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Perspectives: Stalingrad Foes Meet Again - November '97 World War II Feature

Originally published by World War II magazine. Published Online: August 19, 1997 
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An American diplomat witnessed an extraordinary reunion in once war-torn Stalingrad.

By Peter A. Huchthausen

Some years after the end of the war, a small group of German survivors of the Battle of Stalingrad (now called Volgograd) encountered a throng of Red Army veterans revisiting the scene for the first time since the end of the battle in 1943. The two parties met by chance near the city center, the site of some of the most bitter fighting of the long siege.

As she related the horrific story of the siege, the Russian tour guide accompanying the German veterans was overcome by emotion and withdrew, sobbing, unable to continue translating. I was visiting the city as an embassy attache at the time and happened to be part of the same tour group as the German veterans. The Germans asked me to translate for them as they spoke to the Red Army veterans.

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I repeated the question asked by the German spokesman: "Are there no cemeteries here for the fallen?"

One Russian veteran turned toward the Germans to respond. He was tall and slightly stooped but dignified-looking, with dark eyes and Slavic cheek bones. His dark-colored suit jacket was adorned with rows of faded campaign ribbons, and two medals hung from its worn lapel. His rumpled light brown canvas trousers were patched. "I'm not sure," he said. "We're back for the first time since '43, and we've seen only the big monument on the hill, to Mother Russia. Where are you from?" he asked .

"Munich," replied the German veteran, a shorter man who was wearing a Bavarian suit of charcoal with green lapels and no ribbons or medals. He did, however, have a memento of his fighting days–one of his coat sleeves was empty, folded neatly and pinned to his shoulder. He carried a walking stick with a top of carved antler. "We were here in '43, too." he said. "We're back on a tour."

The Russian stared at him as if confused. "Munich, that's Germany, right?" he asked.

"Ja," answered the German proudly; his back stiffening almost imperceptibly. "Were you here that winter when it was so cold?"

The Russian nodded. Then, looking astonished, he gazed directly at the German and inquired, "Why did you come back?"

"I don't know," said the German. "I wanted to see this place again, I guess, and visit the graves. Do you know where to look?"

"No, we haven't seen any graves, only the big markers on the hill with some unit numbers," answered the Russian, still studying the German's face with wonder, as if trying to establish some hidden explanation as to why on earth a German would come back to a place that had been the site of such utter destruction and bitter fighting. "Where were you then?"

"Well, I'm not sure," replied the German. "It doesn't look the same now. Do you remember where you were?" he asked, looking across the embankment toward the Volga River.

"I was inside the basement of the tractor factory to the north," said the Russian, pointing up the river. "We were dug in there for a long time when we thought you had taken the city. We were going to take it back," he added somewhat fiercely.

The German looked around him silently, then said: "We never did take it. But it seems I was near here somewhere." He paused and spoke again: "We brought flowers. Are you sure there are no cemeteries?"

The Russian exchanged a few words with several members of his group, all of whom were wearing different types of clothing. Clearly, they had all dressed with some care for the outing, since each of them was wearing a suit jacket. Several of them also wore colorfully embroidered skullcaps from central Asia. One sported a wide-brimmed felt fedora, and his wide smile revealed glistening gold teeth. All had campaign ribbons, and some also had medals. Several used a cane, while one man was equipped with a crutch.

"They say there's a plaque behind the ruined building that mentions some units," said the Russian spokesman, "but we think there are no monuments with names." He pointed to a ruined building adjacent to the battle museum. It was pockmarked and partially destroyed, unchanged since the fighting had stopped.

I walked with the two groups of veterans in the hot sun toward the ruined building. The Volga River was visible in the background, brown and swift-running, its far shore blending with the horizon. Two strings of barges in the channel passed one another as they went in opposite directions. The nearer we came to the ruined building, the stronger it smelled–a musty odor like that of a damp basement or ancient catacombs emanated from the ruins.

