I have wondered if the German Field-Marshal Friedrich Paulus after his defeat and capture by Russians at Stalingrad in February 1943 really changed when as a prisoner of war in Soviet Russia he joined the National Committee For A Free Germany and the anti-Fascist Union of German Officers. Were his words sincere when he broadcast anti-fascist messages to Germany over Radio Moskau? Did he betray his entire background, his military career and the homeland he had fought for in order to save his life? Was he a traitor to Germany, to his beloved wife and to himself?
Readers may wonder why an article about a German General today, seventy-five years since the battle of Stalingrad. The answer is: many historians agree that Stalingrad was the turning point in World War II, making the failure of the German invasion of Russia ineluctable and the collapse of Nazi Germany, Hitler’s Thousand-year Reich, inevitable. In June 1941 Operation Barbarossa had begun in great fanfare and optimism in Nazi Germany. German blitzkrieg had already conquered most of West Europe. The German military machine seemed invincible. So now blitzkrieg was loosed on Germany’s erstwhile partner in the division of Poland, the USSR: first Nazi Germany’s mighty artillery, then the Luftwaffe’s Stukas and Messerschmidts and Henkels zooming eastwards with their loads of bombs made in Germany, the ferocious Tiger panzer tanks crushing everything between Poland and the heart of Soviet Russia, the Wehrmacht’s unstoppable infantry mopping up, while the SS men busily shot and hanged the Slav Untermenschen left behind. Especially Jews and Red Army commissars. We will be in Moscow by Christmas, the Führer gloated.
But then came the stall at the very gates of Moscow and Leningrad. Winter set in. German supplies did not arrive. Russia was not a cakewalk after all. Yet Paulus and his panzer divisions raced toward the Russian oil fields in the Caucasus. Thousands of Germany’s best young men lost their lives but Paulus’ panzer divisions were still undeterred on their flight eastwards. Final victory would be achieved quickly once Russia’s oil supplies were cut off.
Then on his maps Hitler saw Stalingrad. Right on Russia’s supply routes. There stood the city on the Volga, the city named for his enemy-in-chief. He wanted that city first of all. Thus Hitler lost his bet, Paulus lost his army, and Stalingrad was lost to the Russians who won World War II there on the River Volga. In Stalingrad. After that epic battle Russians could laugh at the puny Anglo Normandy invasion … chiefly so the Allies could share in the booty that was Germany. Russians won the war and changed the flow of history for which the USA has never forgiven them. It was not supposed to play out with Russia’s victory.
But my question about a human being remains: Did Field-Marshal Paulus undergo an epiphanic transformation? Did he cross over to the victorious enemy? Did the meticulous man change? Did the man who commanded the 300,000 soldiers of Hitler’s famed Sixth Army of whom only 5000 returned to Germany after World War II change? Did the man who loved family, Germany and Beethoven, in the end betray his Fatherland and everything he loved? Or, was Field-Marshal Friedrich Paulus—after sending tens and hundreds of thousands of men to their deaths in the Stalingrad debacle—after all a coward? Hitler named General Friedrich Paulus Field Marshal in the last hours of the catastrophe, not as a reward but as an invitation to suicide: no German Field-Marshall in history had ever fallen live into enemy hands. But Paulus did not die in Stalingrad.
Since reading the section about Paulus and Stalingrad, “The Last Field-Marshal”, (page 328-410 in the Penguin edition) of William T. Vollmann’s epic Europe Central, I have been asking myself that question: Did Paulus really change? Or did he live the rest of his life in a lie just to prolong his existence—apparently miserable—for a few more years? If not, what are the real reasons for his betrayal? After a life of obedience to Prussian militarism first and then to Adolf Hitler, did he truly become anti-Nazi and anti-war after his capture by Russian troops?
The question is not rhetorical. Friedrich Paulus faced a dilemma much greater than ordinary people face in life. He was a military man. A Prussian soldier. Before and during the battle of Stalingrad he was faithful to “his” Führer. To his people. To his beloved wife whom he wrote daily letters of love and devotion; and yet whom he betrayed: she spent years in the Dachau concentration camp for his defection to the Communist Slavs.
Paulus, I believe, was a timid man. Reserved. Uncertain of himself. I find it difficult to believe he was truly a coward, although his external life did change dramatically remarkably soon after his capture by Russian troops. Was it then normal human fear that changed the man who commanded hundreds of thousands of soldiers and whose decisions conditioned the outcome of World War II?
