Remembering Stalingrad and Its Lessons
Seventy-three years ago on this date in 1943, the last remnants of the trapped German 6th Army (and a division of the 4th Panzer Army) surrendered at Stalingrad to Soviet forces under the command of Red Army General Rokossovsky. Two days earlier the German commander, Friedrich von Paulus, who just hours earlier had been promoted to the rank of Field Marshal by Adolf Hitler, had surrendered in his command post at the GUM department store in the rubble-heap of the once-beautiful downtown of this ancient city that adorns the banks of the Volga on the southern Russian plains.
Paulus, who well understood the Führer’s cynical ploy was meant to signal him to fight on to the death given that no prior German soldier who had attained the rank of General field marshall had ever – in the entire known history of the German-speaking peoples – surrendered, was nonetheless a spent man, and uninspired by the leader of the German Reich he later contemptuously dismissed as “that Bohemian corporal.” After five months of the most brutal close-quarter combat in world history, the 107,000 Axis soldiers who remained alive under his command were cold, starving, and out of ammunition (and out of 91,000 captured Germans, little more than 5,000 ever saw Germany again, and most of them only after 12 years of captivity in Russia as slave laborers), leaving Paulus no real choice: the time to break out of the Stalingrad kessel – this burning cauldron, as the Germans called it, in what had been reduced to a “war of sewer rats,” der Rattenkrieg – was long gone.
For Hitler, by this time in the war already alternating between bouts of sanity and delusional madness, it was a strategic catastrophe of immense proportions, as he freely confided to his aides. The end for his army on the Volga had been weeks in coming and had so depressed him, he declined to address the German people two days earlier, on the tenth anniversary of his ascension to power: his propaganda minister Josef Goebbels read his speech over the radio instead. For the Germans, it meant more than the first real defeat of the war. It meant the end to their ambitions for territory and oil in the Caucasus, and frustration in their attempts to cut Soviet energy supplies and indeed all Volga shipping (that included vital Allied war materiel) to the fronts north to Moscow and on to Leningrad. And indeed, the German disaster at Stalingrad contained the seeds of defeat on the Eastern Front and hence the war itself.
It was, in other words, the fulcrum point of the European war, and unless Germany could develop the secret “wonder weapons” it was then working on (the atomic bomb, jet aircraft, missiles and the like) in time to deploy them effectively, it spelled the doom of the German Reich itself. In the event, Germany never again won a decisive battle in the war on any front, and its advanced weapons systems appeared too late in the war to matter. Stalingrad is, therefore, rightly seen as the capstone to Nazi power and the limit of the failed military strategy of a global power, and as such, contains lessons for us today.
How the Battle Unfolded
Operation Barbarossa, the German attack on the Soviet Union, began on June 22, 1941, in three army groups: a northern unit was to advance through the Baltic states and seize Leningrad; the center group was to attack on a line straight to Moscow, and Army Group South was to drive through Ukraine, capture Kiev, and move on to the Volga River, stifling the flow of supplies to the Moscow and Leningrad sectors. Six months later the cruel Russian winter had stalled the Germans across a 1300 mile front, but Leningrad was besieged, the Baltic republics and Belarus captured, German units had advanced to within site of the Kremlin’s towers, and the vast riches of Ukraine were in German hands.
The war was static for several months into the summer of 1942, but Hitler, confident enough to assume personal direction of operational planning for new offensives in the East, made one of his several strategic errors in the war: he decided to split Army Group South (currently poised in eastern Ukraine) in two, sending one force far south to attack and seize the Caucasus oil fields all the way to Baku, and the other force, led by the German 6th Army commended by Friedrich Paulus, to drive to the Volga and seize Stalingrad. For Hitler, the city was important more for the symbolism of its name than its strategic importance, as the Volga, Europe’s longest river and Russian lifeline to Persia and Allied Lend-Lease aid, could be cut elsewhere with far less exposure.
But split his forces in two he did, and in the end, the six-month struggle for control of Stalin’s namesake city spelled German doom. By late August the Germans, having already bombed and shelled Stalingrad into smoldering ruins, were inside and controlled most of the city, having pressed the Soviets to factories along the river bank. The ensuing months led to intense and often hand-to-hand combat, with German and Russian soldiers changing control of buildings or hill salients many times, along the way to amassing roughly two million casualties. A Soviet counterattack that began on November 19, Operation Uranus, enveloped the Germans in a pincer movement, wiped out Italian and Romanian forces who were to protect the German flanks, and trapped the Germans inside the city, in a classic kesselschlacht encirclement that was itself core maneuver doctrine for the German Wehrmacht. Paulus soon realized his peril and requested an immediate break-out, but Hitler denied the request: the encircled 6th Army would be supplied by air until a rescue breakthrough could be effectuated within weeks. Both air supply and ground rescue failed, however, in the harshness of the winter, and Stalingrad became a mass grave for heroic and valiant soldiers on both sides, as well as the death of German war aims.
