Military history



The extension of the Nazi programme of extermination in 1942 took place in a military context in which the German armed forces were on the offensive once more. To be sure, the German army’s defeat before Moscow meant that Hitler’s belief in the fragility of the Stalinist regime in the Soviet Union had been proved decisively wrong. Operation Barbarossa had signally failed to achieve the aims with which it had set out in the confident days of June 1941. After stemming the German tide before Moscow, the Red Army had gone on to the offensive and forced the German army to retreat. As one German officer wrote to his brother: ‘The Russians are defending themselves with a courage and tenacity that Dr Goebbels characterizes as “animal”; it costs us blood, as does every repulse of the attackers. Apparently,’ he went on with a sarcasm that betrayed the German troops’ growing respect for the Red Army as well as a widespread contempt for Goebbels among the officer class, ‘true courage and genuine heroism only begin in Western Europe and in the centre of this part of the world.’220

The bitter cold of the depths of winter, followed by a spring thaw that turned the ground to slush, made any fresh campaigning difficult on any scale until May 1942. At this point, emboldened by the victory over the Germans before Moscow, Stalin ordered a series of counter-offensives. His confidence was further strengthened by the fact that the industrial facilities relocated to the Urals and Transcaucasus had begun producing significant quantities of military equipment - 4,500 tanks, 3,000 aircraft, 14,000 guns and more than 50,000 mortars by the start of the spring campaign in May 1942. Over the summer and autumn of 1942, the Red Army command experimented with a variety of ways of deploying the new tanks in combination with infantry and artillery, learning from its mistakes each time.221 But Stalin’s first counter-attacks proved to be as disastrous as the military engagements of the previous autumn. Massive assaults on German forces in the Leningrad area failed to relieve the beleaguered city, attacks on the centre were repulsed in fierce fighting, and in the south the Germans held fast in the face of repeated Soviet advances. In the Kharkov area a large-scale Soviet offensive in May 1942 ended with 100,000 Red Army soldiers killed and twice as many taken prisoner. The Soviet commanders had seriously underestimated German strength in the area, and failed to establish air supremacy. Meanwhile, Field Marshal Fedor von Bock, back from his sick leave on 20 January 1942 as commander of Army Group South, had decided that attack was the best form of defence, and fought a prolonged and ultimately successful campaign in the Crimea. But all the time he remained acutely aware of the thinness of the German lines and the continuing tiredness of the troops, noting with concern that they were ‘fighting their way forward with great difficulty and considerable losses’.222 In a major victory, Bock took the city of Voronezh. The situation seemed to be improving. ‘I saw there with my own eyes,’ wrote Hans-Albert Giese, a soldier from rural north Germany, ‘how our tanks shot the Russian colossi to pieces. The German soldier is just better in every department. I also think that it’ll be wrapped up here this year.’223

But it was not to be. Hitler thought Bock dilatory and over-cautious in the follow-up to the capture of Voronezh, allowing key Soviet divisions to escape encirclement and destruction. Bock’s concern was with his exhausted troops. But Hitler could not accept this. He relieved Bock of his command with effect from 15 July 1942, replacing him with Colonel-General Maximilian von Weichs.224 The embittered Bock spent the rest of the war in effective retirement, obsessively trying to defend his conduct in the advance from Voronezh, and hoping against hope for reinstatement. Meanwhile, on 16 July 1942, in order to take personal command of operations, Hitler moved his field headquarters to a new centre, codenamed ‘Werewolf’, near Vinnitsa, in the Ukraine. Transported from East Prussia in sixteen planes, Hitler, his secretaries and his staff spent the next three and a half months in a compound of damp huts, plagued by daytime heat and biting mosquitoes. Here too were now located for the time being the operational headquarters of the Supreme Command of the army and of the armed forces.225 The main thrust of the German summer offensive was aimed at securing the Caucasus, with its rich oilfields. Fuel shortages had played a significant role in the Moscow debacle the previous winter. With typically dramatic overstatement, Hitler warned that if the Caucasian oilfields were not conquered in three months, Germany would lose the war. Having previously divided Army Group South into a northern sector (A) and a southern sector (B), he now ordered Army Group A to finish off enemy forces around Rostov-on-Don and then advance through the Caucasus, conquering the eastern coast of the Black Sea and penetrating to Chechnya and Baku, on the Caspian, both areas rich in oil. Army Group B was to take the city of Stalingrad and push on to the Caspian via Astrakhan on the lower Volga. The splitting of Army Group South and the command to launch both offensives simultaneously while sending several divisions northwards to help in the attack on Leningrad reflected Hitler’s continuing underestimation of the Soviet army. Chief of the Army General Staff Franz Halder was in despair, his mood not improved by Hitler’s obvious contempt for the leadership of the German army.226

Whatever they thought in private, however, the generals saw no alternative but to go along with Hitler’s plans. The campaign began with an assault by Army Group A on the Crimea, in which Field Marshal Erich von Manstein defeated twenty-one Red Army divisions, killing or capturing 200,000 out of the 300,000 soldiers facing his forces. The Red Army command had realized too late that the Germans had, temporarily at least, abandoned their ambition to take Moscow and were concentrating their efforts in the south. The main Crimean city, Sevastopol, put up stiff resistance but fell after a siege lasting a month, with 90,000 Red Army troops being taken prisoner. The whole operation, however, had cost the German army nearly 100,000 casualties, and when German, Hungarian, Italian and Romanian forces moved southwards they found the Russians adopting a new tactic. Instead of fighting every inch of the way until they were surrounded and destroyed, the Russian armies, with Stalin’s agreement, engaged in a series of tactical retreats that denied the Germans the vast numbers of prisoners they had hoped for. They took between 100,000 and 200,000 in three large-scale battles, many fewer than before. Undaunted, Army Group A occupied the oilfields at Maykop, only to find the refineries had been systematically destroyed by the retreating Russians. To mark the success of their advance, mountaineering troops from Austria climbed Mount Elbrus, at 5,630 metres (or 19,000 feet) the highest point in the Caucasus, and planted the German flag on the peak. Hitler was privately enraged, fuming at what he saw as a diversion from the real objectives of the campaign. ‘I often saw Hitler furious,’ reported Albert Speer later, ‘but seldom did his anger erupt from him as it did when this report came in.’ He railed against ‘these crazy mountain climbers who belong before a court-martial’. They were pursuing their idiotic hobbies in the midst of a war, he exclaimed indignantly.’227 His reaction suggested a nervousness about the advance that was to turn out to be fully justified.

