Monday, August 25, 2008

Stalingrad II: Thirteen Errors

The "story" of the Battle of Stalingradis fairly simple, so a brief recap for those unfamiliar with it should help before moving on to Beevor's arguments about those events.

In 1941, Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa, a massive attack on the Soviet Union. Despite ample evidence from his own intelligence agencies, Stalin refused to believe an invasion was imminent, choosing instead to believe that Hitler would honor the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Because of this unpreparedness and because of both extensive purges of high-ranked military officers and the politicization of the army, the Wehrmacht encircled hundreds of thousands of Soviet soldiers, forcing their surrender. The Germans soon found themselves at the gates of Moscow and controlling all of the Soviet territories west of a line that stretched roughly due south from Leningrad.

In late spring, 1942, the Germans began Operation Blau, which sought to capture Stalingrad, which would cut off a valuable industrial city and part of key trading routes while scoring a propaganda victory by taking "Stalin's" city. The capture would also provide strategic protection for future operations in the oil-rich Caucasus, which would hopefully fuel the Nazi war machine while bringing Stalin's to a sputtering halt.

The Germans succeeded in capturing all of the city but a westernmost sliver on the banks of the Volga. The Soviet troops remaining in the city stood between the Werhmacht and a river. Their supplies and reinforcements, from the other side, frequently failed to survive the crossing. However, the Luftwaffe's bombing of the city turned it to mounds of rubble ideal for ambushes, snipers and attrition streetfighting, which enabled the Soviet troops to hold out and repulse superior firepower. The Germans repeatedly flung their best troops against what they believed were the last remnants of the Red Army, only to be beaten back.

Over the next several months, the Germans did not detect the Russians' amassing troops for their counteroffensive, Operation Uranus, whose name was changed at the last minute from, "Operation What the Hell Are You Giggling At?" As a result, Soviet troops caught the Germans unawares, encircling them. Having just spent half a year engaging in the same attrition warfare he had vowed to avoid, Hitler idiotically called for more senseless bloodshed, ordering Sixth Army commander General Friedrich Paulus to hold his position. Despite unreliable resupply from the Luftwaffe; despite a lack of ammunition, medicine, fuel, winter clothing and food; despite deaths from starvation, infection, typhus, typhoid, dysentery and exposure, Hitler ordered the Sixth to fight to the last bullet, perhaps because its continued existence prevented seven Soviet armies from attacking German positions elsewhere. He promoted Paulus to Field Marshal to ensure that he would fight on — no German Field Marshal had ever surrendered — and was furious to discover Paulus did not blow his own brains out. (Paulus reportedly said, "I have no intention of shooting myself for that Austrian corporal.") Over the course of roughly 200 days, the two armies lost over 1.5 million casualties, to say nothing of the civilians who lived in the city and surrounding countryside.

Beevor relates the course of these events with lively — and sometimes gruesome — detail. Regardless, his prose entertains and at times takes on the pacing and intensity of a novel, a truly remarkable distinction considering almost everyone reading the book already knows the ending. The book even flashes a sense of humor at times, no mean feat when the next page is likely to describe people dying of exhaustion while sitting up in shell holes in a field littered with horse entrails.

However, while the book is an excellent example of how reading historical narratives can be engrossing and fun, that's not what makes Beevor's treatment of the subject so interesting. As said in part one, the importance of the book as a historical work isn't in the plot but rather what arguments and theories Beevor proffers in response to it. And while the book contains remarkable information about the Soviet forces (historians writing prior to 1990 often had to work without access to most relevant information about Red Army operations), the interesting arguments Beevor makes almost exclusively pertain to the Germans. At the risk of aping the Rocky II/Star Trek III cold-open repeat formula:
The impetus for these events belongs to Adolf Hitler, to the German General Staff and, to a lesser extent, to General Friedrich Paulus. It's a German story. The story told in Russia may still be about The Great Patriotic War, and in our minds we may first think of thousands of faceless armed Russian peasants slogging across a punishing white landscape to exact their revenge. But the heart of the story remains more compellingly the high-water mark of the Third Reich. The progression of events stems from the Germans' blunders, without which they would not have broken the Wehrmacht's back on a city on the Volga.
In short, to catalogue Beevor's arguments necessarily requires enumerating the mistakes made by Hitler and the Wehrmacht.