The two veteran spokesmen walked close together, as if they were bound by some invisible tether. "How long were you here?" asked the Russian man.

"I'm not sure, but long enough," replied the German. "It's like a foggy and noisy dream. I just remember it was frightful."

"I remember, too," said the Russian. "It was terrible and lasted so long."

The guide, who had regained her composure, rejoined the group, which was by now intermixed, Germans and Russians walking together. She began to rattle forth long, hollow phrases about the battle, pointing here and there and describing where the Germans had been at the finish. Her words flowed over us, waves of memorized phrases sprinkled with the usual Soviet patriotic terms–sacrifice, socialist struggle, sacred duty and motherland.

"I wish she wouldn't chatter so," said the Russian spokesman. "We knew where you were then." He still watched the German spokesman closely, as if hiding a secret smile. The large group arrived at the corner of the pockmarked building and stopped.

"Where's the plaque?" asked the German.

The two veterans began looking through the high grass near the blackened, shattered bricks, but found no memorials.

The tour guide, agitated by the lack of listeners snapped: "We should go. We're off the tour route."

"Silence," croaked the Russian. "Can't you see we're thinking together?" He turned from the guide and looked at the German. "After all, we fought each other, and now we're thinking together. Isn't that something?" he asked. He shook his cane at the guide, who was again losing her composure, the corners of her mouth beginning to twitch as if she wanted to cry.

The two men stood silently together for a few moments. A bird sang on a nearby tree. "There weren't many birds then, were there?" said the German.

"Not many, but do you remember, sometimes we heard those silly partridges? They would sit and look at us during the worst shelling. They were never frightened. I couldn't understand them," the Russian responded thoughtfully. "You're right, you didn't hear much singing." He turned just then and looked directly at the German. "How did you get out?"

"Sometimes, when the weather cleared, our planes came in for the wounded, but not often," the German answered. "I was hit several times, but I was lucky. Near the last I was in a medical center, really not much of a center, just a pattern of shell holes with a cover. An officer told us about an evacuation plane that was coming and said that whoever made it over to the flat area near the back of the Kurgan, where your big statue is, could maybe get out. They had said that before, but no one had ever made it that far."

The German paused, looking into the Russian's face, and waited to see his reaction as I translated. When I had caught up with his words, the German continued his story, looking more and more distant as he spoke.

"My friend Walther went with me. He was wounded too but could walk. We made it all the way to the field. I don't know how, but we did. He helped me into a waiting plane filled with wounded, and it took off." He paused.

"What happened to Walther?" asked the Russian veteran.

"He couldn't get in the airplane," said the German. "He fell over in the field and couldn't get up. We just rolled away."

"You were lucky," said the Russian.

They stood together for a while. The bird sang a few more notes. "Where shall I put the flowers?" asked the German.

"We can't find the plaque," the Russian responded, "so here, let's put them here in the sun. They'll be nice in the sun. Warm. It was so cold then, remember?"

"Yes, I remember," said the German. "But we should put some markers here for the soldiers, markers with names. They have them in other battlefields. I saw some of ours in France once. Nicely kept, too."

"We have lots of monuments around. Big ones, too," said one of the other Russians.

"The largest in the world," chimed in the guide, sounding more cheerful again, as though she hoped to be useful. "You see over there, on the square, is the Victory Monument, and on the hill at Mamaya is Mother Russia, the highest monument in the world. It stands over one hundred…."

"Please leave us alone!" interrupted the Russian spokesman. "The place is full of monuments, big, small, ugly and thick ones, not one with a soldier's name on it."

"You shouldn't talk that way in front of foreigners," snapped the guide at her countryman. "We have the most…."

Again the Russian veteran cut her off. "There's not one monument with my friends' names on it. They're all huge, lumpy, stone shrines dedicated to this and to that glorious thing. There's not a stone in this city with a soldier's name on it," said the Russian quietly. He turned back to the German and said, "Here, let me help you."

