Siege Mentality

Being and Stalingrad: On the 80th Anniversary of the Battle of Stalingrad

In the climax to the 2001 Stalingrad film Enemy at the Gates, Soviet sniper Vasily Zaitsev (Jude Law) and his antagonist and love rival, Commissar Danilov (Joseph Fiennes) are pinned down in the ruins of an enormous tractor factory on the banks of the Volga. The German sniper, Major Erwin König (Ed Harris) seems to have finally caught his quarry: Zaitsev and Danilov can’t show themselves before the shattered windows without coming into König’s crosshairs.

Tension simmers between the sniper Zaitsev, whose role as an avatar for Russian patriotism is established in the film’s opening sequence, in which his grandfather teaches him to hunt wolves, and Commissar Danilov, the Soviet ideologue who has used calculation and cunning to advance in the party. On the US theatrical release poster, Law and Fiennes are the two most prominent figures, making clear that the film’s true theme is not the war between Germany and the USSR, but the meaning of the USSR’s victory.

Tania, the Rachel Weisz character loved by both men, embodies this theme. The love triangle was attacked by critics as out of place in a plot that is, at its core, a snipers’ duel, but Tania’s significance becomes clear in the climax. Having pulled the Commissar and the peasant apart, her death enables a meaning to be assigned to the battle. As Zaitsev stares through his scope, scanning the broken terrain of the factory, Danilov tells him that Tania has died. Then, in an act of self-sacrifice, he stands and is shot by König, whose muzzle flash reveals his location to Zaitsev.

With Danilov’s death, the barbarity of the blocking detachments which murdered Soviet deserters is redeemed: the Marxist-Leninist apparatchik dies for the heroic Russian peasant. The conflict between Zaitsev and Danilov is resolved into a celebration of Russian heroism by erasing the Soviet contempt for human life that was necessary to attain it. 

Enemy at the Gates is propaganda. The film acknowledges some atrocities committed by the Soviet system but presents the German character König as a wholly vicious aristocrat and ultimately concludes with a narrative in which the cynicism and cruelty of Soviet ideology transcends itself through love. 

This affirmation of the Soviet narrative has only insinuated itself into the popular Western consciousness relatively recently. In the earlier German war film Stalingrad (1993), directed by Joseph Vilsmaier, the emphasis is on the endurance of the common Wehrmacht soldier against the cruelty of the officer corps and the ultimate futility of the battle. During the icy hell of the winter siege, the protagonists Witzland, Reiser, and Rollo are unjustly sentenced to a penal battalion, disarming landmines in the open. The film’s bleak conclusion shows its protagonists freezing to death in the snow during an escape attempt after the last plane leaves Pitomnik Airfield. 

Vilsmaier’s film echoes contemporary German historiography. The German historian Reinhart Koselleck, who served on the Eastern Front and became a Soviet prisoner in the final months of the war, takes up Stalingrad directly in his essay “On the Meaning and Absurdity of History.” Originally published in the collection Zeitschichten: Studien zur Historik in 2000, the essay questions if history has any ‘meaning’ at all. “Today, we are inclined to interpret these events in terms of meaninglessness or even as total absurdity,” Koselleck writes. “Yet the eyewitnesses also failed to invest these events at the time and before their death with meaning — the reality of the battle would not allow for it.”

“The need for meaning,” Koselleck concludes, “is no guarantee that what happens in and through us is meaningful in and of itself.” But this kind of skeptical humanism which refuses to sacralize massacres with salvational political narratives is now suspiciously absent in American universities. While Yale historian Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin (2010) dared to frame the Holocaust in the context of Soviet genocidal violence, his recent work has degraded into ‘antifascist’ interventions in contemporary US affairs.

“Political zoology,” wrote Koselleck, “determined Hitler’s decisions.” But not everyone was fighting for the Third Reich’s ideology. As Ernst von Salomon wrote in The Outlaws: “What we wanted we did not know; but what we knew we did not want. To force a way through the prisoning wall of the world, to march over burning fields, to stamp over ruins and scattered ashes, to dash recklessly through wild forests, over blasted heaths, to push conquer, eat our way through towards the East, to the white, hot dark, cold land that stretched between ourselves in Asia — was that what we wanted? I did not know whether that was our desire, but that was what we did. And the search for reasons why was lost in the tumult of continuous fighting.” 

