That man should have shot himself . . . . What hurts me most personally is that I promoted him to Field Marshal. I wanted to give him this final satisfaction. That’s the last Field Marshal I shall appoint in this war.
—Adolf Hitler (1943)




On 5.8.42, Lieutenant General Paulus, now in command of Sixth Army, approached Stalingrad in obedience to the directives of Operation Blue, or Blau as I should say, for blue is merely any blue, but the German blau signifies to me a grayish-blue like the Caspian Sea on an overcast day. The primary goal of Operation Blau was to seize Russia’s oil fields in the Caucasus. Stalingrad, the sleepwalker’s afterthought, could hardly yet be seen on the eastward horizon. The tanks droned on. August burned down upon the brown steppes.

Fresh from the victory in Kharkov, his face taut with youth even now at fifty-two, with a Knight’s Cross pinned to his left breast pocket, and high on the right an airplane-straight eagle clutching a swastika, Paulus sat in his tent, listening to Beethoven.

He’d last been privileged to see the Führer two months earlier, on 1.6.42. (Von Manstein, the hero of Operation Sturgeon, was smashing the defenses of Sevastopol, a feat for which the Führer would make him Field Marshal; the SS were detailing a punitive action against the village of Lidice; Rommel had the British on the run in Africa.) The Führer flew in to Poltava, which was the current headquarters of Army Group South. As for Paulus, he changed his gray field overcoat for parade dress, his riding boots shined, his spurs gleaming, the golden eagle on his chest, gold braid, gold buttons. The Focke-Wulf touched down by military huts in the forest shadows. Beyond the treetops he spied what must have been the cathedral of the Krestovozdvizhenskii Monastery, which his wife, Coca, who was Orthodox, had once told him he really ought to cry to see; but unsurprisingly the black Mercedes-Benz carried him in the opposite direction. He sat in the back, and the SD police lieutenant, who was tanned and young and had honey-colored hair, sat in front beside the driver, with a pistol in his lap.

Poltava did not seem to be either as hot or as white as Zhitomir had been last summer, that summer of apples and cherries, but it was equally silent; these Eastern cities always are, once they’ve been absorbed into the new territories. Paulus never ceased to find this rather eerie. Coca had reminded him, perhaps more frequently than she needed to (he particularly remembered one discussion they’d had when she was brushing her hair, a discussion which only the most immense efforts had saved from becoming an argument), that in the Civil War days these peasants had hid machine guns in haystacks, resisting the exactions of Soviet power. Although he’d pointed out to her as tactfully as he could that their resistance had been vain, and that the coercive power of the Reich was infinitely superior to that of the Russians with their disorderliness, bad leadership, and poor communications, still, it was habitual with him not merely to consider the other point of view, but to elevate Coca’s opinions a trifle, to lay them on the mantelpiece, as it were. So he inquired whether there had been any difficulties here with partisans.

—By no means, Herr Lieutenant General! returned the SD man, smiling at him in the mirror even as he continued to watch the road; he was a very well-trained youth, and Paulus approved of him, so he continued the conversation: I’m glad to hear that these people are loyal to us.

—Herr Lieutenant General, you can ask anything of them, just like horses. They work until they drop and make no demands.

First there was the road and the river, the Vorskla River he knew it was (Paulus never forgot a map). Then came walls of barbed wire with the red-and-black-striped barrier pole at each gate, the happily vigilant, blue-eyed young sentries with their machine guns. The closer he came to the Führer, the more perfect everything seemed. Next there were the railroad tracks, and on the tracks the windowless train cars guarded by Waffen-SS. Here the car left him, the SD man saluting, then bidding farewell with a hearty Heil Hitler. At the next gate he surrendered his Mauser pistol for the duration (no offense intended, Herr Lieutenant General!). Two SS men escorted him through the inner gate, and he found himself in an enclosed yard of gravel, not unlike a prison’s exercise yard; and here in the strongish sunlight, which strengthened the familiar railroad smell of creosote and of something else, too, probably the river, all the principals of Operation Blau awaited the Führer’s call. General Warlimont, who was deputy chief of operations, greeted Paulus with pleasure, and they shook hands. Field Marshal von Bock, who’d received his baton at the end of the French campaign, came to join them.

