Stalingrad diaries: The battlefield transcripts that Stalin deemed too true to publish -
During the most ferocious battle in human history, in 1943, Soviet historians interviewed over 200 Red Army soldiers about the fighting that helped seal Nazi Germany’s fate. Decades later, Prof. Jochen Hellbeck became the first historian to read their stories
By Michal Shapira Sep 06, 2017
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The book is based on interviews with Red Army soldiers that you found in the archives. They describe shocking violence. Can you talk about the nature of the violence?
The interviews were recorded in Stalingrad, during the final stage of the battle and its immediate aftermath. They resonate with the din of the battlefield, and violence is everywhere in the picture. Red Army soldiers describe how they fought their way into the city center, blowing up basements and entire buildings filled with Germans after at least some of them refused to lay down their arms. What becomes very clear is the extent to which the Soviet defenders were driven by hatred toward the Germans. In the interviews I was surprised to discover the source of this hatred.
Take Vassily Zaitsev, the famed sniper at Stalingrad, who killed 242 enemy soldiers over the course of the battle, until he suffered an eye injury, in January 1943. Asked by the historians about what motivated him to keep fighting to the point of exhaustion and beyond, he talked about scenes he had personally witnessed: of German soldiers dragging a woman out of the rubble, presumably to rape her, while he helplessly listened to her screams for help. [Quoting Zaitsev]: “Or another time you see young girls, children hanging from trees in the park. Does that get to you? That has a tremendous impact.”
German atrocities, which many Soviet soldiers were familiar with, certainly played an important role in mobilizing them to fight, and fight hard. There was in addition ample violence within the Red Army, perpetrated against soldiers who were unwilling to risk their lives. In his interview, Gen. Vassily Chuikov described how he shot several commanders, as their soldiers watched in line formation, for retreating from the enemy without permission.
Maj. Gen. Ivan Burmakov and Lt. Col. Leonid Vinokur, two of the Russian officers interviewed after the Battle of Stalingrad. Museum of the Battle of Stalingrad
Until your book came out in Russian translation, in 2015, these interviews had never been published. Why is that?
The testimonies were too truthful and multifaceted for their times, and Stalin forbade their publication, not least because he alone claimed full credit for the victory at Stalingrad. Little changed after Stalin’s death. Yes, leading generals of the Stalingrad battle, like Chuikov, were able to publish accounts of their role in the battle, but they carefully omitted any reference to executions within the Red Army. In his memoirs, Chuikov writes that he issued “a sharp rebuke” to his cowardly officers.
Archival documentation tells me that at least some Soviet historians read the interviews, but it seems that they were at a loss about how to integrate individual, “subjective” voices, as they called them, into a mandated “objective” (communist) history of the war, and so the documents were overlooked and forgotten. I was extraordinarily lucky to have been the first historian to fully explore the 215 interviews conducted with Soviet defenders of Stalingrad, and publish them. I found them in the archive of the Institute for Russian History of the Russian Academy of Sciences.
‘Edge of Europe’
Who was conducting the interviews and why? Who were the interviewees of these “Stalingrad transcripts”?
Josef Stalin in 1950. AP
The interviews were conducted by historians from Moscow who responded to the German invasion in 1941 with a plan to document the Soviet war effort in its totality, and from the ground up. From 1942 to 1945, they interviewed close to 5,000 people – most of them soldiers, but also partisans, civilians who worked in the war economy or fought in the underground, and Soviet citizens who had survived Nazi occupation. These historians hoped that the published interviews would mobilize readers for the war. They also wanted to create an archival record for posterity. I was struck by how they made this decision as early as fall 1941, when the Soviet Union seemed to be teetering under the German assault. But the historians drew confidence from history, notably the War of 1812, when the Russian people had been able to defeat a technologically superior invader. Hitler, they were certain, would meet Napoleon’s end.
Why did Stalingrad become important to the Nazis and the Soviets in 1942? In what way was it a battle that changed world history?
When the Germans resumed their offensive, in spring 1942, their strategic target was the oil fields of the Caucasus. Only as Army Group South advanced toward Maikop and Grozny did Hitler order a separate attack on Stalingrad. He banked on the psychological blow that the fall of “Stalin’s city,” which is what Stalingrad literally means, would deliver to Stalin. It was largely because of its symbolic charge that the battle for Stalingrad turned into a decisive showdown between the two regimes.