In the north, Leningrad (St Petersburg) had been cut off by German forces since 8 September 1941. With over 3 million people living in the city and its suburbs, the situation soon became extremely difficult as supplies dwindled to almost nothing. Soon the city’s inhabitants were starving, eating cats, dogs, rats and even each other. A narrow and precarious line of communication was kept open across the ice of Lake Ladoga, but the Russians were not able to bring in more than a fraction of what was needed to feed the city and keep its inhabitants warm. In the first winter of the siege, there were 886 arrests for cannibalism. 440,000 people were evacuated, but, according to German estimates, a million civilians died during the winter of 1941-2 from cold and starvation. The city’s situation improved in the course of 1942, with everyone growing and storing vegetables for the coming winter, half a million more people being evacuated, and massive quantities of supplies and munitions being shipped in across Lake Ladoga and stockpiled for when the freeze began. A new pipeline laid down on the bottom of the lake pumped in oil for heating. 160 combat planes of the German air force were lost in a futile attempt to bomb the Soviet communication line, while bombing raids on the city itself caused widespread damage but failed to destroy it or break the morale of the remaining citizens. Luck also came to the Leningraders’ aid at last: the winter of 1942-3 was far less severe than its calamitous predecessor. The frost came late, in mid-November. As everything began to freeze once more, the city still stood in defiance of the German siege.228

Further south, a Soviet counter-attack on the town of Rzhev in August 1942 was threatening serious damage to Army Group Centre. Halder asked Hitler to allow a retreat to a more easily defensible line. ‘You always come here with the same proposal, that of withdrawal,’ Hitler shouted at his Chief of the General Army Staff. Halder lacked the same toughness as the troops, Hitler told him. Halder lost his temper. He was tough enough, he said. ‘But out there, brave musketeers and lieutenants are falling in thousands and thousands as a useless sacrifice in a hopeless situation simply because their commanders are not allowed to make the only reasonable decision and have their hands tied behind their backs.’229 In Rzhev, Hans Meier-Welcker noticed an alarming improvement in Soviet tactics. They were now beginning to co-ordinate tanks, infantry and air support in a way they had not succeeded in doing before. The Red Army troops were far better able than the Germans to cope with extreme weather conditions, he thought. ‘We are amazed,’ he wrote in April 1942, ‘by what the Russians are achieving in the mud!’230 ‘Our columns of vehicles,’ wrote one officer, ‘are stuck hopelessly in the morass of unfathomable roads, and further supplies are already hard to organize.’231 In such conditions, German armour was often useless. By the summer, the troops were having to contend with temperatures of 40 degrees in the shade and the massive dust-clouds thrown up by the advancing motorized columns. ‘The roads,’ wrote the same officer to his brother, ‘are shrouded in a single thick cloud of dust, through which man and beast make their way: it’s troublesome for the eyes. The dust often swirls up in thick pillars that then blow along the columns, making it impossible to see anything for minutes at a time.’232

Impatient with, or perhaps unaware of, such practical problems, Hitler demanded that his generals press on with the advance. ‘Discussions with the Leader today,’ recorded Halder despairingly at the end of August 1942, ‘were once more characterized by serious accusations levelled against the military leadership at the top of the army. They are accused of intellectual arrogance, incorrigibility and an inability to recognize the essentials.’233 On 24 September 1942, finally, Hitler dismissed Halder, telling him to his face that he had lost his nerve. Halder’s replacement was Major-General Kurt Zeitzler, previously in charge of coastal defences in the west. A convinced National Socialist, Zeitzler began his tenure of office by demanding that all members of the Army General Staff reaffirm their belief in the Leader, a belief Halder had so self-evidently long since lost. By the end of 1942, it was reckoned that one and a half million troops of various nationalities had been killed, wounded, invalided out or taken prisoner on the Eastern Front, nearly half the original invading force. There were 327,000 German dead.234 These losses were becoming increasingly hard to replace. The eastern campaign had stalled. To try to break the impasse, the German army advanced on Stalingrad, not only a major industrial centre and key distribution point for supplies to and from the Caucasus, but also a city whose name lent it a symbolic significance that during the coming months came to acquire an importance far beyond anything else its situation might warrant. 235


The young fighter pilot Count Heinrich von Einsiedel, a great-grandson of Reich Chancellor Otto von Bismarck in the maternal line, was flying over Stalingrad on a clear, warm day on 24 August 1942, looking for signs of enemy activity. ‘A light haze lay over the steppes,’ he wrote, ‘as I circled high over them in my Me109. My eyes scanned the horizon, which faded into formless mists. The sky, the steppes, the rivers and the lakes, which could only be seen dimly in the distance, lay peacefully, links with eternity.’ Einsiedel, who had just turned twenty-one years of age, shared in full the romantic image of the fighter-pilot, knight of the air, which attracted aristocratic young men like him to this branch of the armed forces. The excitement of the fight far outweighed the doubts he had about the justice of the cause. Yet his account conveyed too the sheer strength of numbers of the Russian air force, against which bravery and skill were useless in the end. As the enemy came up towards him, he wrote,

Every German Stuka, every combat aeroplane was surrounded by clusters of Russian fighters . . . We throw ourselves into the tumult at random. A two-star Rato crossed my track. The Russian saw me, went into a nose-dive and tried to get away by flying low. Fear seemed to have crippled him. He raced ten feet above ground in a straight course and did not defend himself. My machine vibrated with the recoil of its guns. A streak of flame shot from the petrol tank of the Russian plane. It exploded and rolled over on the ground. A broad, long strip of scorched steppe-land was all that it left behind.236

Spotting a group of Soviet fighters above him, he pulled out of his dive and raced up towards them. ‘The love of the chase,’ he confessed, ‘and a sense of indifference had taken hold of my reactions.’ Flying in a steeply banked curve, he got behind one and shot it down. It was a foolhardy action. ‘As I turned round to look for the Russian fighters,’ he wrote in his diary after the incident, ‘I saw their blazing guns eighty yards behind me. There was a terrific explosion and I felt a hard blow on my foot. I twisted my Messerschmitt and forced it up into a steep climb. The Russian was shaken off.’ But Einsiedel’s plane was badly damaged, his guns had been put out of action, and he had to limp back to base.237 Such incidents occurred on a daily basis over Stalingrad during the late summer and autumn of 1942 and inevitably took their toll. Senior officers disapproved of spectacular individual actions, which, they said, wasted fuel. From now on, Einsiedel’s unit was ordered to support the German infantry and to avoid engaging Soviet fighters. It was a losing battle. ‘Breakdowns reached enormous proportions . . . A fighter group of forty-two machines seldom had more than ten machines operational.’ The odds were impossible. On 30 August a shot penetrated Einsiedel’s engine cooler as he was flying low over the Russian lines, and he crash-landed. Miraculously, Einsiedel was unhurt. But Soviet troops quickly arrived on the scene. They stole all his personal belongings before taking him off to be interrogated.238

As Einsiedel had noted, the German planes had failed to establish complete air superiority in the area; as fast as they lost planes to the German air aces, the Soviets rushed replacements to the combat zone from other fronts. Yet, on the other hand, the Soviet air force had not achieved domination either. Throughout the spring and summer of 1942, while the German fliers continued to dispute the command of the skies with Soviet fighter-pilots, the German ground forces of Army Group B were advancing steadily on the city of Stalingrad, the gateway to the lower Volga river and the Caspian Sea. The Germans had so far failed to take either Moscow or Leningrad. For Hitler in particular, it was all the more important, therefore, that Stalingrad should be captured and destroyed. On 23 August 1942 wave after wave of German planes carpet-bombed the city, causing massive damage and loss of life. At the same time, German tanks advanced virtually unopposed, reaching the Volga to the north. As the bombing continued, now reinforced by German artillery, Stalin allowed civilians to begin evacuating the city, which was rapidly crumbling into uninhabitable ruins. On 12 September 1942 German troops from General Friedrich Paulus’s Sixth Army, backed by General Hermann Hoth’s Fourth Panzer Army, entered Stalingrad. It only seemed a matter of weeks before the city fell. But the German commander was in some ways less than ideally suited for the job of taking the city. Paulus had been deputy chief of the Army General Staff before being given his command early in the year. Born in 1890, he had spent almost his entire career, including the years of the First World War, in staff posts, and had almost no combat experience. In this situation, he depended heavily on Hitler, whose achievements as a commander filled him with awe. On 12 September, as his troops were entering the city, Paulus was conferring with the Leader at Vinnitsa. The capture of Stalingrad, the two men agreed, would give the German forces command of the entire line along the Don and Volga rivers. The Red Army had no more resources; it would collapse, leaving the Germans free to devote their efforts to speeding up the advance into the Caucasus. The city, Paulus assured the Leader, would be in German hands within a few weeks.239 After that, Hitler had already decided, the entire adult male population of the city would be killed, and the women and children would be deported.240

