Prevail Until the Bitter End ( Part 1 , Stalingrad) - Alexandra Lohse

With Germany’s military situation rapidly deteriorating and its war economy collapsing by late 1944, the Nazi regime increasingly lacked the means to enforce its policies at home and abroad. As the world inhabited by Germans contracted and fractured at once, new spaces opened for popular apathy, disobedience, or even defiance, a full range of responses to escalating crisis conditions. This inquiry is based largely on sources that were generated in the newly created fissures of the German wartime society. These include more than two thousand transcripts of surreptitiously recorded discussions among German POWs in Western captivity.

These records were created by the Combined Services Detailed Interrogation Centre, or CSDIC, a British intelligence collaborative founded in 1939 by the directors of intelligence for the army, air force, and navy in conjunction with members of the security services (MI5 and MI6). Conceived initially for the systematic interrogation of German POWs, the CSDIC soon shifted its focus to the surreptitious recording and transcription of discussions among prisoners in the presumed privacy of their detention cells (via hidden microphones). The first CSDIC facility was located in the Tower of London and featured cells equipped with hidden listening devices connected to recording equipment. The CSDIC employed the same methods when it moved to Trent Park, on the outskirts of London. In addition to the facilities of CSDIC (UK), consisting of surveillance camps at Trent Park, Latimer House, and Milton Park, the organization eventually operated mobile units under the auspices of CSDIC (Middle East) in North Africa and CSDIC (West) in France and later Germany.

The British Prisoner of War Department prescreened German and Italian prisoners in transition camps and transferred those believed to harbor valuable intelligence to a CSDIC facility or “cage” for interrogation and surveillance.22 High-ranking German prisoners were routinely taken to England for interrogation, and many of them spent the entire war there. By contrast, most rank-and-file prisoners were processed and later imprisoned outside of the United Kingdom. Initially, the organization prioritized technical and tactical information. However, in the later war years, at the urging of the US Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the precursor to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), it shifted its focus to a broader range of subjects. Most prisoners arrived at a CSDIC facility mere days or weeks after capture, undergoing during their stay several rounds of interrogations in which CSDIC officers often needled the detainees to elicit unguarded responses. Numerous CSDIC transcripts in which inmates complained to their cellmates about such provocations suggest this was a successful tactic. CSDIC officers also supplied inmates with propaganda and news materials and occasionally plied them with treats and even alcohol to stimulate discussions in the cells. German-language specialists monitored inmate conversations and recorded and transcribed those they deemed relevant.

The same is true for nearly all other theaters of war. Increasingly weary of official propaganda, German civilians considered their deployed soldiers, sailors, and airmen a most reliable source of information about the war and clamored for their accounts and impressions in letters and in conversations during home leave, which some were granted as late as 1944. Letters and home visits maintained strong bonds between military and civilian populations throughout the war, and disruptions to mail delivery or canceled home leave caused popular resentment and anger whenever they occurred. Around the same time, Frau M. Müller in Kirchberg voiced her grievance that the armed forces’ “ban on leave” (Urlaubssperre) was unevenly applied only to the rank and file of the field army, while members of the home army got to enjoy vacations even in late 1944. She wrote, “Today I came home from work, and I think I’ve been struck by lightning because Erich Weber is already back on home leave. And when one passes by them, they laugh and mock. Oh dear, soon I will burst with anger. One person keeps getting leave, and another person can merely look on. All you hear is proclamations of the ‘ban on leave,’ but those fine lords keep coming home.” Bitter complaints about the inequities of the burdens of war were increasingly common as the German war effort deteriorated. They were disseminated widely beyond people’s immediate circle of trusted family and friends and thus reverberated throughout wartime society. It was therefore no coincidence, for example, that stories about the slothful “young chaps” in western Europe circulated not only among eyewitnesses like Metzenthien but throughout Germany’s wartime society more broadly. As Frau Chr. Jansen from Niederbieber wrote in a letter from September 1944: “The attitude among the civilian population regarding the Western front soldier is not very good, and I too believe that if the Eastern front soldiers had stood in the West, there would not have been the [Anglo-US] breakthrough. Things would have turned out differently if the soldiers from the East had been deployed [in the] West.” Similar sentiments were echoed by Frau Maria Lakowsky from Koblenz who wrote in a scathing indictment: “Those guys spent three years lounging and luxuriating and resting in France, all the while sending heavy packages back home, and now they can’t even manage to hold the front. That is infuriating.” While not impossible, it is unlikely that either Jansen or Lakowsky had ever visited occupied France. But they certainly would have heard accounts about it from their deployed husbands, brothers, or sons. They may have heard stories and rumors from the wives or sisters of soldiers stationed in France, the envied beneficiaries of those parcels of plunder. Regardless of the precise origin of their information, that these women had not seen France with their own eyes did not stop them from opining strongly and in great detail on the events unfolding there.

