Non Fiction

The Barbarism of Prestige

Adolf Hitler’s determination to capture Stalingrad with the German 6th Army and a Panzer division was based on winning prestige rather than vital strategy. The decision to lay siege to Stalin’s namesake city, defended by desperate but disciplined Soviet soldiers, militia, and citizens- would cost the Fuhrer the war and ultimately the fall of the Third Reich. In the summer of 1942, Hitler diverted a significant portion of the Wehrmacht southern strike force from their destination of the vital Soviet oil fields in the Caucasus in order to cut off Red Army use of the Volga river as a supply route, which ran through Stalingrad. However, there was no other strategic importance of the city itself, rather, Hitler desired to take Stalingrad mainly because he mistakenly believed that it would be a relatively easy and substantial propaganda victory in destroying the city of the man of steel, resulting in a major boost of prestige for the Nazis and a huge loss of Soviet morale. The decisive battle of the Second World War, and possibly the bloodiest battle of human history, was based upon honor for the aggressors and brutal survival for the defenders of Stalingrad, which ended in a loss carrying consequences far exceeding Hitler’s expectations.

Historians such as Omer Bartov have cited the deep commitment to National Socialism that Nazi soldiers held leading up to the Battle of Stalingrad, which could be seen in documents such as the diary of a Nazi soldier named William Hoffman. Hoffman mentioned Hitler in every passage throughout July and August before the battle escalated into close quarters urban warfare, revealing the extent of the common Wehrmacht soldier’s indoctrination into National Socialism ideology. “The Fuhrer knows where the Russians’ weak point is… I believe the Fuhrer will carry the thing through to a successful end… The Fuhrer’s orders were read out to us. He expects victory of us… I believe that for Stalingrad the Fuhrer will decorate even me…” However, once the battle heightened in intensity, mentions of the Fuhrer became less frequent as Hoffman mainly described the fierce resistance of the Soviets, ironically attributing their resolve to fanaticism and barbarism, while seemingly forgetting that the Nazis were the aggressors in the situation. In the end Hoffman gave up hope in Hitler saving the surrounded 6th Army with reinforcements, and was not aware that the Fuhrer had forbidden the Wehrmacht from breaking the encirclement.

Many of the German soldiers eventually gave up hope and cursed the situation they were put in, but the Soviets defending Stalingrad were determined to fight until the bitter end. By late September into October, the Germans occupied nearly all of Stalingrad, and yet had to give up the advantage of artillery and their superior Luftwaffe because the Russians had entrenched themselves in positions behind Nazi lines, creating pockets of resistance too close to the Germans for them to use heavy weaponry. Anton Kuzmich Dragan, a Soviet soldier in such a position, described the fierce resolve of his comrades, as they resorted to throwing cinderblocks and trickery to fight off the Nazis while defending bombed-out buildings.

Dragan described how an anti-tank gunner, after being captured by Nazi tommy-gunners, told them false information that resulted in an ambush, “…an hour later they started to attack precisely that point where I had to put my machine-gun with its emergency belt of cartridges. This time, reckoning that we had run out of ammunition, they came impudently out of their shelter, standing up and shouting.” This was the kind of resistance that the Nazis hated, and Hoffman referred to as mobster-like, hence, Dragan’s comrade was shot in front of them for his actions. Yet it was these last-ditch efforts that allowed the Soviets to finally achieve victory, their stubbornness was apparent even when it seemed as if all hope was lost. Soon after the ambush that Dragan described, the Soviet garrison had completely run out of ammunition, and expecting imminent death, Dragan’s orderly famously carved “Rodimatsev’s gaurdsmen fought and died for their country here.” And yet, even after the building collapsed on top of them from a German tank salvo, the surviving Russians dug out of their would-be tomb and quickly decided to fight on without weapons through to their own lines.

Both the Germans and the Russians were disciplined and determined in the Battle of Stalingrad. However, dedication to Nazi ideology was defeated by the Russians’ bitter fight for survival. Dragan spoke of comradeship and the defense of one’s country in his memoir, while Hoffman was disillusioned by Nazi indoctrination and a kind of naiveté of urban warfare that resulted in him cursing the war before he perished. The Soviets on the other hand, were not deceived of the hopelessness in continuing the defense of Stalingrad, but rather, chose to fight to the end regardless of victory or loss. Although both armies were utterly exhausted, the Soviets won because they fought not for prestige but survival, and the German 6th Army was annihilated as a consequence of Hitler’s desire for maintaining honor.


8 replies on “The Barbarism of Prestige”

I pay tribute to this attempt to understand the human dimension of an appallingly inhuman situation. Well done. But I wonder if the military outcome just may have been more a product of logistics (eg, length of supply lines, ability to replace lost men and equipment, etc) than the personal belief of individual soldiers in their reasons for fighting; compare, for example, the losses of men and equipment of each side. In war, most soldiers – on the front lines – may perhaps just want to be able to survive what it brings and see their loved ones again. As a result, there is, in the end, “The Disarming Charm of Beauty” that overcomes all barbarism, and a simple anecdote (of many) perhaps shows this. It was near Christmas 1942, and some Russians (now clearly in the ascendancy) were playing a Bach record. Nearby, Germans said, in broken Russian: “Don’t stop playing it, we will not shoot”. And so the warm, harmonious beauty of Bach echoed through the freezing, tumultuous antechamber of hell, reflecting how the allure of Absolute Beauty prevails even over mistakenly generated, and ideologically sustained, hatred, including that towards Slavic / eastern Europeans which has infected Europe for centuries, perhaps even millennia, and other hatreds this particularly virulent strain inspires in return.

This is a very thoughtful perspective. Honor, prestige, pride(?) – usually make for very poor strategic decisions. But is there something in being the aggressor, especially in such an ideologically driven project that almost dictates this?

The Soviets were obvious ideologues as well, or at least their leaders were, but fighting a defense against an invader almost invariably shifts the focus to survival and away from direct ideology. (Your use of journals illustrates this, I think.) Whereas the attacker fights in the name of the ideology – and its success as a system of ideas stands or falls based on popular support – which itself stands or falls based on the perception of success (at least in its field of endeavor).

The p.r. aspect here is rather absolute; part of the promise of national socialism seems to be that the idea itself guarantees strength and success. So the honor and prestige of a victory proves the idea (to the people), while the failure or flinching prove the defeat of the idea – literally falisifies it. Once enjoined, the absolute need to follow through seems to have been inevitable.

So I guess I’m wondering what the initial impetus was – e.g. it does not seem to have been strategic. If it were never attempted, there would have been no loss to the Nazis in terms of prestige. Was it just thought an easy enough target – desirable because of its name?

As a tangent – I’m very impressed by your range.

I guess that’s what happens when an insane vegatarian dug addict becomes dictator of an industrialized nation as a result of an unfair treaty. Great essay. I suppose the common Russian soldier faced death from the Nazi’s or his own officers. Having nothing left to loose is a strong motivational technique.

Share Your Thoughts

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s