The field marshal who surrendered

Field Marshal Paulus at Stalingrad

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Friedrich Paulus
(Photo: Der Spiegel)

The Prussian, and later German, military had long been proud of never having had one of their field marshals surrender to the enemy. This tradition was broken on January 31, 1943, in Stalingrad, when Field Marshal Friedrich Wilhelm Ernst Paulus (1890-1957) became the first German field marshal to do so. This article, published shortly after the 80th anniversary of the event, takes a look at how the historic first unfolded.
 
Paulus was a man of many positive qualities who found himself in the wrong position at the worst possible time. Unlike most of the German general staff (and like Rommel (Read our earlier article – The accomplishments and legacy of the Desert Fox)) he came from outside the traditional military aristocracy, having been born as a treasurer’s son. He failed to become a cadet in the German navy due to his commoner parentage, and studied law for a while before dropping out of university. He joined an infantry regiment in 1910 and fought in France during World War I. A sickness separated him from his unit, and he was assigned to the elite Alpenkorps, a division-sized mountain infantry unit, as a staff officer after recovery.

German Alpenkorps soldiers during World War I (Photo: unknown photographer)
German Alpenkorps soldiers during World War I
(Photo: unknown photographer)

He reached the rank of captain by the war’s end, and became one of the 4,000 officers retained by the military after its forced drastic downsizing by the Treaty of Versailles. During the 1920s, he held guest lectures in Moscow as part of a military cooperation between the Weimar Republic and the Soviet Union while climbing the ranks.
 
Paulus was appointed as chief of staff of Heinz Guderian’s XVI Army Corps (Motorized) in early 1938. Guderian described him as "brilliantly clever, conscientious, hard-working, original and talented," but also noted his lack of decisiveness, toughness and command experience. Paulus was good at making plans over a map, but was not really cut out for commanding large units on the battlefield.

Paulus with Hitler (Photo: Archive Prussian Heritage)
Paulus with Hitler
(Photo: Archive Prussian Heritage)

Paulus was transferred to the 10th Army in 1939, still in the position of chief of staff, and served during the invasion of Poland at the outset of World War II. The army was later redesignated as the 6th Army and sent to fight in the invasion of France. He was promoted to lieutenant general in 1940, and helped plan the invasion of the Soviet Union as deputy chief of the German General Staff.
 
He found a mentor in Field Marshal Walter von Reichenau, commander of the 6th Army. In late 1941, however, Reichenau had to leave his position. His superior, Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt, commander of Army Group South, got on Hitler’s bad side for ordering a retreat from the captured Soviet city of Rostov in the face of a strong Russian counteroffensive and the oncoming winter. Rundstedt was dismissed as head of the army group, and Reichenau was given Rundstedt’s former command. This, in turn, left the 6th Army without a commander, and Paulus was chosen for the job despite the fact that he had never commanded a unit larger than a battalion in the field before.

Paulus arriving in southern Russia (Photo: Bundesarchiv)
Paulus arriving in southern Russia
(Photo: Bundesarchiv)

It's likely that Reichenau intended to keep on mentoring Paulus and help him ease into his new position, but fate intervened. In January 1942, six days before Paulus could arrive to his new post, Reichenau suffered a heart attack while out cross-country running. The plane taking him to a hospital then crashed with him on board, and he suffered serious head injuries. Reichenau died shortly after, leaving Paulus without any help.

Field Marshal von Reichenau in Ukraine in July 1941 (Photo: Bundesarchiv)
Field Marshal von Reichenau in Ukraine in July 1941
(Photo: Bundesarchiv)

Paulus was off to a good start despite the death of his patron. He played an important role in the Second Battle of Kharkov in May 1942, when 350,000 Germans fought off an attack by a Soviet force twice the size, with grossly disproportionate casualties: 20-30,000 German soldiers to close to 280,000 Soviet ones.
 
Paulus led the drive to Stalingrad, then the three months of brutal house-to-house fighting in the city. The battle took a turn in November 1942, when the Soviets launched Operation Uranus, a massive counterattack that ended up surrounding the city and Paulus’s army with an entire Russian Army Group. Paulus followed Hitler’s orders and refused to break out of the city when it was in the process of being surrounded. He later explained to his men that by staying in Stalingrad as long as possible, they were tying up superior Soviet forces, giving other German armies time to stabilize the front.

Soviet troops attacking one of the last pockets of German resistance in Stalingrad (Photo: Getty Images)
Soviet troops attacking one of the last pockets of German resistance in Stalingrad (Photo: Getty Images)

In December 1942, Field Marshal Erich von Manstein, commander of the Army Group Don, went against Hitler’s wishes and planned an operation to open a corridor for the 6th Army to get out. The plan required Paulus’s army to cooperate with Manstein’s forces and attempt the breakout at the right time, but Paulus insisted on following orders – and since his orders had to come from Hitler, they were not forthcoming. Without Paulus’s active cooperation, the operation was doomed to failure, trapping the 6th Army in Stalingrad for good.

