Friends of Padre Steve’s World,
Seventy-seven years ago today the commander of the encircled German Sixth Army at Stalingrad, Field Marshal Friedrich Paulus left his command bunker and surrendered the the Red Army. In the ruins of Stalingrad lay most of the freezing, malnourished, soldiers of his once elite Army. Around 90,000 survivors of his army surrendered in the coming days to the Red Army. Of the Germans taken prisoners, only about 5,000 returned home. The Most were to die of their wounds, or of diseases, maltreatment, and starvation in Soviet Camps between 1943 and 1955 when the bulk of the survivors were released.
Friedrich Paulus was one of them, and his story is interesting, not simply because he was the Commander of the Sixth Army, but because he wasn’t the kind of man one would have expected to command an army of 13 divisions with a strength of nearly 285,000 men spearheading the great German Offensive of 1942.
Paulus was born in 1890, and joined the Imperial Army in 1910. During the First World War he served on the Western Front, finishing the war as a Captain. After the was the collapse of the Army and order during the German civil war he served as Adjutant of a government sponsored Freikorps Brigade. Following the Treaty of Versailles, Paulus was retained as one of the 4,000 officers in the new Reichsheer. He served as a staff officer and company commander, and briefly commanded a battalion. He would also serve on the staff which developed the new Panzer Forces for the Wehrmacht. Paulus was an apolitical professional soldier, he was not a Nazi but he, like many other military men considered Hitler:
“an excellent leader for the German people, a man who had contributed greatly to the development of the state. After watching him evolve the strategies that conquered Poland, France, and most of Europe, Paulus was awed by Hitler’s grasp of the technical aspects of warfare. He considered him a genius.”
Paulus was promoted to Colonel in 1938 and served as Chief of Staff to Heinz Guderian’s XVI Motorized Corps. But Guderian had reservations about Paulus’s lack of command experience, decisiveness, and toughness. Following his assignment with the motorized Corps, Paulus was promoted to the rank of Generalmajor (the equivalent of a U.S. Brigadier General) to serve as Chief of Staff to the 10th Army under the command of General Walter Reichenau during the invasion of Poland. He continued in that position when 10th Army was redesigned 6th Army for the Invasion Of France and the Low Countries.
After the Battle of France he was promoted to Generalleutnant and assigned as deputy Chief Staff, Operations, of the Oberkommando Des Heeres, the German General Staff. In this capacity he served as one of the principle planners of Operation Barbarossa.
His wife, Elena, a descendant of one of Romania’s Royal Houses was opposed to Hitler and the war. She told her husband that “he was far too good for the likes of men such as Keitel and the other “lackeys” who surrounded Hitler.” She protested the injustice of the war against Poland, but he, in the thrall of Hitler’s genius and simply followed orders. When he brought home maps and documents related to Barbarossa she again protested to him. When he ignored her she said:
“What will become of us all? Who will survive to the end?”
Since he believed in Hitler’s invincibility, Paulus ignored her concerns, and told her that the war would be over in six weeks. Elena’s words would prove prophetic.
But Elena’s concerns were well justified. In December 1941 the German Offensive ground to a halt at the gates of Moscow and a devastating Red Army counterattack created a crisis in the Wehrmacht which was completely unprepared for the Russian Winter. Only heroic resistance and improvisation by German units, and the still imperfect application of operational warfare by the Red Army, saved the German front. While battles from Leningrad to Crimea continued throughout the winter, the lines stabilized, and both sides began their plans for the coming year.
During the winter debacle Hitler sacked many commanders, which left many command vacancies. Reichenau, a committed National Socialist and fanatical fighter took over command of Army Group South from Field Marshal Gerd Von Rundstedt, who had been fired by Hitler. Reichenau, who had been Paulus’s patron had Paulus promoted to General der Panzertruppen and named as commander of 6th Army.
The two men were nothing alike and Paulus had never commanded more than a battalion, and that not in peacetime. However, six days later the athletic Reichenau suffered a heart attack, which was was followed by a head injury during a medical evacuation flight back to Germany. Reichenau, the fanatical Nazi died, and Paulus, revoked the infamous Commissar Order, as well as Reichenau’s most notorious orders, the Severity Order in the Sixth Army area of operations. That order stated:
“The most important objective of this campaign against the Jewish-Bolshevik system is the complete destruction of its sources of power and the extermination of the Asiatic influence in European civilization.… In this eastern theatre, the soldier is not only a man fighting in accordance with the rules of the art of war, but also the ruthless standard bearer of a national conception.… For this reason the soldier must learn fully to appreciate the necessity for the severe but just retribution that must be meted out to the subhuman species of Jewry.…”
Paulus demonstrated moral courage unusual for senior German officers, but he also forbade cooperation with the Einsatzgruppen death squads, which Reichenau had gone out of his way to support. This was unusual for any commander on the Eastern Front, especially a man like Paulus who believed in Hitler’s invincibility. Paulus did well in his first combat with the Red Army, when it attempted to disrupt the coming German offensive at Kharkov as Sixth Army encircled and captured over 200,000 Soviet troops.