German philosopher Martin Heidegger’s lectures on the pre-Socratics delivered at Freiburg during the depths of the siege likewise sought a profound, but perhaps ultimately ineffable significance in the fighting. The ‘primordial’ way that the Greeks had experienced Being, claimed Heidegger, was kept alive by the German people, and this living tradition justified war. 

Heidegger did not think that Hitler and his regime were capable of waging this struggle. His initial enthusiasm for what he called the Movement had been disappointed: the Nazis had turned out to be dark mirrors of the Soviets. In a notebook from 1939, Heidegger already registered his disappointment: “are the Germans not rather expending themselves in mere diffusion and dispersion for the development of the highest form of the unleashing of all instituted powers of machination?”

Focussing on a passage in Parmenides concerning a blessing given by the goddess ‘truth’ or aletheia to a newly arriving guest, Heidegger translates the term as ‘unconcealment’, tracing the root back to the mythical Lethe, the river of forgetfulness that flows through the underworld. From here, Heidegger spins out a military metaphor of aletheia buried by rubble and Roman materialism. “The difficulty is that it is not merely covered over with debris; there has been built on it an enormous bastion of the essence of truth determined in a manifold sense as ‘Roman’.” 

Heidegger cites “the word of Lenin: Bolshevism is Soviet power + electrification.” “[I]nsight into the ‘metaphysical’ essence of technology,” he concludes, “is for us historically necessary if the essence of Western historical man is to be saved.” What was at stake was not simply the being and non-being of the “our historical people,” or even “European culture.” These were only beings. The true horror, Heidegger insisted, was revealed by the question “How are beings supposed to be saved and secured in the freedom of their essence, if the essence of Being is undecided, unquestioned, and even forgotten?” 

For Heidegger, to be fully human is to grapple with existence itself, and the mysterious arrival and departure of beings. In his eyes, the materialist Soviet regime that reduced men to their stomachs and thought to jargon threatened the very essence of the human. “Beings proceed from and into beings… this unlimited progression of beings, one after the other and one into the other, counts as ‘Being’,” Heidegger chanted, as on the Eastern front whole armies of men were starving, freezing, shot. 

“The destiny of the West, a destiny that conceals a world-Destiny,” Heidegger told his students… this historical people is “victorious” and “invincible” so long as it remains “the people of poets and thinkers that it is in its essence.” Among his papers an ‘unpublished draft’ of a Recapitulation offers further elaboration: “and experience is in essence the suffering in which the essential otherness of beings reveals itself in opposition to the tried and usual. The highest form of suffering is dying one’s death as a sacrifice for the preservation of the truth of Being. This sacrifice is the purest experience of the voice of Being.”

We should avoid the mistake of imagining a simple correspondence between Heidegger’s thinking in 1942, and the German way of war. Heidegger in fact had criticized the mechanized warfare that characterized the Eastern Front in his notebook Ponderings XV from 1941: “It is said that the motorized battle has now overcome the mere battle of superior matériel, especially by reintroducing ‘movement.’ In truth, the battle of matériel is now first brought to its essence… the human being is completely subservient to machines, although he believes and pretends he is their master.” But his emphasis on self-sacrifice helps us toward a deeper understanding of the motivations of the German aristocrats who fought at Stalingrad, and especially the tension between the warrior’s ideal and the bleak, inhuman reality of “motorized battle.” 

We see this tension in action in the case of Major Hild-Wilfried von Winterfeld of the 24th Panzer Division. Almost everything that can be known about Winterfeld is found in Jason Marks’ pioneering Stalingrad microhistory Death of the Leaping Horseman: the 24th Panzer Division at Stalingrad (2003). 

The few photographs of Winterfeld that exist — poring over maps and paperwork on a carpet-covered table under the branches of an estate orchard in Verkniakovsk or conferring with his colonel, tankside — were taken by his adjutant, the Austrian Emil Spannocchi. Spannocchi was just 26 during Stalingrad, but later rose to become Supreme Commander of the Austrian Army in the 1970s. One full-length portrait taken on the beach at Rennes, France, in April 1942 is especially resonant. Winterfeld, aged 39, stands on the beach alone in contrapposto, mid-step, wearing a white button-down shirt tucked into dark trousers, smoking a cigarette and wearing sunglasses, his mouth slightly open as if about to speak: the picture of poised aristocratic leisure. His elegant manner before the bright sea makes it easy to forget that by the time the photograph was taken, he was already a hardened veteran, having fought in the invasions of Poland, France, and the USSR and won the Iron Cross First Class.