The two old soldiers stooped down and put the flowers between two stones from the ruined building. Then they looked at each other in silence.

"Those are for Walther," the Russian man said finally.

"Ja," said the German, "for Walther." He paused. "And for your friends."

They stood silently together for a long time, then suddenly embraced. I walked away as they stood together in the sun.

Our German tour boat had come down the Volga from Kazan to Volgograd (the new name for Stalingrad). After visiting the ruins of Stalingrad, we traveled through the Volga­Don Canal to the Don River and on to Rostov-on-Don. We toured factories, dams, enormous hydroelectric works, canals and locks, Lenin's birthplace (now called Simbirsk), Saratov and Tol'yatti. We saw many massive monuments, but no graves.


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43 Responses to “Perspectives: Stalingrad Foes Meet Again - November '97 World War II Feature”


  1. 1
    Jim says:

    A very touching story! It's too bad those two can't go back and
    redo the history of 1939 to 1945. Bet it would be much different.

  2. 2
    joeffrey says:

    What a great story!!!

    I wish someone would make a film of these two forgiving souls.
    I love history.
    I learn that to become good friends they must treat them bad first!

  3. 3
    Lissa says:

    What an amazingly touching story. It's a shame that there weren't any graves or a monument with names for the fallen of both sides.

  4. 4
    Donnie says:

    We need more stories like this, I was crying like a baby at the end.Bless them all.

  5. 5
    tony says:

    A moving story indeed i would love to meet these men who had to endure so much, they have been to the edge of the abyss and came back alive! Amazing!

  6. 6
    John says:

    I was eleven years old when the battle ended and remember the news appearing in all the cinemas. The scenes of devastation and seemingly endless lines of shattered German prisoners have stayed with me eversince.
    This story is indeed very moving. So few came back.
    The endurance and sacrifice on both sides leaves an indelible mark on history.

  7. 7
  8. 8
    Jeremy says:

    Gripping story, well written. Moved me to tears.

  9. 9
    Kurt says:

    Thank you for your contribution to the human history of this tragic battle.

  10. 10
    stan says:

    Being an American and somewhat of a WWII buff I wonder if the younger Germans realize what a sacrifice their Fathers made for Hitler and the Nazis.The entire 6th army was obliterated in early 43 and out of 90,000 POWs only 6,000 ever returned home!!!

    • 10.1
      Paul Kelly says:

      When I was a young man, serving in the American Army in Germany, 1n 1964, I was in a recon jeep, parked near a Farmer's field. A husky German was cutting grass with a scythe. He had a large scar, running down the left side of his face. His eye was missing, but he still looked like he could still fight! He didn't speak much English, but with our "pidgin" German, we were able to ascertain that he had been in the battle of Stalingrad. We let him mess around with the M-60 machine gun, on the jeep! The man had a smile on his face, and a gleam in his surviving eye! I would not have liked to go up against soldiers like this man. It made me appreciate the few WW 2 era NCO's that were still in our unit! One thing I noticed in my time over there, was the absence of men in their 40's! Many of them perished in the war!

  11. 11
    kevin says:

    i am looking for any german suvivor, any help is appreciated, thank you.

  12. 12
    Cliff says:

    WOW! I would have given anything to be there! The biggest battle in the history of the world..really. I feel sad for the Germans soldiers who were left at the mercy of the Russians.

    My condolences for you German soldiers who were only doing your duty and left behind to suffer. God bless..you deserve the utmost honor and respect.

    From American,

    Cliff

    laker76@gmail.com

    • 12.1
      Anna L. V. J says:

      Although your comment is partial to German soldiers who suffered horrors during the siege of Stalingrad, you are right to say they were "left at the mercy of the Russians." 75 000 of the 110 000 German POWs were dead three months after capture. Although their health may have been seriously compromised by untreated wounds, cold, and starvation during the siege, there is no doubt that ill-treatment in the hands of their Russian captors contributed to their demise in so short a time. Anna.

