Stalingrad: the city, the heroism, the horror – 70 years later

By J Brooks Spector 5 February 2013

Even the youngest veterans of World War II are entering their eighties and nineties, and the war itself will soon fade from living memory. But this year, it’s 70 years since the historic battle for Stalingrad, in which at least a million soldiers and another million civilians died. By J BROOKS SPECTOR.

The History Channel must know the desires of its vast global audience pretty well. If someone goes to that cable and satellite TV channel, it is almost impossible to avoid documentaries on World War II. Again and again there are the cinematic but very real Nazi horrors; the blitzkrieg war on the Low Countries, Poland and France; the Holocaust; the bitter island hopping campaign across the Pacific Ocean; the deadly rivalry between Montgomery and Rommel; D-Day – and, of course, the continent-wide fighting of Operation Barbarossa.

With a war that continues to recede backwards in time, even the youngest recruits in the fighting have now reached their eighties. So much of what we now choose to remember targets those key moments, the hinges of history, game-changers in the actual warfare. Military scholars and generals too like to focus on what they believe to have been the moments when the victory was snatched from the jaws of defeat – or vice versa. But too often the sheer omnipresent violence of those great events can get short shrift in those brilliant TV documentaries.

This past weekend marks the seventieth anniversary of the German surrender in the siege of Stalingrad, one of the most horrific of all of the war’s battles. Of course it didn’t start out as a life-and-death, kill-or-be-killed siege at all. Initially it was an interim objective in the massive invasion of Russia.

Then it became the “high water mark” of the German invasion of the Soviet Union during World War II.

And then it turned into a cauldron of death and destruction.

In 1941, after it had become clear Nazi Germany would never be able to mount a successful seaborne invasion of Britain, Adolph Hitler’s attentions turned eastward, towards Germany’s erstwhile ally. But the determined Greek resistance against the Italian invaders led to an ultimatum to the Yugoslav government (and consequent invasion) to allow German troops a free hand moving south towards Greece. The resulting German move southward through Yugoslavia – before they turned their attentions eastward – slowed down their eastern invasion schedule by a crucial month and a half. And that eventually pushed the operation into the teeth of the Russian winter. Napoleon redux.

That invasion quickly reached to the outskirts of Moscow – the lead elements of the invading forces could see the city’s tallest buildings on the far horizon – and on to Leningrad’s surrounds as well. But the winter of 1941-2, together with stiffened Russian resistance at the final moments, held off a German capture of the capital (although much of the Soviet government and Moscow’s industry was evacuated eastwards, out of fear for the Red Army’s imminent collapse). Meanwhile, Leningrad was besieged for nearly three solid years. By the time that siege had been broken, quite unimaginable horrors had become commonplace – easily ranking in savagery with the seventeenth century historical examples of the sieges of Magdeburg and Vienna – but vastly eclipsing them in scale and duration.

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Photo: August 1942 – The aftermath of a bombing raid on the city (Creative Commons) 

Stymied so close to their initial goals, in the spring of 1942, the Germans turned their attention southwards. Military historian ED Smith, describing this fateful decision, wrote, “Nearly 300 miles beyond the German frontline that existed in the spring of 1942 lay the city of Stalingrad. Even further away, over 350 miles distant, was the Caucasus with its rich oil fields. Adolph Hitler decided that these two objectives would be captured during his summer offensive against the Red Army.”

Smith went on to explain: “At first glance, Hitler’s intentions seemed to be sound, designed to destroy the Russians before another cruel winter came to their aid. If the German Army could cross the Volga in the Stalingrad area, then Russia’s main north-south line of communications would be cut. And, if simultaneously the production of the rich oil fields in and near the Caucasus could be harnessed to the German war effort, then the whole situation in the East would be changed and the prospects of an outright victory considerably enhanced. It was a gamble, however, because Hitler’s objectives, being some 350 miles apart, meant that two separate, divergent operations had to be mounted.” To fulfil this dual objective, additional troops had to be drawn from Germany’s Axis allies – Hungary, Rumania, and Italy.

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Photo: A building in the Stalingrad’s center, later called Pavlov’s House. (Creative Commons) 

The initial German movement seemed to go smoothly enough, even if the Wehrmacht threatened to outrun its stretched supply lines and its generals were increasingly worried whether or not their troop strength was actually sufficient for these twinned objectives. By the end of August, advance units of General Frederick von Paulus’ army had reached the suburbs of Stalingrad. Through September, the Germans made progress through a city that the combat was rapidly turning into an enormous charnel house of broken rubble – onward virtually, but not quite, to the western bank of the Volga River. While much of the population had been evacuated, tens of thousands of hapless inhabitants were left in the moonscape of a city throughout the combat.

