Hell freezes over
LESLIE JONES is engrossed by a wide-ranging analysis of an iconic battle
The Stalingrad Cauldron: Inside the Encirclement and Destruction of the 6th Army
Frank Ellis, 2013, University Press of Kansas, 512 pp., hb., US$39
According to reports compiled by intelligence officers of the German 6th Army now lodged in the German Military Archives in Freiburg-im-Breisgau, large numbers of Soviet soldiers in the Stalingrad region deserted to the Germans in September and October of 1942. Yet as Frank Ellis records in The Stalingrad Cauldron, even after the Soviet counteroffensive commencing on 19th November (Operation Uranus) and the ensuing encirclement of the 6th Army, an indeterminate number of Soviet soldiers continued to desert to the German forces in the Kessel (Cauldron), including some in January 1943! They evidently did not believe that the Germans were really trapped.
Scepticism about the veracity of official pronouncements is a salient feature of a totalitarian system. Indeed, Dr Ellis suspects that the much vaunted duel of the snipers between Vasily Zaitsev and Major Konings may be apocryphal, a Soviet fabrication designed to boost morale.
There are various operational accounts of the battle of Stalingrad. Antony Beevor’s Stalingrad and David Glantz’s impressive recent trilogy spring to mind. But The Stalingrad Cauldron is something different –
…a study of a number of themes that, though not specific to Stalingrad, have their own Stalingrad footprint*
The account of such subjects as the Soviet treatment of German prisoners of war and of their belated repatriation, accordingly, is not confined to the experiences of Stalingrad veterans, however exemplary. Likewise in his compelling analysis of the German recruitment of Soviet national minorities, deserters and prisoners, the author ranges widely across the entire Eastern Front.
Apropos the latter issue, Ellis points out that some clairvoyant Wehrmacht officers such as Rittmeister (Captain of Cavalry) d.R. Dr Pfleiderer advocated the creation of Russian and Ukrainian units to encourage a civil war in the Soviet Union. The OKH’s (OKH = High Command) “Order concerning indigenous auxiliary forces in the East”, published in August 1942, identified various populations, the so-called national minorities, whose resentment towards the Soviet regime could potentially be turned to the German army’s advantage, notably Armenians, Cossacks, Chechens, Georgians, Turkic peoples, Uzbeks, and Volga Tartars. The Webbs’ judgement that the Soviet Union had solved the problem of the existence of national minorities within a strongly centralised state by the creation of a federal system which ostensibly granted autonomy to national regions proved to be premature. Even the Russians, the dominant people during the period of Soviet rule, were robbed of their national identity and were consequently susceptible to the blandishments of the Russian Liberation Movement.
Indicatively, prior to the encirclement of the 6th Army, Don Cossacks and Kalmucks, the dominant populations in the Army’s rear areas, were allowed to retain their firearms and sabres. A policy document issued by 6th Army on 11th October 1942 envisaged using the Cossacks to provide internal security. 6th Army troops were instructed to give them preferential treatment relative to other groups and to respect their religious beliefs, an example of the age old strategy of divide and rule.
Ellis underlines the significance of desertion to any army. It weakens the forward line and demoralises the remaining forces. This may explain why between 23 August and 23 September 1942, the Germans dropped no fewer than 100 million leaflets behind enemy lines encouraging Soviet soldiers to desert.
As Ellis infers, high rates of desertion in the Red Army were an index of resentment towards the Soviet regime, especially in the Ukraine but also amongst other Soviet national minorities. It was from these latter elements, such as the Turkic and Caucasian ethnic groups, that the Germans raised combat and security units and recruited auxiliaries, Hilfswillige (sometimes also called Askaris), to undertake combat support roles and thereby free up German soldiers.
German divisional records testify to the indispensable support provided by these “Hiwis” to the beleaguered 6th Army. Indeed, so important was their contribution in what had become a war of attrition that General Friedrich Paulus, the commander of 6th Army, instructed that the Hilfswillige (many of whom were Ukrainians) receive the same rations as German soldiers. In a memorandum dated 6th October 1942, Paulus candidly acknowledged that there was no possibility of receiving substantial reinforcement before February 1943. Employing Soviet prisoners and deserters as Hiwis was clearly one way of increasing the Army’s combat strength.