The Sixth Army had a key role in the German summer offensive, Operation Blau. Paulus commanded it well but became involved in the battle for Stalingrad. The battle dragged on in the face of fanatical and skilled Soviet resistance. However, Hitler would not let Paulus break off the Battle, and promoted him to Colonel Genera in order to bolster his confidence. Likewise, in an interesting, but vital footnote to the campaign, which was unknown to Hitler and his commanders, Stalin knew of Operation Blau.
Stalin had learned to preserve his forces after the catastrophes of 1941 withdrew his forces and observing the German movements decided to turn Stalingrad into a fortress. He conducted a strategic withdraw to preserve his forces, allowing the majority of the German Army Group South to advance deep into the Caucasus in order to capture the oilfields of the region.
However, this movement divided the German armies, leaving the flanks of the Sixth Army protected by pathetically equipped Italian, Romanian, and Hungarian armies. None of these units could not match the manpower, mobility, or firepower of the Red Army, and none were prepared for the onslaught that was to be directed against them.
Stalin allowed the German Army Group South to continue to advance, and forced the Sixth Army to battle street by street, building by building, factory by factory to capture Stalingrad. Had the Germans followed their operational doctrine Stalingrad would have been bypassed and surrounded, but they didn’t, Hitler would not allow it. Because of this, Paulus allowed the Soviets to maintain their defense by not cutting the Red Army defenders in the city off from the Volga, even by not taking action to link up with the Fourth Panzer Army which under its commander Hermann Hoth had broken through the Soviet front south of the Stalingrad when the opportunity presented itself.
Even so, the Sixth Army had conquered most of the city when in lateNovember the Red Army launched Operation Uranus, which was designed to destroy the weakly held flanks and surround the Sixth Army by a deep envelopment operation, which had previously been the forte of the German Blitzkrieg. The operation totally surprised the Germans and in four days time the Sixth Army went from the spearhead of the German assault to an army cut off and surrounded by a Soviet Army Group. The Italian, Hungarian, and Romanian armies on its flanks were shattered.
Plans were made to relieve the Sixth Army but they depended on the Sixth Army attacking out to meet the relief forces of the Fourth Panzer Army. Hitler refused permission and Paulus obeyed, believing Hitler’s promise that Goering’s Luftwaffe would be able to keep his troops supplied. On New Year’s Day Hitler promoted Paulus to Colonel General. Paulus was now convinced that his Army was doomed but he grasped the broader strategic situation; as long as he could keep the Red Army invested in Stalingrad, it would keep them from encircling the much bigger portion of Army Group South, now under direction of Erich von Manstein from being cut off. According to one officer Paulus remarked:
“What would become of the war if our army in the Caucasus were also surrounded? That danger is real. But as long as we keep on fighting, the Red Army has to remain here. They need these forces for a big offensive against Army Group ‘A’ in the Caucasus and along the still-unstable front from Voronesh to the Black Sea. We must hold them here to the last so that the eastern front can be stabilized. Only if that happens is there a chance of the war going well for Germany.”
But the handwriting was on the wall. German Forces to the south were having to extricate themselves from an even bigger encirclement. The superb generalship of Field Marshal Erich Von Manstein prevented a complete disaster and inflicted a compelling defeat on the Red Army, but the Sixth Army was doomed. On January January 7th Paulus was offered generous surrender terms by General Konstantin Rokossovsky. Paulus asked permission to surrender which was denied by Hitler.
Again on January 22nd Paulus requested his Fuhrer:
… For submittal to the Führer and to commander in chief, Army Group Don.… The Russians are advancing on a six-kilometer frontage both sides of Voporonovo toward the east, [toward Stalingrad] in part with flying colors. There is no possibility to close the gap … All provisions are used up. Over twelve thousand unattended [wounded] men in the pocket. What orders am I to issue to the troops, who have no ammunition left? … Immediate decision is required, since symptoms of disintegration are noted in some places. However, the troops still have faith in their commanders.” Paulus
On January 25th the Red Army overran the last airfield in the Stalingrad pocket, now there was no escape.
To a Luftwaffe Officer who was sent by Berlin to encourage Paulus about new airlifts, Paulus said:
“Why on earth did the Luftwaffe ever promise to keep us supplied? Who is the man responsible for declaring that it was possible? Had someone told me it was not possible, I should not have held it against the Luftwaffe. I could have broken out. When I was strong enough to do so. Now it is too late.…”
Paulus radioed Hitler for permission to surrender, empathetically stating the conditions in the pocket. No food, no medicine, no ammunition, no fuel; only to be denied again.