Declassified Stasi documents describe Friedrich Paulus as an energetic and ambitious young man born in 1890 in the village of Guxhagen in the German state of Hessen, the son of an accountant. After brief studies at famous Marburg University, at the age of nineteen he enrolled in the army, the Deutsches Heer of the former German Empire and fought WWI in offices and planning sections. He remained in the Reichswehr of the Weimar Republic, rising steadily through the ranks, a cold military professional; he never joined the Nazi Party. In the Weimar period he trained Russian officers in Germany at which time he met the future Russian General Tukhachevsky who, according to Stasi, once told Stalin presciently: “When Paulus is no longer needed in Germany, we can use him.” Meanwhile Paulus married the daughter of Romanian aristocrats and had three children. When the Nazis arrived in power in 1933, Paulus remained the professional soldier, becoming one of the non-political generals, “courageous and calm”, although in the Nazi era he became a General he was allegedly reluctant to make great decisions without the approval of his Führer.
And so it was at Stalingrad. When he was finally encircled by Russian armies and his own generals urged an organized breakout of the encirclement, he tried to follow Hitler’s orders: Fight to the last man. He vetoed the breakout proposal but did not fight to the last man. Lying in his cot in his headquarters in the cellars of Stalingrad’s huge Univermag department store he declared himself a “private person” and thus not a prisoner of war. He and his generals were taken to Moscow for interrogation and on August 8, 1944 , six months after Stalingrad, he broadcast over Radio Moscow an appeal to German people charging Hitler with the terrible war. He also testified in the Nuremberg trials against German Generals Jodl and Keitel. In Moscow he was rewarded: he lived in a luxurious dacha with servants.
After Stalin’s death in 1953 Friedrich Paulus was allowed to settle in Dresden in the German Democratic Republic in the East, also there in a villa but under 24-hour Stasi supervision. He met military officers of East and West and was active in a movement against West German rearmament and the Federal Republic of Germany in the West. From 1953-56, as he lived in Dresden, he worked as the civilian chief of the East German Military History Research Institute. His trajectory was approaching its end. In late 1956 he developed amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and became progressively weaker. ALS is usually called Charcot’s Diease in France, Lou Gehrig’s disease in the US, honoring its most famous victim, the baseball New York Yankees star. He died within a few months, in Dresden, on 1 February 1957, 14 years and one day after his surrender at Stalingrad.
I read German writing and the archives of STASI, State Security, or Staatssicherheit about Field-Marshal Paulus. And I pondered the act of crossover from one ideology to another. Crossover for him would have meant changing from everything he had yet experienced in his military and family life to a new morality. Crossover points unwaveringly at transformation. Transformation is more than mere change, a different matter altogether. Though change makes us uneasy and anxious, we are still capable of returning to our original state. Even the change from a familiar place to another may make us feel uneasy. For we have lost a point of reference, a sense of belonging. That sensation of loss triggers our nostalgias. That loss can become a black hole in our existence. So though I feel sorry for the Field-Marshal, I still have not decided what I believe moved Friedrich Paulus.
Crossover is no less difficult than the breakout from Russian encirclement about which Field-Marshal Paulus could not decide. Yet I don’t believe he made the crossover any more than he risked the breakout that time in disobedience of his Führer’s orders. On the other hand he did not commit suicide as Hitler ordered and neither he nor his soldiers fought to the last man; they went into captivity. Perhaps Field-Marshal Paulus decided not to decide. Not out of cowardice, I don’t believe. The human mind is complex. And his times were difficult times; the decisions were greater than those most of us must make in our lives. Once a decisive man, he lost that capacity in the magnitude of his time and place. His situation was greater than he was. And then, again, the human mind is complex.
Gaither Stewart is a Writer on Dandelion Salad and Senior Editor and Rome-based European correspondent of The Greanville Post. A veteran journalist and essayist on a broad palette of topics from culture to history and politics, he is also the author of the Europe Trilogy, celebrated spy thrillers whose latest volume, Time of Exile, was recently published by Punto Press. His latest book is the essay anthology Babylon Falling: Essays About Waning Qualities and Studies of Failing Empires (Punto Press, 2017).
Crossposted at The Greanville Post