Was Stalingrad the turning point of the war?


Hitler on one of his rare visits to the Eastern Front in early 1942. After he assumed complete command of the German military Hitler and Manstein disagreed frequently over the conduct of the war in Russia. Manstein was a gifted strategist and probably Germany’s finest commander. He understood mobile warfare and could visualize long term concepts. Hitler often hampered Manstein’s conduct of the war after he gave him command of Armeegruppe Don. The dictator flew to the army group headquarters in early 1943, possibly planning to sack Manstein for the loss of Kharkov.


Some of the 91,000 German troops taken prisoner at Stalingrad. Within a matter of weeks over a quarter of them would be dead. Less than 6,000 survived the Soviet labour camps and returned to Germany in the early 1950s.

The final act of the Sixth Army’s agony began on 22 January, with Hitler brusquely rejecting Paulus’s suggestion that he should enter negotiations with the Soviet commander. The next day, the Red Army ripped the German defensive front to shreds and, on the twenty-sixth, effectively split the Sixth Army in half. Even though the Luftwaffe was frantically dropping supplies, on a few days even reaching one hundred tons, its effort was now completely irrelevant to the outcome of the battle. From the twenty-eighth, amid appalling conditions, with food no longer being handed out, and with Dantesque scenes of horror in the cellars—where starving, freezing, wounded, sick, and unarmed men sought shelter—the fighting dissolved into individual actions. The next day, on the eve of the tenth anniversary of Hitler’s accession to power, Paulus sent a signal of congratulation: “To the Führer! The 6th Army greet their Führer on the anniversary of your taking power. May our struggle be an example to present and future generations never to surrender in hopeless situations so that Germany will be victorious in the end.”

In a speech on the thirtieth marking the tenth anniversary of the Nazi assumption of power, one broadcast by radio to the beleaguered city, Goering attempted to stylize Stalingrad as a German Thermopylae, a sacrifice that would ensure its place in history. The trapped men, however, were hardly cheered by their role as the sacrificial victims. Nor was Paulus much comforted by the news on the thirty-first that he had been promoted to the rank of field marshal—Hitler’s none-too-subtle invitation for him to commit suicide since no German field marshal had ever surrendered. At 6:15 that same morning, the Sixth Army radioed from its headquarters in the basement of the Univermag department store, “Russians at the entrance. We are preparing to destroy [the radio equipment].” An hour later came the final message, “We are destroying [the equipment],” a sign that the end was near. Paulus, his faith in Hitler shattered, refused to play his assigned role in the Führer’s tragedy, but neither could he bring himself to surrender. Like many of his colleagues, he had so internalized the anti-Bolshevik nature of the struggle that formal capitulation was unthinkable, so he simply let himself be taken prisoner. Even that was too much for Hitler, who received the news with a mixture of disgust, outrage, and puzzlement. By his action, Paulus had tarnished the myth of Stalingrad before it could even be created. “This hurts me because the heroism of so many soldiers is nullified by one single characterless weakling,” Hitler complained the next day. “What is Life? Life is the Nation. The individual must die anyway.” For days he kept coming back to it. “How can he give himself up to the Bolsheviks?” he asked, enraged by what he saw as Paulus’s betrayal. “How easy it is to do something like that [shoot oneself]. The pistol—that’s simple. What sort of cowardice does it take to pull back from it?” While Hitler fumed, the thirty-three thousand men under General Strecker fought on amid the wreckage of the tractor works in the northern part of the city, not surrendering until 2 February. At 8:30 that morning, Army Group Don received the last message from Strecker, which concluded defiantly, “Long live the Führer.” A Luftwaffe reconnaissance plane flying over the city at noon sent back the message, “No more sign of fighting in Stalingrad.”

