Stalingrad: The Fateful Siege, 1942-1943
Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland
An Intimate History of Killing: Face-to-Face Killing in Twentieth-Century Warfare
The Sorrow of War: A Novel of North Vietnam
Hitler, 1889-1936: Hubris
The First World War
The Pity of War
The most arresting detail in Antony Beevor’s anecdotal history of the great Soviet victory at Stalingrad is a propaganda photograph taken in 1942 of a dozen or so German soldiers marching three abreast, heading east, squinting into the July sun. On this fine morning the young warriors are on their way to Stalingrad, where they will destroy its factories and homes and murder its inhabitants, people who have done them no harm and whose names they don’t know and never will. If it worries them that many more than a million German troops have become casualties since Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union thirteen months previously or if they care or even know that in October their comrades murdered 33,000 Jews at Babi Yar near Kiev and are at this very moment murdering millions more in Poland, their boyish faces don’t show it.
They have been told that they are members of a master race who are rescuing the world from a plague called Judeo-Bolshevism. It is unlikely that they know what this term means or why they have gone to war. Yet their eager expressions suggest that they look forward to killing with impunity and a clear conscience, perhaps even with pleasure. One trooper wears stylish sunglasses. From the belt of another hangs his coal scuttle helmet, the sole clue that these troops in their early twenties or perhaps younger are actually German. They are blond and bareheaded, their faces unlined, their expressions confident. Hitler called these soldiers his young lions, but the photographer has not emphasized their ferocity. He wants his subjects to seem carefree and friendly, and perhaps they are. They could be one’s own sons or brothers. Only the helmet and the rifle barrels visible above their right shoulders show that they are soldiers at all and not birdwatchers up at dawn with their web belts and accordion pockets stuffed with cakes and sandwiches.
Within six months they and their comrades will have leveled most of Stalingrad and killed or dispersed nearly all its inhabitants, but they too will be dead or wish they were. The lucky ones will have been pulverized in the icy ruins of the ravaged but fiercely defended city. By late November hundreds of thousands of others will be hollow-eyed, covered with lice and starving, trapped by the Soviet counteroffensive, awaiting death or capture. Their orders had been to shoot their Soviet prisoners or let them starve in icy stockades. They will be treated with even greater cruelty by Stalingrad’s defenders. Most of them will never see Germany again.
The photograph raises existential questions: What turns smiling young men like these into murderers who journey far from home and family to burn and ravage places they know nothing about and kill people who have done them no harm? Like countless warlords before him, Hitler had told his troopers that the people they were going to kill were subhuman, but the soldiers’ own eyes must have …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.