• Gerhard Hindenlang

Gerhard Hindenlang

Gerhard Hindenlang was born 1916 in Berlin. A firefighter by profession, he volunteered into the German army in 1939. He was a First Lieutenant in the 71st Infantry Division that spearheaded the attack into Stalingrad in September 1942. Promoted to captain in January 1943, Hindenlang became adjutant to his regiment’s commander, Friedrich Roske, who in turn was made divisional commander on January 26. All surviving soldiers of the 71st Infantry Division were taken prisoner by the Red Army on January 31, 1943.

Hindenlang returned from Soviet captivity in 1952. He settled in Hannover where he married and started a business career. Later he enlisted as a battalion commander in the German Federal Army.

When we sat down with Hindenlang in his modern apartment in Walldorf, near Heidelberg, he zoomed in on the last days of the German defense of Stalingrad, which he spent in the basement of the city’s central department store, together with his divisional commander and Army Commander Friedrich Paulus.

The different characters and fates of Roske and Paulus, and Hindenlang’s relationship with them, are central themes in his story.

They waited for me to come up and bring Volga water.

This is how we got into Stalingrad. It was September 14, 1942. We were on the outskirts and [Regimental Commander] Roske said, “We’ll form two spearheads: the left battalion will be Münch with his Third Battalion, on the right will be the First Battalion – Major Dr. Dobberkau. And I’ll give everyone anti-aircraft guns. If we break through, we’ll put the guns in the side streets to resist counter attacks by the Russians from the flanks…” So I went ahead with the Münch battalion.

It turned out that the assault guns helped us out a lot. They banged out as soon as a Russian appeared in the window. The Russians fled. And that’s how we broke through to the Volga unimpeded. We had to leave the assault guns beside the tracks at the main train station, because we could not get them across the tracks.

We then pushed down without accompaniment. Up at the command post, which was beside the church, Roske also had his command post. Paulus, Seydlitz and a few generals were already there. And they waited for me to come up and bring Volga water. And when I came up they were quite disappointed that I had no frogs in my hands. Anyway, they were surprised that I didn’t even have a bottle. I reported we cannot go down in daylight. As soon as we raise our noses above the high banks, bullets whizz around our ears. They were quite disappointed.

Hindenlang showing his wartime decorations, including two Iron Crosses and the German Cross in Gold

In January 1943 the command post of the 71st Infantry Division was in the Stalingrad department store. Hindenlang describes how the commander of the Sixth Army, Colonel General Friedrich Paulus, sought refuge there in the last days of the battle:

It was like this, as soon as I had my command post in the Red Department Store, my regimental commander, General Roske came with his staff. And then, after Colonel General Paulus was driven out of the south of Stalingrad he had his Adjutant Colonel Adam ask me if they could come stay with us. And General Roske, who then was still colonel, said “Well Hindenlang, will they be of use to us?” I said: “We can’t very well refuse the colonel general. But he can’t come with a whole bunch of people.” But then they came with 120 men. And they spread out in my store basement and only brought desolation. Needed food to eat, etc., you know. That’s why it was such a burden for all of us that Paulus showed up with so many people. We had stocked up very well on provisions, when we had taken Stalingrad. We spent days and nights transporting wheat from the silo in the south of Stalingrad, built a mill, a soap factory, and a slaughterhouse. We built all of this, you see… After all, I’m really very practical (laughs), you see, and my orderly officer, who was also quite practical, we accomplished all these things together. We were completely self-sufficient.

… As soon as we entered Stalingrad, Roske said: “Now, gentlemen, as soon as possible make all the necessary preparations that will enable us to survive the winter.” And that worked quite well and we still had enough provisions toward the end of the battle. But of course we only had enough to feed the fighting troops. We didn’t have enough to feed others as well. We were in big trouble. Well, now, as I mentioned before, Paulus joined us. He got my room, which was about as big as this square here. And his chief of staff, Schmidt, had his room on the opposite side of the corridor.

  • Gerhard Hindenlang

“What is your opinion regarding suicide?”, he asked me.

On January 30, I led three counter offensives down at the Tsaritsa River and returned. About 15 minutes after I had come back I was told that colonel so-and-so, an artillery colonel, who had been deployed to our front with his fighting troop, had defected to the Russians with his battalion. Of course the Russians were able to approach us through the resulting gap and surrounded my department store with tanks, anti-tank guns, and so on. And then I said to Colonel Roske: “Colonel, tomorrow early in the morning we must capitulate.

Now, that was in the evening on January 30. And then a radio transmission came from the headquarters of the Führer, from the Wolfschanze (Wolf’s Lair). According to the message, the colonel general had been promoted to field marshal. And as I mentioned before, I said to General Roske [Roske had also been promoted, to major general]: “We must capitulate.”

And then he said: “Well then, take both messages to the field marshal.”

I then went to his office, saluted and told him that a radio transmission had been received. I informed him that the message said that he had been promoted to field marshal.

