Stalingrad: The Fateful Siege 1942-1943, Reviewed by Tom Bradshaw


Stalingrad: The Fateful Siege is a narrative account of the Battle of Stalingrad in the Second World War. This book would transform the reputation of Anthony Beevor, a former British Army officer, and would be later translated into 18 languages. Stalingrad’s impact on military history in Britain was arguably even greater, transforming a genre previously directed at retired colonels and armchair fantasist, into an accessible and popular field for the layman.[1] In this sense, Stalingrad reflected the importance of the battle it details. There are few military confrontations that evoke such images of death, destruction, and such ideologically charged debate than the Battle of Stalingrad.[2] It is widely considered to be the turning point of the Second World War. The city of Stalingrad, located on the Volga River, would mark the highpoint of the German conquests, and would lead to the complete destruction of the 6th army, the Wehrmacht’s largest force. The impact of the German defeat should be measured in more than simply men and material. It eroded the aura of invincibility around the German army, and marked a resurgence of confidence in the Red Army.

In his preface, Anthony Beevor states that his goal is to show “within the framework of a conventional historical narrative, the experience of troops on both sides”.[3] This approach reflects the author’s belief that one cannot understand the Battle of Stalingrad through a standard military examination. A strategic and tactical emphasis fails to convey the reality of the situation on the ground. A strategic approach would provide as flawed a perspective as Hitler’s attempts to understand the battle from his maps in the Wolfsschanze.[4] Instead, Beevor looks to examine the human aspect of the campaign, focusing on the experiences of the soldiers. Stalingrad is divided into five sections that follow a broadly chronological narrative. The first two sections provide a historical narrative up to the confrontation at the Volga. Beevor provides a general military background about the early campaigns on the Eastern Front, as well as examining the early careers of key figures in the Stalingrad struggle, particularly General Paulus of the German 6th Army.[5] The final three sections deal with the titanic struggle over Stalingrad, taking the reader to the surrender of the Sixth Army in the beginning of 1943. These three sections follow the broad narrative: the first examining the German attempt’s to seize the city, the second with the encirclement of the German 6th army, and the final detailing the eventual surrender of the German forces. Within this narrative, Beevor examines certain aspect of the battle in a thematic fashion. These provide some of the strongest sections of the book, and the mini-chapters on the Hiwis (Russians fighting for the Germans) and the civilians living within the city, are exceptional.[6]

Although Stalingrad was undoubtedly intended for a mass audience, the historical standard of the work is still very high. Beevor draws on a wide range of sources to provide the narrative of the battle. The fall of the Soviet Union, and the consequent limited opening of their archives, provided Beevor with access to previously unavailable sources. The Russian ministry of Defence central archive at Podolsk provided detailed reports sent daily from the Stalingrad Front.[7] These archives provide a detailed picture of the realities of the conflict away from the propaganda that surrounds the battle, especially in Russia. Commissars and the NKVD reported frequently on the state of morale, providing details about ‘extraordinary behaviour’ (the commissar’s euphemism for treasonous behaviour). These are particularly important since official Red Army archives have a tendency to avoid difficult subjects, such as low morale and desertion. A key facet of the book is its use of non-official sources, including war diaries, chaplains’ reports, letters and personal oral interviews. This social history approach to the battle provides the colour of the story, particularly in describing the everyday struggle of combatants and non-combatants within the confines of Stalingrad. Official documents can never fully explain the experience of the soldier, and Beevor draws on a huge range of personal accounts of the battle. It is this evidence, more than the ‘reliable’ official evidence, which provides the vivid picture of the battle.

The mandate of Stalingrad is not a detailed strategic and tactual examination of the conflict. This has the major advantage of sparing the reader from the tedium of constant lists of military numbers and a chronological examination of strategic and tactical military movements. This differentiates Stalingrad from other accounts of the battle, notably John Erickson’s The Road to Stalingrad.[8] However, this means that Stalingrad will not provide a detailed understanding of many of the important questions surrounding the battle. Beevor does not fully explore the motivation and strategic thinking behind the decision to fight a battle at the city of Stalingrad, which was had little tactical or strategic value. His reference to the megalomania of the two leaders, and their desire to control the city named after Stalin, is a simplification, and is not fully explored. Further, this book does not fully explain the underlying military reasons for the early German victories on the Eastern Front and their subsequent disastrous encirclement and defeat at Stalingrad. There is little examination of the re-organization of the Red Army and the Soviet Economy.  You could be forgiven for believing, like the Germans during the war, that the Red Army were producing troops and tanks out of thin air.

