Today the battle of Stalingrad is one of the widely known battles of the entire World War 2. But while almost everybody knows how the battle ended one question often remains unanswered.
And that`s the question of why Hitler refused to give up Stalingrad. Why would he not allow his battered 6th army to retreat from the hell of Stalingrad? Today I would like to offer 5 reasons that were responsible for Hitlers’ fatal decision.
On 30. September 1942 Hitler publically claimed that the victory at Stalingrad was close and that nobody would be able to drive out the German army. That statement made it almost impossible for him to give up Stalingrad without badly damaging the myth around his person on which his entire regime was built! Hitler also generally refused the idea of a retreat. He still hoped that the encircled 6th army could be supplied by airlift until it could be relieved and that the city that was so important for Soviet supply lines could stay under German control.
Let`s find out more!
- 1 The Propagandistic Value of Holding Stalingrad
- 2 Hitler’s general rejection of retreat as an option
- 3 Hitler’s hopes of relieving Stalingrad
- 4 Hitler’s hopes of supplying the 6th army by airlift
- 5 Holding Stalingrad to secure the most important success of 1942
- 6 Conclusion
- 7 Sources
The Propagandistic Value of Holding Stalingrad
Stalingrad was not primarily attacked by the German army because of its name.
But the name Stalingrad and the propagandist effect that capturing the city that was named after the Soviet dictator brought with it was certainly one of the reasons why the German army attacked Stalingrad. Please feel free to check out my article here where I go into more detail about the other 3 reasons why Stalingrad was so important to Germany.
Despite its propagandistic value Hitler did not always intend to capture Stalingrad at all costs. It wasn`t until late July of 1942 that Hitler changed his orders from „capture Stalingrad if practicable“ to „capture Stalingrad“!
Later, when the 6th army was encircled, that change of orders turned out to make it hard for Hitler to change his mind and allow the retreat.
The cost for Hitler`s mistake was carried by the soldiers who were trapped in Stalingrad. Most of them would never return home and of the lucky few who would return, some would only return as late as 1955!!!, only a few wrote down their memories about the horrors they had to endure in Stalingrad.
If you want to read some of these personal stories that are so much more memorizing than anything I could ever tell you I would like to recommend you the following book here* on Amazon that gathered and translated the eye-witness accounts of German soldiers who survived the hell of Stalingrad.
Let`s find out why it was especially hard for Hitler to change his orders in the case of Stalingrad
The Propagandistic Value of Holding Stalingrad to Hitler
As mentioned. Until late July of 1942 capturing Stalingrad was an afterthought of Hitler, his main goals were to bring the soviet industrial plants into striking distance of the German artillery, secure the flank of the advance into the Caucasus, and block the ship traffic on the Volga.
Please check out my article here for more information on why these two goals were so important to the German war efforts.
It is actually quite interesting to see that Hitler was not particularly interested in capturing Stalingrad until Joseph Stalin showed that he was prepared to do whatever it takes to hold Stalingrad.
Stalin himself, just as Hitler, had several reasons including but not limited to the propagandistic value of Stalingrad to defend the city. Here you can find my article with more information on why Stalingrad was so important to the Soviet Union.
Stalin ordered to set up the Stalingrad Front consisting of three reserve armies with the purpose to protect Stalingrad with its industrial plants and crucial transshipment places.
Now Hitler suddenly saw an opportunity to not only gather an important military victory but also a propagandistic victory over his rival by defeating the Stalingrad Front and occupying the city that was named after Stalin.
By declaring Stalingrad a sanctuary that had to be ripped away from Communism at any cost Hitler had brought himself into a position that didn`t allow him to retreat without a serious loss of reputation.
And Hitler could not afford to lose his reputation since his whole regime was built on the idea of him being the infallible „Führer“.
To understand why giving up Stalingrad would have resulted in a massive loss of reputation we also have to take a look at how the German public saw the battle of Stalingrad and what kind of signals they received from high-ranking politicians.
The significance of the battle of Stalingrad to the German population
As early as late August, the first German troops reached the Volga at Stalingrad on 23 August 1942, the Sicherheitsdienst (the German intelligence agency) reported that the fighting in Stalingrad had become the major point of interest of large parts of the German public.
According to the German intelligence agency, the battle of Stalingrad was seen by the German public as a potential turning point of the eastern campaign of 1942.