He replied: “Well, so now I am the army’s youngest general and have to be taken prisoner.” This made me pause, as I had assumed, just as Hitler had, that he would commit suicide. And he noticed that I was taken aback, and then asked: “What is your opinion regarding suicide?” I said: “I don’t think it’s a good idea. I lead a troop up until the last minute, and if I survive, I will be taken prisoner with my troop. To leave my troop to its own fate, I wouldn’t do that.” He then commented: “I’m a believing Christian, I reject suicide.” But I think about two weeks prior to that he had said that an officer should not be taken a prisoner. That would have implied that he would commit suicide. So that’s how he twisted this thing.

  • Gerhard Hindenlang

So, how did things go on after that? The next morning they told me that a Russian officer and a sergeant were standing outside at the gate (it was a wrought-iron gate). They were requesting entry.  I went to them with an interpreter and asked them what the Russian officer wanted. Well, he wanted us to capitulate. I then said: “Please translate, that we will only negotiate with an authorized officer of the Don Army.” Well, as a result General Laskin, Rokossovsky’s chief of staff [General Rokossovsky was the Commander of the Don Army group], appeared an hour later, with his entourage. We let him in. At the time only General Roske was in my command post. General Roske received the Russian general and stated: “I’m negotiating for the rest of the 71st division.”

He proceeded to negotiate with them and they agreed to all terms: keeping our swords, and such foolishness. But we didn’t keep a thing, nothing, you know. They took everything away immediately. And once Roske had completed his negotiations, he said: “And now General Schmidt will be here and will negotiate for the Supreme Commander.” The Russians were left open-mouthed at that, because they had assumed that he [Paulus] was in the Northern Encirclement. They had had no idea that he was with us, you see. And then Schmidt arrived and said: “What do these rascals want here?” And I then said to him: “General, please be careful, they speak German!” And Schmidt then negotiated on Paulus’ behalf. They agreed for example that the officers would keep their officers’ chests and their personal servants, etc., you know… But the Russians took away everything.

Paulus simply could not make a decision.

Gerhard Hindenlang

We had in fact [after the encirclement of the 6th Army by the Red Army in November 1942] all assailed Paulus with our opinions, telling him “We must break out of the encirclement, even against orders. And you are after all responsible for 220,000 soldiers”, you know. But he simply could not make a decision. I always said, if Reichenau [Paulus’ predecessor as the Supreme Commander of the 6th Army] had still been in charge, then we would have broken out. Reichenau was of a completely different caliber. Now Paulus was a good General Staff Officer, who could present the commander with three solutions: one, two and three. The commander then decides: this is the solution that we will choose. Paulus was ideally suited for coming up with a range of solutions to choose from. But to be the leader of an army – no, he was much too young for that job. You see, he was in fact promoted within a very short period of time from Lieutenant Colonel to Field Marshal. And we in fact had so many able generals, who would have broken out with colors flying…

Gerhard Hindenlang © Günter Hindenlang
© Günter Hindenlang

Did you in fact realize after the 25th [of December 1942, when the German effort to burst through the Stalingrad Encirclement from outside had failed] that: well, you must stand firm, for as long as possible, but for you personally that meant a certain demise?

Yes.

What did you do in that situation? Did you write farewell letters?

No, I was lucky enough to be able to send a radio transmission from the Führer Headquarters to the lady I was engaged to at the time, you see. And she in fact received my message.

I simply told her that I was saying farewell. And you know I never believed that I would ever return home. From the start I didn’t believe it. That’s also the reason why I played risky games while I was a prisoner that I normally wouldn’t have.

Played risky games?

Well, for instance I owned a copy of Adolf Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” [My Struggle] while I was a prisoner. While we were in Stalingrad, before the Encirclement, a so-called field library turned up. One of the books in the library was Adolf Hitler’s “Mein Kampf”. It was a very thin edition made of very thin paper. The book cover was very flexible, you know. And I had never read the thing, you know, at least when I was in Germany, even though I was chief of a firefighter squad. But then in Stalingrad I had the opportunity to read the book. Well, I put the book in my map bag. And when I was taken prisoner I didn’t give the book a second thought. That’s how I came to be carrying the book with me. I was sent to the prison in Beketovka and the sentry searched me. He had the book in his hand and asked: “Chto takoe?” – What is this? I said “Eto Bibel”. – It’s the Bible. “Nu, puskai.” [OK, no problem]

But it must have been obvious that the book was not the Bible. There were probably also some swastikas on the book, weren’t there?

There was a swastika after each chapter, but I had torn out the picture of Hitler.