Chapter 1


The Right to Believe in Victory

January 30, 1943, marked the ten-year anniversary of Adolf Hitler’s appointment as chancellor of Germany. Always an important date in the Nazi calendar, that Saturday would have seen all the pomp and circumstance the regime’s propaganda apparatus could conjure to celebrate a decade since the Nazis’ “seizure of power.” But in the fourth year of the war, with the eastern campaign stalled yet again, the public mood was somber. The country anxiously awaited news from Stalingrad, where the Sixth Army was engaged in what a recent Wehrmacht communiqué had termed “defensive” battles. As hope for a “miracle at the Volga” dwindled, so did hope for a short war, and the Nazi propaganda ministry instructed that official festivities sound a calm and reassuring note. Party speakers were urged to emphasize that the German nation had faced countless challenges over the past ten years, many seemingly insurmountable until Hitler had found a way. He would do so again.

For the first time since 1933, Hitler made no public appearance to mark the occasion. Instead, the main address that day was given by Reich Marshal Hermann Göring, commander in chief of the Luftwaffe, who indicated in a speech broadcast live on all domestic and military radio stations that the Sixth Army had suffered defeat. Unable to deny or explain away a loss of such magnitude, he declared the men of the encircled army group dead and immortal.

Göring did not acknowledge the one hundred thousand German troops about to surrender, some of whom famously listened in on the broadcast of their own “funeral oration” as he praised their ultimate sacrifice. Instead, he cast a mythical veil over a catastrophic loss.2 Conjuring Leonidas and the three hundred Spartans who had died defending the pass at Thermopylae against invading “Persian hordes,” he claimed that the German soldiers at Stalingrad, too, had chosen deliberate self-annihilation for the protection of their nation: “In the history of our own days it will be said: When you come to Germany, tell them that you have seen us fighting at Stalingrad, as the law, the law for the security of our people, commanded us.” According to Göring, Hitler’s leadership would ensure that their sacrifices were not in vain. A German victory, he claimed, was preordained:

"There is a certain logic in world history. Do you believe, my comrades, that destiny—I mean Providence, the Almighty—lets an unknown man rise up, a man without a name and without wealth, a simple fighter from the World War, then guides him through endless confusion, lets him become greater and greater, and, all of a sudden, all this should be senseless? That Providence sent the German Volk a man of such greatness in the Führer … and that he managed to fashion the strongest nation in the world out of the German Volk, which once was fragmented and impotent, then these are the guarantees which give us the right to believe in victory."

Four days later, on February 3, 1943, German radio broadcasts officially confirmed the end of the battle at the Volga River and announced a three-day mourning period. A German victory had never seemed further out of reach, and morale monitors reported that news of the defeat caused grave distress and uncertainty “in the whole German community.” Thus began the Nazi campaign for total mobilization. At a crisis point in the war and with popular morale at an all-time low, Göring’s speech had sounded the battle cry for the regime’s proverbial “flight ahead” (Flucht nach vorn). And although not with blind determination, the German people followed. They did so at a time when the regime’s successes dwindled and a string of military setbacks suggested that Germany had lost its momentum in this war, perhaps irretrievably. In the East, the Germans suffered a slow but sustained withdrawal and “front reduction” as the Red Army’s counteroffensives drove them out of Rostov-on-Don, Kursk, Orel, Belgorod, Kharkov, Dnipropetrovsk, Kiev, and Kalinin by the following winter. In the South, Germany lost Tunisia as well as a quarter million soldiers, whom the Allies took as prisoners when the remaining Afrika Korps and Italian troops surrendered in late spring. The Allied invasion of Sicily and Italy over the course of the summer forced the Germans to mount a partial occupation on behalf of Benito Mussolini’s regime, now unmasked as impotent. In the North and West, Germans anxiously awaited an Allied invasion that failed to materialize. But the war came from above, as enemy bombers wreaked destruction and caused mass displacement and massive civilian casualties in Berlin, Hamburg, Kassel, Kiel, Munich, Nuremberg, Vienna, the industrial centers of the Ruhr, and beyond.

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A year marked by such tangible setbacks fundamentally transformed German experiences and perceptions of the war. As Allied successes mounted in the face of broader German mobilization, the war encroached on life at the home front in ways it had never done before, becoming a greater nuisance and menace at once. The events of 1943 also had a profound impact on people’s relationship with the Nazi regime and, for the first time, even with Hitler, whose fallibility stood revealed after Stalingrad. Members of the military and civilian populations voiced anger over their ineffectual military and political leaders, whose obfuscations compounded the mounting burdens of war. As Germans struggled to make sense of the events of 1943, they frequently rejected official interpretations and forged their own accounts of the unfolding crisis, with important implications for the rest of the war. And yet, if the trying conditions of 1943 tested the bonds between people and leadership, they did not break them.