By 30 September 1942 Paulus’s men had overrun about two-thirds of the city, prompting Hitler to announce publicly that Stalingrad was about to fall. Hitler’s speech did a good deal to strengthen the troops’ faith in ultimate victory. ‘The Leader’s great speech,’ reported Albert Neuhaus from the Stalingrad front to his wife on 3 October 1942, ‘has only strengthened our belief in it by another 100%’.241 But speeches would not overcome the Soviet resistance, whatever their effect on morale. Senior generals, including Paulus and his superior Weichs, and Halder’s successor Zeitzler, all advised Hitler to order a withdrawal, fearing the losses that would be incurred in a lengthy period of house-to-house fighting. But for Hitler the symbolic importance of Stalingrad now far outweighed any practical considerations. On 6 October 1942 he reaffirmed that the city had to be taken.242 Similar considerations ruled on the other side. After a year of almost continuous defeat, Stalin had decided to throw as many of his resources as possible into the defence of what was left. The city bore his name, and it would be a major psychological blow if it fell. At the same time, feeling battered by the defeats of the previous months, he decided to give a free hand to the chief of the general staff, General Aleksandr Vasilevskii, and Georgi Zhukov, the general who had stopped the German forces at Moscow a year before, in organizing the overall campaign in the south. Stalin gave the command over Red Army forces in the city itself to General Vasili Chuikov, an energetic professional soldier in his early forties. Chuikov had had a chequered career, having been sent off to China in disgrace, as Soviet Military Attach’, following the defeat of his Ninth Army by the Finns in the Winter War in 1940. Stalingrad, where he was put in charge of the Sixty-Second Army, was his chance to prove himself. Chuikov understood that he had to ‘defend the city or die in the attempt’, as he told the regional political boss, Nikita Khrushchev. He stationed armed Soviet political police units at every river crossing to intercept deserters and execute them on the spot. Retreat was unthinkable.243

German aircraft and artillery continued to attack the Soviet-occupied part of Stalingrad, but the bombed-out ruins of the city provided the Soviet troops with ideal conditions for defence. Digging in behind heaps of rubble, living in cellars and posting snipers in the upper floors of half-demolished apartment blocks, they were able to ambush the advancing German troops, break up their mass assaults, or channel the enemy advance into avenues where they could be disposed of by concealed anti-tank guns and heavy weaponry. They laid thousands of mines under cover of darkness, bombed German positions at night and set up booby-traps to kill German soldiers as they entered houses. Chuikov formed machine-gun squads and arranged for supplies of hand-grenades to be shipped into the city.244 Often the fighting was hand-to-hand, using bayonets and daggers. The struggle rapidly became a battle of attrition. Constant, unremitting combat increasingly took its toll and many soldiers fell sick. Their letters home are full of bitter disappointment at being told they were having to spend a second consecutive Christmas in the field. Despite the danger of being discovered by the military censor, many were quite frank. ‘I’ve only got one big wish left,’ wrote another on 4 December 1942, ‘and that is: that this shit soon comes to an end . . . We’re all so depressed.’245 Yet it was in the rear of Paulus’s forces, rather than in the city itself, that the Soviet breakthrough would come. Zhukov and Vasilevskii persuaded Stalin to bring in and train large quantities of fresh troops, fully equipped with tanks and artillery, to try to mount a huge encirclement operation. The Soviet Union was already producing over 2,000 tanks a month to Germany’s 500. By October the Red Army had created five new tank armies and fifteen tank corps for the operation. Over a million men were assembled ready for a massive assault on Paulus’s lines by early November 1942.246

Zhukov and Vasilevskii saw their chance when Paulus’s superior, General Maximilian von Weichs, in command of Army Group B, decided to help Paulus concentrate his forces on taking the city itself. Romanian forces would take over about half the German positions to the west of Stalingrad, freeing up German forces for the assault on the city itself. He thought of them as more than a rearguard. But Zhukov knew that the Romanians had a poor military record, as did the Italians who were stationed alongside them in the north-west. He moved two armoured corps and four field armies to confront the Romanians and Italians to the north-west of Hoth’s armoured forces, and another two tank corps to face the Romanians in the south-east, on the other side of the German armour. Strict secrecy was maintained, radio traffic reduced to a minimum, troops and armour moved up at night and camouflaged during the day. Paulus failed to strengthen his defences, preferring to keep his tanks close to the city, where they were of little use. On 19 November 1942, their preparations finally complete, and with favourable weather conditions, the new Soviet forces attacked at a weak point in the Romanian lines almost 100 miles west of the city. 3,500 guns and heavy mortars opened fire in the early morning mist, blasting a way through for the tanks and infantry. The Romanian armies were unprepared, lacking in anti-tank weapons, and were overwhelmed. After putting up an initial fight, they began to flee in panic and confusion. Paulus reacted too slowly, and when he eventually sent tanks to try to shore up the Romanian lines, it was too late. They were no match for the massed columns of T-34 tanks now pouring through the gap.247

Soon the rapid Soviet advance was pushing back the German lines as well, driving back Paulus’s men towards the city. None of the German generals had reckoned with a Soviet attack in such strength, and it was some time before they realized that what was in progress was a classic encirclement manoeuvre. So they failed to move troops up to prevent the Soviet tank thrusts from meeting up with one another. On 23 November 1942 the two tank columns met up at Kalach, completely cutting off Paulus and his forces from the rear and leaving Hoth’s armour marooned outside the encircled area. With twenty divisions, six of them motorized, and nearly a quarter of a million men in total, Paulus’s first thought was to try to break out to the west. But he had no clear plan, and once more he hesitated. The idea of a breakout would have meant a retreat, abandoning the much-trumpeted attempt to capture Stalingrad, and Hitler was unwilling to sanction a withdrawal because he had already announced in public that Stalingrad would be taken.248 Speer reported him at the Berghof in November 1942 complaining privately that the generals consistently overestimated the strength of the Russians, who he thought were using up their last reserves and would soon be overcome.249 Acting on this belief, Hitler organized a relief force under Field Marshal von Manstein and General Hoth. Manstein’s belief that he could succeed in breaking the encirclement strengthened Hitler in his refusal to allow Paulus to withdraw. On 28 November 1942 Manstein sent a telegram to the beleaguered forces: ‘Hold on - I’m going to hack you out of there - Manstein.’ ‘That made an impression on us!’ exclaimed one German lieutenant in the Stalingrad pocket. ‘That’s worth more than a trainload of ammunition and a Ju[nkers] full of food supplies!’250


