Voices from Stalingrad
I read two very good books over the last few days. Two memoirs from the battle of Stalingrad. One was from a German, the other from a Soviet.
But first, a few disclaiming words about the controversial nature of Blood Red Snow, which is as you can imagine, the German side of the story. I will be writing covering it quite extensively now at the start, and one reason for that is because the Nazis were the aggressors, so chronologically it helps to set up the context and sequence of events.
But don’t worry, I will also discuss all the cool Soviet stuff in a moment.
To be clear: Gunter’s book is an historical treasure. Because the Nazis were not allowed to keep journals. Gunter’s accounts is one of the few contemporary ones from a rank and file frontline soldier, expressing his views and thoughts without retrospective bias or political censorship. That’s rare, and a treat for anyone who enjoys history.
The book is considered by academics to be an authentic account, give or take things like translation errors (for instance they refer to the Papisha, a 71 round drum magazine submachinegun, as a Kalashnikov, an assault rifle type gun pattern which would not be invented for another 3 years) and as such it reflects his thoughts as a 19 year old on the frontline without any retrospective changes. His misconceptions, his assumptions, his indoctrination, it’s all preserved in the pages for historians to examine.
I would not in a million years recommend it as an introductory text on Stalingrad however, seeing as how its author literally believed in Nazi propaganda. But to people who understand the history well enough to recognise 19 year old Gunter’s bias, it’s a fantastic read that covers a lot of blind spots often not afforded by formal historical works. How things happened in day to day life, how soldiers behaved, what they ate, how they survived, all the interesting details of it all that turns a bunch of places and dates into a living story.
But because of this Gunter K. Koschorrek, the book’s author and protagonist, is often misrepresented. The far right, especially British reactionaries, will often present Gunter’s book as an example of how the Wehrmacht wasn’t so bad, and how they get unfair treatment in history.
They also mislead the reader by presenting Gunter’s views as those of an historian. It’s not. Gunter’s views are preserved for historians to look at, if the book was corrected with a factual narrative of the war, then it would be pointless to publish it. This is very important to keep in mind.
So to do the public a service, I will dissect the far-right lies about this book. If I seem apologetic, then keep in mind that I am providing reasons as to why Gunter’s situation was a very rare one. The far-right tries to conflate Gunter with every Wehrmacht soldier, and in an effort to separate them, I do have to plead Gunter’s case.
Because yes, he is by no means a Josef Mengele. One arcing part of the narrative is how he becomes disillusioned by Nazism as he now is old enough to think for himself. And while we certainly would like to wish that happened for everyone, that’s not how history panned out.
It would be nice if it did, and Gunter’s disillusionment did drive him to defy one of his commanders and save some innocent lives by disobeying a direct order. I do think there’s something worth acknowledging here. How you can in fact rebel in these situations after all, and how it can save lives.
But, if the typical Wehrmacht soldier behaved this way, then there wouldn’t have been a genocide.
This is a problem with Nazi memoirs, it’s usually the extremely rare rebellious or exceptional veterans who publish them. These memoirs usually depict the wholesome characters who are sympathetic in some regard. Since why on earth would you publish a recollection about how you spent 2 years in the Russian countryside popping amphetamines and torturing peasants?
That’s not what war criminals do. They keep that kind of thing to themselves. The fact that there are not millions of these books cropping up from all over Germany’s publishing houses attest to this reality.
So for starters I will very quickly explain the Eastern front timeline leading up to Stalingrad and Gunter’s deployment in the most simplified manner possible:
- Nazis invade.
- They move across the whole country raping and burning everyone and everything.
- Russians employ their famous scorched earth tactic, as they have for centuries, in which they constantly retreat across the country and destroy all homes and food they cannot carry as to freeze and starve the enemy whilst evacuating civilians.
- In spite of the Soviets’ best efforts, the Nazis manage to slaughter dozens of millions of civilians moving through the Soviet republics. The scorched earth tactic had failed, and the Soviets suffered heavy defeats and devastation, things seemed very dark…
Western historians often overlook this, but the Nazis carried out a genocide outside of the death camps too. In fact, the majority of the victims of Nazism did not die in camps. One reason for why this part of history is overlooked in the west is because the western powers (USA, UK, and as karma would have it: France) supported the Nazi invasion of the Soviet republics in what was known as the Munich plan.
Incidentally, it was this US/British collaboration with the Nazis which forced the Soviets to sign the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact in order to protect the lives of 1.7 million Jewish refugees who would’ve otherwise been unable to pass safely through the buffer zones.
