Revisiting an important book: ‘Enemy at the Gates’
“Enemy at the Gates: The Battle for Stalingrad,” by William Craig. First published in 1973.
By Steve Huffman
“Enemy at the Gates” was a 2001 movie that starred Jude Law and Ed Harris.
The movie told the story of a pair of snipers (Law the Russian, Harris the German) who dueled in the World War II battle of Stalingrad.
The movie was based loosely on William Craig’s 1973 nonfiction book, “Enemy at the Gates: The Battle for Stalingrad.”
The movie was so-so, but it wasn’t until I finished reading Craig’s “Enemy at the Gates” that I realized exactly how loosely the film followed the battle’s actual events.
In the movie, Harris plays Major Erwin Konig, a German sniper brought to Stalingrad to kill Vasily Zaytsev, Law’s character, who is a master sniper.
The movie centers almost entirely on those characters while in Craig’s book, the duel between the two is brief, lasting but a few days and consuming only a couple of pages.
For a far better understanding of the battle, read the book.
Craig’s account is both fascinating and horrific, the story of a battle that cost more than 2 million lives, yet one that is relatively unknown in the United States, largely because of our nation’s lack of involvement.
Stalingrad remains the bloodiest battle in the history of warfare, a fight that marked the beginning of the end of Hitler’s famed Third Reich.
Craig does a superb job of telling the story of the battle, having spent years preparing for the writing by interviewing hundreds of survivors ó both Russian and German.
The battle for Stalingrad started in the summer of 1942 at a time when the Germans thought they’d conquer all of Russia in six weeks.
For a period, it appeared they would, with the Nazis pushing across huge swaths of the Soviet Union with little resistance.
Initially, even Stalingrad looked as though it would fall quickly. The city backs up to the Volga River and the Germans pushed the Russian defenders to within 100 yards of the water’s edge.
But the Soviets there dug in and fought, the result being a relentless building-to-building battle, descriptions of which are often graphic.
The first day the Germans bombed Stalingrad, they did so with 600 planes, a number so great that they blackened the sky. Residents of the city had long been warned that an attack was imminent, but had become so accustomed to the warnings that they apparently didn’t take them seriously.
On the first afternoon of the German barrage, 40,000 residents of Stalingrad were killed. Chaos reigned, with toddlers often left standing over the mutilated bodies of their parents.
“Mrs. Karmanova could not bear it,” Craig wrote, describing the aftermath of one of the first days of fighting. “As she crouched under a hail of bullets and tried to block out the sounds of the dying child, she saw a family dart from shelter and run toward the river. At the same moment, a German sniper tracked them and quickly killed the son, the father, and then the mother. The sole survivor, a little girl, paused in bewilderment over her mother’s body. In the trench, Russian soldiers cupped their hands and hollered, ‘Run! Run!’ Others took up the cry. The girl hesitated, then bolted from the corpses into the darkness. The German sniper did not fire again.”
The battle began in summer’s heat, but the German thrust waned as winter settled in. By the arrival of December, temperatures were well below zero and the problems of the Nazis intensified.
The Russians regrouped and sent in huge masses of reinforcements. Communist tanks rolled into Stalingrad and the Russians eventually encircled Germany’s massive 6th Army, which totaled 250,000 men.
Supplying the Germans became a problem, with air lifts bringing in less than 20 percent of the food and ammunition that was needed. Numerous German soldiers died of starvation.
Gen. Friedrich von Paulus, who directed the German army, tried repeatedly to get permission from Hitler to withdraw from Stalingrad.
Hitler responded by continually promising that relief battalions would soon arrive. The battalions didn’t exist.
Meanwhile, men froze and died nasty deaths while battling lice, rats and mice. Meals were made of starving horses.
“Along the upper Don, the sun rose on a ghastly scene,” Craig wrote of the situation by late December. “The bitter cold had claimed thousands of soldiers who paused to sleep during the night. These victims now sat by the roads in what appeared to be comfortable positions, like bored spectators at a Roman arena, as their countrymen scurried by. Giant snowflakes began to collect on their coats and faces; soon they were covered completely. The corpses became road markers for the living.”
At the end of January, Hitler promoted Paulus to field marshal in a desperate attempt to keep him from surrendering. No German of such rank had ever surrendered.
But the ploy didn’t work. Paulus finally surrendered after the Russians promised that his men would be fed and given medical attention.
The Soviets lied, the Germans often being brutalized in captivity, great numbers of them shot as they marched to concentration camps in Siberia.
Craig ends the book with an epilogue in which he updates readers as to what happened to many of the central figures.
A few of the Germans survived and returned to their homes following the war. One man was so gaunt and had aged so terribly that his daughter ran screaming when she saw him.
Paulus never returned to Germany, dying in Russia in 1957. Ironically, he promoted communism as the best means of survival for Europe following the war.
The epilogue is an interesting end to an epic work.
If you’re interested in learning about the battle, read “Enemy at the Gates,” but leave the like-named movie at the video store.
The Post occasionally reviews good books from the past.