Thinking about Stalingrad means: Never again war!

Thinking about Stalingrad means: Never again war!

Heinrich Gerlach and his novel “Durchbruch bei Stalingrad“ (Breakthrough at Stalingrad)

by Dr rer. publ. Werner Wüthrich

Recently a book has been published with the strange title „Durchbruch bei Stalingrad”. The author Heinrich Gerlach wrote the manuscript three times. It is a piece of German and Russian history. The original version rested for decades in the “poison cabinet” of the Soviet Interior Ministry and was only recently discovered by historians in Moscow. The new publication is based on this original version.

Authors and journalists who write in this and the last century against the eternal killing in the many senseless wars often have a hard time. Daniele Ganser, for example, today repeatedly refers in his lectures and writings to the many illegal wars which in the last two decades have mostly been started by states from the “Western community of values” with strange reasons or even lies. They had devastating consequences, so they are a main cause for today’s refugee and migration problems. Because of its clarity, Ganser is presented as a conspiracy theorist and has to live with a number of disadvantages. (cf. “From Censorship to mainstream Media and mass manipulation” in Current Concern of 9.10.2018)
In the first half of the last century, writers and journalists could usually only write from exile against the war. However, there are some exceptions : Leonhard Frank, a German, wrote his book “Der Mensch ist gut” (Man is Good) in exile in Switzerland during the First World War. He was able to sell the book well and buy a house in Zurich from the proceeds. Other authors such as Romain Roland have also called from here against senseless killing in the trenches of the First World War.
During the Second World War, the Scholl siblings published leaflets at their university against Hitler’s criminal war. They were soon discovered and executed.

Experiences in Stalingrad, written from the soul

Heinrich Gerlach, the author of the book “Durchbruch bei Stalingrad”, also wrote against the war – but from the “protection” of a Russian prisoner of war camp. As a teacher, he was often responsible for the wall and camp newspapers in the various camps, and he found time to write the experiences after the Battle of Stalingrad in the winter of 1942/43 from his soul. By the end of the war it was to be a book of 600 pages, which he entitled  “ Durchbruch bei Stalingrad”. He also worked in the editorial department of Freies Deutschland, which, with the toleration and help of the Soviet authorities, published a newspaper and actively acted against Hitler with leaflets and a radio station. In addition, briefly the past history:
In the summer of 1943, two groups formed in the prison camps. In July, a group of exiled Communists founded the National Committee for Free Germany together with prisoners of war. Wilhelm Piek, Walter Ulbricht, Johannes R. Becher and others were among them. They invited high officers of the 6th Army to participate. Most of them, however, refused on the grounds that activities from captivity would violate their oath as German officers and be treason against the fighting troops. Soon, however, some changed their attitude – abandoned by Hitler.
In September 1943, 95 high officers of the Stalingrad Army, in particular, founded the Bund Deutscher Offiziere BDO. (League of German Officers) They were assured by Stalin that if they were able to bring about a change in the leadership of the Wehrmacht so that the war could be ended, he would work for the preservation of Germany within its present borders. The Battle of Stalingrad had been won. Militarily, however, there was a kind of stalemate in the summer of 1943. The blood toll and the damage were immense, and the Wehrmacht continued to remain with an army of millions in the country, and it was to take a full and ardous year before the Allies opened the second front in Normandy. Whether the second front would really take place was not sure at that time.

Resistance against Hitler also from Russian POW camps

The officers of the BDO pursued the goal that clearly thinking officers of the Wehrmacht remove or eliminate Hitler. Thus, they hoped to end the war and above all to prevent the total collapse of Germany with all its political and social consequences. General Walther von Seydlitz was elected president of the BDO and justified his decision:
“The last decisive factor for me was the consideration: If our participation makes it possible to realize even a small part of the Russian assurance, then one must not close one’s eyes to its participation. Hitler’s insanity will lead Germany so surely to its downfall that also very unusual activities will be necessary to save what remains to be saved.” (“ Durchbruch bei Stalingrad”, p. 596)
From the beginning Heinrich Gerlach was one of the most active members of the editorial staff of Freies Deutschland. They published a newspaper (which was read in the camps), produced leaflets (which were dropped) and wanted to change history via a radio station. Gerlach also worked with the exiled communists over following months. He disagreed with them in his political conviction. He emphasized in his contributions that he was neither a Marxist nor a Communist, and that he did not like everything he saw here. But they had a common goal in the editorial staff in the fight against Hitler and against the criminal war.
But Heinrich Gerlach was also aware that his fight against Hitler was dangerous. He had to expect to be sentenced to death in absentia. What he did not know and what actually happened: His wife was visited by the Gestapo in Königsberg, and together with the three children she was taken into clan custody and imprisoned in a camp near Munich (where they were later liberated by the Americans).
On July 20, 1944, Gerlach and his fellow officers at BDO felt that they had achieved their goal. The radio reported that Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg had made an assassination attempt on Hitler. That was exactly what they had wanted and encouraged. Finally, officers of the Wehrmacht in Germany had taken things firmly under their own control, so they thought. The disappointment was great – Hitler had survived and was to have Stauffenberg and thousands who had supported him killed, and many others. The most prominent was Erwin Rommel. They all could no longer tell whether and how Heinrich Gerlach and his colleagues in the editorial office of Free Germany had encouraged them in their struggle against Hitler.

