Stalingrad – Reality and Fiction. Thoughts by Christoph Fromm in contrast with excerpts from WWII letters

Stalingrad: maybe the most terrible, monstrous, brutal battle in the history of the world. The facts speak for themselves: Two million dead, wounded and missing in action on both sides. Of about 500,000 inhabitants of Stalingrad only 1515 survived until the end of 1942.

Behind these numbers hide horrible individual fates, each of them a universe of pain and suffering. The most horrible thing in Stalingrad was not death. It were the wounded, those who were dying in cold cellars, for whom there were no painkillers, no food, no solace, left anymore. It was during the three months of the final battle that German soldiers increasingly turned on each other in the cauldron, that the Feldgendarmerie took uncompromising action, that people shot each other for a bit of bread. It was at this time that the German General Staff, increasingly estranged from the realities at the front, tried to maintain a mindless orderliness while people in the cauldron were already eating rats, mice and leather belts, while madness and cannibalism were daily fare.

This truth has been denied for a long time, even by German historians. It took until the Wehrmachtsausstellung (Wehrmacht exhibition) 1995 to face the realities of Stalingrad and the Eastern front, and there is a sad irony to the fact that there is more truth in my fictional novel than in some German history books.

Loss of reality – this is a sure indication of a totalitarian claim to power. Hitler has claimed to push for an antihistorical order by conciously defining the Jews as a race instead of a religious group. Totalitarian islamists pursue the same strategy today with every sentence, every propaganda video. The radical denial of reality creates a new one – most of the time a horrible one. But it would be too simple to link the flight from reality only to these extreme examples. This flight has already seized contemporary societies in the form of numerous parallel worlds. The international world of finance, the internet, fantasy movies and games leave behind a reality increasingly populated only by people who cannot afford to flee. But it would be a material fallacy to believe that reality is only for the poor – reality will catch up to us all mercilessly.

Recently, I discovered a first-person shooter set in Stalingrad. The game is marketed as having very realistic content and graphics. It is in every way an irresponsible comic version and the most horrible thing is, that there are young people who really believe that this was the reality of Stalingrad.

What am I getting at? We speak easily of the delusion, the denial of reality of the young generation during and before the Second World War. This is doubtlessly true, but: Have we become so much better, smarter, more logical?

Are we not fleeing from reality too, by using the most recent, modern technological means, and let ourselves be seduced, deceived, diverted from the catastrophes which are approaching unavoidably? Or is it just human nature to push awful experiences and thoughts to the back of one's mind, in order to retreat to a seemingly benign everyday life in the face of impending catastrophes and terrible crimes which we believe ourselves to be too powerless to prevent.

I want to show - using excerpts from letters of a young staff lieutenant who was stationed at the Eastern front from 1941 to 1945 - how the atrocities of war have been repressed in an attempt to maintain an endurable everyday life. He was my mother's fiancé and went missing in action in February 1945. The letters were written to her. It attracted my attention that his thoughts as well as his language were characterized by a desire for private happiness, romance, retreat into religion, conservative views and an apolitical attitude which nowadays one can find again in the young generation of 18 to 30 year olds.

This young lieutenant became the main protagonist of my novel Stalingrad which has been translated to English recently and is available as an eBook.

26.8.1942
Saying goodbye to my parents has again been very hard for me and I had to do a lot of thinking. Still is woe in the air around me, as I have to depart from you and my homeland. Unstoppable turn the wheels and the thoughts of home blur with soldierly ones. It is a hurtful struggle but it cannot be any different – the war will have to be the only thing then.
My thoughts about the war in Russia have been a bit blackish today. That's the way they are sometimes but it's not really purposeful.

27.8.1942
I know that I have become more unfeeling, dull, unresponsive...

1.9.1942
The journey took three days and a quarter. Saturday evening in Kursk. Everything was again known and familiar, unchanged in its peculiarity.
Visit to the „old aunties".
(A/N: Germans who married Russians and lived squalidly, one painted him.)

It is horrible to me, that the people have been suffering so much under Bolshevism and that the hopes they set on the Germans have been likewise disappointed. Powerless and ashamed we stand here.
It isn't always easy to stand by his cause here in this country. Also not with Baroness Buttler...
(A/N: other German woman living in Russia, apparently of aristocratic ancestry.)

We got to the political situation and thought, combined facts and made plans. The difficulties are manifold – she is aggrieved by the condition of remigrants. They are sent to and fro, they travel hundreds of kilometres with bag and baggage and kith and kin. Nobody wants them, the surplus eaters, everyone sends them away again. One almost understands that some prefer to be shot instead of obeying the order to vacate a village as it is supposed to have happened in exceptional cases. This country knows no mercy...
(A/N: One has to take his time to take in those lines, considering what we know now about the war of extermination pursued by the Wehrmacht. Are they naïve, insincere? One has to assume the latter. But still, the tone... one has to suspect that many members of the Wehrmacht have blocked out the truth to a degree that borders on schizophrenia. They put the blame for the "horrible conditions" on the merciless enemy, the partisans, the country, the circumstances. It was asserted that the war had befallen the nations as much as a natural disaster would and one did "his best".)

Found the division! We sat together long into the night engaged in happy conversation. And so I slept in the big tent again for the first time in ages. How delightfully cosy it was again – just as wonderful as lying in a German bed again for the first time in ages. That's how warped one becomes: the exception becomes the normal. Right now everything is being strongly set up for the winter here: They build bunkers all over the place in order to be prepared when it becomes wet and cold.
(A/N: The writer was at this point already close to Stalingrad and must have known that terrible fights had begun in the city. During the first attack of the German airforce 80,000 civilians died. The Volga was red with blood...