Instead, many Germans emerged more disaffected with the Nazi regime and yet more determined than ever to fight its war. This chapter traces the origins of this new but enduring dynamic to the contentious aftermath of “the debacle in Russia.” It examines how members of the German civilian and military populations experienced news of the defeat and responded to official attempts to mythologize the fallen soldiers of Stalingrad. It also explores how the shock of defeat caused many Germans to reexamine some of the events of the preceding war years, and, most importantly, how the experience had a decisive and enduring impact on popular responses to mounting mobilization efforts and subsequent military setbacks.

Stalingrad had held a powerful grip on the German popular imagination throughout the summer and fall of 1942, when the rapid German advances in the East had been accompanied by a stream of celebratory propaganda and triumphant proclamations about the future course of the war. At the height of German military might, no promise seemed too fantastical and no goal out of reach. SD reports from the fall of 1942 repeatedly stated that large segments of the population believed a victorious end of the eastern campaign was imminent. Indeed, many Germans even hoped that a “final victory” and an end to the war were close. Compounding military with propaganda miscalculations, Hitler himself repeatedly announced the impending fall of Stalingrad, a battle he had imbued with disproportionate significance. His public displays of unfettered optimism alarmed his propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, who worried about “illusionistic contemplations about the continued course of the war.”7 On October 2, 1942, when Hitler yet again promised the coming victory in a widely broadcast speech, Victor Klemperer took note in his diary. A German linguistics scholar of Jewish descent in Dresden and an astute observer of the Nazi regime, Klemperer noted the gist of the “same old song, mercilessly exaggerated” that had accompanied the military campaigns of 1942: “The stupendous German successes, German morality, German certainty of victory—things are going ever better for us; we can hold out for many years yet.” Klemperer’s quiet despair was drowned out by the many voices rejoicing at the prospect of a German victory in the East. Albert Neuhaus, a soldier at Stalingrad, wrote to his wife the following day that “the Leader’s great speech has only strengthened our belief in [ultimate victory] by another 100%.”

For much of 1942, many German POWs in Western captivity shared the confidence that a German victory in the East was within reach. But as the year drew to a close, some worried about the implications of an unexpectedly protracted eastern campaign. Two German submariners discussed the situation in early December 1942, quibbling over when, not if, Germany would defeat Russia. One of them argued, “This war will go on for a good three years more. Say we finish off Russia next year—by that time they will have been bled white. Then the year after that we shall go for England—with lulls in the fighting and preparations that will certainly take two years.” His cellmate cautioned, “Oh I don’t know about that … I believe the Russian campaign alone will take another two years. Just think how long this Stalingrad business has been going on.”10 Late in the year, with no news of a German breakthrough in the East, some POWs began to feel equally apprehensive. On December 2, 1942, another group of sailors discussed how recent setbacks had begun to undermine morale among their peers:

“The mood at our base has changed dramatically. Before [the eastern campaign stalled], the strong conviction prevailed that everything will turn out alright, that we almost certainly would not lose the war, and that it was merely a matter of time [until victory]. But now the mood was completely different. Personally, I also think the situation is critical. First of all, things are going wrong in Russia; furthermore, I don’t believe that the Italians will hold out much longer. And if the Americans are ready to land that many troops, tanks, airplanes, and stuff in North Africa, we’ll probably get kicked out of North Africa.”

As fall turned to winter and the military situation in the East deteriorated, Goebbels finally tempered official Nazi rhetoric to bridge the gulf between people’s expectations and the grim reality on the ground. With the Soviet encirclement at Stalingrad tightening, fewer and fewer letters from the battlefield reached the home front, and by December 1942, Goebbels purged any mentions of Stalingrad from all official reports. But the news blackout only transfixed people’s attention on the outcome of a battle they believed indicative of the future course of the war. Some Germans turned to foreign propaganda and war reporting for information, though many distrusted foreign accounts as a source of deliberate misinformation. A submarine telegraphist, for instance, recalled, “We’ve sometimes heard news on the wireless—you heard a good, clear voice but it wasn’t Germany, it was London. They told us all sorts of fairy tales about Russian counter-offensives and so on.” As late as December 1942, he still reflexively dismissed reports of Russian advances as “fairy tales.”