Winterfeld stood at the end of a long lineage of Prussian military aristocracy. The name of his most illustrious ancestor, Hans Karl von Winterfeldt (1707-1757), is carved into the monumental statue of Frederick the Great in Berlin, alongside Bredow, Manteuffel, Puttkamer, Tresckow, Bülow, and Möllendorf. Ultimately the Winterfelds go back to the feudal Teutonic gentry in Pomerania that preceded the rise of the Hohenzollerns. The family had lived prosperously in the east for centuries, attaching its own chapel to the Basilica of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary in Danzig; his great-grandfather had owned estates at Damerow and Nemitz, and built homes with crenelated towers and spacious conservatories. Yet despite their piety and culture, the Winterfelds were fundamentally martial. The family coat of arms shows a wolf jumping over a bound sheaf of grain, an emblem of the dangers that landowners faced in this wide-open country. Two characteristically Prussian mottoes were passed down by generations of Winterfelds: moderata durant (‘only the moderate survives’) and petit ardua virtus (‘virtue seeks a challenge’).

As Winterfeld took his holiday in Brittany in the spring of 1942, the Wehrmacht was preparing Case Blue, a massive panzer strike into the strategically important southern underbelly of the Soviet Union which they hoped would charge hundreds of miles through the Ukraine toward the armaments plants on the Volga and the oil-rich Caucasus. The previous year’s eastern offensive, Barbarossa, had failed outside Moscow and the German war effort in the East had degenerated into vicious pogroms and massacres of Jewish civilians and suspected Soviet collaborators.

For the 1942 offensive, new, faster, more heavily-equipped panzer divisions were formed. The 24th Panzer Division was one of them, converted from the 1st Cavalry Division and retaining a yellow leaping horseman on its unit insignia in homage. The Division began its campaign in June, 1942, with 32 Panzer IIs, 112 Panzer IIIs, and 32 Panzer IVs, and Major Winterfeld commanding the first of the panzer regiment’s three battalions. In the long approach to Stalingrad, typical panzer assaults were carried out according to the combined arms doctrine developed in Poland, France, and Russia. Combat was violent and intense. Reconnaissance platoons of motorcycles and sidecars ran ahead of the panzers to find the enemy. Artillery might be used to soften up fixed positions, but often formations of panzers and halftracks carrying panzergrenadiers assaulted Soviet positions before artillery fire was brought to bear. In a ferocious charge, the panzers laid down fire as they closed to Soviet infantry, in many cases running straight over and collapsing trenches on their way to hardened machine gun and antitank positions. Once the panzers breached the trench lines, the panzergrenadiers dismounted their halftracks and mopped up what was left of the infantry with hand grenades and submachine guns.

But once Winterfeld and his panzers reached the outskirts of Stalingrad itself, the battlespace began to change. The 24th’s panzers and panzergrenadiers under Major von Lancken’s tactical command fought north through bitter resistance along the railway line in the neighborhood of the towering grain elevator and took up positions in the railway station opposite the elevator on the evening of September 15. They attacked through blocks of burnt-out workers’ barracks, the chimneys left standing like cenotaphs in an anonymous cemetery. 

A week later, the 24th was thrown into the city again in the German attack on Krasny Octyabyr, or “Red October,” as the city’s steel plant was known. Following an intense artillery barrage and Stuka attack, Winterfeld’s panzers swept through Soviet tanks defending the sparsely settled village of Ovrashnaya and took up positions adjacent to the workers’ settlement.

By October 1, only 29 of the division’s 132 original panzers were still operational, mostly due to parts shortages that kept damaged tanks offline. The next few weeks would see some of the hardest fighting yet, as the unit penetrated the labyrinth of rubble that was once the factory district. On November 1, what was left of the exhausted division established defensive positions inside the steel plant: Winterfeld was now repelling Soviet tank charges mounted by armored divisions brought across the Don. Marks describes the new situation: “the complete misery and indescribable chaos of the shattered factory.” 