The two sentences about the building of the bunkers are bewildering, regarding what happened later in Stalingrad. )

Substitute of the commanding officer who is at home, sick, is Captain Kiefer: lively, inspiring, interesting. From seven to ten in the evening we sit together in the tent. It is already very cold and pitch-black outside. We heat with a "Primus", a petrol stove. At ten o'clock the radio is turned on, the straw fetched from the corner, the bundled blankets from outside for the night's rest. The adjutant has to put out the candle and uses thereto a stick, with which he strikes it out while lying down.
(A/N: This almost sounds like a Boy Scout excursion and in this kind of spirit it is written. The atrocities of war were completely pushed out of the one's consciousness whenever it was possible. And, of course, one did not want to worry the loved ones at home, not to mention censorship. The letters to the fiancée often sound like a nice travel report.)

6.9.1942
Charkow, local command centre. Yesterday we drove here with my Mercedes... I took with me Private Otto, a 33-year old tradesman from Wiesbaden. High houses, small room on the fourth floor. Charkow had 800,000 inhabitants.
Today's calendar motto is: God's fountain has waters in abundance... I am so grateful!
(A/N: No thought concerning the missing masses of Charkow's inhabitants. Instead religion: Escape into a parallel world of love and charity. The writer is grateful, that his escape still – as yet – succeeds perfectly. This changes in the last years of the war and the Christian who wanted to become a priest, became a career officer who was close to the SS.

One should never forget: "God with us!" was written on the belt buckle of the German soldier. More than a few believed themselves to be one with the Christian God in a fight against the godless bolshevists. Hence every atrocity was justified. Doesn't this sound familiar?)

10.9.1942
Today I saw the first camel, harnessed to a cart... there were carp and sturgeon field kitchen, and a melon. Tomorrow I will be in the vicinity of Stalingrad.

14.9.1942
Vast, vast, burnt brown steppe, slightly undulating, with little incisions, criss-crossing flattened roads and dust, dust, dust! There a couple of staff vehicles are standing in a furrow, a handful of vehicles, the orderly room bus, two vans, four cars, the tents – this is our home.
Today's calendar motto of great solace for us Christians, when we shall be scared in some situations. All apprehensions shall be taken away from us. How happy I am! Birthday! A bouquet from the steppe, 25 cigarettes, and the aching joy of being in comradeship despite of all.
(A/N: Christian faith and camaraderie. Two of the main driving forces which helped the soldiers to persevere for so long... the wide-spread belief "God wills it so and everything which happens is God's will" accommodated the war crimes of the Nazis in a fatal way. It is still a popular misconception that Christianity was decidedly opposing National Socialism. In the majority of cases Germans were able to reconcile their Christian faith in God with national socialist one in the Fuehrer. The Fuehrer was God's tool and Hitler, of course, did everything to strengthen this belief. His speeches ooze with Christian allusions. That he wanted to deprive Christianity of its power following the successful conclusion of the war is another story...)

20.9.1942
We moved into a mud-walled house, here on the hill... today we already were in Stalingrad, tomorrow we move there in order to take over the headquarters. We live on the edge of the city: Captain Enno Bamberger, First Lieutenant Hasso Harms, specialist Funk and I. The funny thing is that we sit together playing cards every evening... We look into the valley, where the train rails are, and see the lovely little church in the village of Jelschanka. To the east there is the smoking city and to the south east we have the infinitely calm and smooth windings in the midst of dark forests and white sandbanks of Mother Volga. This silver grey streaming there, how it tempts us! There in the lowlands start again the secrets of the East! The grape-vines in front of our house bear no fruit, they haven't been taken care of in years. What a miracle it would be otherwise after the bleakness of the steppe! This way we see only destruction. All the city has been offering us until now were little wooden houses, almost none undamaged. Tall buildings, factories, mostly burnt out. You can't overlook anything yet, the struggle still continues. It is very, very hard here – all the more shameful to stand by idly!
(A/N: At this point, 6,000 German soldiers died every day during the battle for the city, the losses of the Soviets were even higher.)

26.9.1942
During the day reigns a sweltering heat with the eternally blue sky and all and in the night there's ice. Nothing's impossible in Russia!

30.9.1942
In transit again, as always: a longer stretch. Blistering sun by day – frost by night.
On the evening of the 26th the news of Hermann's death reached me.
(A/N: His brother, active air force officer.)

The unavoidable which we should have been expecting for years, is now nevertheless very harsh and painful. But we cannot be different from the many others, our family too has to make a sacrifice. And know we experience first-hand what we have seen others experience a thousand times before: a grandchild, son and brother left our house to come back nevermore. We can't even comprehend what a loss like this means to the parents...
Could you get me an Iron Cross 1? I lost mine.
(A/N: A highly interesting passage! The death of his brother is an unavoidable stroke of fate. Not the regime, not the reasons which led to the war are responsible. It is a sacrifice which one has to make for the battle of destiny forced upon us by the bolshevists... For a long time the fairy tale was spread that Hitler only forestalled Stalin with a preventive strike. Interesting too, that the pain is only dealt with on an abstract level, there is no personal connection to the brother. The writer immediately belittles his own abstract pain, the pain of the parents is worse anyway and one should be grateful (to God!) that one had been spared for so long.

That he is asking for a new Iron Cross 1 in the next line could not have been imagined any better by an author.)