The Soviets attempted to assemble the allied forces years prior to the US entering the war against fascism, but was rejected as the liberal countries felt it was a good opportunity to weaken the Soviets, even if it meant abetting a genocide that took some 30 million lives.
Moreover the Soviets saved more than 10 times as many refugees as the rest of the allied nations combined, whose newspapers often reported Jewish asylum seekers as poor, dirty, criminal and disease-ridden. This antisemitism by corporate owned media directly contributed to Hitler’s death toll. And provides a sobering example of why it is so dangerous to permit unaccountable and unelected heads of corporations to dictate what newspapers print.
While the liberal countries were concerned with self-preservation and prejudice, Stalin dutifully shifted the burdens carried by the refugees unto his own military and partisans; Men and women who had sworn to protect the innocent with their lives.
As such, Stalin’s decision to mitigate the Nazi influence was the biggest and most costly endeavor to save Jewish lives throughout WW2. In fact, every single Nazi extermination camp was liberated by the Soviets, as the US was far more preoccupied with grabbing as much strategic territory as possible in an effort to expand US military influence in the Pacific and European theatres.
- Nazis arrive at Stalingrad: The Soviets stage their counteroffensive against an exhausted, hungry and demoralised enemy. Suddenly the genocide staged against the Soviet people becomes a war, as they are finally able to fight back.
- It is AT THIS POINT, when the Soviets turn around and start fighting, that Gunter arrives. So he was never participating in all the horrible atrocities leading up to it.
- Moreover, the sector he was deployed in was known by the Nazis as “The Fortress” and by the Soviets as “The Pocket”. The besiegers had become the besieged. The only people surrounding Gunter is therefore military, either his or that of the Soviets. This was not the norm for Wehrmacht soldiers.
- Gunter does express a lot of humanistic thoughts, and will admonish both sides of the conflict for things he considered to be cruel or dishonorable. But I emphasise that there were literally no civilians left to kill in the region. He couldn’t have been a war criminal even if he wanted to. This is not the typical Nazi experience by any stretch of the imagination.
In other words: Because of the time during which he served combined with his young age, he has a sort of innocence about him. Moreover, this particular wave of recruits for the 6th army are generally considered to be a forlorn heap; Soldiers who are intentionally sacrificed for strategic purposes.
They were repeatedly lied to by propaganda officers who told them the Soviet numbers were lower than they really were (although both sides actually did this, it was a good way to keep soldiers from getting afraid and thereby actually increasing their odds of surviving. Key difference however being how the Soviets felt like they actually had a chance of winning as opposed to getting their money’s worth out of the cannonfodder) and reported victories where there had only been defeats. (The Soviets did not do this however. In fact quite the opposite, they would instead emphasise the terrible losses as to rile up the soldiers and urge them to get even). The Nazi high command expected the soldiers of the 6th army to basically get killed in a hopeless fight to stall the Soviet counteroffensive.
On top of that, the Red Army is mobilised after witnessing the nations-wide genocide, as their loved ones and their homes fell to the brutality of the Nazis.
And now Gunter is in the middle of this mess as a 19 year old fresh recruit, having absolutely no idea why the Red Army soldiers seem so aggressive in their fighting.
A lot of the book is spent being absolutely perplexed at just why these Red Army soldiers are so mad at him, since like most people his age, he wouldn’t learn about the genocide until after the war had ended.
During his retreat when he is confronted by this reality, seeing the aftermath of the genocide, he believes that the Soviets have been killing their own people for supporting the Nazis, since all he knows about it at this time is what he’s learned from Nazi propaganda, who told him that the Soviet people greeted the Nazis as liberators.
(This was also further enforced by how he spent some time with a Ukrainian family of Nazi collaborators, not knowing the distinction between Russian and Ukrainian attitudes on fascism at the time.)
In fact what makes reading memoirs from both sides so fascinating is how Mansur answers this question for Gunter, as he narrates how the Red Army would get embroidered messages from particularly women, as well as letters, saying things like “My grandfather was killed by the fascists, please avenge him.”
And Red Army soldiers would read these letters, and take the request seriously. They would not give up until they had killed one fascist for every letter.
So, all in all, Gunter a bit of an underdog in this regard. Being targeted for revenge because of a genocide that for the most part took place when you were literally in a different country as a legal minor, is one of those things most of us endeavor to avoid in our daily lives.
His story is less about him fervently fighting for the master race, as it is about a person being dropped into a profoundly bizarre situation, and struggling to survive.
