The thing about war is that it is often very confusing. When we talked about the German assault on Russia and the Russians valiant defense, it clouds facts that don’t fit neatly into these images. Not every Russian was happy to defend Russia, for example. When the Nazis invaded in 1941, Latvians celebrated. Stalin had been brutal to them. Of course when the Latvians began to die at the hands of the invaders then things changed. When the Germans invaded there were still millions of Russians who hated what the Russian government had done to their particular ethnic group. There were Russians who were still bitter about parents and friends being abducted and killed by the NKVD (the precursor to the KGB). It’s not difficult to imagine this. It’s not impossible to imagine that upwards of 50,000 Russians were actually fighting on then front lines at Stalingrad with Von Paulus’ Sixth Army. Lt. Colonel Mader leading the 279th German infantry division remarked regarding the Tartars, “As anti-tank gunners, using captured Soviet weapons, these Russians were proud of every Soviet tank they destroyed. These people were excellent.” Of course Stalin had been particularly hard on ethnic groups and expelled many of them from their own lands for his own political reasons, the Tartars among them.
Many many Russians did not care if the Germans took Stalingrad or any territory or towns of the vast open steppes to the west. It wasn’t where they lived, had any family, and if Stalin lost some territory then that was a good thing. That said, many Russians tried to desert. Desertion rates we fairly high at the outset of the siege of Stalingrad. So NKVD detachments rode each troop ship over the Volga to make sure new soldiers made it into Stalingrad and didn’t attempt an icy swim over the side to safety. The Russian high command may have doubted that the Germans would win. But the Russians were not so sanguine. Most were terrified of the Germans. Russian high command under Chuikov was ruthless. The one way to make certain soldiers did not defect was simply to be more terrifying than the advancing Wehrmacht. The Soviet secret police that were so feared and studied in the Cold War got a good training session in the cold winter of Stalingrad.
The crimes that could be attributed to the execution, both those that were done in the spot and those that were done after a trial, consisted of desertion, defecting, taking bribes, and what the Communist party apparatchniks might consider traitorous to the cause. That might also include aiding and abetting the desertion or defection of another soldier, even failing to execute or report a deserter.
It is said that almost 14,000 Russians were executed just at Stalingrad. That’s the equivalent of an army destroying an entire division of it’s own forces.
Stalin also refused to arrange for the evacuation of Stalingrad. He knew that a full city would be harder to capture than an empty city. He gave the same orders when Moscow was under attack. Over 60,000 Russians were captured by Germans at Stalingrad and sent to concentration camps in the west, or they were worked to death. Some 40,000 died in the city as a result of the bombing, the cross fires, the cold, or starvation. Of the 95,000 survivors of the German Sixth Army, 5,000 returned to Germany. Most of them were half dead by the time Von Paulus surrendered.
The dead and wounded at Stalingrad were everywhere. Bodies frozen in place for months at a time, make shift hospitals were filled with thousands of screaming moaning soldiers with little or no chance to get medicine, even painkillers. Death was in every street corner, every room in every charred smoking building, and in every hospital. Diphtheria, typhus, gangrene, even mites and lice and bedbugs made the sick and wounded even more miserable. For many there, death was the release they were praying for.
The only happy camper at Stalingrad was the Grim Reaper.