There was no shortage of horrors during the Second World War. The event that gave the world concentration camps also gave us the Rape of Nanking, the firebombing of Dresden, and the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. These nightmarish scenarios generally occurred when one group had power over another and used that power to murder indiscriminately.
However, the frontlines themselves weren't exactly a picnic. As pictures of the war show us, the rank-and-file soldiers on every side faced conditions that most of us can't even imagine. Forced marches were commonplace, and life on the frontlines was a constant nightmare that left many men broken in more than just the physical sense. And then there was the fighting.
The battles of World War II were often apocalyptically brutal thanks to improvements in artillery, tanks, and other weapons of war. There were many bloody skirmishes during the conflict, but perhaps none as terrible as the Battle of Stalingrad. This infamous battle could be more accurately called a siege. It took place from August 23, 1942, to February 2, 1943 - a total of five months, one week, and three days. In terms of the number of soldiers involved, it was the largest single encounter in WWII, and proved to be a turning point in the Eastern Front. The German military massively overextended itself in an ultimately fruitless attempt to capture Stalingrad. Had it succeeded, the world would look very different today.
Historians have attempted to understand the insanity of Stalingrad through facts and figures, but perhaps the only voices that can really capture the experience are those that lived through it.
An oft-quoted figure is that 1,000 tons of bombs were dropped on Stalingrad during the siege. That number can be hard to truly grasp, but it was more than enough to reduce most of the city to rubble after just a few days. The German army's blitzkrieg technique meant expending a vast amount of its destructive capabilities in the first offensive. When the Russians didn't surrender, the fighting became brutal and protracted.
However, those first few days were apocalyptic, as survivor Boris Serafimovich Kryzhanovsky recalls:
The massive bombing of the city began on August 23, 1942 right after dinner. In two days the city was destroyed. The Central district where I lived was the first to be destroyed. It was one of the most horrible days: the earth literally trembled. It was terrifying. We took cover in a bomb shelter. The next day our house was gone. I had nothing but underwear left.
Being bombed is not like being attacked in hand-to-hand combat. You cannot see your attacker, and there's nothing a civilian can do to fight back. However, Kryzhanovsky remembers one moment when the bombing became personal for him:
I remember a day in October. The bombing raids had become rarer. I remember hopping around the ruins when a German plane suddenly appeared. It was flying low so I could clearly see the pilot's face: a young man, sitting in his cockpit and smiling. I can even remember that smile. He was firing away with his machine gun. I ran, he missed me. It hadn't occurred to me to just lie low. But he missed me...
German officers were expected to take their own lives rather than face capture. This was part of the ethos of the German army, and was seen as the only honorable thing to do. Many soldiers and officers didn't follow through with it, but some did, as Panzer truck driver Johann Scheins recalls. When his unit was surrounded by the Russians and at risk of capture, he remembers watching how the officers reacted:
And then a staff sergeant, who could speak perfect Polish, entered at a trot. He was Polish, but a German Pole. He announced that four tanks, Russian T-34, had run over and cut the cables, that there was no longer any connection. There was nothing that could be done... The general then stood up. He adjusted his collar to make it neater. He was tall. He put on his cap. I stood here; he stood there. He just stood there, then he took his revolver - Long live Germany! Long live my country! - and he shot himself here and then fell forwards. I thought he would fall off the table. I stood right there. I had never seen such a thing: some white stuff came out at the top. The stuff that comes out of a herring when you cut it up. Not the bones. The white stuff.
Quite dense. Such a hole. He had aimed the bullet upwards. Blood started coming out. He bled to death. There he lay, on the table.
Of course, soldiers weren't the only ones who fell in the Battle of Stalingrad. Stalin prohibited evacuations during much of the siege, even for children, and civilians paid a heavy price. Among those who suffered was Valentina Savelyeva, who scavenged for potatoes with her family. One day, she and her family had to hide from a bombing run:
The oil tanks nearby had been hit and the Volga was a sheet of fire... We crouched in the burrow, peeping out. The potatoes lasted a week. When the incendiary bombs fell we would rush out and cook them on the flames.
With their homes destroyed, the families camped by the Volga and had to resort to desperate measures to survive, including eating clay they found by the banks of the river:
It was slightly sweet and I would suck on it all day long. My mother collected water from the Volga. There was blood floating downstream. She would crouch down and skim it away with her hand, and then filter the water into a saucepan with a piece of cloth.
Many families lived in improvised bunkers among the ruins. However, these carried their own risks, as Valentina learned when she saw her neighbors' home hit in an air strike. The family asphyxiated:
I'll never forget the moment when the bodies were dug out. There was a girl a little older than me. She had clumps of hair in her hands that she had torn out in desperation as she choked to death.
Since ancient times, generals have feared urban warfare over all other forms of combat. It is difficult, if not impossible, to control troop movements in a city, and you're fighting against not only an entrenched army, but also a populace. It doesn't take long for urban assaults to turn into anarchic looting and undisciplined hand-to-hand combat.
In situations like these, soldiers rely on each other. Sometimes all that stands between you and a bullet is the man standing next to you, as German private Helmut Walz discovered. He was fighting in the city streets and barely escaped with his life:
One of them [the Russians] came out and he had blood coming from his mouth, from his nose and from his ears. And he pulled his machine gun, the Russian machine gun with a drum at the front, he pulls it into the air and I say to myself: 'Well, you ain't gonna get me.' And I aim my gun at him and all of a sudden I see little stars. I was shot and that was it. I saw little stars in front of my eyes. I looked to my right, and I ran my left hand over my face and a jet of blood comes out and my teeth flew out of my mouth. It was half past ten in the morning, a Saturday morning. Now it's all over, I thought. And so my colleague saw it and he went, 'Ah, ah!' He crushed the head of the Russian who had shot me...
So he bandaged me and all of a sudden he said, 'Careful, a Russian.' And he aimed his machine gun at him and then his steel helmet flies through the air. He got shot in his head and he had that leather strap underneath and that was just blown away and it flew through the air and then I looked at him and I saw how he was shot in his head and how his head split. That's the first time I saw a brain. On the left hand side and on the right hand side there were parts of the brain, and in the middle there was water. No blood, but water. And he looked at me and he was standing on the soil with his wound. At the slope of the crater. And so he fell in there.