'Breakout at Stalingrad' earns its place beside classics of war literature

Breakout at Stalingrad, Author: Heinrich Gerlach (with Peter Lewis), Publisher: Apollo, Pages: 661, Price: Rs 525 (digital list price)
For the most part, the English-reading World War II buff depended on books from writers on the Allied side, mostly British and American. A few German accounts were available in translation — generals’ memoirs, Albert Speer’s self-serving mea culpa, Joseph Goebbels’ diaries and the turgid Mein Kampf, among others. Revelatory books like Twilight of the Gods (2004) and We Will Not Go to Tuapse (2016), both from SS volunteers on the Eastern Front, came to English-language readers only recently.


Breakout at Stalingrad, published this January, is another offering from an Eastern Front veteran but it is not, strictly speaking, a recent account. Unearthed from Russian archives in 2012, it is the original version of a best-selling German novel published in 1957 called The Forsaken Army, now out of print and never translated into English.

Its author Heinrich Gerlach served as an intelligence officer with an infantry unit fighting around Stalingrad and fell into Russian captivity when Friedrich Von Paulus, hapless commander of the German Sixth Army, surrendered in February 1943. Gerlach built his fictional account from his front-line experiences and interviews with comrades in Soviet POW camps and wrote it in secret. A year before his release in 1950, his novel was discovered and confiscated by Soviet intelligence.


Breakout centres on the stories of several characters, composites of people Gerlach interviewed — an intelligence officer, a driver, a priest, an ambitious non-commissioned officer and others — through the last months of that fateful campaign. In the light of recent research, the book is a startlingly authentic early documentary of the campaign that marked Nazi Germany’s downfall. Gerlach recreates the siege with piercing acuity — from doomed infantry encounters on the frozen front to the delusional parleys of the military high command thousands of miles away.

A German soldier with Russian-made PPSh-41 submachine gun during the Battle for Stalingrad. Photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-E0406-0022-001 / CC-BY-SA 3.0 / Wikimedia Commons
The book starts from the point Hitler’s plans start to unravel in November 1942 when a resurgent and well-equipped Soviet army smashes the German army’s weakest link, Italian and Romanian allies holding the peripheries. A traumatised Lieutenant Breur/Gerlach mentally replays scenes of the recent battle: “The wildly gesticulating troops running down screaming … after the first salvo of rockets from the Stalin organ [the Katyusha rocket], the hideously mutilated Romanian lying in the courtyard, the victim of a direct hit…the horse that galloped past with its stomach torn open, its entrails behind it…”


Already on half-rations, critically short of arms and ammunition, the long-awaited order comes for the Wehrmacht to retreat — but, bizarrely, to the east! The prayed-for relief expedition from the Caucasus stalls. Trapped in the "crucible", muscular ideology is swamped by the acute privations and fears with which every soldier in combat can identify.  


Sensibilities erode under the onslaught of an enemy avenging German atrocities in the early years of the invasion. In a chilling chapter titled “The Bone Road”, Gerlach describes a corpse of a Russian soldier rammed head first into the ground. “We had to mark where the roadway went somehow, ‘cos it’s always getting covered by snowdrifts. And there is no wood to hand; people keep nicking it,” the driver laconically explains to an officer.


Hitler won’t countenance surrender but Reichsmarschall Goering delivers a radio speech on the Third Reich’s 10th anniversary signalling Germany’s heroic acceptance of defeat at Stalingrad. The listening soldiers understand: They have been abandoned. With the Russians three blocks away, “Silence has descended so completely that you could hear quite distinctly through the walls the sound of…collapsing rubble.” 

The German defence with captured Soviet weapons. Photos: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-E0406-0022-001 / CC-BY-SA 3.0 / Wikimedia Commons
Gerlach records how soldiers shout their thanks to the Führer in a last despairing irony as they walked into captivity. In the final reckoning, 22 German divisions and supporting units were wiped out, 91,000 men went into captivity, including 2,500 officers.


In the spring of 1943, the first letters from Stalingrad’s POWs filtered home. Officers at Fuhrer headquarters said families would be relieved to know their relatives were alive. Hitler’s response: “The duty of those who fought at Stalingrad is to be dead!”


The novel ends on this grim note but the book takes up the after-story, of the discovery of the manuscript in a Moscow archive by Carsten Gansel, a professor of German literature, who also traces Gerlach’s life (he died in 1991) against the post-war geopolitics that created two Germanys. This Appendix is as gripping as the novel.


Released from captivity, Gerlach struggled to recall his lost war novel. Some years later, he read an article about the powers of hypnosis in retrieving repressed memories and contacted the physician Karl Schmitz about the possibility of resurrecting his novel through this technique. Lacking money to pay for the experiment, Gerlach offered several magazines exclusive rights to the story if they would fund the exercise. One of them responded and the treatment began.


After 23 sessions, Gerlach managed to recreate about two-thirds of his lost novel. When The Forsaken Army was published, its first print run of 10,000 copies was sold out in weeks. (The success prompted a court case from Dr Schmitz, demanding a share of the proceeds, a saga in itself.)


The well-publicised recreation process partly accounted for this success. But the novel “really did capture the mood of the age, giving voice to those who had survived Stalingrad and Soviet captivity,” Gansel writes. Breakout, he adjudges, written in the present tense in the immediate aftermath, had a more raw, authentic feel to it than its successor. Even without the benefit of comparison, Breakout earns its place beside the classics of war literature.