However, this is not the point of the book, a fact that Beevor clearly states in his preface. Instead of a strategic and tactical analysis, Stalingrad examines the experience of combatants and non-combatants from both sides of the struggle. Beevor magnificently explores motivation within the Red army and the Wehrmacht. The patriotism of the Wehrmacht in the early days of the Stalingrad campaign is bitterly contrasted to the ‘fortress mentality’ and desperation of the latter days of the Soviet encirclement. Letters sent home from the front reflect a division within the German forces between those who retained and those who had lost faith in the regime.  Equally, Beevor belies the patriotic explanation of the astonishing heroism and self-sacrifice of the Red Army, detailing the importance of fear and self-preservation within the Red Army. Beevor describes the important role of alcohol in the daily life of the Red Army, and how rations were stored up to provide the opportunity to escape, figuratively, from the horrors of the conflict. The daily reports from the NKVD reflect the real problems of morale, highlighted by continuous desertion, even after the encirclement of the German forces.

At its core, Stalingrad provides a harrowing and detailed picture of the everyday life of combatants in the ruined city. Many military histories solely focus on the grand military picture, effectively relegating the ordinary soldiers to pawns on a chessboard. In contrast, Beevor draws on a huge array of personal letters, war diaries, NKVD interrogation reports and personal interviews to skillfully paint a picture of daily life within the confines of the ruined city. Beevor examines hundred of individual stories, gleamed from numerous sources, to provide an understanding of the psychological impact of ‘Rattenkrieg’ (Rat War). Further, Stalingrad describes daily life, away from the military struggle, of soldiers within Stalingrad, especially their attempts to create a level of normalcy. The chapter ‘Christmas the German Way’ is sobering examination of the 6th army’s attempts to create a German Christmas within the encirclement. Beevor details German attempts to create advent crowns, fashioned from the tawny steppe grass, and little Christmas trees out of wood. Officers, in acts of astonishing humanity, give out the last of their cigarettes to their men as Christmas presents.[9] This social history approach, focusing on the soldiers rather than the grand military narrative, contributes not only to an enthralling narrative, but is also a necessary component of understanding any major battle. Military historians sometimes forget that the 4th panzer division was not simply a number of armed men and tanks.

In examining the Battle of Stalingrad, Beevor explores the experience of many groups ignored by traditional histories. The Hiwis are regularly ignored within Russian accounts of the battle, and Beevor relays a story of a meeting with a former colonel who simply refused to believe that any Russian would put on a German uniform.[10] Arguably more astonishing is Beevor’s examination of civilian survival within the war-torn city. Stalin’s refusal to allow for evacuation meant that tens of thousands of civilians were stranded between the two armies. It is simply astonishing that thousands of women and children could have survived in Stalingrad. Beevor demonstrates the extraordinary measures that women and children undertook in order to survive. Stalingrad is a perfect example of popular history. It provides a vivid narrative that is difficult to put down, detailing stories of extraordinary cruelty, heroism and self-sacrifice all at the same time. Beevor’s refusal to be tied down in military specifics and jargon makes the work very readable. At the same time, although there are no footnotes, Stalingrad does not sacrifice academic integrity to achieve this popular focus.

[2] Anthony Beevor, Stalingrad: The Fateful Siege 1942-1943, New York; Viking (1998), Preface xiii

[3] Beevor, Preface xi

[4] Beevor, Preface xi

[5] Beevor, 51-54

[6] Beevor, 184-186, 384-385

[7] Beevor, Preface xiii

[8] If you do enjoy detailed military analysis, I would recommend this book. If you don’t, I would avoid it like the plague.

[9] Beevor, 311-312

[10] Beevor, Preface xii.

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