Completion of  Work in May 1945

In these months in every free minute Gerlach wrote his novel “Breakthrough at Stalingrad“. Gerlach had made the experience that he could collaborate quite well with individual communists. So he talked to some of them about his novel and gave them parts of it to read. They supported him and found the text to be inoffensive. The collaboration with Walter Ulbricht indeed didn’t work what should have consequences later. At the end of war, in May 1945, Gerlach had it finished. The script – an extensive work of 600 pages accurately written – accompanied him during his five years lasting odyssey through different detention camps in the Soviet Union and he guarded his work like his own life.
In 1945 the prisoners of war in the about 600 camps were divided in working battalions of  750 or 1000 up to 1500 men,working in the construction industry, agriculture and forestry but mainly in the reconstruction of the destroyed Soviet cities. (p. 639) Stalin promised to release them home in groups until 1949. The name of Gerlach often was on the list of the repatriates, but for unknown reasons was left out again and again. He became suspicious and had a feeling of being observed. He feared for his script and for weeks he laboriously compiled a duplicate in tiny handwriting and with abbreviations so that 600 pages fit into an exercise book. This he hid in the double bottom of a suitcase that  he gave to a comrade who was allowed to travel  home. But the hiding-place was discovered and Gerlach was visited by the Soviet secret service who examined his things, found the script and confiscated it.

Script becomes Victim of the Cold War

Expatriate communists like professor Arnold with whom Gerlach had worked together reassured him. His book was inoffensive and after his repatriation he could reclaim it from the ministry of the interior. They were wrong. His claim for restitution provoked nervous activities in the senior leadership of the Soviet Union. The Secret Service (KGB) had ordered  two expert opinions – an elaborate and a short one. Decades later historians in a military archive came across a correspondence between the minister of interior Suslow , the general secretary of the Communist Party, Malenkow, the  chairman of the commission on foreign policy Grigorian and the chief of KGB, Beria. Presumably even Stalin had notice of it. The statements of the top politicians were devastating: In the shorter assessment which Grigorian sent to Suslow he says totally adverse to the facts: “The novel clearly shows that the author was and remained a staunch SS-man. A restitution of the book which represents a defamation of the Soviet people and an eulogy of Hitlerism is not advisable.” (p. 668-673) Moreover the historians came across a statement of Walter Ulbricht, later head of State Council of the GDR, which was disastrous for Gerlach. Ulbricht wrote about Gerlach: “A typical representative of the Hitler army, gifted but not honest. Tries to gloss over his true opinions with his information to Soviet organisations. […] (p. 623) All togetherdifferent wasthe assessment of the communist professor Arnold with whom Gerlach had worked together in the editorial team Freies Deutschland (Free Germany): “Gerlach was one of the ‹most active, prudent and capable officers in camp number 160”. (p. 623)
Today the question arises about the real reasons that led the Soviet leadership to object to the restitution. The Cold War was already under way in 1950. The Korean War had begun. Military virtues like willingness to sacrifice and bravery were in demand on both sides – connected with  making up and reinforcing enemy stereotypes. Statements against the war didn’t fit in with this scenario. In addition the Soviet authorities had asked Gerlach and other prisoners of war if they would continue collaborating with the Soviet Union after their imprisonment. They offered Gerlach to edit a journal for art and literature in the Soviet Zone (East Berlin). The KGB, too, expressed their interest for a collaboration after the imprisonment.