In September of 1942, the interest of the German public in the battle of Stalingrad had turned into a kind of nervous impatience. That impatience was fueled by the fact that the entire battle for France did take less time than the battle for Stalingrad.
Additionally, the German media also played its part by mostly reporting about the battle of Stalingrad even though the minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, was trying to reduce the coverage of Stalingrad. But that obviously caused the public to be even more interested in the events that took place in Stalingrad.
And in the middle of September, Press chief Otto Dietrich even claimed that the battle of Stalingrad would soon come to a successful end.
Hitler himself publically claimed on 30 September 1942 that the victory at Stalingrad was close and that nobody would be able to kick the German army out of Stalingrad. That statement made it almost impossible for Hitler to give up Stalingrad without badly damaging the myth around his person on which his entire regime was built!
It is really important to not only remember that statement but also put it in context. One year before Stalingrad, during the winter of 1941, Hitlers’ reputation of being undefeatable had already suffered serious damage when the attack on Moscow failed.
Hitler, being the capable politician he was, knew that retreating from Stalingrad would have badly damaged the trust the German public had in him. He did not want to risk such damage, especially since he was convinced that supplying the encircled 6th army by air and later relieving the encircled troops in Stalingrad was possible.
More on these two aspects and how they influenced Hitlers’ decision later.
Holding Stalingrad as a sign to Hitler’s allies and the neutral states
But Hitler had not only bragged about the imminent victory at Stalingrad in front of the German public. He had also informed his allies and Finland as a cooperating state about the imminent success at Stalingrad.
In the middle of September 1942 the Finish general Paavo Talvela, who was serving as the representative of the Finish army in the German High Command, was informed by the Chief of Operations Staff Generaloberst Alfred Jodl that the center of Stalingrad was in practice under German control.
Now we all know that in the end, Germany was not able to hold Stalingrad.
But by retreating from Stalingrad after the victory had already been claimed, especially when there was still the hope that the encircled troops could be relieved by other German troops (more on that hope later), Hitler would have lost the trust of his allies.
And losing the trust of his allies was not an option, especially not since Hitler knew that he would now really need the troops of his allies.
Hitler’s general rejection of retreat as an option
But Hitler had not only maneuvered himself into a position from which a retreat from Stalingrad would be hard to explain to the German public.
Additionally, Hitler was also generally opposed to the concept of a retreat. For him retreating was equated with losing. So as long as his troops held their positions they were not losing.
But Hitlers’ dogmatic clinging to the idea that holding a position was always better than a retreat had not only already almost proven fatal during the winter of 1941 and the failed attack on Moscow. And in the following years of the war, Hitler would often hand out orders that demanded his soldiers to hold positions even if they had no value and even if it was clear that there was no way to hold them for long. These orders did usually cause higher losses than a retreat while not having any lasting benefits.
I personally think that one of the reasons why Hitler might have been against the idea of an organized retreat can be found in his own military career.
Hitlers highest military rank during his service in World War I was Gefreiter, a rank similar to the US-American Private First Class. As such he had never attended a War academy.
That by the way is the reason why Hitler was secretly called the Bohemian Corporal by some of his generals.
Hitler’s hopes of relieving Stalingrad
Another reason why Hitler refused to give up Stalingras has already been mentioned briefly.
Hitler still hoped that German forces would be able to break the Soviet siege. By breaking the siege, reopening a land-based supply route to Stalingrad, and reinforcing the German defenders he hoped that his mistakes leading up to the encirclement of the 6th army might be without serious consequences.
As early as the 22. September 1942, the day the 6th army was fully encircled, Hitler had given orders that implied that he planned on relieving the city although the German High Command had already prepared plans for the 6th army to break out of Stalingrad.
And two days before, on 20 September 1942, Hitler had already given the command over the army group Don (including the 4th tank army, the encircled 6th army, and the remains of 2 Romanian armies that had been damaged when the Red Army broke through the German flanks) to Field Marshal von Manstein.
Field Marshal von Manstein advised Hitler to not order the 6th army to break out of Stalingrad since he, like Hitler, believed in the possibility of relieving the encircled army.
Now one might ask why both Hitler and von Manstein were so sure that a relief attack would work.
And that is actually a good question!
Why did Hitler and von Manstein believe in the possibility of relieving Stalingrad?
There is one motive that follows the entire German plans for the war against the Soviet Union. And that is the habit of underestimating the capabilities of the Red army!