1. The Germans underestimated the levels of Russian patriotism. Few historians will doubt this, making it probably most predictable conclusion Beevor makes, but it's worth mentioning that the error may have been arrived at honestly. Prior to the invasion, the remaining non-ideologues (read: non-Nazis) on the German General Staff argued that a war in Russia could not be won unless it became a civil war. To wit: treat the invasion as a liberation, protect ethnic groups harassed by the Soviets, distribute food to the local populations, round up the commissars. Indeed, it's possible this could have worked, but by then even the Wehrmacht had been politicized. Not only did the Einsatzgruppen invade the east on the Wehrmacht's coattails, but the latter itself had been ordered to combine the duty of winning the war with solving the Jewish and the Bolshevik "problems." Thus, instead of accelerating centrifugal forces that could have destabilized the Soviet regime, the Germans' invasion, Einsatzgruppen executions, rapes and wholesale plunder of the countryside likely fomented the strong patriotic reaction needed to defeat them. Perhaps they mistakenly assumed Soviet society to be too fragmented to ever cohere patriotically, or perhaps they assumed too many people would be dead.

2. The Germans underestimated the effects weather would have on supplying their armies and maneuvering them. Many people are doubtless aware that the German Sixth Army never received adequate winter clothes. But Beevor points out that the panzers' inability to maneuver on ice was just as important — their treads were too narrow to find much purchase — as it robbed the Germans of the high-speed, accurate tactics that had led them to fatally encircle so many enemy armies in the past. In short, the German high command expected to win a war with tactics rendered impossible by the very war they chose to start.

3. While the Luftwaffe had served Germany well in previous invasions by destroying enemy planes, airbases and other tactically significant military sites, the carpet bombing of Stalingrad created exactly the sorts of conditions that enabled the Red Army to hold out in the city for so long. The conversion of the city to rubble effectively made it the perfect ground for a battle of attrition conducted by outnumbered and outgunned troops. The Russian soldiers laid anti-tank mines throughout the city, had excellent cover for snipers and virtually unlimited opportunities to hide in wait for advancing Germans. Again, Beevor suggests that the conduct of the war the German's chose necessarily contained in it the means by which they could not win.

4. The Germans vastly underestimated the Soviets' capacity for economic and materiel recovery. There can be no reasonable justification for this oversight, neither from an intelligence nor a common-sense/basic probability standpoint. Almost from the start of the battle for Stalingrad, Hitler and many generals baselessly assumed that the troops they faced were the last Russia had. Beevor argues that this insupportable and fatal assumption may well have stemmed from the fact that:

5. Hitler genuinely believed in his message of Aryan superiority. To a certain extent, this argument offers something of a copout and is one of Beevor's weakest. Why did Hitler not support stirring up a Russian civil war and making the invasion easier?—Aryan superiority. Why didn't Hitler order Paulus to break out of encirclement to save the Sixth Army?—Aryan superiority. The argument works best as a bridge between gaps but defines little on its own. It's far likelier that Hitler proffered this belief as a rhetorical spin on the arrogance he felt after his successes in Poland and Western Europe. Full credit to Beevor, however, as he doesn't offer the Aryan superiority argument in a vacuum and acknowledges Hitler's military arrogance.