On top of this, being born in 1924, he was basically born the same year Nazism was. As this was the election year in which the fascist campaigning begins. At the age of 6, Gunter lives in Nazi Germany.
To him, a Nazi country is a normal country, it’s all he knows. All his assumptions about life becomes challenged in Stalingrad, and as one might imagine, he becomes disillusioned.
Gunter believes in his propaganda, and that becomes both his virtue and his vice. He believes in the values instilled into him about honour and good will, but he also believes every crooked lie told to him about his enemies. He will often admonish the Soviets for their brutality, and yet never directly witness such things.
So now you see how Gunter’s story is being so easily exploited by the far right, and denying the fact that his story is a compelling one is hardly a good retort, because it is very compelling.
Reading about how he ran through mortar fire and being chased by tanks during a retreat, only to get shot in the chest and survive unharmed because his cigarette lighter caught the bullet is extraordinary.
Reading about how he was given the order to execute innocent civilians, and take them into a remote area and fire rounds into the air and letting them escape unharmed is very wholesome. We all would pray to God for a Gunter if we ever were in such a situation.
I applaud the Gunters of the world who does this, whether Nazis, or American GIs, British SAS or even the Israeli IDF. Disobeying vile orders is the greatest valor a soldier can aspire to. It takes genuine courage to turn your back on the enemy, and face your own officers.
So instead I choose to address this, and perhaps do my part to discredit what is a lie by omission. The Nazis were not victims, and Gunter’s example should prove that if anything. He did the right thing, and he survived. He proves that soldiers can rebel against their commanders, and that we must all be compelled to do so if we ever end up in such a situation.
If you read this from some barracks in Afghanistan, or Jerusalem, or Yemen, or Iraq, then think of Gunter, and ask yourself if you really have any good excuses to partake in the crimes that become inevitable in wars of aggression.
I am glad I got to hear Gunter’s story, but I understand that it is a very rare one. Perhaps if there were more Gunters in the Wehrmacht, Hitler would’ve died in a coup d'état. But this is not what happened, and it’s needless to speculate.
As an example of just how twisted the Wehrmacht soldiers were, at one point Mansur, our Soviet protagonist in Red Road From Stalingrad talks about how they intercepted a German shipment full of mail to the Nazi soldiers.
During their search for food, tobacco and similar valuables, they came across something very disturbing: The German soldiers were being sent underage pornography, with victims as young as infants.
Needless to say, the Nazis were indeed a twisted bunch. Committing genocidal atrocities will do that to people.
One of Mansur’s Tatar comrades was so beset by rage and disgust at this discovery, that Mansur had to convince the man that the little babies were rubber puppets just to keep the man from losing his sanity.
The Tatars were some of the Red Army’s most celebrated soldiers, and historically a respected enemy of the Russians.
This is because the Tatars, similar to Zaporozhian Cossacks or Mongolians, are a steppe people. They practice war like horsemen. Steppe horsemen survived by training their wits as well as their strength.
To move quickly in a battle is to think quickly, to be aware of one’s surroundings and opportunities, so that you can get your lance into enemy formations whilst still avoiding archers and pikemen which may be hiding in your periphery. They relied on stunts, acrobatics, bold moves and misdirection in order to avoid heavy losses whilst still charging into the thick of battle.
This is why, one Ukrainian soldier, who prided himself as being a bit of a trickster, often pulling schemes and the like to foil his Russian comrades out of liquor and tobacco and similar things remarked “When a Tatar is in a Russian company, a Ukrainian has nothing to do.”
Gunter very much sees the war through the eyes of an idealistic teenager, often narrating things with a blindness to what his own side is doing.
For instance, at one point, he admonishes how he sees a Red Army commissar shout curses and abusive language at retreating soldiers, but seconds following this, he describes how said soldiers are burned alive by Nazi flamethrowers.
The way he describes the commissar is in a way as to suggest the commissar defines the very moral embodiment of the Soviet Union, but the way he describes the Nazi flamethrowers is without any subjectivity, as though it was a natural phenomenon void of any moral agency.
Meanwhile Mansur, who incidentally is also 19, is far more mature. Having lived through a great deal of the turmoil in central Asia, and being a member of the communist party as well as a mine worker who had survived a wartime famine, he seems older than his age.
Often he seems completely disinterested in who the enemy is, and focuses more on himself and his own side. This is a very good characteristic of a soldier. You can’t do much to make the enemy behave themselves, but scrutiny towards yourself and your fellow soldiers may very well save lives.