Even as the Germans were closing in on the city’s final defences, the Russians were secretly putting together a counter-attack. General Vassily Chuikov took command of the Sixty-second Army along the Volga, while Marshal Georgii Zhukov planned an enormous counter-offensive with two encircling forces sent north and south around the German army in the city. Once the two Russian forces linked up to the west of the city, the fate of General Paulus’ army was no longer in doubt.

Supplies dwindled, then ran out, and the re-supply eventually became impossible. Disease and starvation decimated the troops, and, ultimately, the Germans ran out of ammunition. Hitler had ordered that the German forces hold fast even though Hitler’s commanders had prepared for an urgent breakout and relief operation that might conceivably have salvaged much of the German Sixth Army troops.

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Photo: German prisoners of war (Creative Commons) 

Then, as the ordeal reached its climax on 2 February 1943, Marshal (he had been promoted gratuitously to field marshal) von Paulus surrendered what remained of his starving, demoralised, freezing remnant of an army – nearly one hundred thousand men. Taken prisoner and marched away to POW camps, only a tiny fraction – around five thousand – of them actually survived their agonies to return to Germany ten years after the war ended.

Russian military scholars (and many influential western ones as well) have long argued the Russians’ implacable defence of Stalingrad, and the strategic reversal the siege had eventually allowed for, ultimately made it the pivotal battle of the Second World War. Despite the ferocity of the fighting at Stalingrad, the siege of Leningrad almost certainly had more total casualties and that operation kept vast German armies maintaining their siege there, long after the city’s strategic rationale had passed.

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Photo: Generalfeldmarschall Friedrich Paulus (left), with his chief of staff, Generalleutnant Arthur Schmidt (centre) and his aide, Wilhelm Adam (right), after their surrender on 2 February 1943.

Other military scholars argue the great naval Battle of Midway that halted – and reversed – the movement of Japanese forces across the Pacific had a broader strategic impact on the outcome of the war. After all, following Midway, the Japanese never won another major engagement, straight through to their surrender in 1945. Alternatively, champions of Montgomery’s victory at the second Battle of El Alamein have argued that victory was crucial to ending a German presence in an entire theatre of operations – North Africa – by 1943. Yet others argue for British success in the aerial fighting of the Battle of Britain or eventual Allied success in the anti-submarine warfare in the North Atlantic. Still others point to the success of D-Day’s amphibious invasion of Normandy in 1944 as the decisive moment in the Second World War.

Nevertheless, Stalingrad became both metaphor and reality for German overreach. Once von Paulus had surrendered, German radio stations played nothing but solemn music suitable for funerals for days on end. And while German forces could still win local actions in their long retreat back across European Russia and finally into the streets of Berlin, the Germans never again could successfully mount an offensive that would drive Russian forces into any kind of sustained, renewed retreat.

Moreover, the eventual collapse of the German forces at Stalingrad led to so many casualties (and POWs) that this meat grinder of an engagement guaranteed the Germans would always be greatly outnumbered on the battlefront – and, the longer the war continued, with less and less armour and other crucial war material. While the actual total of deaths attributable to the siege and battle is still unknown, reliable estimates say at least a million soldiers perished in the fighting – along with a million more civilians – in that six-month period in the battle for just one city and its surrounding territory.

Ultimately, Smith’s judgment is that “the gap torn in the ranks of the German Eastern Army, when the twenty divisions of the 6th Army, almost all formations of the highest class, were annihilated, could never be made good. The Battle of Stalingrad was the turning point of the entire war. Adolf Hitler not only condemned an army to death; he ensured that the German nation could not win the struggle against the Allies.”

The successful Russian siege and counterattack at Stalingrad provided an immense psychological lift to Russian forces – and the allies as a whole. By the time the war had ended, Stalingrad had come to occupy the mental space for Russians in the manner Gettysburg still occupies for Americans or Waterloo and Blenheim with the British – existential battles in which success had ensured the survival of a nation.

Even as the battle was barely over, the New York Times could report on the heroism of soldier and civilian that “The city named for Mr. Stalin already was trying to make the skeleton ruins of the town liveable again. Sappers were clearing the streets of mines imbedded in broken pavements and side walks as the Axis prisoners, dirty, ragged, hungry and half-frozen, awaited transfer to concentration camps. The siege of Stalingrad began last Aug. 25. It was the high-water mark of the 1942 offensive that rolled eastward from the Kurks-Kharkov-Taganrog line, struck Voronezh on the upper Don and veered southwestward to the Volga and the Caucasus foothills. Tonight Soviet troops not only had broken the last resistance at Stalingrad but were advancing far to the west over ground where they had themselves retreated in the early days of last Summer’s Nazi push.”