6. Whether caused by aristocratic snobbery or the superiority of a century of proud military tradition, the (formerly Prussian) General Staff doubted Hitler's predictions about remilitarizing the Rhineland, Anschluss with Austria and the annexation of the Sudetenland. Later, the successes of Poland and France either converted them to believers in the low-born genius or cemented their desire to see him fall. Certainly some generals hoped their predictions of failure in Russia would come true so that Hitler could be seen to overreach and thus be more easily replaced, but placing these people in the majority probably exaggerates their numbers. Hitler triumphed over them so many times that many became as convinced of his invincibility as he was. After all, he'd given them so much reason to doubt their own judgment. Consequently his arrogance met a cowed audience who, as he replaced, demoted and disgraced naysayers, increasingly lacked security in raising objections. Hitler and his arrogance thus created two problems. First, in the upper echelons of planning, fewer voices remained willing to challenge his grandiose pronouncements. Second, despite over a century of Prussian military tradition of battlefield improvisation, Hitler began to control decisions mid-battle from Berlin or the Wolfsschanze. This dependency and insecurity manifested itself most fatally in Paulus' unwillingness or inability to take action after Russians encircled the Sixth Army. Had Manstein or Hitler ordered him to break the encirclement immediately, the Sixth Army quite likely would have been saved. Instead, Paulus wasted valuable days heeding his last (utterly insensible) order to maintain position as the Red Army slowly constricted the German Sixth.

7. Worse, in addition to creating cowed and paralyzed field commanders, Hitler's encouragement of a cronyist, kleptocratic state in which higher ministers carved out mini-fiefdoms and maneuvered against each other virtually guaranteed a never-ending supply of bad advice at home. In attempting to curry favor with Der Führer, advisors like Reichsmarschall and Luftwaffe chief Hermann Göring felt no compunction in showing up rivals by nakedly lying about their abilities and trusting in their chance to fudge the numbers later. Hence, Göring's catastrophic lie that the Luftwaffe could supply the encircled Sixth Army by air — in spite of the fact that:
a. the Sixth Army needed roughly 750 tons of supplies per day;
b. Göring ignored this and promised 500 tons anyway;
c. his advisors told him the Luftwaffe could only supply at best 350 tons per day;
d. this ability would only be temporary;
e. this ability would depend on the strength of Soviet anti-aircraft fire, nearly perfect weather conditions and the continued silence of the Soviet Air Force.
It's doubtful that Hitler would have ordered the Sixth to break the encirclement had he been given better information, but no one can be sure. Nonetheless, an accurate reporting of the inability to resupply the Sixth would have forced some reconsideration, whatever the outcome.

8. Prior to the encirclement of the Sixth Army, both Hitler and the General Staff believed their own falsehoods about the strength of the armies under their command. What they wound up maneuvering on paper in Berlin often had little more value than paper. Corps depleted through street fighting, ill health and poor supplies often had little more to them than their names. In Berlin, these paper armies and the polite fiction that they still existed informed tactical decisions that affected hundreds of thousands of surviving troops. Not only did the insistence that ghost armies actually existed lead to less effective deployment that facilitated the Russians' encircling the Sixth, but this capacity for self-delusion (which manifested again in Goring's re-supply pledge) continued through to Hitler's belief that Paulus would commit suicide and that his famine-wracked army would fight to the death rather than surrender.

9. Finally, Hitler, as one would expect, lacked ideological flexibility. Despite creating a totalitarian state in which the truth was whatever he said it was right now, he lacked the mental capacity to do a strategic about-face. Having publicly declared that Germany would reduce Stalingrad's defenses and take control of a city with such a resonant name, he refused to withdraw his troops when the cost exceeded the gain. Rather than admit an error and redeploy his troops to a more profitable task, he committed and re-committed them to a war of attrition, consigning them to a fate like the troops at Verdun — a fate that he, as a WWI veteran, had pledged to avoid. This ossification of his strategic thinking stands oddly in contradistinction to Stalin's willingness to change his mind. Having begun the war convinced Germany wouldn't attack, Stalin adopted a horribly misguided no-surrender policy, later withdrawing troops to focus on the defense of Moscow and Leningrad, and still later realizing the benefit of old imperial affectations. Just as Hitler backslid into repeating the trench warfare mistakes of WWI, Stalin realized the benefit of a non-political, non-Bolshevik army system, stripping commissars of battlefield authority and reintroducing imperial medals to increase troop morale. By the end of the Stalingrad siege, the most opportunistic leader going into the war had become the most hidebound, while the fiercer ideologue had compromised the effects of his own purges when he saw a chance to stop his armies' bleeding.