Before the Soviet attack against the weak flanks that secured the corridor to Stalingrad had started, German soldiers had heard the noise of accumulating tank forces. And they reported these noises to their superiors who also reported them.
But the German High Command was under the (wrong) impression that the Red Army did not have the power to accumulate an army that would be able to break through the German flanks. And even after realizing that the Red Army was indeed capable of quickly concentrating an entire army Hitler and his generals greatly miscalculated the extent of the Soviet forces.
Hitler, still not realizing the full extent of Operation Uranus, also put high hopes in the first Tiger tanks to break the Soviet siege of Stalingrad. He hoped that by breaking the Soviet siege and erecting a supply corridor the German army would be able to hold Stalingrad and use it as a starting point for new offenses in the spring of 1943.
Additionally, Stalingrad still had a lot of value to the German plans, especially in spring after the ice would break. Once more it would be important to block the ship traffic on the Volga. More on that and Stalingrads importance as a soviet transshipment hub for oil in my article here.
But there was a problem.
On 23 November 1942 Hitler had already been informed by Maximilian von Weichs that a German relief attack would be realistic for 10 December 1942 at the earliest. He also informed Hitler that the success of such an attack was questionable.
And that led to another problem.
The army that was encircled in Stalingrad consisted of 20 German and 2 Romanian divisions. And these 22 divisions had to be supplied with provisions, fuel, and ammunition.
But since Stalingrad was completely encircled by the Red Army the 6th army could only be supplied by air.
Hitler’s hopes of supplying the 6th army by airlift
Hitler was optimistic that the German Airforce would be able to supply the encircled German Troops. And his optimism had reasons:
Firstly the concept of the airlift had worked a year before Stalingrad when the Demyanzk pocket had been supplied by airlift. The minor problem that the encircled unit in Demyansk was only one corps while now an entire army had to be supplied by airlift did not worry Hitler.
Additionally, Herman Göring, the head of the German airforce, had also promised that supplying the 6th army would not be a problem.
Görings confidence in that manner was mainly based on a meeting he had had with high-ranking airforce officers on 23. November. The problem with that meeting was that of all things the officer responsible for air transport was not present!
Hitler’s wrong assumption that had been nourished by Görings claims should prove fatal.
The 22 divisions, a total of around 280,000 men, needed 400 tons of supplies (food, fuel, and ammunition) per day. But only 1/10 of that demand could actually be brought to Stalingrad. Because of that, the rations were constantly cut until every soldier would only get 2 slices of bread per day
Ok, so now we learned one reason why Hitler did not want to give up Stalingrad and that he was confident that he could supply the encircled army by airlift until the German troops were ready to break the Soviet siege and relieve the 6th army.
But was there another reason why Hitler did not want to give up Stalingrad?
And conveniently Hitler even told Field Marshall von Manstein why he was so keen on holding Stalingrad.
Holding Stalingrad to secure the most important success of 1942
Hitler told Field Marshall von Manstein that he was so keen on holding Stalingrad because he thought that giving up Stalingrad would have destroyed the most important accomplishment of the year 1942.
And there might actually be some truth to it. Stalingrad was important for multiple reasons, more on these reasons here.
And Hitler knew that if he would lose Stalingrad he would not have the strength for another attack on the city. In that case, neither the Volga as the Soviet supply line for Caucasian oil would have been cut, nor could Hitler pursue his plan of pushing into the Caucasus to secure the oil for himself.
I think it became clear that Hitler had maneuvered himself into a situation that did not allow him to retreat from Stalingrad without losing his face and damaging the trust the German public had in him.
Additionally, he strongly believed in the possibility of supplying the encircled 6th army through an airlift until German troops under the command of Field Marshall von Manstein could relieve the city.
That combined with Hitler’s general rejection of the idea of a retreat and the strategic importance of Stalingrad convinced Hitler to refuse any retreat from Stalingrad.
I hope you found our trip into the year 1942 just as interesting as I did.
If you want to find out more about why Germany invaded the Soviet Union in the first place I would like to recommend you my article here where I present the ideological and practical reasons for Hitler’s interest in the East.
Take care of yourself because you deserve it. You really do.
Until next time
H. Boog, W. Rahn (u.a.), Der Globale Krieg. Die Ausweitung zum Weltkrieg und der Wechsel der Initiative 1941-1943; in: Das Deutsche Reich und der Zweite Weltkrieg, Bd. 6 (Stuttgart 1990).*
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