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Heart of the Sixth Army

In the frozen, besieged city of Stalingrad, a German soldier turned to his commander and said, “Cheer up sir, after every December there’s always a May.” Then he went outside to man his post and suddenly dropped dead. The German High Command was prepared to fight the Soviet Army under any conditions for as long as it took to win the war, but when the soldiers of the Sixth Army trapped in Stalingrad began dying for no apparent reason, German leaders were baffled.

The German command had a secret commission of pathologists flown into the surrounded city to investigate the problem. Doctors who were already in Stalingrad thawed out frozen corpses in a bunker and in preparation for the pathologists’ autopsies. The results of the examinations were shocking.

Hardly an ounce of fatty tissue was found on the bodies, bone marrow that should have been either a healthy red or yellow liquid was instead a glassy, quivering jelly, and the victims’ hearts were small and brown, with the right ventricle and auricle greatly enlarged. It was this heart condition, aggravated by starvation, that was killing the soldiers, and it was present in numerous Germans still fighting in Stalingrad. In peacetime, the condition was a common cause of death among the elderly, but it was causing sudden death to the worn-out young solders whose bodies were prematurely aged from the constant shock of combat. Doctors began to call the condition the “heart of the Sixth Army.”

The Germans trapped in Stalingrad had been pushed too far. The combination of a starvation diet and the constant stress of war was killing men as effectively as the Soviets. Most of the Germans in the cauldron had spent the previous four months traveling the Russian steppe, living in foxholes and enduring bouts of jaundice, typhus and malaria. During the winter they lived in snow and ice, their clothes seldom dry. When the Soviets encircled the city in November, the soldiers’ already lean diet was reduced to four ounces of bread and some horse meat each day–obviously not enough to keep the spark of life alive in the men of the once unstoppable German army.

While the cause of death had been identified, there was no cure forthcoming from the High Command. The Luftwaffe’s ability to supply the surrounded troops was already stretched thin. A problem the German military leaders had not foreseen was now rapidly destroying the Sixth Army from within.

After Field Marshal Friedrich von Paulus’ surrender, German prisoners began to exchange their valuables for food. In a makeshift German aid station, a German private offered his large, ornamental silver pocket watch to a Red Army surgeon in exchange for a loaf of bread. He then divided the loaf among the other men in the room, keeping only a small piece for himself. Hans Dibold, a German doctor who witnessed the scene, was so impressed by the soldier’s act of kindness that he commented: “Anyone who has been near starvation knows what it cost him. He who hasn’t known starvation doesn’t know mankind.”

Kevin Hymel