Paulus, deeply depressed and suffering from dysentery, was one of the 24 generals, 2,500 officers, and over 90,000 German troops marched off to captivity by the Soviets. He, however, was among the fortunate. By May 1943, barely 15,000 of the 90,000 prisoners were still alive, a staggering rate of attrition occasioned not only by Soviet mistreatment but also by the condition of the Landsers when they were captured. While some 90 percent of ordinary soldiers died in captivity, the death rate among junior officers dropped to 50 percent, while that of senior officers was only 5 percent. Of those 15,000 survivors, only 5,000 eventually made it back to Germany, the last in the late summer of 1955. Little certainty exists on the total number of Germans killed at Stalingrad. Soviet accounts claim 147,000 German dead at the time and 91,000 prisoners, of whom 86,000 died in captivity, making a total of 233,000. While Rüdiger Overmans suggests that somewhat fewer than 200,000 Germans had been trapped, Manfred Kehrig estimates a total closer to 232,000, with perhaps 12,000 Rumanians and anywhere from 20,000 to 50,000 “Hiwis,” or Hilfswilligers, Russian auxiliaries pressed into service by the Germans, also in the pocket. Both are agreed that some 25,000 wounded and specialists were flown out of the Kessel and that close to 60,000 had been killed between 22 November and the surrender, leaving between 115,000 and 147,000 German troops, of whom, again, only 5,000 survived captivity. With perhaps 50,000 killed in the fighting for the city before encirclement, the total German dead in the Stalingrad campaign was likely anywhere between 220,000 and 250,000. While the exact figures on deaths will never be known, it was by any reckoning a disaster. For the Germans, who at the beginning had feared a Verdun on the Volga, the words of Soviet propaganda rang true: Stalingrad really was a Massengrab (mass grave). Soviet losses, too, had been staggering, with “permanent losses,” that is, killed, missing, and taken prisoner, for the entire Stalingrad campaign estimated at almost 500,000 men.

For both sides, the unthinkable had occurred. Not only had Hitler insisted on the capture of Stalingrad, in itself unnecessary, and then reacted to both the threatening situation on the flanks of the Sixth Army and the Soviet offensive in an equivocal manner, but also in all of this he never seemed seriously to consider the possibility that the Soviets might actually win the decisive battle he sought. Now faced with the delicate task of explaining to the German people the truth of a catastrophe when they had been led to expect a definitive triumph, Goebbels proclaimed on 3 February that, despite being overwhelmed by the Bolshevik hordes, the “sacrifice of the 6th Army was not in vain. As the bulwark of our historic European mission, it has held out against the onslaught of six Soviet armies. . . . They died so that Germany might live.” The disaster at Stalingrad had altered the mission in the east significantly. No longer was it an expansive one of attaining living space for the German people; now it was framed as protecting Germany, and Europe, from the Bolshevik threat. In the Soviet Union, meanwhile, morale soared as many people for the first time genuinely believed that it might be possible to defeat the Nazis, an unthinkable, unimaginable notion just a few months earlier.

Such a triumph, however, was still a long way distant, as events in the first months of 1943 demonstrated. Although the dying Sixth Army had at least performed the valuable service of tying down several hundred thousand Soviet troops, allowing Army Group A to escape possible entrapment in the Caucasus, Hitler’s original hope of forming a front to the east of Rostov proved unrealistic. From the outset of the retreat, in fact, Manstein and other commanders pushed for the withdrawal of as many forces as possible beyond Rostov to the Mius in order to stabilize the position of Army Group Don. Still, having lost the Caucasus and any hope of attaining the oil fields that his economic advisers had considered vital to a continuation of the war, Hitler insisted that Manstein hold on to the Donets industrial basin. Without its coal and steel production, he feared that the ambitious armaments program just launched, especially that aimed at increasing tank production, would not be realizable and that, without that program, any chance of a satisfactory conclusion of the war in the east would be lost.