On January 30th, the 10th anniversary of Hitler’s seizure of power the Troops in Stalingrad were treated to a radio broadcast from Berlin, not Hitler, but Goering. The words of the Reichsmarschal fell hollow on the ears of the doomed men:
“… What herculean labors our Führer has performed … out of this pulp, this human pulp … to forge a nation as hard as steel. The enemy is tough, but the German soldier has grown tougher.… We have taken away the Russians’ coal and iron, and without that they can no longer make armaments on a large scale.… Rising above all these gigantic battles like a mighty monument is Stalingrad.… One day this will be recognized as the greatest battle in our history, a battle of heroes.… We have a mighty epic of an incomparable struggle, the struggle of the Nibelungs. They, too, stood to the last.… My soldiers, thousands of years have passed, and thousands of years ago in a tiny pass in Greece stood a tremendously brave and bold man with three hundred soldiers, Leonidas with his three hundred Spartans.… Then the last man fell … and now only the inscription stands: ‘Wanderer, if you should come to Sparta, go tell the Spartans you found us lying here as the law bade us.’… Someday men will read: ‘If you come to Germany, go tell the Germans you saw us lying in Stalingrad, as the law bade us.…’”
The soldiers knew that they had been abandoned by Berlin. Yet, Paulus, ever loyal radioed:
On the tenth anniversary of your assumption of power, the Sixth Army hails its “Führer.” The swastika flag is still flying above Stalingrad. May our battle be an example to the present and coming generations, that they must never capitulate even in a hopeless situation, for then Germany will come out victorious.
Hail my Führer Paulus, Generaloberst
But it was a lie. Less than 24 hours later on January 31st with Red Army tanks and troops outside his command bunker, Paulus surrendered, just hours after Hitler promoted him to Field Marshal. The promotion was supposed to encourage Paulus to commit suicide as no German Field Marshal had ever surrendered his army.
Colonel Adam, an aide to Paulus recorded how Paulus received his promotion:
January 31, 1943 – 7.00 a.m. It was still dark but day was dawning almost imperceptibly. Paulus was asleep. It was some time before I could break out of the maze of thoughts and strange dreams that depressed me so greatly. But I don’t think I remained in this state for very long. I was going to get up quietly when someone knocked at the door. Paulus awoke and sat up. It was the HQ commander. He handed the colonel general a piece of paper and said: ‘Congratulations. The rank of field marshal has been conferred upon you. The dispatch came early this morning – it was the last one.’
‘One can’t help feeling it’s an invitation to suicide. However I’m not going to do them such a favour.’ said Paulus after reading the dispatch. Schmidt continued: ‘At the same time I have to inform you that the Russians are at the door.’ with these words he opened the door and a Soviet general and his interpreter entered the room. The general announced that we were his prisoners. I placed my revolver on the table.”
Paulus surrendered, and contrary to Hitler’s wishes did not commit suicide. In the next few days the other isolated pockets of German resistance surrendered as well. Roughly 95,000 Germans, Italians, and Romanians surrendered at Stalingrad. Fewer than 6,000 would return home after nearly a decade of imprisonment and forced labor.
In Hitler’s headquarters the scene was terrifying. Hitler ranted about the treason and cowardice of Paulus, and his lackeys in the military agreed. Paulus should have shot himself and the garrison formed a hedgehog and resisted to the last bullet.
Though he surrendered Paulus did not give support to the Soviets or the German resistance until he learned of the execution of his Friend Field Marshal Erich von Witzleben and others for their participation in the attempt to kill Hitler. When he learned of their deaths he joined the he joined the Communist-inspired Bund Deutsche Offiziere, an “anti-Fascist” group that broadcast appeals to the citizens of the Third Reich against the Hitler regime.
After the war he testified at the Nuremberg Trials admitting German conduct of the war in the east was criminal but refusing to label men like Wilhelm Keitel, and Afred Jodl as war criminals. He took up a position as the civilian chief for military history for the new East German Government. He died on February 1st 1957, of ALS, having never seen his wife since he left to take command of Sixth Army in January 1942, she died in 1949. His son Alexander was killed at Anzio in 1944. His other son, Ernst, survived the war and committed suicide in 1970.
Paulus’s fate is an object lesson for military personnel, civil servants, or police officials who themselves are apolitical, and that honorable can people become seduced and believe in cults of personality. In the end, many sacrifice their lives, reputations, and even their families.
Without mentioning any names, the Americans who worship at the cult of Trump should pay heed. like Paulus, their loyalty will be betrayed, and even as their leader abandons them.