Return in 1950

Until this time Gerlach had never crossed the bounderies he had set for himself and remained true to himself, and he said no.
But he noticed that others who had said no, too, run into difficulties and were even accused. Now he wants only one thing: to survivet and to return home. So he agrees in pretence. This emergency lie was his ticket out of war imprisonment and for his family reunion.
Soon Heinrich Gerlach was back teaching  a school class in Berlin just like before the war – but he had his difficulties. His life had been so different for the last eleven years. Besides, he couldn’t forget  “Stalingrad” . He had a message that he wanted to pass on to the young adults and to the coming generations by all means, and he conceived  the plan to rewrite the novel a second time. He came to realize that this was not so easy. He had “forgotten” a lot. Human beings tend to block out dreadful things. With the help of a psychologist he began to recall hisexperiences of Stalingrad step by step – a difficult endeavour. He succeeded. But he needed four years until the second edition was on the table and could be published – this time with a completely different title: “The Betrayed Army” was the name of the new novel.Followed later on by the sequel about the years of imprisonment under the title: “Odyssey in Red”.
The original version of 1943 should rest more than half a century in an archive in Moscow until Carsten Gansel, professor of literature at the University of Giessen, found it in 2012. He compared the novel of 1956 with the original edition of 1943 and found differences, so that he favoured a word-for-word edition. Now it is available.

“Breaktrough at Stalingrad”

The novel is to a great extent autobiographic. Hans Gerlach was a German teacher  at the grammar school in a small town near Königsberg in East Prussia. In summer 1939 he was drafted for the Wehrmacht at the age of 33. He took part in the Battle of France and then in the war against Yugoslavia. Then they waged war  against the Soviet Union – in the beginning, similar to France, it was a triumphant blitzkrieg. Meanwhile Gerlach had been promoted senior lieutenant. Shortly before Stalingrad things did  not go as quickly anymore. Worse: In November 1942 the 6th Army with about 250,000 men weretr trapped by the Russian army .  Reader s with a good knowledge of history might find the title of the book bizarre and think: A breakthrough through the Russian lines has never happened. Hitler had forbidden the 6th army to undertake anyimmediate breakthrough out of the siegeh and any retreat. The reader must excercise patience over many pages, until he finds out step by step what is behind the strange title “Breakthrough at Stalingrad”.

Hunger, cold and death

Göring had promised Hitler to supply the entrapped army by air – with 600 tons of food and war material every day. However, he miscalcualted the situation. From the beginning on, the rickety Ju-52s managed less than half of the promised supplies. Often heavily loaded they were shot down by the Russians or crashed  after a failed landing. At the beginning of January 1943 the Russians had conquered the airfields, and then supplies were cut off completely. After that, the dramatic situation increased.
The situation of the soldiers in January 1943 became worse and worse  cold, hunger, epidemics, wounds, death, despair paralyzed the soldiers. Because of the frozen ground the dead could no longer be buried. Often they were piled up like logs next to the military posts, or were left lying  under the snow. Supplies quickly ran out. In mid-January 1943, General Paulus reported to Hitler that there were 16,000 wounded not provided for – most of them lying in improvised hospitals and that the supply situation was catastrophic. (p. 385) He asked for freedom to act or permission to stop the fight. Two hours later Hitler replied: “Freedom to act refused – surrender not allowed”, “fight to the last bullet”, “fight to the last man”. Further wireless messages in these weeks were: “You can rely on me, I will get you out”, “Generous supply will be rolling in”.
Such promises were intended for the simple soldier, who believed in Hitler to the end. High officers knew that the troops, which were normally available as reserve forces, were nowhere near. Hitler had sent them to the Caucasus to conquer the oil fields of the Caspian Sea. They were also in trouble and on the retreat – in any case they were far too far away to be of any help.
The end came at the beginning of February. When the snow finally melted in spring, the Russians buried the bodies of 142,567 German soldiers. The number of dead Russian soldiers and civilians, however, was much higher. About 90,000 German soldiers were taken prisoners.. However, they were so run-down, wounded, discouraged, sick, half or almost completely starved to death that the death rate in the following weeks and months was about 90 percent.