10. As suggested in the above item, as the tangible benefits of Stalingrad sank deeper under rubble and corpses, the significance of the name loomed larger in Hitler's mentality and rhetoric. The war on the Ostfront very much resembled a battle by proxy, for both Hitler and Stalin, but Hitler believed more in its rhetorical and personal import as a corporeal victory slipped further out of reach. While it's true that ordering the remnants of the Sixth Army to fight to the last served to keep seven of Stalin's armies occupied with their reduction, it's also possible that Hitler sought to deprive Stalin, for as long as possible, of the city that bore his name while expending lives in what amounted to little more than rhetorical flourish and vain stagecraft.


And what of the poor, much-maligned General Friedrich Paulus? Beevor is tough on Paulus, but it's tough to see how he does not deserve it. His critiques are these:

1. Paulus failed to liase with allied divisions, maintaining poor communications with the Romanian armies on his flank and failing to share supplies with them, despite their having almost no anti-tank weaponry. This last failure proved most costly during the Russian encirclement. Moreover, his impatience with earlier Romanian reports of Soviet activity — in fairness, they had cried wolf in the past — led him to discount their reports alerting Sixth Army HQ as to the commencement of the Russian encirclement. Finally, prior to the Russian attack, Romanian commanders asked to withdraw their troops to the rear bank of the Don river. Given their lack of anti-tank weapons, the Don could have been used as a natural tank defense. The Romanians were rebuffed and ordered to hold position.

2. Paulus squandered trained Panzer corps on meaningless streetfighting, leaving tanks behind to be driven by untrained or replacement personnel. Worse, he squandered his tanks on streetfighting, neglecting to place any vehicles in reserve for a swift counter-attack. Paulus complied with Hitler's fantasy that the Russians in Stalingrad represented the last of the Red Army. As such he was complicit in the Sixth Army's encirclement and destruction. Had he placed tanks and ammunition and fuel dumps in reserve ready to repel an attack, the Sixth not only could have avoided encirclement but also had the resources to crush much of the force arrayed against them. Instead of using his resources to prepare for attack, Paulus assented to every measure that sapped his ability to conduct a counterattack. When the General Staff recommended sending his horses far behind the lines to reduce the cost of shipping them food, he complied. In doing so, he immobilized his own artillery, still dependent on horses for transport. When the Russian attack came, German troops abandoned hundreds of guns to the enemy.

3. In many ways, Paulus exemplified the pliant, doubting German commander Hitler tried so ruthlessly to create, to increase his security as absolute leader of Germany. Beevor points out that while Paulus possessed many sound gifts as a planner, his patience, need for certainty and comfort working within a hierarchy where the ultimate responsibility did not lie with him made him particularly unsuited to be a battlefield commander. Because of this, he failed to realize that every day spent encircled by the Soviet army virtually eliminated the tiny remaining hope of breaking out of it. Only a swift and immediate counterattack to break the encirclement and flee west could have saved the Sixth Army. But Paulus' lack of personal initiative, unwillingness to ignore or creatively interpret orders and comfort in deferring to Hitler's order to stand his ground effectively destroyed the Sixth Army. Make no mistake: its destruction originates in Hitler's suicidal and hubristic orders, but Paulus' complicity and lack of imagination were necessary to carry them out.

These, then, are the lessons Beevor draws from the events leading to the Sixth Army's surrender. While he fairly gives credit to Stalin and the Red Army when appropriate (specifically: Stalin's ideological flexibility, the Soviets' excellent deception leading up to Operation Uranus, and General Georgy Zhukov and General Aleksandr Vasilevsky's thorough and excellent planning for it), the thrust of his arguments tends toward condemnation of Hitler, the General Staff and Paulus for hubris, lack of initiative and planning failures. The combination of new information, thoughtful argument and entertaining narrative style make Beevor's book not only smart and insightful but eminently readable. By the standards of historical writing and the prose stylings to which historians are prone, it is an exceptional book.

Rating: 5
Strongly recommended for anyone interested in history.