In mid-January 1943, an official Wehrmacht report publicly referred to “defensive” fighting at Stalingrad for the first time. This stunning but oblique reference did not provide sufficient information about the actual turn of events at the Volga and thus merely stoked popular anxiety to new heights. Two weeks later, Göring’s speech dissolved this state of suspended animation with its preposterous mythologizing of the defeat. As Klemperer reflected after the war, “Ammunition for future acts of heroism was to be beaten out of defeat by claiming that many had loyally stuck it out until the bitter end.” In return for the Sixth Army’s alleged self-sacrifice, Göring had demanded the nation’s willingness to follow suit, as the foundation of the war effort going forward. Like the soldiers at Stalingrad or the Spartans at Thermopylae before them, all Germans were expected to play their assigned role in the unfolding epic struggle. By submitting themselves body and soul to the cause of the German nation, they would achieve immortality, either in victory or in defeat.

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Nazi morale monitors reported immediately that Göring’s speech had missed his mark. Only a small minority of regime loyalists, the most “militant characters” among the national comrades, understood “Stalingrad as an obligation to the full use of all resources at the front and at home,” as Göring had intended. SD informants lauded the intransigence of the steadfast few who retained their faith in leadership and victory even in this darkest hour of the war. As a morale report from late March 1943 put it, “A part of the population refuses to be swayed by common concerns.” The report continued, “In regard to the future, [this faction] trusts in the Führer, in the Wehrmacht, and in the resources of the nation and does not want to ponder the details of the future course of the war.” According to SD agents, loyalists rejected “discussions about this [matter] on the grounds that the individual with his small horizon is incapable of comprehending all factors and arriving at a correct estimate of future prospects.” At the same time, the reports acknowledged that the regime loyalists refused to be drawn into discussions of “common concern,” which meant that they made little impact on the broader wartime discourse. Since loyalists considered the inevitability of a German victory self-evident, they rejected debates over current events as “pointless.”

The quietly entrenched stood in stark contrast to the vocal critics among the German military and civilian populations who experienced the defeat at Stalingrad as a personal and national calamity. Göring’s heavy-handed attempt at mythologizing antagonized them and undermined his great popularity. Still at the height of his power and widely deemed “the Führer’s representative,” Göring had long been admired by many Germans as a World War I hero and as an honorable military man among the Nazi elite. They appreciated his outsized personality and brash conduct that provided fodder for countless popular rumors about his escapades. An airman explained, for instance, that “Göring is popular in Germany, tremendously popular, first through his personality and secondly through his bearing.” Referencing Göring’s famous proclivities for opulence and luxury, he asked rhetorically, “Why shouldn’t he have his fun?”20 Not surprisingly, such generosity of spirit vanished in the later war years when the Reich marshal’s tastes and appetites made him an easy target of popular resentment.

As the burdens of war grew heavier, and Göring’s Luftwaffe failed to protect German cities from Allied bombers, his personal and professional conduct came under popular scrutiny. For instance, in their cell two fighter pilots gossiped about the creeping debauchery of the Nazi elites, evidence of the “madness of the Caesars,” of which their commander in chief, Göring, seemed emblematic: “I’ve heard that at teatime a court chamberlain carrying a staff enters first and announces him. Then [Göring] enters wearing a sort of Japanese tea robe as he receives his guests.… Then I’ve heard from officers who have attended conferences at the Berghof, with the Führer—they suggested that in terms of military matters, [Göring] has about as much knowledge as a first lieutenant. He sat down in a chair, acting like a boor in front of the Führer.… He’s also supposed to be responsible for Stalingrad.”

Göring’s failure to provide an air bridge at the Volga would give way to an endless string of calamitous failures of the Luftwaffe, both abroad and at the home front, eroding his standing in the Nazi hierarchy and in popular esteem. Indeed, the pilots’ disdain for Göring as a military charlatan became a widely shared perception among Germans. Increasingly common, too, were popular anxieties that the conceit and incompetence among his henchmen sapped the Hitler’s faculties with deleterious consequences for the war effort. As one of the airmen concluded bleakly, “The Führer believes every word that [Göring] says. That may be our downfall.” In light of recent developments, his cellmate had also begun to question Hitler’s efficacy: “One always said that the Führer is the ‘man with clean hands’ and even if [the other Nazi leaders] are scoundrels, he at least tries to preserve decorum. [He is] a respectable, clean-living man. But I’m beginning to doubt it.”

