Stalingrad, Soviet Union November 19, 1942

On this date in 1942 the Soviets kicked off Operation Uranus, Phase I of the Red Army’s en­circle­ment of Gen. Fried­rich Paulus’ Sixth Army (the single-largest German troop for­ma­tion), as well as the German Fourth Panzer Army and the Third and Fourth Roma­nian armies at Stalin­grad (today’s Volgo­grad). The Soviet high com­mand had waited for the arrival of sub­zero tem­per­a­tures (‑22°F/‑30°C) to harden the ground for their rolling armor and for the Novem­ber landings of their Western Allies in North Africa (Opera­tion Torch) to tie down German reserves on a second front before beginning their offensive on Germany’s Eastern Front.

The Soviets had over one million servicemen, more than 13,000 guns, nearly 900 tanks, and 1,400 air­craft to throw against the worn-out, dis­pirited Ger­mans and their under­strength and poorly equipped Axis co­horts. Under the leader­ship of Col. Gen. Alek­sandr Vasilev­sky and Gen. Georgy Zhu­kov, Red Army soldiers closed their double-pincer trap four days later. In Janu­ary 1943 the Soviets began sys­tem­at­ically destroying the trapped Axis forces. At month’s end Paulus capit­u­lated. German loses in the Stalin­grad pocket amounted to 20 divi­sions and over 150,000 men (some esti­mates are as high as 201,000 men), 24 gene­rals, and one newly minted field marshal (Paulus himself). Losses and casu­al­ties among the Roma­nian, Ital­ian, and Hungar­ian forces on Paulus’ flanks were even greater. Roma­nian losses approached 158,000 out of an initial 228,000. Ital­ian losses were 114,520 out of the original 235,000 soldiers. Hungar­ian losses were 143,000 out of an initial 200,000. Losses among Soviet POW turn­coats (Hiwis, or Hilfs­willige as the Germans called them) range between 19,300 and 50,000. Soviet losses were 155,000 killed or missing and 331,000 wounded, though some offi­cial Russian military historians put the number of Soviet casualties at 1.1 million.

For three days straight German radio sta­tions played nothing but som­ber music. Sol­diers who had paraded 40 months ear­lier in tri­umph through Warsaw’s streets were now either dead or stum­bling—dishev­eled, hun­gry, some wounded, many frost­bitten—into an un­cer­tain fate in Soviet cap­ti­vity. (Less than 6,000 returned home from their ordeal as Soviet POWs.) Allied nations rejoiced with the Soviets, given the enor­mity and obvious stra­tegic impli­ca­tions of the over­whelming Axis defeat. Indeed, the requiem for Hitler’s Third Reich was heard loudly even in Berlin, drowning out Pro­pa­gan­da Minis­ter Joseph Goeb­bels’ Sport­palast speech to 14,000 care­fully selected Berliners. Stalin­grad had opened the eyes of the nation “to the true nature of war,” he said on Febru­ary 18, 1943. Germany’s future hung in the balance in the east, and “total war is the demand of the hour.” Happily for the Allies, time was not on Germany’s side.

Axis Defeat at Stalingrad and German Declaration of “Total War”

Field Marshal Friedrich Paulus surrendering German Sixth Army, January 31, 1943German POWs at Stalingrad, February 1943

Left: Prisoners of war Field Marshal Friedrich Paulus and two staff mem­bers meet at the head­quarters of Soviet 64th Army Chief, Lt. Gen. Vasily Chui­kov, Janu­ary 31, 1943. Ironically, Chui­kov was in Berlin in April and May 1945, where he was the first Allied officer to hear of Adolf Hitler’s April 30 sui­cide. He accepted the surrender of Berlin’s garrison from Gen. Helmuth Weidling on May 2.

Right: German troops as prisoners of war, early 1943. In the back­ground is the heavily fought-over Stalin­grad grain ele­vator. Out of the nearly 110,000 Ger­man prisoners cap­tured in Stalin­grad, only about 6,000 ever returned home. Already weakened by dis­ease, star­va­tion and lack of medi­cal care during the en­circle­ment, they were sent on bru­tal marches (75,000 sur­vi­vors died within 3 months of cap­ture) to pri­soner camps and later to labor camps all over the Soviet Union. Some 35,000 were even­tually sent on trans­ports, of which 17,000 did not sur­vive. Most died of wounds, dis­ease (particularly typhus), cold, overwork, mistreatment, and malnutrition.

Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels, Berlin Sportpalast, February 18, 1943Berlin Sportpalast, 1910

Left: As the tide of war seemed to turn against Germany and its Axis allies following Stalin­grad, Joseph Goeb­bels felt com­pelled to steel the German people for coming hard­ships. At a rally on Febru­ary 18, 1943, at the Berlin Sport­palast, the nattily attired propa­ganda minis­ter addressed a large, care­fully selected audi­ence of Nazi true believers, among them Nazi Party repre­sen­ta­tives, sol­diers (some wounded), doc­tors and nurses, scien­tists, teachers, and blue-collar muni­tions workers. Some, like Brun­hilde Pomsel who served as a secre­tary for Goeb­bels from 1942 to 1945, had been ordered to the sports sta­dium on short notice and inter­spersed among the crowd to applaud in all the right places. Over­head and behind the diminu­tive (5‑foot‑5/165 cm) Goeb­bels stretched a gigantic ban­ner in block letters: “Totaler Krieg—Kürzester Krieg” (“Total War—Shortest War”). Goeb­bels asked his audi­ence, including those listening by national radio, “Do you want total war? If neces­sary, do you want a war more total and radi­cal than any­thing that we can even ima­gine today?” The crowd shouted its assent. “Are you deter­mined to follow the Fuehrer through thick and thin to vic­tory and are you willing to accept the heaviest per­sonal bur­dens?” The crowd roared, “Fuehrer com­mand, we follow!” After the speech, Goeb­bels told Minis­ter of Arma­ments and War Pro­duc­tion Albert Speer that it was the best-trained audience one could have found in Germany.

Right: This 1910 postcard depicts the newly opened Sport­palast in the Berlin suburb of Schoene­berg. During the 1930s and 1940s, the Nazis used the vast indoor arena as their poli­tical grand­stand—“unsere Tribuene” as Goeb­bels called it—pre­venting its use for practi­cally any­thing else. Hitler spoke there on the ninth anni­ver­sary of his coming to power (Janu­ary 30, 1933), and Goeb­bels rallied the German Volk to “Total War” (“totaler Krieg”) on Febru­ary 18, 1943. On the eleventh anni­ver­sary of the Nazis’ seizing power, Janu­ary 30, 1944, the Allies bombed the building. Ever-resilient Ber­liners used the roof­less facil­ity for an ice-skating rink the following winter. After the war the building underwent restoration, only to be razed in 1973.

Newsreel Footage of the Liberation of Stalingrad, Late January to Early February 1943