This is in general a trait which makes Marxist and Liberal cultures very distinct, Marxist cultures are generally introspective, looking to always improve themselves. Liberal cultures are generally obsessed with what everyone else is doing, as to try and justify their own lack of self-improvement.
Obviously this is understandable, in liberalism everyone is a powerless individual stripped of any community. You just helplessly sit at home and read in the newspaper about how your nation is full of crime and corruption, and then you feel helpless. That’s why it’s so comforting for less civilised countries to imagine some sort foreign other who makes them feel superior, whether that other is Soviets, Muslims or in recent years, the Chinese.
And some might want me to clarify what I mean when I say uncivilised, and the answer is simple, nations without civility. Nations that are supremacist, rapacious, colonial, imperialist, brutish and worst of all: Incapable of understanding poetry.
There is nothing more uncivilised than when some Englishman, upon hearing prose or poetry or some other illustrative language, proceeds to interpret it literally and then proceeds to correct you on your use of words, convinced that they are smarter than you.
That’s the real reason England found the enlightenment, they read the bible and thought “Hang on, how is a camel supposed to go through the eye of a needle? How could that possibly be easy? Jesus said that it’s as easy for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven as that of a camel walking through the eye of a needle, but that’s impossible, so how could it possibly be easy? The camel is far too big.”
They call this exercise skepticism, and genuinely believe it makes them smart.
So now we’re on the same page there, in case you’re from an uncivilised culture with an uncivilised understanding of what constitutes as uncivilised.
I am, after all, considerate.
Now let’s get back to Stalingrad.
One distinction is how the Soviet memoir is retrospective, using a very typical narrative model in Soviet storytelling in which some sections of the story are given a flash forward into its conclusion.
Obviously this happened in western books too, but I find in Soviet storytelling this is often done with less pertinence. It provides something flavorful and interesting, but without immediate urgency to the story. Don’t get me wrong, I like it a lot, and the first time I saw it used was when I watched Bymep several years ago. A very popular film about the Russian lumpenproletariat, who is struggling in the crisis following the 91 Yeltsin coup d’etat.
There is a scene in which the main characters trade an aluminum baseball bat for some petrol as I recall. They give the bat to a younger chap, I think between 14–16 years old. The film then follows this young man for a while, leaving the main story behind, and depicts him showing off with his bat to his friends and playing around, and eventually robbing someone in a violent episode.
It made the story bigger than the immediate characters, and reminded the audience of the vast world and its consequences surrounding them. However it could’ve just as easily been conveyed as subtext in the viewer’s imagination. After all, what else would happen when you give a young troublemaker such a weapon?
This art of turning subtext into text I find is very distinct in Soviet narration, and is likely informed in some ways by dialectical materialism. That and the fact that Soviet society is vast. This vastness must be conveyed somehow.
One thing I find fascinating is how the soldiers regard themselves. The characteristics of the Nazi and Soviet soldiers with regards to philosophy and worldview is one that is very curious.
One might think that with the Nazis, being a Christian military, and the Soviets being secular, the attitudes of the soldiers is obvious. But truth is that their presumed features are in reverse.
The Nazis are very secular and materialistic in their attitudes, they fight for Earthly things, and are guided by rationalism. Their motto, Volk, Fuhrer, Vaterland (People, Fuhrer, Fatherland), attests to this. They resign their faith into their commanding officers and equipment, they are very guided by Earthly things.
The Soviets on the other hand are driven by higher forces. Superstition, fate, luck and destiny. Time and again Mansur survives impossible odds, and several times his comrades tell him “You must have been born under a lucky star Mansur.” Mansur talks about how he ascribes his fate to a lucky charm, how many soldiers carried these charms called mascots.
Mansur talks about how he has what he then describes as a naïve idea, that if he dies, the Soviet Union dies with him, that he must be alive at all costs.
The reason for this I suspect is because the Soviets needed faith. Mansur’s offensive against the fascists on the Island of Death attests to this. Because of a strategic mistake, the Red Army infantry on the island were separated from their equipment, and the survivors of the gruesome shoreline fighting were unarmed. They managed to hide from the Nazis, but were now completely unarmed aside from perhaps a few entrenchment tools.
Mansur decides to gather 500 men, who would quietly sneak towards the German trenches and camouflage themselves with sand.
The Nazis were equipped with submachineguns, rifles, grenades, you name it. The Soviets had sand.
