Saturday, February 2, 2013


The Battle of Stalingrad ended 70 years ago today, an important milestone in a year filled with commemorations.

The victors; Soviet soldiers at Stalingrad.

The vanquished; a German soldier at Stalingrad.

The Battle of Stalingrad was probably the biggest single battle in history.  It lasted 6 months and cost the lives of a million soldiers.  Most historians now consider that battle to be the central turning point of the war.  Hitler's drive to seize the oil and gas fields of the Caucasus ended in catastrophe with devastating losses to the German military.  Hitler's war of aggression turned back on him and became a war of defense.  There is a growing consensus among historians that the central conflict of World War II was not Hitler's war with the Western powers, but with Stalin and the Soviet Union.  The War was at its bloodiest in Eastern Europe as Timothy Snyder forcefully demonstrates in his new history, Bloodlands; Europe Between Hitler and Stalin.  Hitler and Stalin committed their worst atrocities in the territory that included Ukraine, Belorus, The Baltic States, Poland, Hungary, and Romania.

The fighting in the east was ruthlessly brutal on both sides.  The German military, just as much as the Nazi SS, perpetrated horrific atrocities on the civilian population and played a very willing part in rounding up and murdering Jews.  The Soviet army retaliated brutally against any population suspected of sympathies with the enemy.  They also massacred soldiers and  partisan fighters who might threaten Stalin's imperial designs on Eastern Europe, especially in Poland.  General Georgy Zhukov, General Konstantin Rokossovsky, and other Soviet generals treated their men like so much canon fodder, indifferent to their lives or welfare, throwing waves of doomed men against German firepower.  Conscripts who retreated without orders or who broke and ran were shot by their fellow soldiers coming up behind them.

When the Battle of Stalingrad ended, the victorious Russians showed no mercy to the German invaders.  Thousands of German prisoners perished in Soviet gulags and many who survived were not repatriated until late into the 1950s.  Most of the German dead were left where they fell.  For decades, the steppe around Stalingrad (renamed Volgograd in the 1960s) was littered with the bones of German soldiers.

World War II is conventionally described as "The Good War."  Yet, I see little that was good about anything that happened in Eastern Europe.  I have a hard time describing as "good" the carpet bombing of cities like Rotterdam, Warsaw, Hamburg, Berlin, Dresden, Tokyo, and especially the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
I think of the Second World War as a necessary war.  I'm very grateful that the Russians won at Stalingrad and not Hitler.  We forget how close Hitler came to winning the war.  It is likely that without the Soviet Red Army, American and British forces could not have prevailed against the Germans.  Until Stalingrad, Hitler was winning, and everyone knew it.  I agree with Hannah Arendt when she said that a victory by Hitler would have been equivalent to a nuclear holocaust, the end of civilized human life.  He had to be stopped, even if it meant in the worst way possible.

Hungarian dead at Stalingrad

A wounded German prisoner of war with a Soviet soldier

Stalingrad Memorial decorated for 70th anniversary ceremonies


JCF said...

I had a boss in NYC (in the early 1990s) who was a survivor of Stalingrad---as an infant (amazingly!).

She told me her grandmother perished of starvation, and her mother was skin&bones. Her mother emigrated, w/ her, to the US soon after the war [I would hear my boss talking to her mom on the phone, in Russian. I would also hear speaking French to her French husband!]. Interesting person, my boss. I envied her multi-lingual talents---but what a harrowing backstory! :-0

Counterlight said...

I had a similar friend in Saint Louis. She was a young girl in German occupied Bologna, and her father was a partisan fighter.