A Tiger tank in the Soviet Union, probably a part of of Manstein’s Army Group Don (Photo: Bundesarchiv)
A Tiger tank in the Soviet Union, probably a part of of Manstein’s Army Group Don (Photo: Bundesarchiv)

Paulus lost his self-confidence, and his nerves gradually broke down during the desperate months of winter. De facto control of the 6th Army went to one of his aides, Lieutenant General Arthur Schmidt. Unlike Paulus, Schmidt was a stalwart Nazi with a seemingly unshakeable belief in eventual victory. While tenacious and willing to obey orders without question, he also lacked initiative, daring and tactical skill. Many German soldiers felt that Schmidt came to command not only the 6th Army, but also Paulus himself, and explicitly said so to Soviet interrogators after their capture. It’s been speculated that Paulus allowed Schmidt to take over because he thought that the latter’s good standing in Nazi circles would offer both some protection from Hitler’s wrath when the battle for Stalingrad was inevitably lost.

Arthur Schmidt (Photo: Wikipedia)
Arthur Schmidt
(Photo: Wikipedia)

On January 7, 1943, Soviet General Konstantin Rokossovsky (Read our earlier article – the man with iron will and metal teeth) offered Paulus generous terms of surrender: full rations and medical treatment for the soldiers, and permission to retain their uniforms, decorations and personal items. Paulus requested Hitler’s permission to surrender, but the Führer refused to grant it. On January 25, the Soviets captured the Germans’ last emergency airstrip, shortly after Paulus sent his wedding ring back to his wife with the last plane. His premonition was correct: they never saw each other again, as she died in 1949, while he was still in Soviet captivity.

A young Paulus with his wife, Romanian Constance Elena Rosetti-Solescu (Photo: unknown photographer)
A young Paulus with his wife, Romanian Constance Elena Rosetti-Solescu
(Photo: unknown photographer)

Paulus’s forces were teetering on the edge of total collapse by the end of January. His remaining units were separated into two pockets: the northern one around the Stalingrad tractor factory, and the southern one with Paulus in and around the Univermag department store. Paulus himself was suffering from dysentery, leaving Schmidt in practically total control.
 
On January 30, the 10th anniversary of Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor (Read our earlier article – Becoming Führer), the trapped German soldiers listened to a speech by Luftwaffe chief and Reichstag President Herman Göring on the radio. In his speech, Göring compared the 6th Army at Stalingrad to the three hundred Spartans at Thermopylae. Of course, the soldiers knew that the Spartans all died at Thermopylae, and felt that the speech was adding insult to injury. Some officers bitterly joked that the mass suicide of the Jews besieged by Roman legions in the mountaintop fortress of Masada in 73 A.D. would have been a more apt comparison. Despondent, exhausted and out of food and ammunition, all the Germans could do was wait for the inevitable.

Paulus’s last holdout, the Univermag department store (Photo: unknown photographer)
Paulus’s last holdout, the Univermag department store
(Photo: unknown photographer)

The exact sequence of how the inevitable arrived is slightly murky as accounts differ on some points. What’s certain is that Hitler, in a deluded attempt to boost morale, radioed a long list of promotions to various officers either over the night of the 30th-31st or in the morning. The final promotion was addressed to Paulus himself: he was made Field Marshal. The meaning of the gesture was not lost on him: no German field marshal ever surrendered, so he was expected to either die fighting or commit suicide to avoid shaming his country. Paulus was a Catholic, and thus against suicide on religious grounds. In fact, he even forbade his soldiers to commit “soldier’s suicide” by deliberately standing out in the open to be shot by the enemy. According to one account, he commented on this shortly after receiving the promotions, at his last generals’ conference: “I have no intention of shooting myself for this Bohemian corporal.”
 
Another version of the events, based on the diary of Colonel Wilhelm Adam, one of Paulus’s other aides, leaves no space for the conference. According to Adam, the promotions came through at 7 a.m. on the 31st, when Paulus was still asleep. He was woken up by Schmidt, who said: “Congratulations. The rank of field marshal has been conferred upon you. The dispatch came early this morning—it was the last one.” Paulus commented on how the promotion was an invitation to suicide, but then Schmidt added: “At the same time I have to inform you that the Russians are at the door.” A Soviet general and his interpreter then promptly entered the room, having marched into the German headquarters and down to the basement without any resistance from the incapacitated German soldiers.

Paulus with officers somewhere in Russia (Photo: Bundesarchiv)
Paulus with officers somewhere in Russia
(Photo: Bundesarchiv)

Now, it seems unlikely that a general would personally go into the enemy headquarters without first making sure that the other side was not going to shoot after all. It is more likely that the initial negotiation team was led by one Senior Lieutenant Fyodor Ilchenko, and a higher-ranking Soviet officer only entered the department store after the German willingness to talk surrender was established.
 