Manstein’s forces, two infantry divisions, together with three panzer divisions, all under Hoth’s command, advanced on the Red Army from the south on 12 December 1942. To counter this, Zhukov attacked the Italian Eighth Army in the north-west, overrunning it and driving south to cut off Manstein’s forces from the rear. By 19 December 1942 the German relief armour had been stopped in its tracks, 35 miles away from Paulus’s rear lines. Nine days later it was virtually surrounded, and Manstein was forced to allow Hoth to retreat. The relief operation had failed. There was nothing left for Paulus but to attempt a breakout, as Manstein told Hitler on 23 December. But this still looked like abandoning the entire attempt to take the city, and so, once again, Hitler refused. But Paulus told him that the Sixth Army had only enough fuel for its armour and transport to go for 12 miles before it ran out. G̈ring had promised to airlift 300 tons of supplies into the pocket every day to keep Paulus’s men going, but in practice he had managed little more than 90, and even Hitler’s personal intervention failed to boost it to anything more than 120, and that only for about three weeks. Planes found it difficult to land and take off in the heavy snow, and airfields were under constant attack from the Russians.251 Supplies were getting low, and the situation of the German troops in the city was becoming increasingly desperate. By now, they were doing little except trying to stay alive. Most of them were living in cellars or underground bunkers or in foxholes in the open, which they tried to line and cover with brick and wood as best they could. Often they furnished and decorated them to try to re-create a homely atmosphere. As one soldier reported to his wife on 20 December 1942:

We’re squatting here with 15 men in a bunker, i.e. in a hole in the ground roughly the size of the kitchen in Widdershausen [his home in Germany], everyone with his clobber. You can well picture for yourself the terrible overcrowding. Now the following picture. One man is washing himself (insofar as water is available), a second is delousing himself, a third is eating, a fourth is cooking a fry-up, another is asleep, etc. That’s roughly the milieu here.252

15. The Eastern Front, 1942

In underground holes like these, they waited for the regular Soviet attacks, conserving their ammunition and supplies as best they could.253

By the time the festive season arrived, Paulus’s army was effectively doomed. Christmas provided the occasion for an enormous outpouring of emotion in the troops’ letters home, as they contrasted their desperate situation with the peace and calm they had known in their family circle in past years. They lit candles and used broken-off branches to make Christmas trees. Not untypical was the letter of one young officer to his mother on 27 December 1942:

Despite everything, the little tree had so much Christmas magic and homely atmosphere about it that at first I couldn’t bear the sight of the lighted candles. I was really affected, to such an extent that I cracked up and had to turn my back for a minute before I could sit down with the others and sing carols in the wonderful sight of the candlelit tree.254

The troops took comfort from radio broadcasts from home, especially when they played sentimental songs, which they sometimes learned by heart and sang themselves. ‘There’s a song we often sing here,’ one soldier wrote to his family on 17 December 1942. ‘The refrain goes: “It’ll all soon be over - it’ll end one day - after every December will come a May” etc.’255 Writing letters home became a way of keeping human emotions going; the thought of getting back to Germany and to their families held despair at bay. Nearly 3 million letters made their way from the encircled army to Germany during the months of the conflict, or were found, unposted, on troops killed in action or taken into captivity.256

The troops did not freeze to death as they had the previous winter. ‘By the way,’ wrote Hans Michel from Stalingrad on 5 November 1942,

‘we’re well supplied with winter things; I’ve also got hold of 1 pair of socks, a fine woollen scarf, a second pullover, fur, warm underwear etc. They are all things from the wool collection. You have to laugh when you see one or other of the men wearing a ladies’ jumper or something similar.’ Those on watch were supplied with felt boots and fur coats in addition. The veterans of the Moscow campaign also noted that the winter was initially much milder in 1942- 3 than it had been the previous year.257 But the warmth created by layers of clothing was an ideal breeding-ground for lice. ‘Your red pullover,’ wrote one soldier to his wife on 5 November 1942, ‘is a proper louse-trap; I’ve caught quite a few there already (excuse the jump in my thoughts, but one bit me just now).’ Another wrote that although he was not the worst affected, ‘I’ve already snapped a few thousand.’ Some tried to make light of the problem in letters home (‘one can genuinely say “everyone has his own zoo”,’ quipped one), but in the long run the physical irritation and discomfort they caused added to the growing demoralization of the German troops. ‘They can drive you mad,’ wrote one infantryman on 28 December 1942. ‘You can’t sleep properly any more . . . You gradually get filled with disgust for yourself. You don’t have any opportunity to wash yourself properly and change your underwear.’ ‘The damned lice,’ complained another on 2 January 1943, ‘they totally eat you up. The body is totally consumed.’258

Far worse, however, was the growing shortage of food, which weakened the men’s resistance to the cold, however warmly dressed they might have been. ‘We’re mainly feeding ourselves just with horsemeat,’ wrote one German soldier on 31 December 1942, ‘and I myself have eaten even raw horsemeat because I was so hungry.’259 ‘All the horses have been eaten in a few days,’ reported the staff officer Helmuth Groscurth on 14 January 1943, adding bitterly: ‘In the tenth year of our glorious epoch we are standing before one of the greatest catastrophes in history.’260 ‘Although I am exhausted,’ wrote another soldier on the same day, ‘I cannot sleep at night but dream with open eyes again and again of cakes, cakes, cakes. Sometimes I pray and sometimes I curse my fate. In any case, everything has no meaning or point.’261 ‘I only weigh 92 pounds. Nothing more than skin and bones, the living dead,’ wrote another on 10 January 1943.262 By this time, the weather had deteriorated sharply, and the weakened troops were unable to resist the cold. Fighting in such circumstances was virtually impossible, and the troops became steadily more depressed. ‘You’re nothing more than a wreck any more . . . We’re all completely desperate.’263 ‘The body is gradually losing its capacity for resistance as well,’ was the observation in another letter, written on 15 January 1943, ‘because it can’t go on for long without fat or proper food. It’s now lasted 8 weeks and our situation, our sad predicament, is still unchanged. At no point in my life up to now has fate been so hard on me, nor has hunger ever tormented me so much as now.’264 One young soldier reported that his company had been given only a single loaf for six men to last three days. ‘Dear Mummy . . . I can’t move my legs any more, and it’s the same with others, because of hunger, one of our comrades died, he had nothing left in his body and went on a march, and he collapsed from hunger on the way and died of cold, the cold was the last straw for him.’265 On 28 January 1943 the order was issued that the sick and wounded should be left to starve to death. The German troops were in effect suffering the same fate that Hitler had planned for the Slavs.266

Even faith in Hitler now began to fade. ‘None of us is yet abandoning his belief or his hope,’ wrote Count Heino Vitztbum, an aristocratic officer, on 20 January 1943, ‘that the Leader will find a way to preserve the many thousands in here, but unfortunately we have already been bitterly disappointed many times.’267 Not only was food running out, so too was ammunition. ‘The Russians,’ complained one soldier on 17 January 1943, ‘have built their weapons properly for winter; you can take a look at whatever you like: artillery, grenade-throwers, Stalin organs and airplanes. They are attacking without a break day and night, and we’ve got to save every shot because the situation doesn’t allow it. How much we wish we could really shoot properly once again.’268 Men began to wonder if it would be better to be taken prisoner than to continue the hopeless struggle, although, as one remarked on 20 January 1943, it would not be so bad, ‘if it was Frenchmen, Americans, Englishmen, but with the Russians you don’t really know whether it would be better to shoot yourself.’ ‘If it all goes wrong, my love,’ wrote another to his wife, ‘then don’t expect me to be taken prisoner.’ Like others, he began to use his letters to say his farewells to his loved ones.269 Enough letters of this kind were opened by the SS Security Services back in Germany to provide a realistic picture of their effect on morale. Already in mid-January, the confidential reports of the SS Security Service on morale on the home front noted that people did not believe the propaganda emanating from Berlin. Field-post letters from the front were seen as the only reliable source of information. ‘If the situation in the east is currently regarded by large parts of the population with a disproportionately greater concern than it was a week ago, this is to be explained by the fact that the field-post letters that are now arriving at home overwhelmingly sound very serious and to some extent extremely gloomy.’270