Over the next week, the unit endured daily artillery barrages and assaults by Soviet stormgroups inside the factory complex. Red Army infantry in white camouflage materialized from snow-covered rubble to fight and die and disappear again.

At the edge of being, entities emerged and subsided before Winterfeld and his soldiers. Then the trap swung shut: on November 19, Zhukov’s new armies, totaling more than one million men, 13,500 artillery pieces, and 900 tanks began crossing the Don to the north. Another group attacked the weakly-held Romanian positions to the south. Operation Uranus, the great Soviet counterattack, had begun, and Winterfeld’s fate drew near. The great Soviet armies would link up at Kalach on November 23, encircling 22 German divisions, with more than 250,000 men. Ammunition and food ran short as the temperature plummeted. The Luftwaffe’s frayed supply chains kept most of its aircraft grounded, and it only managed to airdrop a few hundred tons of supplies daily.

In the 24th’s war diaries, even the ways data were tallied spoke to the destruction of the units. The staff switched from recording its roll in terms of combat and ration strengths to ‘trench strength’, implying that every available man was being deployed into defensive positions. The division’s vestigial chivalric aura from its origins in the cavalry and practice of hard-charging mobile warfare was stripped away as the men went to ground under the onslaught of massed Soviet artillery. Hitler refused General Paulus’ request to break out, and ordered the Sixth Army not to give up an inch. From outside the pocket to the south, Hoth attempted a relief action with the Fourth Panzer Army’s three panzer divisions, but the undermanned and delayed Operation Winter Storm was counterattacked by the Soviets on the Chir River. On December 23, Hoth had to withdraw. Time bears beings, releasing them or taking them back. 

As 1943 began Winterfeld and the handful of remaining men from the 24th Panzer Division were under continuous assault in the broken concrete of a ruined Soviet city. Winterfeld was promoted by telegram to Oberstleutnant on January 11 and wounded by mortar fire on January 17. Instead of being flown out, he was awarded the Knight’s Cross on January 22. On January 23, Winterfeld was captured and disappears from the historical record, one of the highest-ranking officers in his division to fight through the ordeal to the end. On January 31, Fieldmarshal Paulus and his staff were captured. 

In a radio broadcast from Berlin, Hitler finally acknowledged that Stalingrad was lost. Due to an interruption in the broadcast caused by a British air raid, the staff played Furtwängler’s recording of the adagio from Bruckner’s Symphony No. 7 over the airwaves. The adagio, the symphony’s second movement, is an elegy that Bruckner wrote after Wagner’s death. Bruckner pays tribute by using Wagner tubas — a kind of French horn that can sing in eerie, otherworldly timbres — for the only time in his career.

Two days later, on February 2, the rest of the Sixth Army capitulated, officially ending the battle. Ninety thousand men went into Soviet captivity. Only six thousand would survive the end of the war. 

According to testimony gathered by Marks, Winterfeld lived through the surrender and held on for weeks in the open-air barbed wire encampments into which the Soviets herded their prisoners. As Manstein wrote, “Soviet captivity was to finish off a process of decline begun by the utter ruthlessness of the fighting, pitiless hunger and the icy cold of the Russian steppes.” Hild-Wilfried von Winterfeld died on April 3 in Beketovka POW Camp, south of Stalingrad, and was buried as an unknown soldier in a numberless mass grave next to the huge Mamayev Kurgan, the ancient Tatar tumulus burial ground on the south side of Stalingrad. 

Today, the hill is dominated by the towering, 85-meter-tall social realist sculpture The Motherland Calls, a robed woman raising a sword. In 1945, the Soviets burned the Winterfeld manor at Damerow. An entire generation of East Prussian orphans, the ‘wolf children,’ fled their ruined homes on foot, starving in forests and begging, finding themselves homeless and illiterate on town streets in Lithuania. Heidegger spent the last years of the war digging ditches. Winterfeld’s Prussians perished under the same armored assaults that they inflicted on their enemies, destroyed by the machines to which they were wedded. Here too the individuals who resolutely confronted the unfolding of that historical process still today bear the truth of the battle.

Charles Wing-Uexküll is a writer and ex-academic.

Scroll to top