Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Grisly Human Cost of Victory

The Stalingrad story will never be the same again. British historian Anthony Beevor's superb new narrative will challenge all of our illusions and misconceptions. It is a debunker of myths.

Stalingrad is based on a wealth of previously unpublished material from both German and Russian sources, most significantly from Soviet military archives. Beevor has woven them into an absorbing whole.

Like many others brought up in the West, until I came to live in Russia, I did not appreciate the full horror of the Eastern Front. In June 1941, Adolf Hitler hurled the full might of the German army into Russia, 160 divisions (compared with the four German and six Italian divisions that faced General Bernard Montgomery at El Alamein.)

Soviet leader Josef Stalin was totally unprepared for the German invasion. In 1939, he had signed a Friendship Pact with Hitler, and he could not believe that he had been duped. Stalin went into shock. It was Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov who broadcast the news of the invasion to the people.

By August 1942, General Friedrich Paulus had reached the Volga River; Hitler told Paulus that with his Sixth Army, he could "storm the heavens." But the Germans underestimated the Russian patriotic soul. This was the determining factor in the war against the Nazis, both before and during Stalingrad -- what Beevor describes as "a moral compulsion in the face of the invader," a visceral determination to fight and die rather than be conquered.

When the Panzer divisions reached the outskirts of Stalingrad in August 1942, they had to fight "shot for shot" against anti-aircraft guns manned by young Russian women barely out of high school.

The Luftwaffe carpet-bombed the city, killing 40,000 civilians. Tens of thousands of half-trained, half-armed Russians were ferried across the Volga to defend a few thousand meters of smoldering ruins. The battle lasted five months, most of it in the winter, under conditions of unbelievable hardship before the Russian army under General Georgy Zhukov encircled the German Sixth Army, which surrendered en masse. What should have been Hitler's moment of glory turned out to be his downfall.

Using diaries, letters, military reports and interviews with survivors, Beevor paints a picture of Goya-like intensity. The battle consisted of close combat in bunkers, cellars and sewers, dubbed by German soldiers "Rattenkrieg." Even though the Germans hated this type of guerilla warfare, they showed extraordinary courage and dogged determination. The Russians excelled as snipers and sappers, forming assault squads, six to eight strong, from the "Stalingrad Academy of street fighting," armed with knives and sharpened spades, as well as grenades and submachine guns.

The harrowing testimony of survivors gives us unforgettable images of war: the boy who looked for his grandfather's head in the rubble; the mice who fed on frostbitten toes while exhausted soldiers slept; hoards of lice oozing out of corpses in search of living flesh; the wounded Russian soldiers lying in the woods to the east of the Volga, calling for water, "screaming or crying, having lost arms or legs."

In the battle itself, there was dysentery, typhus and, as the months dragged on and the German army was surrounded, starvation. Particularly poignant are the letters that would never reach home by German soldiers trapped in this living hell, still believing that Hitler would not abandon them. Men resorted to cannibalism, and when the vodka ran out, drank antifreeze.

Russian patriotism was fuelled by vengeance. Hitler waged a race-war against Russia: its people were Slavs, or untermensch, on a par with Jews. A "jurisdiction order" signed by Field Marshal Keitel on May 13, 1941, exonerated German soldiers of war crimes against Russians. The result was that at Stalingrad and elsewhere, civilians were massacred, the wounded were shot and Russian prisoners were systematically starved to death.

On both sides terror was a driving force. One Russian commander, dissatisfied with the performance of his men, walked the ranks shooting every 10th man from point-blank range in the face until his magazine was empty.

In this titanic struggle between Stalin and Hitler, men were pushed beyond the physical and emotional limits of endurance. Inevitably, many cracked. From Soviet archives, Beevor has established that during the Battle of Stalingrad NKVD security detachments shot 13,500 Russian soldiers for "extraordinary events," the official euphemism for anything from desertion to self-inflicted wounds.

Stalin made it clear that Russian soldiers who allowed themselves to be taken prisoner were traitors; hundreds of thousands were sent to prison camps after the war. It is hardly surprising that many captured Russian soldiers decided to die fighting for the Wehrmacht. Beevor has detailed evidence that in the Battle of Stalingrad, there were 50,000 Russians in German uniform. "The subject is still taboo in Russia today," Beevor writes.

The chapter on Operation Uranus, when Zhukov brings off his military masterstroke and encircles the Sixth Army in absolute secrecy, makes thrilling reading, as does Hitler's failure to airlift more than a trickle of supplies to the beleaguered men, his manic refusal to contemplate a breakout and the hopeless sycophancy of the German High Command. General Paulus did not have the courage to disobey orders.

One minor problem with the book at this juncture is the maps, which are not clear or helpful for the reader trying to follow the course of the battle.

Left without food or arms, 91,000 German troops surrendered in January 1943. A million soldiers and civilians died in this most terrible of battles. Astonishingly, 10,000 civilians survived, including 1,000 children, who endured the shelling and sniper fire and lived among the rubble scavenging for food.

Stalingrad rightly stands as a monument to Russian heroism, but there is also a political dimension. Stalin's victory at Stalingrad and the terrible loss of life on the Eastern Front shaped the postwar world, and this book deserves to be read by anyone who wants a deeper understanding of Russia today.

"Stalingrad" by Anthony Beevor. Penguin Books. 494 pages, pounds 25 ($41.75)