Watch: ‘Stalingrad was hell’ – 70 years since bloodiest battle of WW2  on Russia Today 

Describing the battle, the adds, “The Russians hailed it a ‘contemporary Cannae,’ and the Germans condemned it as a Rattenkrieg (rat war). Both descriptions were fitting. In the Battle of Stalingrad, Soviet forces surrounded and crushed an entire German army under General Friedrich Paulus, emulating Hannibal’s encirclement and destruction of a Roman army…. For both sides, Stalingrad became a desperate ordeal of rodent-like scurrying from hole to hole.”

Russian stories of survival are replete with tales of people keeping themselves alive by eating clay, living in desperate redoubts buried deep within the ruins of a factory, a housing complex or the city’s massive train station. One survivor, Valentina Savelyeva, explained that her first memories of life are among the most terrible kinds of things a child can experience. She was five years old when the Germans entered Stalingrad and by November she and her mother and brother fled to a ravine that led down to the banks of the Volga River.

Savelyeva told reporters, “When I close my eyes, I can see the Volga on fire because of spilt oil. We dug holes in the clay to live in – not trenches, but holes, like real animal holes. Soon there was heavy fighting inside the ravine. German tanks moved up and down, while female Soviet pilots dropped bombs on them, and therefore on us. Everything was on fire and we heard thunder and planes roaring. The most horrible moment was around 20 November when the Germans broke through down the ravine towards the Red October plant. It was very scary. At first we just sat there in our dugouts, then our parents went out to help the wounded with their disjointed limbs. They would bandage the hands and legs, then medical staff would appear and take them away. Down by the Volga there was a hospital. We ate clay and nothing but clay. And we drank water from the Volga. My mother would throw away the bits of clay that were soaked in blood, and then take the rest and filter it through a piece of cloth.”

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Photo: Soviet soldiers in the Red October Factory (Creative Commons) 

Not surprisingly, Russian president Vladimir Putin has wrapped himself in the commemorations of this battle to generate national patriotic fervour – and support for his increasingly authoritarian regime. Leading the events marking the surrender, Putin told a gathering of World War II veterans that this battle was “one of the greatest examples of world heroism”; and that “We are proud, Russia is proud of the defenders of Stalingrad. The Red Army lived and fought in that hell.” During the celebrations, some 200 survivors of the battle, all of them close to 90 years old, had also attended a military parade in the city centre. Interestingly, German veterans were also invited to this event, along with senior military commanders from the US and Britain as Russia’s key World War II allies.

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Photo: Russia’s President Vladimir Putin (C) addresses the audience during a concert in the city of Volgograd  in this picture provided by Ria Novosti February 2, 2013. Russia marks 70 years since the German surrender after the six-month Battle of Stalingrad (now Volgograd) during World War Two, which became a symbol for Russians of patriotic sacrifice and unity. REUTERS/Alexsey Druginyn/Ria Novosti/ 

In commemoration of the battle, at least for a few days, the city itself is now temporarily renamed Stalingrad, instead of its current name, Volgograd. Specifically, from now on, the city will take on its evocative World War II name on 2 February to mark the defeat of the Nazi German forces at Stalingrad; on 9 May to celebrate Victory (in Europe) Day; on 22 June – anniversary of Nazi invasion of USSR; on 23 August in respect to civilians killed by mass German air raid on Stalingrad; on 2 September – the formal end of World War II with the official Japanese surrender; and finally on 19 November, the day the Russians began Operation Uranus, that vast military encirclement that trapped the Germans and their allies inside the ruined city.

As veterans continue to pass from the scene – in Russia, America, Japan, Britain, Germany, France and elsewhere – more and more people will have to rely upon the published memoirs from that time rather the first-hand recollections of old men telling and retelling their tales late into the evening. When the last veteran finally slips away, maybe we shall be grateful so many of them ultimately took the trouble – in the twilight of their respective lives – to record their memories for posterity.

Lest we forget. DM

Read more:

  • Battle of Stalingrad, 70 years later in the Washington Post
  • Russia marks 70 years since Battle of Stalingrad at the BBC
  • Battle of Stalingrad at the website
  • Stalingrad victory offers Putin patriotic platform at Reuters
  • Remembering the horrors of Stalingrad at the BBC
  • Russians Liquidate Last Stalingrad Pocket at the New York Times (the contemporary report on the fall of Stalingrad)
  • Books of the Times; An Avalanche of Death That Redirected a War By Richard Bernstein, reviewing Anthony Beevor’s book, Stalingrad at the New York Times
  • Our Debt to Stalingrad (a blog commentary by economic historian J. Bradford deLong)
  • The Battle of Stalingrad at (a collection of Russian recollections of the battle)

Main photo: World War II veterans arrive for a meeting with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin during celebrations in the city of Volgograd February 2, 2013. Russia marks 70 years since the German surrender after the six-month Battle of Stalingrad (now Volgograd) during World War Two, which became a symbol for Russians of patriotic sacrifice and unity.  REUTERS/Alexander Zemlianichenko


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