The surrender terms were not actually discussed with Paulus, but the de facto leader Schmidt, while Paulus was in the next room, ostensibly getting ready while Adam kept him informed of the proceedings. It was only two hours after the initial appearance of the Soviet negotiators that General Ivan Laskin arrived to take Paulus’s formal surrender.

Paulus’s surrender (Photo: Imperial War Museums)
Paulus’s surrender
(Photo: Imperial War Museums)

Paulus, Schmidt and Adam were taken to the Soviet headquarters by car. As they walked outside and across the department store lot, Soviet and German soldiers were milling about. Some Russians offered the Germans bread, cigarette or tobacco. However, not all of them were reasonably friendly. According to a Russian witness, Paulus was already sitting in the car and waiting to depart, when a Russian soldier toting captured German machineguns spotted him. Deciding to take revenge for all the Russian lives lost in the battle, he took aim at the field marshal, who was too stunned to react. It was up to a lieutenant to push the machinegun away and shout to the driver: “Move for God's sake, otherwise he'll be killed here!”

Left to right: Paulus, Schmidt and Adam leaving the department store building (Photo: Bundesarchiv)
Left to right: Paulus, Schmidt and Adam leaving the department store building
(Photo: Bundesarchiv)

Once they arrived at the Soviet HQ, an interpreter told Paulus and Schmidt that their luggage, which was thoughtfully put in the car, had to be searched for sharp metal objects. “A German field marshal does not commit suicide with a pair of nail scissors!” Schmidt burst out angrily, but he was waved down by Paulus who handed over his shaving kit.
 
The German officers had to wait until shortly before midnight for the relevant Red Army staff to assemble for an initial interview. According to a German-speaking officer of the Soviet secret police (NKVD), a broken and haggard Paulus whispered to Schmidt just before entering the room: “What should I say?” “Remember you are a General Field Marshal of the German Army” came Schmidt’s reply.

Paulus arriving to the Soviet headquarters (Photo: Getty Images)
Paulus arriving to the Soviet headquarters
(Photo: Getty Images)

The interview was conducted by General Rokossovsky, the front commander; recently appointed Marshal of the Artillery Nikolay Voronov; and political commissar General Konstantin Telegin. NKVD officer Captain Nikolay Dyatlenko was acting as translator, and even a prominent Russian filmmaker was brought in to take photographs of the event. The Soviet staff officers’ goal at this first interview was to get Paulus to order the remaining, northern German pocket to surrender. He stubbornly refused to do so, claiming that since he had lost contact with them several days ago, they now only took orders for Hitler.

Paulus’s first interrogation. Left to right: Rokossovsky, Voronov, Dyatlenko and Paulus (Photo: Roman Karmen)
Paulus’s first interrogation. Left to right: Rokossovsky, Voronov, Dyatlenko and Paulus (Photo: Roman Karmen)

Meanwhile, the Soviets started removing the German POWs from the department store area. The wounded who could still walk were marched away, believing that their bedridden comrades would be brought after them in vehicles. They later learned that the Soviet practice was to shoot any POWs who could not walk. Deliberately or through error, a hospital with wounded in it was set on fire. On a lighter note, two Luftwaffe flak officers were mistaken to be high-ranking because of their red patches and marched upstairs in a building. They jumped through the window and landed in a latrine below. The Soviets were about to shoot them for the attempt, when the younger of the two had a bizarre idea: he pulled down his pants, telling his comrade to follow suit. The Russians, unable to bring themselves to shoot two men with their pants down in the latrine, had a laugh and let them live. All in all, however, the Soviets showed no mercy. Of the 91,000 Germans taken captive at Stalingrad, only 6,000 ever returned home; the rest died either on the way to Siberian camps or in captivity.

Red Army soldiers at Paulus’s freshly captured headquarters (Photo: Yakov Ryumkin)
Red Army soldiers at Paulus’s freshly captured headquarters
(Photo: Yakov Ryumkin)

As a field marshal, Paulus was a trophy prize for Soviet propaganda. He initially refused to collaborate with his captors, but changed his mind after he got news of the failed assassination plot against Hitler in July 1944 (Read our earlier article – Valkyrie), and the consequent execution of high-ranking German officers. After the incident, he started seeing anti-Hitler Germans as having some legitimacy. He became a vocal critic of the Nazi regime and acted as a witness for the prosecution at the Nuremberg trials. While Stalin lived, he was kept in a gilded cage: a luxurious dacha with servants. After the dictator's death in 1953, Paulus was allowed to move to East Germany where he acted as the civilian chief of the East German Military History Research Institute. Here he became one of the erstwhile supporters of the “clean Wehrmacht myth,” the notion that only the Waffen-SS was guilty of wartime atrocities. After his death, his remains were transported to Baden-Baden in West Germany and buried next to his wife.

Paulus at a press conference in East Berlin in 1954 (Photo: Bundesarchiv)
Paulus at a press conference in East Berlin in 1954
(Photo: Bundesarchiv)

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