [Marshal Andrei I. Yeremenko] to such a high rank, matters might have never reached the need for a defense of Stalingrad.”

Nor did Stalin help his cause by allying the Soviet Union with Nazi Germany from August 1939 until June 1941, through the Molotov–Ribbentrop Non-Aggression Pact that gave Russia half of partitioned Poland.

That westward expansion reduced the capacity of the Soviet Union to defend itself, as the front lines (including the so-called Stalin Line) were anchored in broad Galician flatlands that were no obstacle for Hitler’s panzers.

What was decisive at Stalingrad wasn’t Stalin’s military genius but American Lend-Lease supplies (not something you read about in Putin’s grammar schools) and the endless sacrifices of ordinary Russian soldiers, whose lives were traded both to buy time in the fighting and to bleed the Germans.

Of the battle’s end, Antony Beevor writes in Stalingrad: “When they thought about it, and remembered the dead, their own survival astonished them. Out of each division sent across the Volga, no more than a few hundred men survived. In the whole Stalingrad campaign, the Red Army had suffered 1.1 million casualties, of which 485,751 had been fatal.”

Hitler’s Delusions

Stalin was handed an additional gift in that the German offensive toward the Caucasus was conceived by Adolf Hitler in his most delusional state. At the start of the Russian invasion, he divided his army into three offensives—one to Leningrad, one to Moscow, and a third to the Caucasus—but he never had enough men and supplies to unleash such a three-headed monster. As Alan Clark writes in Barbarossa: “Their mobile forces were not strong enough, or numerous enough, to support three simultaneous thrusts.”

Then Hitler decided that he needed to crash head on into the city named for his principal enemy. Had he gone around it, Stalingrad’s fate might have been that of some bypassed Japanese-held island in the Pacific, left to die on the vine.

Beevor writes of Hitler’s incompetence:

The true weakness of these allied armies [referring to the allies of Axis nations] was not put to the test until that autumn [1942]. By the time that Hitler came to recognize, but not to acknowledge, the mistake, it was too late to evade disaster. When one contemplates Hitler’s almost compulsively over-optimistic ambitions at this stage, it is clear that he never read, or never digested, Leo Tolstoy’s tale, ‘How Much Land Does a Man Need?’ written in 1886….

Hitler probably did sense the truth — he had, after all, told his generals that a failure to take the Caucasus would mean having to end the war — but he still could not accept it. The Volga was cut and Stalingrad’s war industries as good as destroyed—both of the objectives defined in Operation Blue — yet he now had to capture the city which bore Stalin’s name, as though this in itself would achieve the subjugation of the enemy by other means. The dangerous dreamer had turned to symbolic victory for compensation.

In the end the decisive blow against the attacking Germans did not come in downtown Stalingrad, but in the vast landscape between the rivers Don and Volga. By attacking the German salient from the north and south, the Russians managed to encircle and annihilate the German Sixth Army.

Into the Stalingrad Pocket

I poked around the Stalin Museum and took pictures of a model of Stalin’s armored limousine. There was also a photograph showing a relaxed Lenin and a smiling Stalin—probably taken before the rumored death-bed scene in which Stalin may have poisoned his mentor.

There were some front pages from Pravda, including the issue announcing the war’s end on May 10, 1945, and a wax figure of Stalin pouring over a map of the front lines.

Over his desk and globe there was a large wall map of the Soviet Union at its most expansive, from the North Korean border to Belarus and the Caucasus, but such are the varied nationalities and states within the imperial reach that the map might well be one of the British Empire—that which later came apart along its ethnic seams.

For a while I had thought that I might catch a bus from the Stalin Museum and then ride my bicycle out past the airfield so that I could get a glimpse of the so-called Kessel—the word mean “cauldron” in German and it describes the expansive stretch of open land (aka the Stalingrad pocket) in which the Russians closed the noose on the invading Germans.