The German defeat at Stalingrad widely shook popular trust in Hitler and, for the first time, undermined his carefully cultivated image as an infallible military and political leader. His image never quite recovered from the debacle. Blindsided by the defeat, even some otherwise enthusiastic regime supporters experienced their first “struggle of faith,” as the SD reported.23 In his cell, a German corporal bitterly recalled Hitler’s broken promises from the previous year: “Stalingrad will fall, Stalingrad will fall!” His cellmate interjected, “Sooner or later—and it did fall.”24 The shock of the defeat prompted some to search for other mistakes of the German military leadership. A captured SS man, for instance, argued, “It is certainly good that the Führer is so humane but if we had smashed England way back when, the war would have taken a different course.” Still, by November 1943, his faith in Hitler was merely shaken, not broken: “I tell myself, we have held out for so long, I cannot believe that we suddenly would not hold out.… Up till now, Adolf has always delivered delivered what he promised. He who has the last laugh …”

Long after Stalingrad, Germans clung to the belief that under Hitler’s leadership Germany would have “the last laugh” in this war. Many attributed the setbacks of those years to the faulty decisions of his political and military advisers. For instance, when two submariners in captivity discussed the “mess in Africa” in May 1943, they blamed Hitler’s cabinet for all failures. A sailor by the name of Klotzsch observed, “Ribbentrop misinformed the Führer completely, telling him that the English wouldn’t fight [in North Africa]. The Führer naturally wouldn’t know about it, he doesn’t know England. Then there was the completely false judgement of the Russians on Ribbentrop’s part. With all the agents, spies and bribery money that Ribbentrop had at his disposal, couldn’t he have found out how prepared the Russians were for war? Our poor Führer, he was very misinformed.”

Klotzsch’s cellmate, a telegraphist named Masch, agreed with him that “Africa was a big defeat.” He feared that “one more serious reversal and trouble will start for us everywhere.” And yet, even as Masch contemplated the possibility of losing the war and “the Russians marching in[to] Germany … [o]ur poor womenfolk!,” he did not blame Hitler but rather pitied him as a victim of circumstances beyond his control: “One must admire the Führer for still keeping up his courage after all these losses. He personally is in no way to blame [for] the war. With all due respect to the Führer, he is not a strategist. After all, he was only a corporal in the last war, how could he know all that?”

In 1943, very few Germans questioned whether Hitler could ultimately salvage the situation in the East. Still, they frequently speculated about the causes of Hitler’s recent missteps after a decade of seemingly unstoppable geopolitical and military triumphs. For instance, two airmen discussing the situation in April 1943 talked about how control of the war situation seemed to slip out of Hitler’s hands. One recalled attending a Hitler speech in Berlin in the spring of 1940, before the beginning of the French campaign: “First of all [Hitler] spoke very seriously for half-an-hour, he reminded us of our duty and then he said: ‘The war has assumed proportions which I never intended at first, it will probably even assume still greater proportions. We can do nothing to stop it and therefore our watchword must be: be determined, fight and win.’ ”

In hindsight, the airman admitted being puzzled by Hitler’s passive stance: “It strikes me as very strange that ‘we can do nothing to stop it from assuming still greater proportions.’ ” He agreed with his cellmate that a “diplomatic fiasco” lay at the heart of Germany’s current troubles: “Not to come to an agreement with England, that was our downfall.” Still, he saw a surprising upside to a possible German defeat in the war: “If we were to lose the war, there would be one good thing about it. We should be rid of the Nazis.”

On February 21, 1943, two captured submariners were in agreement: “The Führer is no military leader. You can only be that if you have studied and worked at it all your life. He said: ‘Stalingrad shall be taken, I promise you that!’ Then the Russians simply concentrated all their strength in Stalingrad. That cost us 300,000 men, twenty-one divisions.” By 1943, such resentments were widely shared by German civilians and combatants alike, and rumors about the ways in which members of the elites profited and profiteered while shirking their duties abounded. One of the submariners went on to speculate about who had borne the burden of their leaders’ mistakes, railing against the corruption and cowardice of the elites: “And not one general was killed [at Stalingrad], although the Führer said: ‘Generals and infantrymen alike will fight to the last round.’ The generals weren’t killed, but they drove their troops into [annihilation]. Now they are laughing up their sleeves.” Later, in a dark prognosis for Germany, he added that current events boded ill for the future, even in the case of a final victory: “When the war is over there won’t be many left in Germany.” His cellmate concurred: “I’ve thought that too. In my hometown there are tremendous numbers of killed and missing, although it’s only a small place with 2,500 inhabitants.… [I]t’s always the best men, the very ones who would belong to a sports club, who are killed. I just can’t understand why we are doing so badly in Russia. If they were retreating slowly—but it’s going so quickly and on such a wide front: Why has the Führer sacrificed such masses of men. What was the good of that?”