Mansur, like a ghost, rises from the sand, this was the signal.
Behind him, 500 other phantoms appear, rushing to the trenches, with a unison howl of “URRRRAAAAAAAA!”
These ghosts from the sand, howling like banshees, take the fascists completely by surprise, who for the most part are frozen with fear.
The Red Army soldiers then proceed to beat them to death, and take all their guns. This is how the Soviet Union had to arm themselves on the Island of Death.
Is it any wonder then that people put faith into higher powers? That they resign themselves to destiny and luck? I don’t think so. I think in many ways, that faithlessness is a luxury of the privileged, because they regard themselves as the higher power. I think even atheists need faith in something if they are to find a relationship with the world around them. To recognise that they are a small being in a big universe, and that such a universe demands humility.
I myself, in times of poverty and hardship, have been saved by such a universe. This strange thing that seems to with perfect timing offer you precisely what you need in your most trying time. I cannot explain it, but whether it is war, poverty, or any other struggle, you must resign yourself to some extent.
All you have is attempts, faith is about the success of such attempts.
Moreover, the Soviets had a spiritual relationship to the war. It was more than just some battle, it was history, and destiny, it was the war for the sunrise. A war in which the darkest hour was just before dawn.
Mansur describes the fascist slaughter houses, where they would kill anyone who was a Soviet, civilian or otherwise. The fascists were not content with mere hangings, human beings were hanged, they wanted to reduce the Soviets to animals.
So they fashioned gallows out of meat hooks, and instead of minutes, the hangings would go on for hours. Mansur described how the Soviets would be hanged by their arms, legs, ribs or necks and expected to bleed out whilst being tortured from the weight of their own bodies.
They assembled factory farms, except for human beings in a pathetic attempt to reduce this humanity to cattle.
Can you truly ascribe a materialistic role to such a course of events? Can random circumstance, nihilism, and faithlessness reside in the people who put a stop to such slaughter? The few dozen survivors, out of hundreds, who were lifted off these hooks and taken to safety, could they merely see ordinary men, indistinct from their tormentors?
I think when you experience such a thing, what you see is angels and devils. A circumstance of the human spirit. When the fascists pierced these people with steel hooks, these people who tirelessly fought in a revolution, who suffered and endured to put an end to imperialism and feudalism, to emancipate the peasants and bring a future for their children, only to have the steel blue hordes of fascism descend upon them, then I see a parable of Christ.
How these people sacrificed, and toiled, and gave themselves to humanity, only to be pierced by the iron of a rueful empire.
This is Stalingrad. This is the Soviet Union. This is the struggle of the workers. It takes a land which is suffering, which is dehumanised, which exists in a circumstance of indignity and oppression, and it makes it holy. A holiness put forward by compassion, humanity and sacrifice in the face of monstrosity.
That is why the echoes of such a war still ring soundly today. It was a call to all workers, all over the world, to never lose hope. To see how they are holy, and how within them is buried something beyond the mundanity of exploitation and tyranny.
The shared spirit which makes the hairs on your neck rise, the unexplained aroma which makes the Red Army Choir resonate in every language. Because it is the voices of holy struggle, of humanity, voices that resonate with everyone even if the language is not understood. Voices that speak a truth as old as history, about how even in the darkest times, humanity may bloom like the red poppies in the polluted mud of no man’s land.
How any nation, and any people, no matter how broken and oppression, may rise again, like a phoenix, whose crimson shine blankets the Earth and guides us towards a shared vision, this sublime destiny is what came out of Stalingrad.
A vision of hope, united in labour and friendship. A vision of atomic peace, brought by science and international solidarity. As all the workers of the world would embrace in humanity, as borders would bleed into diffusion, and a thousand languages would sing in the same melody.
This revelation, this truth, this universal desire, is the destiny promised by the united republics, by the nations of people. A thing which demands the greatest faith of all, to be able to imagine peace, freedom and prosperity in the wake of burning and slaughter, in the wake of slavery and racism, in the wake of tyranny and war.
Such is the destiny of workers, such is the series of events harkened by the Soviet victory over fascism. Today the world grows dark once again, and we are called upon to listen to the voices of Stalingrad.
To hear the mighty call of workers who had faith, and who fought for that faith. A faith in tomorrow, a faith in peace, a faith in universal comradeship of workers!
To me, Lenin is God’s messenger, to you he might just be a wise philosopher, but regardless, we are comrades, and we must join together and listen to the destiny presented before us by the voices of Stalingrad.