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Leadership at Stalingrad

LAURENCE REES: Then Hitler decides that essentially everybody in the 6th Army should stay in Stalingrad and be destroyed.  It seems extraordinary. So how can we judge Hitler’s mentality at this time?

ANTONY BEEVOR: Well, I take your point entirely and I agree. I think  one of the questions one has to ask, is about the whole question of Operation Barbarossa. I mean, to cut back on military production when you’re actually launching the most dangerous and ambitious operation in the history of the world, indicates that here’s something of a gambler who actually has a subconscious desire to lose. I know this is a sort of psychological speculation which historians shouldn’t really get into, but one has to consider it because of the consequences of these extraordinary decisions. He somehow believed that if the German soldier holds firm he will always be right. It was this whole notion, 'the triumph of the will', and the idea that somehow moral decision and decisiveness would overcome everything. And he still believed, in his ludicrously optimistic way, that he had all of these other divisions.

But the SS Panzer Divisions that he was thinking about hadn’t arrived yet, and there was no question of them being able to be used straight away for a breakthrough to open up the encirclement and to support the 6th Army. The problem was that he had invested so much in propaganda terms, even Goebbels was worried about how much was being invested in propaganda terms, about the capture of Stalingrad, that it was a question of pride, of vanity. He had captured Stalin’s city, and only a few days before the encirclement he was boasting to the old comrades in the Bürgerbräukeller in Munich that there is this city that happens to bear somebody’s name; he was obsessed with it as a trophy. Stalingrad was a trophy and an ersatz victory that he couldn’t let go of, and this was to lead to not only a disaster on an epic scale - and it was only exceeded later in ’44 and ’45 - but it actually gave the Soviet Union the confidence that now they actually really could beat the Germans, and, above all, the fact that they had actually used German tactics against them in this massive encirclement professionalised the Red Army in a way which one couldn’t have imagined only a few months before.

LAURENCE REES: Can one go so far as to say then that Hitler’s decision to insist that the 6th Army stay there was irrational?

ANTONY BEEVOR: Well, it was irrational, but a lot of his decision making during this particular period, I think, was irrational. Many people have debated the whole question about the Battle of Moscow and whether Hitler should have allowed further retreat or was he right to insist on holding the line? Now, Hitler was absolutely convinced that he had been right on ordering an end to any form of withdrawal, and I think that had actually affected his attitude towards Stalingrad: 'I was right then, in front of Moscow, otherwise it would have been chaos and we’d have lost half of Russia'. He felt at Stalingrad that he would be right again. And this is where one sees Hitler’s military decision making deteriorating. His graph was going down, if you like, while Stalin’s was going up in terms of rationality for military decision making.