Following the defeat at Stalingrad, similar conversations likely happened everywhere in German wartime society, but usually only after people carefully weighed each other’s political leanings. This was true of German POWs as well. Germans in captivity remained hesitant to voice criticism of the highest echelons of German military and political leadership and did so only among those they trusted to harbor similar sentiments. In June 1943, shortly after their capture in Tunisia, three like-minded Wehrmacht colonels discussed their views of the situation in the East. According to the commander of an armored grenadier regiment, Hitler’s catastrophic failures as a military leader now threatened to undermine Germany’s rightful world hegemony.

His was an unusually blunt and uncompromising view of Hitler’s failures as military leader and their ramifications for the rest of the war. Still, after Stalingrad, he was not the only one to consider the possibility that the war in the East was unwinnable:

"Why did the ammunition shortage arise? Because the Russians had captured two Army dumps. That all happened and the Führer must take the blame for it. The Russians have robbed us of our aura of invincibility. In fact, against the Russians we have already lost. We have sacrificed the flower of our youth and lost our best divisions—eighty of our best General Staff officers were left in Stalingrad. Let us assume that the Russians would have attacked us; still, a war on two fronts should have been avoided at all cost, no matter what the cost might have been.… It had all gone so well. It was all so marvelous and so perfect, and then with that damned Russia it all went awry. There are two people who did not know that in Russia it is cold in the winter. One was Napoleon Bonaparte, and the other was the Führer, that dilettante general. But everyone else knew.

Indeed, the Napoleon analogy was echoed frequently by German POWs in captivity, among all strata, and was likely deliberately stoked by their captors to elicit unguarded responses. In April 1943, an airman blurted out in his cell: “The Führer has a slight ‘Caesar Complex’! One moment he thinks he’s Caesar, the next Napoleon.”33 Even some of Hitler’s generals shared this assessment. As early as December 1942, General Wilhelm Ritter von Thoma took a dim view of Hitler’s chances in the East, and indeed for the whole war, with dire implications for the entire German nation:

“I recognize Hitler as a great historical character, but I maintain that he is the same as Napoleon was for France. If you read Michelet’s history, for example—he was an authority on interpreting Napoleon—you’ll see that he says, quite rightly in his conclusion: ‘In a few years, Napoleon raised France to such a height that the nation may always be proud to remember him, but when making the final analysis of Napoleon, one must remember that he was a gambler and that we are still suffering in France from the blood which was shed then. And what is left?’ The last word of a six-volume work is ‘Nothing.’ And it’s just the same with Hitler. Hitler also went mad in the end, after a good start. He has the same mixture of genius and madness, but there’s one way in which he differs from Napoleon. When people told [Napoleon] bluntly what they thought, he cursed them, then said, ‘I will resign!’ Whereas with us, nobody resigns.”

If von Thoma believed Hitler’s successes through the early war years were the result of his genius, he took a much dimmer view of some of his henchmen, notably Göring: “Hermann the mighty, the mighty Nazi boaster. [The party bigwigs] all get country estates and big properties. I believe people in Germany are grumbling quite a bit.” The two submariners, too, agreed that popular enthusiasm for the war had waned precipitously now that early successes had given way to seemingly endless strings of military setbacks. As one of them bluntly stated, the reason for widespread popular dissatisfaction was that the war “had lasted so long.” Many soldiers in captivity were anxious that as the war dragged on and setbacks setbacks mounted, the home front would succumb to a general war fatigue. For instance, a German pilot relayed that throughout the war, his unit had “always received survey reports from the security service [SD] on the situation in Germany.” According to him, the reports had been “quite frank” and “shattering” even earlier in the war: “After Stalingrad, people rapidly lost confidence and trust.”

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Both Nazi and Allied morale monitors collected ample evidence that Germans in all segments of wartime society experienced Stalingrad as a grievous betrayal by their leadership. Thus, not only was the defeat a military and public relations debacle, but it also caused a serious and enduring rupture between the people and the regime at the very moment that the nation embarked on total mobilization. Göring’s misguided attempts to shroud facts in myths illuminated this growing gulf. Going forward, many Germans no longer trusted official pronouncements and instead clamored for “raw” information and facts about the events at the Volga and beyond. Many desperately wanted to examine for themselves just what had happened, why it had happened, and what it meant for the future. On February 4, 1943, one day after the official confirmation of the defeat, an SD report summarized the new demands of the German people:

“First, people are asking for the number of blood sacrifices. Suspicions range between 60,000 and 300,000 men. People thus assume that the majority of fighters have fallen at Stalingrad.… Furthermore in all strata of the population there are discussions about the inevitability of the developments at Stalingrad and the necessity of the awesome sacrifices. Specifically, national comrades wonder whether the threat at Stalingrad was recognized in time.… The third point at the center of popular discussions is the meaning of the battle of Stalingrad for the general course of the war. In general, there exists the conviction that Stalingrad constitutes a turning point in the war.”