The Lessons of Stalingrad Then and Now
Had Clausewitz been alive to observe it, he would have ascribed the decision to attack Russia as the primordial strategic error in all of World War II. From the moment Hitler attacked, he was fighting a war on three major fronts, alongside committing more than a million troops merely to occupy defeated countries in Europe. Plus, there was no small chance that the Russians might at some point have helped him to subdue Britain, had he needed them in the absence of Barbarossa.
Beyond this, in the summer of 1942, German forces were already spread too thin across the vast Eastern Front, and Hitler compounded this problem by splitting his southern armies out of greed for more conquest, all in service to an objective that was unimportant beyond the symbolism of its name. Any counterfactual analysis of the war in the east that assumes German conquest of Soviet oil assets all the way to Baku, that could have happened in the absence of the diversion of the 6th Army to Stalingrad, necessarily ensures a longer war at the least, and possible Soviet capitulation. We’ll never know of course, and the way things unfolded in no way diminishes the heroism of those who fought and died there on both sides. It was and remains, in the event, the largest single mass-scale land battle in human history, and in its inflection, as consequential as Yorktown and Hastings were – but as a matter of military strategy, it should never have been fought. Like all great and powerful empires before them who have become over-extended, the Nazis were now doomed to extinction.
Fast forwarding to today, what can Stalingrad teach us? There are lessons large and small for students of grand strategy, among which are these most critical:
1. Non-strategic war aims should be avoided at all times. Could Germany have forced a Soviet withdrawal from the war without subduing Stalingrad proper? To ask the question is to answer whether or not it should ever have been attacked.
2. Concentration of force both preserves combat power and guarantees far greater chance of success. Hitler was foolish to split Army Group South in two, and widen his objectives for southern Russia, especially given how extended he was on other fronts.
3. Soldiers defending their own country’s soil will prove far more motivated, and vicious, if need be, than an invader, and hence morale becomes a problem for the attacking force in any extended conflict. The German Army veterans of the war in the east, who managed to live through it to tell about it, almost to a man described the feelings and mentality of their comrades in arms there after the first year as being one of fatalism, focus on survival, then gloom, and eventual doom. Similarly, after Stalingrad, the German people realized they were in national peril, and 16 days after the battle’s end, Goebbels was to give his famous speech at the Berlin Sportpalast, calling for “total war” as their only way out now. A grimness set in that could, absent a miracle, only spell defeat.
4. Traditional air and ground forces (including mobile armor) of the kind seen in modern warfare are of less, and even limited, value, in urban, guerilla settings. Stalingrad was the first great extended urban conflict in the history of modern warfare, and functionaries on both sides came to resemble close-quarter hit-and-run guerrillas. The vaunted power of Germany’s air force and its ground armor were of limited value inside the city amidst its rubble, and produced a fatal over-confidence in German military leadership replicated, at least in small part, by American war planners in 2003.
For Americans today worried about the execution of our military efforts abroad, these four lessons are all directly applicable. First, the fundamental question must be asked: is territory in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan strategic with respect to U.S. interests? Do any elements on the ground there represent existential threats to the United States?
Secondly, America today has commitments to defend 68 countries in case of attack – SIXTY-EIGHT! This includes agreement with some countries that is one-sided, as per the case with Japan. Further, beyond pro forma embassy personnel, U.S. armed forces may be found in more than 160 countries around the world today, and are often housed in more than 800 military or naval bases. There is little doubt that we are over-extended around the globe, with all of this driving the stunning fact President Obama alluded to in his recent State of the Union Address: America spends more on national defense than the next eight countries combined, including at least twice that of supposed “enemies” Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea combined.
The long engagements in kinetic conflicts in Korea and Vietnam, and now Afghanistan and Iraq, that have all, it must be admitted, ended in unhappy stalemate if not defeat, are, all of them, also echoes of the ghosts of Stalingrad. For in all cases, local indigenous forces have been far more motivated in repelling Americans and allied forces they see as invaders, and have been willing to see through a conflict taking years, if not decades, to be concluded successfully. For Americans, both our armed forces and those on the home front, weariness with conflicts seen as non-strategic sets in, inevitably, and the morale of our armed forces has taken big hits in each of these post-World War II episodes of extended ground warfare. At present it is not (and never has been) at all clear what “victory” in either Afghanistan or Iraq looks like, or even if it is achievable once a definition could be agreed upon. The unavoidable conclusion is that, like Stalingrad, our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq should never have been fought. Dittos for Vietnam, considered a “catastrophe” for the United States at the time of Communist victory in 1975, yet this undeclared war that entailed the deaths of 58,000 Americans was shown to be totally superfluous a mere 15 years later, with the downfall of the Soviet Union.
On this day of remembrance, let us salute the memory of those who fell in the fiery cauldron of Stalingrad, the most gigantic-scale land battle of all time. Let us reflect upon the sacrifice and suffering on all sides there, and condemn the insane dictators who caused their peoples such harm. Indeed, let us condemn as well any and all politicians who commit their nations to wars that do not involve an abiding national interest, and in which their young die, often face down in mud, in vain. But let these musings not be forlorn, as we go forward, but instead recommit ourselves to the strength and invincibility of our armed forces in promoting the national security of a free and prosperous self-governing republic, and not that of an over-extended empire.