Despite these real economic arguments, however, the weight of renewed Soviet attacks, begun at the end of January, forced Manstein’s hand. By early February, in fact, the Russians appeared well on the way not merely to regaining lost territory but to collapsing the entire southern sector of the eastern front. In pursuit of a “super-Stalingrad,” the Soviet leadership even envisioned a plan, similar to Manstein’s 1940 Sichelschnitt operation, in which Soviet armored units would penetrate to the Sea of Azov, thus trapping Army Group South in a vast pocket. Huge gaps in the line allowed the Soviet attackers, who in the meantime had learned from the enemy to flow around the islandlike German strongpoints, to stream to the west, recapturing Voronezh, Kursk, and Belgorod, and threatening to retake the key industrial city of Kharkov. Although, for both economic and prestige reasons, Hitler categorically forbade its loss, the SS Armored Corps attempting to hold it found itself in a helpless position and on 16 February abandoned the city. The fall of Kharkov, the most shattering German defeat since Stalingrad, appeared to confirm the German collapse and embolden Soviet hopes to “entomb an estimated seventy-five German divisions in the Ukraine.” Stalin’s goal, as a year earlier, was not just an operational victory but a decisive, war-winning strategic success.

The Russian position, however, was not as grand as it seemed since the Red Army was, after a long advance, approaching its logistic and combat limits and Stalin once again seriously underestimated the Wehrmacht’s ability to recover. German forces, reorganized by Manstein, were poised for an ambitious counterstrike. Although at a meeting with Manstein at the latter’s headquarters near Zaporozhye from 17 to 19 February Hitler clung to a linear notion of defense, a breakthrough by Soviet spearheads that forced an abrupt end to the gathering occasioned an uncommon concession from him. Granted a rare freedom of action by the Führer, and with SS armored formations recently arrived from France to augment those of Hoth’s Fourth Panzer Army, Manstein aimed to strike against the exposed southern flank of the enemy, whose offensive had now passed the culmination point, not so much to retake Kharkov as to destroy the formations of the Soviet Southwestern Front. Compounding the problem for the Soviets was the fact that they completely misread German intentions, interpreting troop movements as an impending sign of further withdrawals rather than preparations for a counterattack. When it came on 20 February, the German assault caught the Soviets off guard, with SS units making swift progress over the next week against an increasingly disintegrating enemy. The success of the attack so revived Hitler’s spirits, in fact, that he now demanded that the advance be continued beyond Kharkov to the southern wing of Army Group Center.

Faced with deteriorating conditions owing to the imminent start of the rasputitsa, however, Manstein abandoned his original bold plan of crossing the Don downstream of Kharkov in order to wheel and take the city from the east. Instead, he opted to strike past the Ukrainian metropolis on the west, thus threatening the enemy’s southern flank and forcing him to abandon the city. Favored by a renewed drop in temperatures that aided German mobility, Hoth ordered Hausser’s SS Panzer Corps (with the powerful Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler and Das Reich Divisions, along with parts of Totenkopf and Grossdeutschland) to seize Kharkov from the north, then advance on Belgorod. The former was reconquered on 14 March, with the latter falling a few days later. With that, the Soviet offensives begun at Stalingrad had run their course, while the front line at the end of March 1943, when the onset of the rasputitsa gave the Germans a much-needed respite, roughly resembled that at the beginning of the 1942 summer campaign.

The stabilization of the front not only demonstrated that the Wehrmacht remained a formidable fighting force but also illustrated misjudgments by Stalin and the Stavka, who had pushed ahead on a broad front without a point of main effort. Although impressive as an operational achievement, Manstein’s remarkable success could neither disguise nor alter the true state of affairs: although the Ostheer was able to inflict serious losses in a fighting retreat, it was no longer a force capable of winning the war. The significance of Manstein’s achievement, in fact, lay less in what he had won and more in what he prevented: an early spring attack by the Red Army that might well have shattered the eastern front. Having lost the Caucasus and a good bit of the Donets industrial area, and now faced with a multifront war, Hitler saw any lingering hopes he might have had of bringing the Ostkrieg to a satisfactory conclusion largely evaporate. Stalin, too, had been sobered, now finally realizing that his dream of a single decisive offensive that would reverse the strategic situation was illusory. The war in the east would have to be won gradually and incrementally rather than by a Soviet blitzkrieg, despite the judgments of a mid-February 1943 American intelligence report that termed Germany’s defeat in the east irreversible, suggesting even that “organized German resistance in Russia might collapse.”