I waited for a while at a bus stop, but none of the buses that stopped had room for me to wedge in my bicycle, even if folded. Then in searching my maps for war memorials outside the city, I came to the conclusion that my idea to explore the broad area on a bike was folly.

It was almost fifty miles to Kalach, where the encirclement was sealed, or twenty miles to Rossoshka, where there is a German military cemetery. On my bicycle I might get somewhere riding in the late afternoon, but would I then find myself trying to ride back to Volgograd in the darkness?

Instead, I rode back to the hotel, stored my bicycle in the luggage room, and opened negotiations with a desk clerk to engage a driver and car. I am sure he thought I was crazy, as I kept showing him battle maps from Stalingrad histories, none of which he could fathom.

Nor did the hotel have any taxis parked in front or drivers on call. Eventually I gave up on official channels, and unleashed the Russian equivalent of Uber, something called Yandex. In no time an old car and driver were pulling up to the hotel front door, game for two hours of battlefield explorations.

The Last German Airstrip

Like the desk clerk, this driver may have thought I was either crazy, German, or a spy, but at least I was a paying customer, and for that he was thankful and game to follow my directions.

We began by driving past the Volgograd International Airport, where in the later stages of the battle there was an airstrip at what was called Gumrak, used by the Germans to resupply its encircled army. Little by little the surrounding pocket grew smaller, and at the end of the battle the only lifeline for the Germans was a few flights a day.

Craig has this description of the Russians approaching the airstrip from all sides: “To those standing in the middle of the steppe, around Pitomnik and Gumrak, the pyrotechnics proved only the futility of the German position. The entire horizon was a band of flame from tracer bullets. But they formed a complete circle of fire around Sixth Army.” Beevor writes of the fall: “As dawn rose on the morning of 22 January, Russian infantry could be seen in the distance, advancing in extended line ‘as if on a hare shoot’.”

In documentary films about Stalingrad, German planes are often shown landing and taking off in the snow at Gumrak. Beevor writes:

The landing strip at Stalingradsky was incapable of taking large aircraft. [German] General [Friedrich von] Paulus [commander of the Sixth Army] was by then entirely fatalistic, and almost certainly suffering from deep depression. A Luftwaffe major just returned from the Kessel reported to Field Marshal Milch that Paulus had told him: ‘Whatever help arrives from now on will be too late. We have had it. Our men have no strength left.’ When the major tried to brief him on the general situation to the west facing Army Group Don, he had replied: ‘Dead men are no longer interested in military history.’

Hitler did fantasize about breaking into the ring and reversing the fortunes of his diminishing war, but his thinking was delusional. Beevor writes:

Yet Hitler once again resorted to his message of reversing the whole situation by a brilliant counterstroke. He even proclaimed that a whole SS Panzer Army was already grouping round Kharkov, poised to strike towards Stalingrad. Behr knew from Field Marshal von Manstein that the SS formations being brought eastwards would need several more weeks. ‘I saw then that he had lost touch with reality. He lived in a fantasy world of maps and flags.’ For Behr, who had been an enthusiastic and ‘nationalistic young German officer’, the revelation came as a shock. ‘It was the end of all my illusions about Hitler. I was convinced that we would now lose the war.’

The Rossoshka Cemetery

It took about forty-five minutes of driving through wheat fields to find the Deutscher Soldatenfriedhop Rossoshka (German Military Cemetery), which sits low on the horizon of a vast plan, with only a few blocks of granite visible from a distance. It feels like a memorial at sea.

The driver dropped me near the main entrance, and I followed a pathway to clusters of headstones. During the war a burial ground was established here, but only in 1992—after the fall of the Soviet Union—was Rossoshka dedicated as the main cemetery for the German war dead from Stalingrad and the surrounding pocket.

Some 48,000 soldiers are buried here, but after a short walk from the formal cemeteries I came upon a field of engraved cubes—they looked like building blocks scattered on the empty plain—that carry the names of another 120,000 German soldiers who vanished in the battle of Stalingrad.