  13. 13
    Dave G. says:

    I wouldn't say that the Germans were left at the mercy of the Russians. Not exactly, anyway. The German 6th Army was a well-oiled machine that made a trail of destruction over a thousand miles inside of the Soviet Union. The Russians were able to surround Stalingrad after the Germans conquered 90% of the destroyed city. As winter set in, they ran out of food and froze and staved to death. I cannot imagine how horrible it was and you're right, Hitler refused to allow Paulus to make a break while there was still a chance. The average German soldier was doing their job, but the Nazi regime had to be destroyed.

  14. 14
    Dave G. says:

    In the book "Enemy at the Gates", about The Battle of Stlingrad, it said that there were many German graves, but right after the battle, the Russians dug up 40,000 of them and dumped them in a mass, unmarked grave.

    • 14.1
      Anna L. V. J says:

      An excellent study of the battle of Stalingrad is Antony Beevor's "Stalingrad." Beevor is a British military historian besides being a former officer of the British army and his description of Stalingrad 1941-1942 is backed up by solid research of material from both sides, Russian and German, as well as interview with survivors of the two. His authority on the subject is incontestable. Anna.

      • 14.1.1
        Derp says:

        I guess if you don't want to be left at the tender mercies of a terrible enemy, you shouldn't invade their homes, burn their cities, steal their possessions, and murder their families.

    • 14.2
      Anna says:

      Quite true, Derp. I was thinking of the German landser and teven officers when I wrote that. You are right, though. As a nation, Germany deserved what it received from the Russians. Still, when you consider individuals
      , it is impossible not to pity the faate of German POWs at the end of the battle.s Anna.

  15. 15
    TonyD says:

    This article is without doubt a complete pile of fabricated nonsense.

    • 15.1
      Marshall Lord says:

      And your evidence for that assertion is … ?

    • 15.2
      ifeanyi from Nigeria says:

      Ok Mr TonyD, give us the correct version. If you don't have anything to offer then don't criticize another persons effort.

  16. 16
    Norbert z says:

    Nice Story!!
    My Dad was in the 6th Army,and he was one of the 6000 to make it Home.

    • 16.1
      Anita says:

      Wow!!! Wonder if he came home a broken man or was still willing to tell stories about his extraordinary experience…

  17. 17
    Power? says:

    Thanks and respect to all the Russian soldiers and their families for their sacrifices, they are the ones who really won the war against the Nazis. This is from Britain, we were the lucky ones when you compare against the scale of the bloodshed on the Eastern Front. Rest In Peace, that we may yet learn not to repeat our mistakes.

    Cliff, don't dishonour the dead your with ignorance of what war is really like, the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union (amongst many other places), they asked for anything they got and Stalingrad was their humbling. I feel sorry for the Russians having to lose HALF A MILLION PEOPLE to the one battle, let alone the tens of millions they sacrificed all perhaps just because the Nazis felt like some extra room.

    • 17.1
      Anna L. V. J says:

      Power, i don't think Cliff was defending the Nazis as much as sympathizing with ordinary "landsers" or German GIs. Those German army soldiers were draftees, NOT volunteers as SS thugs were, and, as such, they went where they were told to go by their superiors. Soldiers don't make policy; they just follow it, so blaming them for NAZI crimes is . unfair. Just remember that in Britain, draftees could become "conscious objectors," but that option was not available in NAZI Germany . . .Any male who had the misfortune of being born in 1920's Germany was doomed to participate, willingly or not, in the war. Finally Cliff is no more ignorant of the war than the rest of us and that includes you! I agree with your assessment of the Russiancontribution in WWII, though. Anna.

  18. 18
    homer says:

    story sounds a bit dodge
    alright…

  19. 19
    david s hovda says:

    i cannot imagine the horror of Stalingrad! I remember seeing a man walking on a gravel road in mn . cultivating corn field. He was one of the surviving members o f the german 6th at stalingrad. he did not have toes or fingers on his left arm, but was a kindly gentelman. I thought how could americans of german descent, give so much of there time money and labor to help the russians in lend lease to help defeat there own countrymen in war! without american help the russians would have lost the war in one year. anglo know how and productivity won the second world war.