Certainly, the Germans had suffered casualties and equipment losses that they could not easily make good, while the Soviets could count not only on their own resources but on a significantly increased delivery of Lend-Lease goods as well. Still, not losing the war was a far cry from winning it, and, as Manstein’s successful defensive battles had shown, the way west was likely to be long and bloody. The reality facing Stalin of a protracted, costly struggle, as well as his habitual morbid suspicion of his Western allies, led to a renewed Soviet attempt to explore new ways out of the war through a separate peace. Perhaps it was merely to apply pressure to the Anglo-Americans to spur them to greater activity in building a second front that Stalin explored contacts with the Germans that were hardly secretive. In any case, in the months after Stalingrad the Soviet leader did not act like a man certain of triumph. Significantly, it was Hitler who continually rejected Soviet offers. The enforced inactivity of the rasputitsa, then, found both sides pondering their next move.

Was Stalingrad the turning point of the war? Certainly, many contemporary observers, both inside and outside Germany, perceived it as such. Already in late August, SD reports noted that Germans displayed “overwhelming” interest in the fighting around Stalingrad, assuming that the “capture of this important cornerstone would bring a militarily decisive turning-point” and an end to the war in the east. By early November, the “blood sacrifice” at Stalingrad had become a “nightmare” that even Hitler’s effort to downplay the comparison with Verdun could not dispel. In late January 1943, the SD reported that the imminent destruction of the Sixth Army occasioned “deep worries about the further development of the war,” adding that the “entire population was shaken to its depths.” “Universally,” another report stressed in early February, “there is a conviction that Stalingrad represents a turning-point in the war.” Not only had the popular mood reached a low point, but anxious questions were raised: “How will it all end?” “How long can we hang on?” Significantly, in their desire to get an accurate picture of the situation, Germans increasingly began to listen to foreign radio. Even the person of the Führer was no longer spared criticism. By March, images of Hitler were often found defaced with the slogan “The Stalingrad Murderer.” Events in North Africa—termed a second Stalingrad or Tunisgrad—also contributed to a “growing war weariness.” In Vienna, the numbers 1918 were scrawled on walls, while, in Berlin, people were reminded of that fateful year in leaflets. As in 1918, people whispered, “The United States had not yet really begun to fight, even as Germany was already drained.” Not only had it become an idée fixe among many Germans that “a third winter of fighting in the east meant a loss of the war,” but Germany’s fate had also become an object of speculation: some argued that, following a defeat, southern Germany would be “given over to the Anglo-American sphere of interest,” while others asserted that eastern Germany would be “delivered to the Soviets.”

Rather than thinking in terms of the turning point in the war, especially since modern wars were no longer winnable in a single, decisive battle, it might instead be worth recasting the issue. In order to win, or at least stalemate, the global war in which they were now engaged, the Germans would have had both to cripple their Soviet enemy and to capture the oil and other resources of the Caucasus necessary for a prolonged struggle with the Anglo-American powers. Seen in this light, the Battle of Stalingrad was, perhaps, not the turning point, but rather the breaking point for the German effort, “the final conclusion,” as Bernd Wegner has put it, “of a process of diminishing options of victory in the east.” In this view, Stalingrad was not the turning point in the larger conflict, in the sense that a still-winnable war had suddenly turned into a losing one, for the Battle of Smolensk, the failure in front of Moscow, American entry into the war, and the lopsided distribution of human and economic resources all meant that, from December 1941, Germany had little chance of victory in the global struggle. Some sort of victory in the east, however, had been possible, where German triumphs had brought the Soviet Union to the point of collapse. The battle at Stalingrad would tip the balance one way or another, but Hitler’s mid-July decision to split the German forces ensured that the balance tipped against Germany. At Stalingrad, the failure of all Hitler’s assumptions over the previous year had become clear: the Soviets had not been smashed in a single blow; the British had not sued for peace; the United States had not been deterred from entering the war; the resources necessary to prevail in a global conflict had not been secured; the Wehrmacht would no longer be able to concentrate its resources on a single front. Rather than a turning point, then, Stalingrad marked a “point of no return,” as the Germans plunged over the abyss. Still, even as, by his own admission, Hitler now “muddled through from one month to the next,” the realization that any hope of victory was gone served to occasion not a softening in German war policy but its radicalization

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