By this time, Marshal Konstantin Rokossovskii, an experienced officer who had been purged and imprisoned by Stalin in the 1930s but reinstated in 1940 and given command of the Red Army troops to the west of Stalingrad, had begun advancing across the pocket from west to east, capturing the last airfield on 16 January 1942. Aerial bombardment, artillery fire and tanks, backed by massed infantry, overwhelmed the weakened German defences. In the southern sector, the Romanian troops simply ran away, leaving a huge hole in the defensive line through which the Red Army poured its T-34 tanks. The weather had turned cold, and many German soldiers collapsed from exhaustion and froze to death on the ground as they retreated. Others pulled the wounded along on sledges, passing along icy roads littered with abandoned or shattered military equipment. In a few sectors the German forces put up a fight, but very soon they were all driven back into the ruins of the city, where 20,000 wounded were crowded into makeshift underground hospitals and cellars which had to be entered past piles of frozen corpses. Bandages and medication ran out, and there was no chance of ridding the patients of the lice that crawled over them. Even those who were not hospitalized were sick, starving, frostbitten and exhausted.271

Eight days before, the Soviet High Command had made Paulus an offer of honourable surrender. 100,000 German troops had been killed in the battle by this point. The situation of the rest had clearly been hopeless since the failure of Manstein’s breakthrough attempt. Senior officers were beginning to surrender to the enemy. But once more, Hitler ordered Paulus to fight on. The general ordered that in future all Soviet approaches should be met with gunfire. On 22 January 1943 Paulus suggested all the same that surrender was the only way of saving the remainder of the troops. Once more, Hitler rejected his request. Meanwhile, Rokossovskii’s advance drove further forward, splitting the pocket into two and forcing the remaining 100,000 German troops into two small areas of the city.272 Goebbels’s propaganda machine was now abandoning its earlier talk of victory. Increasingly, newspaper and newsreel stories emphasized the heroism of the encircled soldiers, a lesson for all in the glory of continuing to fight, never giving in even when the situation seemed hopeless. The telegram sent by Paulus the night before the tenth anniversary of Hitler’s appointment as Reich Chancellor on 30 January 1933 was grist to the propaganda mill: ‘On the anniversary of your seizure of power, the Sixth Army greets its Leader. The swastika flag is still flying over Stalingrad. May our struggle be an example for the present and coming generations that we should never capitulate even when we have lost hope. Then Germany will win. Hail my Leader. Paulus, Colonel-General.’273 The same day, Hermann G̈ring gave a speech, broadcast over the radio, in which he compared the Sixth Army to the Spartans who died defending the pass at Thermopylae against the invading Persian hordes. This, he said, ‘will remain the greatest heroic struggle in our history’. It did not escape the attention of many of the troops crouching round their radios in bunkers scattered around Stalingrad and its outskirts that the Spartans at Thermopylae were all killed. To underline the message, Hitler promoted Paulus to Field Marshal on 30 January 1943, a measure intended - and understood clearly enough by its recipient - as an invitation to commit suicide.274

But Paulus, at the very end, finally turned against his master. On 31 January 1943, instead of committing suicide, he surrendered, along with all the remaining troops in the part of Stalingrad he still occupied. Rokossovskii arrived to take the formal surrender, accompanied by a photographer and an interpreter, secret policemen and army officers and Marshal Voronov from the Soviet Supreme General Staff. Paulus’s dark hair and incipient beard had begun to turn white under the strain of the past months, and he had developed a tic in his facial muscles. The Soviet generals asked him to order all his remaining troops to give themselves up, to prevent further bloodshed. In a last remnant of deference towards Hitler, Paulus refused to order the other pocket of resistance to cease fire. The remnants of six divisions were holed up in it; Hitler ordered them to fight to the end. But the Russians bombarded them mercilessly, and they surrendered on 2 February 1943. Altogether some 235,000 German and allied troops from all units, including Manstein’s ill-fated relief force, were captured during the battle; over 200,000 had been killed. Dressed in rags, filthy, unshaven, lice-ridden and often barely able to walk, the 91,000 German and allied troops left in Stalingrad were lined up and marched off into captivity. Already weak, starving and ill, demoralized and depressed, they died in their thousands on their way into prison camps. The Russians were unprepared for such large numbers of prisoners, food supplies were inadequate, and over 55,000 prisoners were dead by the middle of April 1943. Among their number was Helmuth Groscurth, whose diaries from 1939-40 gave later historians important insights into the early development of the military-conservative resistance to Hitler; captured in the pocket that surrendered on 2 January 1943, he succumbed to typhus and died on 7 April 1943. Altogether, fewer than 6,000 of the men taken prisoner at Stalingrad eventually found their way back to Germany.275


It was impossible to explain away a defeat of these dimensions. The retreat from Moscow the previous year could be presented as a temporary measure, a tactical withdrawal that would be made good later on. But it was scarcely possible to take such a line in the case of Stalingrad. The complete encirclement and destruction of an entire German army could not be glossed over. In private, Hitler railed against the weakness of the Romanian and Italian troops, but most of all he was furious at what he saw as the cowardice of Paulus and his senior officers, who had preferred to lose their honour by surrendering rather than save it by killing themselves. Worse was to come, for, beginning almost immediately after the invasion, the Russians began attempts to ‘re-educate’ German prisoners of war as ‘anti-fascists’, starting with NCOs and then moving on to the officers. A judicious mixture of the carrot and the stick won over a growing number of prisoners to the cause, the majority of them going along with it because it was the easiest thing to do. A small number of convinced German nationalists among them were persuaded that Hitler was destroying Germany, and that joining his enemies was the quickest way to save their country. A few opportunists, many of them ex-Nazis, were particularly vocal in their support for ‘anti-fascism’. By July 1942 the Soviet secret police had met with sufficient success to start building an organization of converted prisoners, turning it the following year into a ‘National Committee “Free Germany” ’. The young pilot Friedrich von Einsiedel became one of its leading figures, gravitating towards the Communist wing of the organization along with a few others who had entertained serious doubts about the Nazi cause even before they had been taken prisoner. Most spectacularly, however, the National Committee was also joined by Field Marshal Friedrich von Paulus, who was persuaded by the Russians to make a series of propaganda broadcasts to Germany on their behalf. The broadcasts probably had little effect, but the mere fact that Paulus was making them was a deep embarrassment to the Nazi leadership, and provided further proof to Hitler, if he needed any, that the army leadership was not to be trusted.276

Goebbels had already begun to prepare the German people for the bad news even before the final surrender at Stalingrad. From all the co-ordinated media there poured out the elements of a new myth: ‘They died so that Germany could live,’ as the Racial Observer put it on 4 February 1943. The self-sacrifice of the troops would be a model for all Germans of the future. Quite what their sacrifice had achieved was, however, difficult to say. The young student Lore Walb, for example, accepted the official propaganda image of the ‘heroism’ of the troops at Stalingrad, and the need for ‘holding out’. But this did not stop her from noting on 3 February 1943: ‘Today is the blackest day for Germany in the history of our war.’277 And many people derided the rhetoric emanating from the Propaganda Ministry.278 The Security Service of the SS reported a ‘general feeling of deep shock’ amongst Germans at home. People were talking about the huge losses, and arguing over whether the Soviet threat to the Sixth Army had been recognized soon enough:

Above all, people are saying that the enemy’s strength must have been underestimated, otherwise the risk of continuing to occupy Stalingrad even after it was surrounded would not have been undertaken. National comrades cannot understand how it was not possible to relieve Stalingrad, and some of them are not precisely enough informed about the whole development in the southern sector of the Eastern Front to have the correct understanding of the strategic significance of these battles . . . There is a general conviction that Stalingrad signifies a turning-point in the war.279

Some people, indeed, the report was forced to admit, saw in Stalingrad ‘the beginning of the end’, and in Berlin’s government offices there was said to be ‘to some degree a decided atmosphere of head-hanging despair’.280

In Franconia, people were said to be directing ‘the most serious criticism against the army leadership’ and asking why the Sixth Army had not been withdrawn while there was still a chance. Moreover, ‘people are saying on the basis of letters [from the front] that many soldiers have died just of exhaustion, and that others again present such an appearance that you cannot recognize them because they have lost so much weight. Rumours are circulating,’ the report concluded, ‘which depress the morale of the population very deeply indeed.’281 Reports from other areas suggested a ‘visibly serious, if not yet desperate mood’ as a result of the defeat.282 In the rural district of Ebermannstadt, in Bavaria, where many people had sons, brothers or husbands in the Sixth Army, the criticism was said to be ‘to a degree very hard and strong, even if people are careful in their choice of words, so as not to become liable to criminal prosecution’. Thus people were criticizing Hitler without actually naming him, though the import of what they said was clear: he would not rest until everything had been destroyed, he had overestimated Germany’s strength, he should have tried to make peace.283 For the first time, as the disaffected diplomat Ulrich von Hassell noted in his diary on 14 February 1943, ‘critical rumours’ were being directed at Hitler himself.284 People were asking why he did not save the lives of the remaining men of the Sixth Army by ordering them to capitulate.285 Germany’s few remaining persecuted and battered Jews drew hope from the defeat. On 5 February 1943 Victor Klemperer learned that ‘the debacle in Russia is said to be a real and decisive one’. The public shock was so great, a non-Jewish acquaintance told him, that there was every possibility of an internal uprising against the Nazis.286

The crisis in morale brought about by the defeat at Stalingrad did not end soon. ‘The popular mood is not good any more,’ reported one local official in Bavaria on 19 March 1943. ‘The word Stalingrad is still in the foreground.’287 Other reports observed ‘that many are now condemning the war’. Many wanted it brought to an end, and opined that the English and Americans would not let the Russians take Germany over; even if they did, it would only be the Party men who would suffer.288 By mid-April, the Security Service of the SS was reporting that people were demanding to see more of Hitler. ‘A picture of the Leader from which people could assure themselves that he has not - as rumour once had it - gone completely white-haired, would have a more positive effect on the attitude of national comrades than many aggressive slogans.’289

Hitler’s charisma was beginning to fade. Regional Party officials reported that jokes were beginning to circulate about him. ‘What’s the difference between the sun and Hitler?’ went one, to which the answer was: ‘The sun rises in the east, Hitler goes down in the east.’290

By July 1943 the Security Service of the SS was noting that ‘the most nonsensical and ill-intentioned rumours about leading men in the Party or the state are circulating very quickly and can last weeks and months’.291 Thus, for example, Baldur von Schirach was said, quite wrongly, to have fled to Switzerland with his family. Worse still:

Telling jokes that are nasty and detrimental to the state, even jokes about the Leader’s person, has become much more common since Stalingrad. When national comrades talk in public houses, on the shop-floor, or in other places where they meet, they tell each other the ‘latest’ political jokes, and in doing so they often make no distinction between those that are relatively harmless in content and those that are clearly oppositional. Even national comrades who hardly know one another are exchanging political jokes. Clearly they are assuming that anyone can tell any joke today without having to reckon with being rebuffed, let alone being denounced to the police.292

Similarly, the report continued, people were now openly criticizing the regime, declaring it to be inefficient, poorly organized and corrupt. It was clear, too, ‘that listening to foreign radio stations has obviously become a lot more common in the last months’. The Security Service of the SS found in this fact an explanation for the widespread pessimism people were showing about the eventual outcome of the war. As a clear symbolic sign of the growing distance of people from the regime, ‘The use of the German greeting, as shopkeepers and officials who deal with the public are reporting, has declined strikingly in the past months. It must also be confirmed that many Party members no longer wear their Party badge.’293


Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels was acutely aware of the need to do something dramatic to raise morale and turn the situation around. He knew, as did everyone else in the Nazi leadership, that the decisive underlying factor in the downward turn in Germany’s military and naval fortunes was the failure of the economy to produce enough equipment, enough tanks, enough guns, enough planes, enough submarines, enough ammunition. Even before the full extent of the catastrophe at Stalingrad had become clear, he was beginning to declare ‘that only a more radical civil prosecution of the war will put us in a position to win military victories. Every day provides further proof,’ he told his ministerial conference on 4 January 1943, ‘that we are confronted in the east with a brutal opponent who can only be defeated by the most brutal methods. In order to achieve this, the total commitment of all our resources and reserves is necessary.’294 Goebbels now repeatedly pressed Hitler to declare ‘total war’, including the mobilization of women for work, the closing of ‘luxury shops’ and ‘luxury cafe’s’, and much more besides. Dissatisfied with the slow progress being made following Hitler’s initial decision to back the idea, he decided to turn up the pressure with a major public demonstration.

On 18 February 1943 Goebbels delivered a major, nationally broadcast speech in the Berlin Sports Palace before a hand-picked audience of 14,000 Nazi fanatics representing, as he said, ‘a cross-section of the whole German nation, at the front and at home. Am I right? [loud shouts of “Yes!” Lengthy applause] But Jews are not represented here! [Wild applause, shouts]’295 After outlining the measures that had been taken against luxuries and amusements, he declared that Germans now wanted ‘a Spartan way of life for everybody’, the kind of life, indeed, lived by the Leader himself. Everyone had to redouble his efforts to achieve victory. At the climax of his speech, he put a series of ten rhetorical questions to his by now thoroughly roused audience. They included the following exchanges:

Are you and the German people determined, if the Leader orders it, to work ten, twelve and, if necessary, fourteen and sixteen hours a day and to give your utmost for victory? [Loud shouts of ‘Yes!’ and lengthy applause] . . . I ask you: Do you want total war? [Loud cries of “Yes!’ Loud applause] Do you want it, if necessary, more total and more radical than we can even imagine it today? [Loud cries of ‘Yes!’ Applause]

Linking the idea of total war to loyalty to Hitler, the Propaganda Minister had the crowd shouting enthusiastically for the mobilization of every last resource, including women workers, in the final struggle for victory. He was interrupted more than 200 times with wild shouts and choruses, slogans (‘Hail, Victory!’, ‘Leader command - we follow you!’), and hysterical applause. The whole event was subsequently described as ‘a feat of mass hypnosis’. The speech was listened to by millions of people who had been waiting for some kind of lead from the regime. To underline its importance, it was printed in the daily papers the following morning and broadcast again the following Sunday. It was presented as an imposing demonstration of the German people’s will to fight to the end.296