    • 19.1
      folkingtales says:

      @david s hovda

      Anglo "know how & productivity" cerainly helped, but it most defenitely did not win the war. People win wars, the fighting people and their sacrifices, all others help.

      Now I might be wrong here, but you sound kind of bitter when you say that you can't understand how Americans (of German descent) helped fight the EVIL Nazis.

      FACT: Out of 50 billion of the lend-lease, only 11-12 went to the Soviet Union, with Brits getting the most (like 30+).

  20. 20
    Andy H says:

    What a moving story, it had me in tears.

    I'm British and my grandfather was at Dunkirk, Normandy and Arnhem.

    It just goes to show people are really the same the world over. With the same hopes, fears and desires.

    If it wasn't for our so called leaders there'd be no wars and the world would be a much better place.

    • 20.1
      Anna L. V. J says:

      your feelings are much appreciated, Andy, and the fact that you have a close family connection with the war against Germany makes them even more valuable. Anna

  21. 21
    Flyboy says:

    I still find it very hard to believe that such horror could take place between civilized people. After it was all over what really changed??

  22. 22
    Tyler says:

    God bless the soldiers on both sides, who were forced by their leaders to commit such terrible atrocities against each other, and it goes to show how true people really are at heart. I go on to understand both sides, in the end both were fighting for their country, and were very brave men and women to endure the unendurable and bear the unbearable.
    R.I.P. Nikolai Illyin

    • 22.1
      Anna L. V. J says:

      My feelings exactly, Nikolai. Soldiers from sides were doing their duty and were victimized. The real villains were Hitler and Stalin. . Both men were murderous; the soldiers were the victims of their megalomania. Anna

  23. 23
    Jim says:

    Nicely sums up the meaning of reconciliation.

  24. 24
    Sam Ryall says:

    I enjoyed this story very much once I accepted it has having been very well rewritten into a professional short story format. The author has produced a highly emotive short story, but the flow of the dialogue is from an author's hands, not elderly ex-soldiers enemies' mouths. Nothing I say has anything to do with the Battle itself.

  25. 25
    Richard zou says:

    Amazing. The world really need peace.what went wrong.just ideas fighting and not people.

  26. 26
    Les says:

    Looking for an interview of an (ordinary soldier) who made it back from the Russian prisons.Heard only 2% of stalingraders made it.What kind of man can live though such an ordeal.

  27. 27
    danvolodar says:

    >We saw many massive monuments, but no graves.
    There are thousands of graves in Russia (actually, European ex-Soviet Republics), some with names on them, some without. Mostly unnamed mass graves, though.
    A lot of villages have monuments listing their fallen, and factories their former workers who never returned.
    So a good part of this story is a lie.

  28. 28
    Mike says:

    I think in the midst of all the talk of the war and the Germans, (Which I don't mean to dismiss) the underlying point of this article is about the lack of graves in Russia, about the way they treat the memories. There are thousand of statues, a names, and monuments to this or that or the other. But the numbers, the untold millions of Soviet Citizens who died for Stalin's vision, on the battlefields of World War II, the in the Five year plans before, and to the paranoia afterwards.
    How many of them have graves? How many living, breathing human people, have been obliterated by the March of Soviet progress? And how does Russia remember them today?

  29. 29
    blarg says:

    You ignore the role of the british and american leaders in starting the war, is that deliberate? Perhaps you should examine your own bias. The nazi's fought for germany and their race. What were the allies fighting for? Communism? The destruction of the west?

  30. 30
    John Nevere says:

    The Germans got the beating of their life in a bitter irony of fate. It is from this region of the Ukraine that the Indo-European and Aryan peoples originated from. Kinda ironic isn't. Wasn't the Nazis looking for the homeland of the Aryans…..



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