Staying human in an extreme situation

With the title “Breakthrough at Stalingrad” Gerlach didn’t mean a military concept, but the breakthrough in the minds of the soldiers gradually realizing that they were involved in a criminal war, and even more – that “war” is a crime against humanity. The novel becomes a harrowing literary testimony and an anti-war novel. In his choice of title literary expert Gerlach referred to a much quoted passage by Ulrich von Hutten (1488-1523): “I do not dream of the happiness of old times, I break through and do not look back”. That’s what he did, too.
At the beginning of February 1943, many officers, including high ranking officers, committed suicide by shooting themselves. Death seemed easier for them than slow decay or “certain death in captivity” – as Goebbels claimed in his propaganda. For Gerlach, staying alive was a breakthrough – the first act in his fight against Hitler and for Germany.
The novel is extremely dense but easy to read. It covers wide areas of the human psyche, military affairs, history, politics and philosophy. Gerlach describes the war with all its horrors. However, he does not focus on military procedures – but on the soldier as a human person who somehow tries to cope with the extreme situation and with himself. As a grammar school teacher Gerlach was used to talking to his students. Thus he masterfully succeeded in involving the reader in countless conversations – between soldiers, sargeants, officers, between Lieutenant Breuer (Heinrich Gerlach’s alter ego) and his driver, between captains and colonels, between German soldiers and captured Russians and also with inhabitants of Stalingrad trying to survive in the basements – and asking themselves “why“?

Generals in bondage to Hitler

As first lieutenant, Gerlach had no access to the actual command of the army. But he was lucky  to be sent to a prisoner-of-war camp for officers who under the Geneva Convention were not required to work. There, immediately after the battle he found time to start writing down his experiences and so to unburden himself of the horrors – first as a diary, then as a novel. There he met some of the 22 captured generals from Stalingrad, one of whom had repeatedly been flown out of the encirclement during the battle to report to Hitler and then returned with his instructions. They realted  the conversations at the head of the 6th Army, at the Führer’s headquarters, and sometimes  from Hitler’s lunch table, to which they were invited. Gerlach incorporated their narratives into his novel – so that the reader can see the desperate situation from the perspective of the very top. Gerlach emphasizes in his epilogue that nothing is invented, everything is based on “personal experiences and conversations with German soldiers and officers who fought at Stalingrad”.

A literary masterpiece

The novel has been written by a master of language. Two passages may serve as an example: Gerlach describes the decisive attack led by the Russians against a weak spot in the German front:

There! Suddenly the air fills with a sinister and eerie hissing and whizzing sound. Cries of fear and shouts of alarm ring out. And then, in an instant, the storm is upon them. All of a suden a forest of flames erupts from the rumbling ground, and a hailstorm of shrapnel comes whistling towards them, as clouds of sulphurous smoke billow across the plain. […] Fountains of earth burst upwards, forming a wall that then comes crashing down on the minefield in front of their position, setting off the charges, shredding the barbed-wire entanglements, burying trenches and machine-gun nests, and whipping up a maelstrom of pieces of wood, weapons and human body parts, before rolling on to the rearward artillery positions. All to the accompaniment of a terrible seething, roaring, howling and cracking sound…  The very ground on which they are standing, torn and lacerated, flinches under the hellish onslaught of material. What a piece of work is man…!

The directors of the film studio, subsequently making these or similar scenes into a film, would need tons of pyrotechnic material without even remotely achieving the effect Gerlach expresses in these few lines.
And this is how Gerlach describes his return to Berlin from his captivity as a prisoner of war  on 22  April 1950:

Slowly he climbed the steps up to the ticket barrier. […] His legs grew heavier and heavier. There was the barrier now, beneath the large station clock. And behind it, huddled in a corner by the ticket booths as if in fear, stood a woman […] [He] went up to her. A boy was standing beside her, as tall as her. A child’s drawing showing a tree and house and two yellow suns above. Two suns illuminating a bunker in Stalingrad…” (p.662)

Carsten Gansel – sensitive discoverer of the original version

That Gerlach’s six-hundred-page novel is immediately followed by an afterword of nearly two-hundred pages is rather unusual. The reader senses that “Durchbruch bei Stalingrad” has become for its discoverer, Carsten Gansel, professor of literature, a matter of the heart. He carefully examines the historical and political circumstances under which Gerlach had written his novel. Particular attention is being paid to the activities of the “League of German Officers” and the “National Committee for a Free Germany”, and to Gerlach’s editorial work for its newspaper “Free Germany”. Moreover, he compares the original version with the second version, which Gerlach wrote ten years later. In addition, Gansel carefully analyses the two expert reports on the book that were commissioned by the Soviet leadership and places them in their proper context.
Comparing the second version with the original version, Gansel notes that in the later version the author’s perspective has slightly changed. Here Gerlach puts the criminal methods of warfare adopted by Hitler into the foreground – which is also reflected in the new title “The Forsaken Army”. By contrast, the original version focuses more strongly on the soldier’s wide-ranging inner world of thoughts and emotions and on the existential questions that arose in Stalingrad.