The Führer himself led the way into the map room. The generals all stood deferentially around the long table, which shimmered so whitely with maps that Russian winter seemed to dwell there; but the Führer strode right up to it and sat down on the edge, frowning down at Maikop, Rostov, Stalingrad, a little whiplike pointer in his right hand as the generals all waited on him, their Iron Crosses and Oak Leaves marking them as ornamentally important personages; and Field Marshal Keitel, whom everyone referred to behind his back as “the nodding ass,” stood in the corner, gumming anxiously as the pointer began to descend. Field Marshal von Bock suddenly grimaced; he suffered from ulcers. General von Sodenstern, his chief of staff, had a pill ready.

—Keitel, is this line ready? the Führer asked sharply.

—Yes, my Führer.

—All the way to here?

—Without a doubt, my Führer, said the poor mediocrity, unable even to see what Hitler might be pointing at; Paulus stared at the map, so embarrassed on the nodding ass’s behalf that he felt unclean. What would the mission be? In the Führer’s treasure house the many triangular flags of the OKH reserves waited black and white on the gray pages of the secret files, ready to be activated and expended; but too many of them were already gone; mistakes had been made last year, which was why Moscow and Leningrad remained uncaptured. No one except the Führer knew for certain how many men had died in the Russian winter. Warlimont had whispered outside just now that the total losses thus far on the Ostfroot were six hundred and twenty-five thousand. Paulus had lost seven hundred men to frostbite alone. The OKH reserves were half spent now. Someday, nobody knew when, the Anglo-Americans would strike on the west front, and then the last reserves must be rushed to the point of penetration in France or Italy or maybe Yugoslavia, to halt them. Would the Russian campaign finally be wrapped up by then? Operation Blau must succeed.

The Führer began to speak. He told them that this area where the Don and Volga Rivers met was the strategic hinge upon which the entire eastern campaign might depend. Army Group South, he announced, was to be split forthwith into Army Groups A and B, in order to execute an immense pincer action here and here (two more strokes of the little toy flail). Field Marshal von Bock, whose balding forehead imperturbably shone above everyone else’s heads, would retain command of Army Group B, which consisted of four armies, including Paulus’s Sixth; while Field Marshal List would lead Seventeenth and First Panzer Armies through Rostov to the oil fields. It was a grand enough goal; but that grandness could scarcely disguise the fact that von Bock had been deprived of part of his command.

To Paulus, who sometimes fell victim to a sensitivity to slights which others received, the announcement was simply agonizing, not only because von Bock was a friend, but also because he was a Field Marshal—the highest rank to which any German soldier could aspire: second only to the Führer himself! To Paulus, therefore, this capricious diminution of authority seemed demeaning and worse; for a moment he felt positively indignant at the Führer. Von Bock, tall, pale, and thin, did not change expression, and Paulus admired him for this. Calmly, the tall, skeletal Field Marshal requested a brief delay in the commencement of Operation Blau in order to finish liquidating some Russian elements around Kharkov.

After the general conference ended, the Führer summoned each commander in turn. To the victor of Kharkov he said: My dear Paulus, I’ve given you an extremely important task. It’s not just a question of annihilating a few more Russian divisions. Any one of my generals could do that.

Paulus experienced a feeling of intense pleasure. He bowed a little, not daring to speak.

—The fuel situation is becoming critical; if I don’t get the oil of Maikop and Grozny, the Führer went on, I’ll have to liquidate this war. The political generals don’t understand that.

—I understand, my Führer. Sixth Army will carry out its assignment.

—That is beyond doubt, said the Führer with a smile. Rising, he pressed Paulus’s hand.

Comprehending that he’d been dismissed, Paulus murmured farewell and had already turned to leave the briefing car when the Führer said: Paulus.

—Yes, my Führer.

—Don’t worry about being slightly under strength. You know, the losses we suffered last winter had one positive aspect. All the weaklings died. As you go into action this summer, you’ll find that Sixth Army is the better for it. There’s hardly a man left on the whole Ostfront who’s not as hard as armor plate and as fanatical as ten Bolsheviks!

—Yes, my Führer.

—The Russians can barely stand up. You’ve seen the reports.

We’re going to crush them all by the end of this summer. Moreover, we’ll soon have V-weapons in unlimited quantities.

Paulus, still dazzled by the Führer’s praise, did not begin to wonder until later whether among those political generals his predecessor, Field Marshal von Reichenau, might be included. At von Reichenau’s funeral, as they stood beneath the immense iron cross, the Führer had laid a hand upon Paulus’s shoulder, murmuring the phrase that daily appeared in the black-bordered section of every newspaper: Ordained by fate our proud sorrow.