The 162nd Infantry Division was eventually given the task of training legions of foreign volunteers recruited from Soviet prisoners of war. It remains unclear, however, whether the planned deployment of Turkic battalions to each of the 14 divisions of 6th Army (some 13,000 troops in total) was partially or completely forestalled by Operation Uranus.
As Dr Ellis drily remarks, German recruitment of Soviet national minorities, whether inside or outside of the Red Army, and the German stratagem of establishing Estonian, Latvian, Lithuanian and several other national committees, was “ably assisted by pre-1941 Soviet policies”, notably the policy of collectivisation, which now “returned to haunt the Soviet regime”. It was also helped by the predilection of the Stavka (High Command) for mass suicide attacks, strictly enforced by the machine guns of the blocking detachments, as graphically depicted in Enemy at the Gates. Here, the author, a former soldier and lecturer in Russian studies, skilfully draws on a rich fund of formerly classified material, including documents from NKVD archives that have been placed in the public domain since 1991. These documents paint an alarming picture which belies Soviet claims that the population were united in the face of fascist aggression.
Ellis cites, for example, an NKVD report prepared in July 1942 by the Crimean District Committee of the Communist Party. It acknowledged that the inhabitants of the southern Crimean coastal region were actively assisting the German-Romanian occupation forces. The Germans, it stated, had established detachments of volunteers to combat partisans. It also recorded that in April 1942, 15,000 Crimean Tartar volunteers had completed military training and were destined for the front.
The Germans conferred certain privileges on the Crimean Tartars. Those serving in the Red Army and captured by the Germans were allowed to return home. The Germans also encouraged the nationalist policy of “Crimea for the Tartars” and the construction of new mosques.
Although dispossessed Kulaks and Tartar nationalist elements formed the backbone of the so-called punitive or volunteer detachments, a follow up NKVD report prepared in August 1942 by Major G.T. Karanadze acknowledged that there were also large numbers of former communists and Komsomol members in these formations. Such reports had to be honest and objective, if they were to be of any value.
Dr Ellis believes that Marxist-Leninist ideology, in particular the dogma of “the subordinate position of the national question as compared with the “labour question”’ (Lenin, On the Right of Nations to Self-Determination) in conjunction with the official policy of atheism, made it difficult for the Soviets to deal effectively with the grievances of their national minorities.
A report delivered in November 1942, by Senior Major Nikolai Selivanovskii of the NKVD, conceded that the Germans had made considerable progress in establishing Cossack, Turkestan and Ukrainian volunteer detachments (or nationalist formations). In similar vein, a report compiled in October 1942 by Brigade Commissar Khalil Nadorshin underlined the operational shortcomings associated with the seven national divisions in the Northern Group of the Transcaucasian Front (two Georgian, three Azerbaijani and two Armenian). Nadorshin reported that in these divisions the bulk of the ordinary soldiers and junior officers did not speak Russian, precluding effective command and control. Nadorshin also complained that the more senior officers and political staff exhibited little or no cultural sensitivity towards these non-Russian nationalities. He found, not surprisingly, that the combat performance of such divisions was exceptionally weak and that desertion was rife.
It has been claimed that upwards of a million Soviet citizens (including Red Army deserters and prisoners of war) actively assisted the German army on the Eastern Front. Dr Ellis, for one, calculates that although the numbers of Hilfswillige attached to 6th Army at Stalingrad between October and December 1942 fluctuated quite widely, the total figure was never much below approximately 20,000.
These estimates suggest that the Soviet forces prevailed at Stalingrad, “structural weaknesses” notwithstanding. They also beg the question what would have happened had the Nazis
adopted an occupation policy that from the outset was both universally consistent and pragmatic …instead of pursuing a race war**.
In conclusion, 2013 marks the 70th anniversary of the German defeat at Stalingrad. Dr. Ellis has risen to the occasion. His new book enhances our understanding of an epic battle which unfailingly captures the imagination of each new generation.
Dr. LESLIE JONES is deputy editor of the Quarterly Review. © Leslie Jones, August 2013
*All quotations are from The Stalingrad Cauldron, unless otherwise indicated
** Or as Dr Otto Bräutigam, Ministerial Chief in the Ostministerium (Ministry for the Occupied Eastern Territories) opined, “…only an alliance with the peoples of the East…will enable Germany to irrevocably destroy the Stalinist system”. Quoted in Jonathan Littell’s novel Les Bienveillantes, Gallimard, Paris, 2006, p244