Hans-Erdmann Schönbeck survived the biggest, bloodiest battle in history. He looked Adolf Hitler in the eye. He slept a few feet from the bomb that nearly took the führer’s life—and escaped the bloody purge that followed its explosion.
Now 98, Schönbeck has only one explanation: “I have had, in my life, whole squadrons of guardian angels looking after me. There’s no other way.”
Assigned to a German tank regiment in the summer of 1940, Schönbeck says he felt a part of the world’s best army. For a year his unit rampaged across the Soviet Union. Eight tanks were shot out from under him, and he was given one field promotion after another. By the time his tank crested a hill overlooking Stalingrad in August 1942, he led a 250-man tank company. He wasn’t quite 20 years old.
The next five months were a turning point, for Germany and Schönbeck. Hundreds of thousands of German soldiers were cut off from their supply lines. The situation grew desperate in winter, when night temperatures plunged to lethal lows.
Schönbeck and his men tore down houses to burn for heat, turning their Russian inhabitants out into the snow. His tanks out of fuel, his men starving, Schönbeck shrank from a strapping young man to a 99-pound shadow. He was overcome by an unfamiliar emotion: doubt.
During cold nights the young officer listened to his men curse Hitler for abandoning them. Months earlier, saying such things would have meant execution. Now he found himself silently agreeing.
On January 19, 1943, Schönbeck was wounded by an artillery blast that punctured his lungs and shattered his shoulder. A sergeant shoved the young officer onto a German bomber. It took off minutes later, and Schönbeck became one of the few German soldiers to survive Stalingrad. The battle, the largest in history, was the start of the Wehrmacht’s collapse on the Eastern Front, and of the end for Nazi Germany.
Ten months after his unlikely escape, the young officer briefly was assigned to guide Hitler’s entourage through the streets of Breslau (now Wrocław, Poland). Schönbeck recalls rushing to open the führer’s car door, snapping to attention, and saluting as Hitler emerged.
As he followed Hitler into a meeting hall, Schönbeck’s thoughts darkened, thinking of the lives lost in Stalingrad. He fingered the pistol at his belt, then remembered Stalingrad again. “I thought, ‘You’ve been given another chance at life. Do this and you’ll surely die—and they’ll kill your whole family.’ ”
Schönbeck was assigned to an intelligence unit at a secret base where Hitler had a headquarters. As he was delivering a briefing, his commander asked a strange question. “He said, ‘If something big happens, we can count on you, right?’ ” Schönbeck recalls. He learned later that his fellow officers were plotting to assassinate Hitler and that his bunkmate had hidden explosives in their room. But the Stalingrad survivor kept to himself. “That’s the thing about living in a dictatorship,” he says. “You never knew who to trust.”
When the plot failed, a bloody purge began. “My roommate was one of the first ones hanged,” Schönbeck says.
After the war, he moved to Munich and got a job in Germany’s booming postwar auto industry. He rose through the ranks, and in the 1980s he was head of the German Automobile Industry Association. “I lived, I made it,” he says. “I wasn’t going to waste that.”
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