In all likelihood, Hitler had given his approval to Goebbels’s initiative in general terms beforehand. But he had not been consulted about the detailed contents of the speech, so he immediately had a copy sent to him and declared his complete approval.297 But what did ‘total war’ actually mean in concrete terms? Within the Nazi leadership, it was seen first and foremost as a bid by Goebbels, aided and abetted by Speer, to seize control of the home front. Hitler’s initial response to the crisis had been to create a ‘Committee of Three’, consisting of Martin Bormann, Hans-Heinrich Lammers and Wilhelm Keitel to initiate ‘total war’ measures; Goebbels’s speech was among other things an attempt to sideline this group, and he followed it up by intriguing with Hermann G̈ring to claim back the management of the ‘total war’ from it. But G̈ring by this time had lost much of his earlier energy, weakened by heavy doses of morphine, to which he had now become addicted. Hitler refused to give either Goebbels and Speer or the Lammers group the authority over the home front that they were competing for. By the autumn of 1943 the Committee of Three had effectively ceased to function. Its initiatives to simplify the civil administration of the Reich by reducing duplication, for example between the Reich and Prussian Finance Ministries (it advocated abolishing the latter), ran into the sands, and it spent much time arguing over trivialities such as whether or not to ban horse-racing.298 As for the economic realities of ‘total war’, it was difficult to see what could be done. The problem, as was evident across the whole range of defeats and setbacks in the war during 1943, was not that people were not working hard enough, it was that raw materials were lacking. There was no point in demanding a boost in production if there was not enough coal and steel to build planes and tanks, or enough petrol to fuel them. And the labour shortage, as we have seen, could only be dealt with to a very limited degree by the mobilization of women; in the event, it was tackled by the ruthless expansion of foreign labour. In purely practical terms, ‘total war’ boiled down to an attempt to suppress domestic consumption in order to divert resources to war production. Here too the possibilities were limited.

A series of decrees issued early in 1943 did, to be sure, crack down on non-war-related production and consumption. On 30 January 1943 the Committee of Three ordered the closure of non-essential businesses. This measure led to the shutting-down of 9,000 mostly small businesses in the Brandenburg region alone, causing widespread resentment in the lower middle class as independent workshop-owners were now forced to become wage-labourers in arms factories. Many were worried that they would not be able to reopen after the war. Within a few months, the implementation of the policy had to be stopped, at the insistence of the Propaganda Ministry, because of widespread resistance and evasion. 299 In Berlin it was reported that the Melody Bar on the Kurf̈rstendamm had closed down, only to reopen immediately as a restaurant, with the same waiters. The Gong Bar renamed itself the Caf’ Gong and carried on business with coffee and cakes instead of beer and cocktails. The measure also created problems for munitions and other war-related workers who were forced to spend the week away from their families and so depended on restaurants for their evening meal. Many bars and small restaurants were by this time run by people who had reached retiring age and could scarcely be expected to be drafted in to munitions factories. While working-class bars were being closed down, widespread resentment was aroused by the fact that top hotels like the Four Seasons in Hamburg, with its expensive grill-room, and classy restaurants like Schumann’s Oyster Cellar in the same city remained in business.300 The crackdown on conspicuous consumption was in any case only symbolic. It was all very well saying that Germans had to live like Spartans, but in 1943 many thought they were already doing so.

The shift from consumer to war-related production and investment had in fact already begun in the 1930s, but when the war broke out it accelerated even further. By the end of the first year of the war, military expenditure had increased from a fifth of national output to over a third. Hoping to avoid giving the German public the feeling that they were being bled dry to feed the military machine, the Reich Economics Ministry dropped its initial thoughts of imposing a hefty tax hike, and opted for controlling consumer expenditure by rationing instead. By the end of August 1939, per capita consumption had fallen by 11 per cent; it dropped another 7 per cent in the following year.301 Almost as soon as the war broke out, food and clothing were rationed. Of course, this was nothing new in principle. Already in the 1930s, some foodstuffs and other items in short supply had been rationed.302 In October 1939 an official food ration of 2,570 calories a day was set for civilians, with 3,600 calories allocated to each member of the armed forces and 4,652 to labourers engaged in particularly heavy physical work. Civilians had to present their ration cards in shops, colour-coded for each different item (red for bread, for example) and their purchases were marked so that they would not get more than the prescribed maximum. These ration cards lasted for a month, so that new ones could be issued with different maxima if necessary.303

In concrete terms at the beginning of the war this meant, for example, just short of 10 kilos of bread a month for a normal adult, 2,400 grams of meat, 1,400 grams of fatstuffs including butter, 320 grams of cheese, and so on. As the war went on, these allowances began to be reduced. The bread ration held more or less steady, but meat was down to 1,600 grams a month by the middle of 1941, and rationing began to be introduced around the same time for fruit and soon after for vegetables and potatoes. By the beginning of 1943 allowances stood at 9 kilos a month of bread, 600 grams of cereals, 1,850 grams of meat, and 950 grams of fats. In general, these levels roughly held, with fluctuations both up and down, until the final phase of the war, when the bread allowance fell from 10.5 kilos a month in January 1945 to 3.6 kilos in April, the cereal ration from 600 to 300 grams, meat fell sharply to a mere 550 grams, and fats from 875 grams to 325 grams. Only potatoes, with a regular allowance of around 10 kilos a month through the war, seemed to stay in plentiful supply. But not only were these quantities insufficient for most people’s needs, it was also frequently impossible to obtain them because of shortages. Rationing also covered a wider range of articles than in Britain, and tight restrictions on clothing reduced average German consumption to a quarter of peacetime levels by October 1941; many clothes were made of inferior synthetic materials, and people often had to use wooden clogs because of the shortage of leather. ‘A man who is tired of life tries in vain to hang himself,’ went a joke recorded in April 1942, ‘ - impossible: the rope is made of synthetic fibre. Then he tries to jump into the river - but he floats, because he’s wearing a suit made from wood. Finally he succeeds in taking his own life. He has been existing for two months on no more than he got from his ration card.’304

Even relatively small cuts in food rations could lead to discontent. In March 1942, for instance, the Security Service of the SS reported that the announcement of forthcoming ration cuts by the equivalent of around 250 calories a day for normal civilians and 500 a day for heavy labourers had been ‘devastating’, indeed ‘to a greater degree than scarcely any other event in the war’. Workers in particular did not understand the need for the cuts, since they had already considered the existing rations very short. ‘The mood in these parts of the population,’ the report warned, ‘has reached a point lower than any previously observed in the course of the war.’ And there was widespread resentment at the ability, as many saw it, of the better off to use their connections to get food above and beyond the rationed amount.305 If starvation such as had occurred during the First World War was avoided - virtually an obsession on the part of the regime, since Hitler considered this to have been one of the main factors behind the mythical ‘stab-in-the-back’ in 1918 - this was not least because of massive imports from abroad, principally from 1940 onwards from the occupied territories. These were particularly vital for maintaining the bread ration at an acceptable level, given the fact that this was the main staple of many Germans’ diet, and that its cutting in April 1942 had been ‘felt to be particularly hard in all sectors of the population’.306

Imports of bread grain rose from 1.5 million tons in 1939-40 to 3.6 million in 1942-3 and stayed at roughly the same level the following year. Nevertheless, there was no denying that the great majority of people continued to find food rations barely enough to survive on, and every time the regime made them tighten their belts, there was widespread grumbling and discontent. Food parcels from relatives and friends in the army in France or Western Europe helped, but they were never decisive, and in some situations, particularly at Stalingrad and on the Eastern Front more generally, food parcels tended to go in the other direction. Overall, the contribution of the economies of the occupied countries, east and west, to the German economy through the war was probably not much more than 20 per cent of the whole. It was not enough to make people feel they were living well. ‘What’s the difference between India and Germany?’ went one popular joke reported in the spring of 1943. ‘In India, one person [Gandhi] starves for everybody, in Germany everybody starves for one person [Hitler].’307