After I had spent some time in Beketovka Camp I was moved to Suzdal, and there I placed Adolf Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” into the cooking utensils and covered it in cereal. I was thus able to smuggle it out of the camp. And I repeated this every time I moved to another camp, which was several times. Subsequently, when we were in Yelabuga – are you familiar with Block 6? – I brought the book with me and all the field officers who were incarcerated there read the book for the first time. And one day the senior veterinary officer, Dr. Hützver, came to see us – he had been in my regiment. He said: “Captain, we only have Marx and Engels to read here and such things. Don’t you have some German literature?” And I was foolish enough to lend him the book, with the pre-condition that he would not snitch on me. Officer’s promise. … I had hidden the book in a cross beam in a wooden pallet. I had removed a piece of wood, you see, and the book fitted exactly into the resulting space. I then put the wooden plank on top. And one day, shortly after Hützver had been taken for interviewing, the Russians showed up and occupied all the rooms. We were thus immobilized. And then the Lieutenant Colonel, who was the commander of all the camps in Yelabuga, showed up. He asked the sentry who had searched the camp: “Kniga est’?” – “Is the book here?” And they said “nyet” (“no”). I realized that they were looking for the book.

… I [finally] burned it [the book]… After all, I didn’t want to put anyone in danger. No, not ever. … And I then said to Colonel Wolf: “Colonel, I’m burning the book.” Because fellow prisoners had said that they wanted to use the book as paper for making cigarettes. [But] the pages were bound with glue, and didn’t taste good. Now Pravda, can be smoked. Yes. And Izvestiya [Pravda and Izvestiya: Soviet newspapers] But not this paper.

Not ‘Mein Kampf’.

That would make quite a blaze.

Gerhard Hindenlang © Günter Hindenlang
© Günter Hindenlang
  • Gerhard Hindenlang

We were enthusiastic back then. Marching on.

Gerhard Hindenlang © Günter Hindenlang
© Günter Hindenlang

So you in fact read the book for the very first time in the camp?

Yes, yes.

You never read it before that?

No, not at all.

What effect did the book have on you? Was it a type of immunization against Soviet propaganda? Did you read it and in fact read it with a bit of enjoyment?

Not really. A large part of the book’s contents were in sync with our way of thinking, yes. However, he writes on the first page “Our path leads East”. I didn’t know that, you know. I mean, Hitler was waging a preventive war against Russia. He had no choice. He had in fact assumed that they would come to an agreement with England. But that failed. And all the rest was the consequence of that failure. For if we didn’t have access to oil and to the mineral resources in Russia… The only people who were supplying us with ore were the Swedes. Without them we would not have been able to wage a war, a long time ago. But I always say: “We Germans in this big country, we would feed and look after the entire world, you know.”

In Russia?

Yes, they don’t know how to run their own country. It’s all corrupted.

I wanted to ask you about your commander, Roske: you had a good relationship with him?

Yes, very good.

You knew each other for a long time?

Yes, yes. I was his aide de camp as early as the Battalion Leader Training Course in France. And he came to us of his own accord.

Can you briefly describe what kind of man he was?

A man of action.

The opposite of Paulus?

Yes, yes. He would also have broken through.

What happened to him?

He too returned home in ’55, and committed suicide on Christmas Eve of ’55. …

Harsh fates, you know. In the future here in Europe we will be able to avoid such things. …Today’s youth wouldn’t participate in these kind of things. Thank God!

Yes, the times have changed.

We were enthusiastic back then. Marching on.

Gerhard Hindenlang © Günter Hindenlang
© Günter Hindenlang
Gerhard Hindenlang © Günter Hindenlang
© Günter Hindenlang

What does Stalingrad mean to you today?

Well, it had a very strong effect on me. As mentioned before: I’m lucky to have an optimistic nature, I look forwards, not backwards, you see.

And so I survived all the …breakdowns that I had. My friends always say: “You’re very resilient.” Now in March I had tubes attached to my body and was in such pain that I could have climbed the walls, you know. And I was at a point where I could have ripped off all the tubes. I didn’t want to live any more, you see. And then … It’s all no use.

Hm. And you mentioned that you had discussions with your son, or that your son’s opinions differ from yours.

Yes, yes.

Did the two of you have arguments about the past? Did you speak to him of the past?

Yes, yes, he knows. He heard about all these things. My daughter also heard about these things, since these topics were often discussed when our family had visitors, you know.

Everyone knew that I was a Stalingrader, you see. And they were very interested.=

What happened to your father? How did he die?

He was… they were bombed in Hannover-Larsen. And then my uncle Emil said: “Wilhelm, come to my place at Gundelfingen. I have enough space and you know that I purchased enough land to enable you to build a house next door to mine.” And he answered: “No, I won’t go, I’ll stay with the wife.” And he went back to Striegau, to Silesia. And she had left him. He was then with her sister, with his sister-in-law, in a cellar. And then the Russians entered the cellar; they wanted to rape the sister-in-law. And he intervened, threw himself between them. That’s when the Russians shot him. And I also lost two brothers. One brother died during the Kursk battle [1943]. At the hands of partisans. And the other one at the Citadel in Budapest [1945].

  • Gerhard Hindenlang
2014 © Facing Stalingrad. All rights reserved. Unless otherwise stated, all text by Jochen Hellbeck, photos by Emma Dodge Hanson.
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