Theodor Plivier’s epic novel Stalingrad reminds us from the start that this German tragedy of World War II never had to occur. In that battle, the Wehrmacht’s 330,000-man 6th Army was destroyed waiting for a relief force that would never come. Within two days of a Soviet counteroffensive both of the 6th Army’s flanks dissolved while Hitler vacillated, dooming this 25 percent of his army in Russia. “Here was the scene of the lost battle, of the lost war, of the zenith of German power and the most crushing defeat in German military history”, Plivier comments.
But this is not a study of strategy, operational art, or tactics. It is the story of a nation led astray, told by the men who poignantly felt Hitler’s betrayal. Through haunting evocations carefully derived from the battle’s survivors, Plivier forges a powerful polemic that stands beside All Quiet on the Western Front and Born on The Fourth of July as a classic in anti-war literature. For not only are German soldiers dying, but the cosmos as well, drawing ineluctable comparisons with Coleridge’s Rhyme of The Ancient Mariner, where the heavens themselves grow pallid and where faces in the “parade of marching phantoms” appear more spectral than the frozen visages of the dead. Begun as a coupe de main in a sick man’s dream, Stalingrad faded into a nightmare where suicide and insanity were daily occurrences, as the German defenses were hurled back from an indiscernible, protean front, reeling with “air impregnated with death” from men in delirium and narcosis.
In this madness men witnessed the unprecedented: a general abandons his Division under a cowardly pretense of going to reorganize his troops. German soldiers starved to death as Nazi party officials hoard luxuries in fleeing the Russian onslaught. Meanwhile the former disciplined army began to disintegrate into “an assemblage of leaderless men,” with many transformed into “a blind, maddened herd that would trample down all other life and violate all the limits imposed by reason and law.” Here was a Darwinian hell where frozen feet snapped-off, the skulls of dead men smashed open and the brains eaten, and the wounded trampled to death so a few could scramble aboard transport aircraft. The wounded that did cling to life faced an endless pilgrimage in search of sustenance, eating flesh off the bones of dead horses.
Through it all, a pandemic awakening to national betrayal: “What was the commander in chief doing? Why did not the generals speak out? Where was the place to stand on from which one could move this world of false calculations, vain arrogance, and vicious contempt of human lives.” Indeed, throughout the book, the ultimate question, ‘Why?’: “Will our wives, our children, dry their tears on the banners of victory or must they weep forever?” But such questions would only be answered by the realization among the field commanders that “we are expendable,” as they helplessly watch their regiments and battalions dissolve into cordite and mist. Yet in the midst of this chaos, Hitler parlayed his insane dictum, ‘not a step back,’ which would be tragically followed in “criminal murderous obedience.” Under such conditions few could salvage the threads of sanity.
And what of the 6th Army’s commander? A tragic figure, Friederich Paulus, had been a proficient staff officer, though ill fit to lead a field army. Ignoring the pleas of his subordinates to withdraw his army before it was too late, Paulus suffered a paralysis of moral will.
But Plivier does not leave us on the battlefield. He takes us into the homes of wives and mothers whose lives were shattered as they saw through the facade of Goebels-dictated headlines, knowing the true meaning behind the “horrible grinning mask” of an empty pathos, words which could serve as a nation’s epitaph.
Certainly there were small lights in the darkness of Stalingrad, and the language of the dissenting German soldiers often seems incongruous with our knowledge of German culture and ethos. But like the experiences of the Americans in the Ardennes and Huertgen forests, the tragic side of war – often inadequately portrayed – must also be told. And in this task, Theodor Plivier has given us a masterpiece, a book for all ages, something for political and military leaders to ponder before committing their nation on a course where youth bleeds the fragments of its existence into an unforgiving foreign soil.