Goebbels’s rhetoric of suffering and sacrifice failed to convince because living standards had already been severely depressed long before 1943. Indeed, the rhetoric was not even new. Goebbels had issued an appeal for ‘total war’ at the beginning of 1942, after the debacle before Moscow.308 As early as March 1939, Hitler had declared that ‘any mobilization must be a total one’, including the economy. In the pursuit of rearmament, living standards had already been depressed even before this. There are few more durable historical legends than that of the Blitzkrieg as an economic strategy designed to wage war cheaply and quickly, without putting the economy on a war footing.309 The economy was on a war footing well before the war began.310 Private consumption declined from 71 per cent of national income in 1928 to 59 per cent in 1938, and real earnings failed to recover to their pre-Depression levels by the time the war broke out. Real wages in Germany had grown by 9 per cent in 1938 compared to their 1913 levels, but the comparable figure in the USA was 53 per cent and in the UK 33. The quality of many goods in Germany, from clothing to foods, declined under the impact of import restrictions during the 1930s. When the war began, the Finance Ministry and the Four-Year Plan agreed that personal consumption had to be limited, mainly through rationing, to no more than the minimum necessary for staying alive. Taxes on beer, tobacco, cinemas, theatres, travel and other aspects of consumption were increased, and all taxpayers had to pay an emergency war surtax. As a result, taxes increased by 20 per cent on average for people, mostly working-class, who were earning between 1,500 and 3,000 Reichsmarks a year between 1939 and 1941, and 55 per cent for those earning between 3,000 and 5,000. Taxation provided half the income needed for military expenditure, the other half being covered by exactions from the occupied territories and by government loans.311

Hitler vetoed any further increases in income tax because of the popular hostility he feared they might arouse. Instead, additional funds were raised by raiding people’s savings. The government was well aware of the fact that from early 1940 more and more money was flowing into the deposit accounts of Germany’s local savings banks and insurance funds. Within a year, investors were putting more than a billion Reichsmarks into savings annually. The government silently creamed this off to pay for arms, while forcing severe cutbacks on the kind of programmes that it would normally have financed, such as housing construction, which fell from just over 320,000 new dwellings in 1937 to a mere 40,000 five years later. As early as 1940, 8 billion Reichsmarks flowed from savings banks into arms construction, a figure that increased to 12.8 billion the following year. This system of war financing was far preferable to public appeals for loans, which had had such a disastrous effect in the First World War, when patriotic investors lost all their savings in the postwar inflation. It did not, as has sometimes been claimed, signify public trust in the government, or certainty of victory. As government restrictions on other forms of investment tightened, people were left with no alternative. Rather than make long-term investments, they preferred as far as possible to put their money where it would be easy to get hold of it when they needed it - after the war was over.312 Apart from this, there seemed little that they could do with it. As Mathilde Wolff-M̈nckeberg, a woman from a prominent Hamburg family, wrote on 25 March 1944, everyone had taken to bartering:

I have exchanged the table for fat and meat and quite a number of other delicacies, which the new owner will bring from her canteen. But what else can one do these days? The stomach demands its due and money does not buy a thing. Everyone has oodles of money ... You can only persuade workmen into your house if you press cigarettes into their hands or treat them to a glass of brandy. The man from the gas board, whom I tried to inveigle into letting us have a new cooker, had to be softened with a can of beer, two sausage sandwiches and finally a cigar.313

Two months earlier, the Security Service of the SS had devoted a special report to the spread of bartering. So many essential goods and services were in short supply that ‘the black marketeering of small quantities of goods has become such a way of life for many people that most dismiss any reservations about it with the remark: “Those who do not help themselves will never improve their situation.” ’ Only trading and bartering for profit met with popular disapproval. Despite this, it was but a small step from here to the emergence of a black market on a very substantial scale.314

The rapid increase in savings in the early part of the war reflected the fact that consumer spending fell most sharply up to 1942, then remained relatively stable thereafter until the last months of the war. Per capita consumption in Germany (in its prewar boundaries, including Austria, the Sudetenland and Memel) fell by a quarter between 1939 and 1942, then stabilized. If the incorporation of relatively poor areas of Poland into the Reich is taken into account, then real per capita consumption had fallen to 74 per cent of its 1938 level by 1941, then levelled off at 67-8 per cent in the following two years, while per capita retail sales dropped by roughly similar amounts. Real per capita output of all consumer goods fell by 22 per cent from 1938 to 1941. After an initial rise caused by panic buying, sales of textiles and metal and household goods in June 1940 were 20 per cent lower than in the previous year, sales of furniture 40 per cent lower.315 And these figures disguised the fact that the first claim on consumer goods went to the armed forces. In 1941-2, for instance, per capita meat consumption in the armed forces was more than four times higher than among civilians, bread-grain consumption two and a half times higher. Soldiers could drink real coffee while civilians had to make do with substitutes, and they had plentiful supplies of cigarettes and alcohol. This was a matter of policy. Soldiers’ meat ration was three and a half times that of civilians, and they were entitled to twice the daily ration of bread. Most of the non-armaments parts of the economy were working mainly for the armed forces, and by January 1941 90 per cent of furniture manufactured went to the military, while in May 1940 half of all textile sales were made to the armed forces, the SS and other uniformed organizations. 80 per cent of consumer-related chemicals went to the armed forces (including toothpaste and shoe-polish).316 So much coal was reserved for industrial production that people did not have enough to heat their homes during the winter. ‘In Germany,’ went one joke told widely in 1941, ‘the temperature is still being measured according to the foreign standards of Celsius and R’aumur. Hitler orders that, in future, measurements will be taken on the German Fahrenheit scale. In this way the temperature goes up by 65 degrees and the coal shortage is automatically solved!’317

Goebbels’s rabble-rousing effort inspired some, both at home and at the front. ‘It’s 02.00 hours,’ wrote the paratrooper Martin P̈ppel in his diary from the Eastern Front on 19 February 1943. ‘I can’t get the Goebbels speech calling for total war out of my mind. The speech was so tremendous and fantastic that I feel I have to write home with my own response. Everyone was carried away by his words, all of us were under his spell. He spoke to us from the heart.’318 Goebbels won widespread praise for making clear how serious the military situation was. Many had apparently not realized before. They were impressed by the fact that, as they thought, the regime was being honest, yet others were more sceptical. A few considered that Goebbels ‘has painted the situation “blacker than it is”, in order to lend emphasis to the totalizing measures’. His speech contained little that was new in concrete terms, some thought. ‘To be sure,’ reported the Security Service of the SS, ‘people generally recognized the effectiveness of the 10 questions, but national comrades and Party members in every walk of life expressed the thought that the propagandistic purpose of these questions and answers was all too obvious to readers and listeners.’319 Small farmers could be heard complaining that they ‘had been compelled to work at a superhuman level for a long time already’, so that they found the demands made in the speech more or less incomprehensible.320 In Ẅrzburg, indeed, it was reported that some people ‘are characterizing the peroration of the speech with its questions as a comedy, since those present at the meeting were not the people [in general] but groups ordered there, who obviously were shouting yes to everything.’321 Clearly a staged propaganda event, the Sports Palace speech had largely failed to convince because people knew that economic mobilization had already gone about as far as it could. The impulse given by the speech largely dissipated itself in attacks on ‘luxury’ establishments the impact of which on the war economy as a whole was minimal. Within a few months of Goebbels’s speech, however, total war was to be visited on the home front in a sense that neither the Propaganda Minister nor anybody else had anticipated: and its impact, both in economic and in human terms, was to be devastating.

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