75 years after Stalingrad: lest we forget!

February 2018 marked the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Stalingrad. In today’s Volgograd, where a huge memorial commemorates the event, large commemoration ceremonials were taking place. From the German Federal Government nobody took part in them. Differences with Putin or not – it is incomprehensible that the Chancellor (who now wants to build a European army) did not bother to pay her respect to the 142,567 German soldiers buried there and to their relatives. The far greater number of Russian soldiers and their families and the inhabitants of Volgograd would have deserved this respect even more so – nobody, after all, invited Germany to invade Russia and the city on the Volga river, and the dead on both sides did not die voluntarily. Officials of the German Armed Forces were not at Volgograd, either. As Michael Henjes from the Federal Ministry of Defence put it: “Stalingrad is a myth that is not so much present anymore. In the Federal Armed Forces this is no longer an issue today. Threads have been cut.” (“Hannoversche Allgemeine Zeitung” from 1 February 2018) – In the end, only a small group was present – some people of the city partnership of Cologne and Chemnitz with Volgograd, some MP’s of the leftist party and a few of the SPD.
A “Durchbruch” („breakthrough“) to new insights and to a new way of thinking is as important today as after the Second World War. This would at the same time defuse the migration problem – far more than the a UN global migration pact. The publication of Gerlach’s harrowing account comes at precisely the right time.    •

Gerlach, Heinrich, Durchbruch bei Stalingrad, Munich: DTV, 2017.
Gerlach, Heinrich. Breakout at Stalingrad. Translated by Peter Lewis. London: Apollo, an Imprint of Head of Zeus, 2018.
Diedrich, Torsten. Ebert, Jens. Walther von Seydlitz. Nach Stalingrad – Feldpostbriefe und Kriegsgefangenenpost 1939–1955. Göttingen: Wallstein Verlag, 2018

Who really wants to know what “war” is ...

ww. Anyone who compares Heinrich Gerlach’s account of the war with the media coverage of today’s wars will notice huge differences. Since the Vietnam War, there are almost only “embedded journalists”, involved and part of the war effort. Unfortunately, there is often not much else to say about NGOs, some human rights organisations and generally the mainstream media. The rapporteurs adopt the propaganda, report unilaterally, spread lies and remain above all on the surface, so that the reader does not notice the reality any more and can easily be led to the erroneous view that  war is something normal and belongs to life. (see “From Censorship to Mainstream” in Current Concerns No 23, 16 October 2018)
If only the unsolved migration and refugee problem would not exist! But here too one often succeeds in obscuring and diverting our attention from the fact that many wars from Yugoslavia to Syria, Lebanon, Gaza, Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan and Yemen are one of the main causes of the problem. And new wars are being prepared. The building up  of the Cold War has long begun  . - Should you undertake to read the 600 pages «Stalingrad»? Anyone who really wants to know what “war” is and who also accepts that a “breakthrough” happens in his head, will not set the book aside. That’s why Heinrich Gerlach wrote the novel. For “The dead and the living” (Mortuis et Vivis)is his dedication on the first page.

The Bund Deutscher Offiziere (BDO) (League of German Officers) in historiography

ww. In the history books the league of German officers is today rather a marginal phenomenon. Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg is the hero and main representative of the German resistance against Hitler. His story has been described many times, acknowledged and made into several films. In the Federal Republic of Germany the activity of the Stalingrad officers in the BDO was disputed for a long time. Again and again, certain circles misrepresented them as “useful idiots of the Soviets.” It was not until German and Russian historians gained access to archives in Moscow in the 1990s that this view changed: Professor Gansel, who made the publication of “Breakthrough at Stalingrad” possible, clearly states: “The eventual failure of the activities of the Bund Deutscher Offiziere (League of German Officers) in which Heinrich Gerlach has been involved as a member of the editorial Freies Deutschland in the subsequent period, does not change the fact that the founding was an honorable attempt, given the hopeless military situation to spare the German people greatest losses and destruction of the country.” (p. 605) He counts the BDO officers – and with them also Heinrich Gerlach – to the circle of resistance against Hitler – on a par with Stauffenberg or the siblings Scholl (Weisse Rose). Wolfgang Thierse, Bundestag President, also did this at the commemoration ceremony for the German resistance in the year 2000.

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