“Enemy at the Gates,” by William Craig (2000)
In 2001, ‘Enemy at the Gates’ was made into a film focused on the Soviet sniper Vassili Ziatsev and his actions at Stalingrad, including a love affair with Tania Chernova, another Soviet sniper. This is the book the film was partly based on - though Ziatsev plays only a small part in this book. Craig uses a partly novelistic treatment of the battle, one of the most crucial armed confrontations in world history, combining numerous personal stories on both sides with an overall description of events. Unlike many badly-written war books, it does not just concern itself solely with the sterile and microscopic movements of units and armies.
It was in Russia and China that the overwhelming bulk of World War II fighting took place, as fascism’s key target was the labor movement, the Soviet state and the Chinese Red Army. The Battle of Stalingrad saw perhaps the greatest casualty figures of any battle in warfare - estimates are between 1,250,000 and 1,798,619. The battle began on 17 July 1942. By the winter of 1942–43, German forces controlled 90% of the city, and had cornered the Soviets into two narrow pockets. On November 19, Soviet forces launched a massive counterattack, eventually encircling the Sixth German Army. On January 31, 1943 its commander, Field Marshal Friedrich Paulus, surrendered and the Battle of Stalingrad was over. The 68th anniversary is tomorrow, and all opponents of fascism should celebrate.
Little is now left of the devastation visited on the city and people of Stalingrad. Craig describes the fighting from house to house, sewer to sewer, room to room and factory to factory over the months. Buildings, basements and the biggest hill in the city, Mamaev Hill, changed hands numerous times. The Soviet 62nd army eventually lost control of nearly everything in the city except some caves along the Volga and bits of factories and apartment buildings in the northern part of the city. Supplies and men had to be brought across the river by ships, which were bombed by the German air-force on crossing. At a certain point, the ice flows stopped all shipping. The defenders of Stalingrad (now Volvograd, formerly Tsaritsyn) were starved for food, men and ammunition, until a day in December when the ice backed up and bridges could be built across the ice.
The names of the factories – the Lazur Plant, the Red October, the Barrikady Gun Factory and the Tractor Factory - have gone into legend. At the start of the battle, when German Panzer units arrived on the north end of Stalingrad, workers downed tools, took up rifles and machine-guns and marched to meet them. Unpainted T-34s from the Red October plant were driven off the assembly lines and right into battle. The workers’ militia held out for weeks against the Panzers until regular troops could arrive. In the southern part of the city individual unit leaders like Lt. Anton Dragan, Col. Ivan Lyudnikov and Sgt Jacob Pavlov fought for days in close quarters to slow and eventually stop the German Sixth Army. Pavlov held an apartment building on Solechnaya Street for 58 days, and eventually he made it to Berlin.
The Nazi penetration this deep into the Soviet Union was not an accident. Stalin’s actions prior to the invasion by Germany left the Soviet Union unprepared. His execution of the majority of the Red Army’s officer corps for being ‘Trotskyists’ and ‘fascist sympathizers’ lead to a great shortage of qualified officers. His execution of the overwhelming majority of the Bolshevik Central Committee further disorganized the Soviet Union. And after signing a pact with Hitler in 1939, (notice, Trotsky did not sign this pact…) Stalin believed that the English were the main enemy and the Germans would not invade - in spite of massive Soviet intelligence to the contrary. As a result, the Red Army was far less prepared than they could have been when the assault finally did happen. This lead to a massive collapse in the face of German armies, leading to millions of deaths and came close to ending the Soviet workers state. Right after the German invasion had rolled to the gates of Moscow, the staff of the Soviet state finally visited the shaken Stalin. He thought he would be shot for incompetence. He was not. Unsurprisingly.
Fortunately there were still some competent generals left. Generals Vassili Chuikov, Rodion Malinovsky (who later worked with Khrushchev), Alexander Rodimtsev, Konstantin Rokossovsky, Andrei Yeremenko and political commissar Nikita Khrushchev all participated in the battle. Yeremenko, who lead the initial defense of the city and succeeded in halting Hoth’s 4th Panzer Army south of Stalingrad, later wrote a book criticizing Stalin for the defeats of 1941. Rodimtsev lead the 13th Guards division at Stalingrad, which was decimated in building-to-building fighting in the city, but made the capture of the city extremely costly to the Nazis.
Chuikov was one of the engineers of the pincer movement which broke through the Italian and Hungarian armies north of Stalingrad, and joined forces coming from the south at Sovetsky to completely surround the Sixth Army in the ‘Kessel’ (Cauldron). Hitler had forbidden the Sixth Army from trying to break out and kept telling Paulus they would air-lift enough supplies to help him fight on until a relief force arrived. Enough supplies never arrived, due to stormy winter weather and the increasingly strong Soviet air-force. The relief force was stopped 20 miles from Paulus’ lines. Hitler essentially condemned his army to death for the glory of the Third Reich, as he thought leaving Stalingrad would be an admission of defeat.
One of he oddest parts of this story is the statistics kept by German censors, who read all the letters sent by the troops. From their letters, even at the very end, many soldiers refused to believe that the German Army could be defeated. This is a good example of false consciousness.
After the surrender, as Khrushchev pointed out, many German, Romanian, Italian and Hungarian soldiers (their ‘coalition of the willing’…) were shot; hundreds of thousands died in prison camps or on the way to camps by starvation, cold and execution – Craig puts the number at around 400,000. The most grotesque part of this was that cannibalism developed inside the camps, as some prisoners killed and ate others. The majority of prisoners never made it back home, and of those, some not until 1949, and the most hard-core, not until 1955.
If there is one World War II battle that should be studied, this is that battle, and Craig's book is a clear guide. It was the Soviet people and the Soviet working class that finally stopped Hitler, though at great, great cost. Drink a shot of Stolichnaya on January 31 to commemorate their struggle and remember the departed. Na zdorovye! Za vashe zdorovie!
January 30, 2011