The regime’s failure to adequately address these questions ensured that Stalingrad retained a powerful grip on the popular imagination for the duration of the war. It also irreversibly undermined the credibility of Nazi propaganda. As German military failures compounded, the regime struggled to convince its people of the veracity of its claims. Instead, rumors about official lies and obfuscations swirled in all parts of German wartime society, and Germans eagerly shared anecdotes in which they had uncovered official lies. For instance, an airman captured in North Africa in May 1943 recalled how he had been confronted with evidence of the regime’s bold-faced lies earlier in the war: “I was sitting in the cinema with my wife, before I joined up. There was a soldier sitting next to me, and when the newsreel came on we were shown: ‘The capture of a village in Russia and such.’ It was horrible, the street fighting and everything they had photographed there. Then [the soldier] said: ‘It is all faked; I was in it; we helped when they were filming it. It was done hundreds of miles behind the front lines.’ He said it out loud and laughed.”

As popular doubts about the truthfulness of official reporting grew, many people tried to piece together their own versions of unfolding events from fragmented and often conflicting sources of information. The resulting pictures, though impressionistic and provisional, confronted many Germans with a number of facts they had been able to avoid or rationalize in the early war years when the German advances seemed unstoppable. The defeat at Stalingrad illustrated dramatically that the German military command was not infallible and that German armies were not invincible. Worse, it showcased the Russians as a formidable foe. In a conversation with fellow generals, one man who had been captured in the Middle East in November 1942 explained his grudging admiration of the might of the Russian enemy:

In the Spring of last year there was a division of Siberian troops … in Leningrad, they came from the far east. There were magnificent specimens among them, active and cheery. One really must say of the Russians that, from a purely military point of view, one can learn a lesson from the way … they have organized things better in that huge land of theirs, with its dozens of races, which were still warring against one another up to a few years ago. Down to the part where we are fighting, the local people were still fighting against the Russians in 1936. Just consider how Stalin has drawn them all together—it’s an incredible achievement.

Whatever they understood about the reasons for the German defeat at Stalingrad, few people dismissed it as a fluke, the regime’s loyalists notwithstanding. Instead, they were forced to reckon with the painful reality of the strategic and especially material superiority of the Russians. This is not to suggest that in January 1943 Germans confronted the specter of their own ruin at the hands of this powerful enemy. Far from it. But after that point, there were few among the German civilian and military populations who failed to understand that the future held in store costly and protracted confrontations with the Russians.

Interestingly enough, when Germans imagined the Russian enemy after Stalingrad, they did not necessarily conjure the specter of “barbaric Asiatic hordes” that came to dominate the Nazi “atrocity propaganda” (Gräuelpropaganda) of the final war years. To be sure, many people assumed that the Eastern peoples were racially and culturally inferior, with an inherently brutal disposition. Occasionally, though, German troops’ firsthand experiences in the East complicated this picture in surprising ways. In a conversation between three airmen in January 1944, for instance, one of the men fretted, “If we lose the war, it will be worse than in 1918. We’ve seen what Bolshevism has done.” However, when his cellmate proposed that “the Russians are an inferior race,” another cellmate objected: “You can’t say that. Look at the health resorts in the Crimea or towns such as Kiev, Odessa, Sebastopol. They are first-rate.”

More commonly, though, Germans contemplated Russian prowess as measured in manpower, war materiel, and fighting ability, particularly in the winter months. Throughout 1943, they speculated anxiously about an enemy capable of producing seemingly unlimited numbers of tanks and weaponry. And even when the Wehrmacht made advances in the East that year, people nonetheless agreed that the Russians were “far from finished,” as the SD reported: “To be able to offer such masses of people and materiel everywhere at the front suggested that the Soviet war machine still functioned very well.”42 According to internal morale surveys from the home front, in the aftermath of Stalingrad, most people agreed that “finishing the Russians” once and for all was Germany’s number one priority. This was true for German military personnel as well. However, in captivity, many POWs doubted that the German armed forces had the resources to match the Russian foe, with deleterious consequences for German morale. A captured airman told his cellmate that the interrogating officer “expressed the opinion that the German soldiers’ morale is good until he sees that he isn’t getting any more supplies, then he suddenly breaks down.”43 His cellmate eagerly confirmed, “Yes, that’s right, it’s happened like that,” before launching into several tales of blown-up munitions depots and the devastating loss of materiel and supplies that German divisions suffered in various theaters of war.44 Circulating rumors and hearsay about German experiences at the eastern front going back to the first “battle winter in 1941” (Kampfwinter) confirmed these fears. A German lieutenant captured in October 1943 in Italy told his cellmate about what he had witnessed in Russia two years earlier: “[Our] men’s boots were made of good stuff but the cold penetrated. First of all, they splashed in the mud for four weeks. Of course, they had wet clothes and boots, and they never dried. And then, all of a sudden, overnight, the terrible cold came.” He described how the proper winter uniforms and attire never reached the front, and infantrymen continued to wear their summer coats and perhaps gloves, “but those quickly got torn.” Some soldiers were forced to wear socks over their hands, and many took whatever gear they could from fallen Russians. In addition, armored divisions were hampered by catastrophic fuel and armaments shortages as supply transports got stuck in the mud. “Tanks and all kinds of things had to be blown up” to prevent their seizure by the enemy. His cellmate was particularly alarmed to learn that as early as 1941 there had been German deserters on the eastern front, men who “ran away to the rear, they wanted to go home”:

“There are always some individual cases. People who had been in the fighting in Russia from the beginning and had marched most of the time in the swamps and forests and mud and everything, who had been through that dreadful autumn and then experienced the cold and then the Russian breakthrough, of course they became pessimistic and said: “It’s all [over] now; now, our number is up.” In order to get to the rear more quickly, several men threw away their rifles and so on, which is in itself not very serious, but they were condemned to death. They had to be because it just had to be made clear to them that a thing like that simply couldn’t be done.”
Elsewhere, one captured airman also worried about the cohesion of the militarized national community under pressure, given the number of “deserters” and “shirkers” among the rank and file. Like Metzenthien, he was particularly disgusted with the opportunism and cowardice of the “young chaps” and the alleged party loyalists. Still, in late 1943 he could dismiss such concerns because of his enduring confidence in the führer. As he told his cellmate:

“I have had plenty of rows with people who sold the Infantry Assault Badge for cigarettes in the P/W camps. I have always said: “I am no Nazi, but all the same the Führer will see us through all right.” The fellows who shouted the loudest for the Nazis went over to the other side at once. They were fine fellows apart from that, but they immediately turned Communists. Good comrades, but incurable Communists—what is one to do with them? I would shoot them in spite of everything. And once we have won the war, I should have them shot. What a lot have deserted.”

Indeed, he looked forward to the annihilation of the British enemy as well, anticipating an aerial campaign that “ought to begin on Christmas Eve, and so thoroughly that everyone is killed, women, children, and everyone, wiped out completely. These swine here don’t know what is in store for them—but it will come.”

After Stalingrad, POWs from all branches of the armed services reexamined their own war experiences for clues of what the future might hold, often resulting in grave alarm about the shortcomings and failures they had observed in their own units. In these stories, they frequently cast themselves as victims of difficult and dysfunctional conditions in units that had stifled their own military prowess. They often bemoaned that lack of training and experience among the rank and file boded ill for Germany’s chances after Stalingrad. For instance, a Wehrmacht interpreter told his cellmate:

“They sent us men to Africa who couldn’t speak any German. The poor company and platoon commanders who set off with these men, could scarcely [communicate].… That was the sort of rabble they sent us in Africa—the criminal division and so on.… Look at the 999th Infantry Division, they are all criminals. They have emptied out the prisons and reformatories in Germany. The concentration camps have been emptied and the people given the chance of fighting there, but they didn’t fight. That was another big mistake. The people should have been made to work, but they shouldn’t have been sent to the front, where they make trouble.”

An airman captured in Tunisia in May 1943 recalled his experiences in Russia between September and December 1942: “We had people with us who hadn’t had more than ten to fourteen days’ training, and sergeants who couldn’t even steer properly to the right or left, and who had no idea of firing whatsoever. If only they had put people like that into the infantry and not into the [Luftwaffe]. Well, of course we had corresponding losses.” Elsewhere, another airman complained about faulty deployment: “People who have to have more than a year’s training are being used as infantry, whereas an infantry man only needs three or four months’ training. Panzer divisions were sent from Sicily without any tanks [and other equipment].… That isn’t only my own personal opinion, but it’s been corroborated by commanders who were in Russia. If you try to start criticizing, you don’t know whom to blame, since all the orders are given by the Führer personally.” German POWs’ disdain for the corrupt and incompetent upper ranks of their armed forces was common fodder for their war stories. For instance, one airman complained about his superior’s rigidity in regard to the “damned business about leave.” Indeed, stories about foreshortened, canceled, or denied home leave abounded and elicited near universal outrage among German military personnel and their families back home. As the airman recalled about his superior, “He was so petty. You couldn’t do anything with him. He had absolutely no understanding in the matter at all.… Of course, it’s quite a different matter in the East. They were advancing there, so, of course, every man counted. But in the [W]est.… He’d brought that idea with him from the East, from Stalingrad.”

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