Given the trouble I had to get there, I wondered, who, if anyone, ever comes to Rossoshka. I cannot imagine that the children and grandchildren of those buried here find themselves welcome traveling to Volgograd, which in any case involves a complicated series of flights from Germany. Some surely do come, just as descendants of Allied war dead from World War II make travels of remembrance to remote places such as Myitkyina in Burma or the Tenaru River on Guadalcanal, but on this summer afternoon I was the only visitor to Rossoshka.

The Germans Surrender

The fighting around Stalingrad ended in February, 1943, after the German Field Marshal Friedrich Paulus surrendered his Sixth Army to the Russians. In Volgograd, in the basement of what was once a department store, there’s now a Stalingrad Memory Museum that has large murals and wax figures replicating the capitulation.

The day before the surrender, hoping to bolster the dwindling German resolve in Stalingrad, Hitler had promoted Paulus to the rank of Field Marshal, in the belief that he would then shoot himself rather than give up. Instead, Paulus, a Catholic, refused to commit suicide, and after the surrender the Russians dispatched him to Moscow and a prison camp, as a trophy of war.

Hitler was more indignant that Paulus was still alive than that his army had lost a half million men in the battle. Beevor describes his tirade:

Hitler kept coming back again and again to Paulus’s failure to commit suicide. Clearly, it had entirely sullied the myth of Stalingrad in his imagination. ‘This hurts me so much because the heroism of so many soldiers is nullified by one single characterless weakling . . . What is Life? 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.’

I get the impression that Putin treats his commanders in the same preemptory manner.

From Stalingrad to Kursk

From Stalingrad, although it took another two years of fighting, the German army steadily retreated toward Berlin. Along the way it launched several counteroffensives. In Kursk, in summer 1943 (six months after the surrender), the largest tank battle of the war was fought between the retreating (but still dangerous) Germans and the advancing Russians.

At Kursk, the Germans hoped to surround and annihilate a Russian army (as happened to theirs in Stalingrad), but the weight of Russian armor deflected the German encirclement, and the retreat to the east continued.

What’s interesting today about the battle of Kursk isn’t that hundreds of tanks collided—in one instance on a field near Prokhorovka not much bigger than a golf course—but that the fighting between Russia and Germany took place just north of Kharkiv, where the Russian and Ukrainian armies are now at war.

Echoes of Stalingrad in Ukraine

President Putin has endlessly alleged that one reason for the war against Ukraine is to ensure what he calls the “de-Nazification” of the Kiev government, which equates Ukraine’s European and NATO sympathies with a revival of the German-Russian battle lines that were drawn at Stalingrad.

Nor is it lost on Putin that the Volga River is less than 250 miles from the eastern border of Ukraine in the Donbas region. He hopes to mobilize Russian public opinion around what he believes is another Great Patriotic War, in which Russia is defending the ramparts against another German (i.e., NATO) invasion.

In that sense Putin sees himself as the spiritual heir not just of Stalin, but Konstantin Simonov’s Captain Saburov, in his Stalingrad novel Days and Nights, who saw his fate and Russia’s wrapped up in the epic struggle. Simonov writes:

He [Captain Saburov] looked at the soldiers hurriedly climbing down from the railroad cars, and he wanted somehow to push as quickly as he could through this dust to the Volga. He wanted to cross the river and to feel, suddenly and finally, that there would be no recrossing of it, and that his personal fate would be decided on the other bank, together with the fate of the city. If the Germans took the city, then that would mean he would certainly die. If he could keep them from taking it, then maybe he would live.

But history can play cruel tricks, and it may well be that in Ukraine Putin is playing the role of the invading Paulus—by advancing his armies toward a pocket from which there is no escape.

Next: On the train to Novocherkassk, once the principal city of Cossack nation. Earlier installments can be found here.

Matthew Stevenson is the author of many books, including Reading the Rails, Appalachia Spring, and The Revolution as a Dinner Party, about China throughout its turbulent twentieth century. His most recent book, about traveling in France and the Franco-Prussian wars, is entitled Biking with Bismarck.