Seventy years ago, on 2nd February 1943, the guns at last fell silent at Stalingrad writes Philip Kane. The shattered remnants of Hitler’s Sixth Army stumbled into captivity, among them Friedrich Paulus, the first Field Marshal of the German army to be taken prisoner as a result of battle. Paulus’ surrender, in itself, had symbolic resonance because Hitler had promoted him to such high rank, when defeat became certain, expecting him to commit suicide; his capture added to Hitler’s personal humiliation.
The Red Army had won their first major victory of the conflict that Stalinist propaganda painted as “the Great Patriotic War”.
The defeat of German forces in the Battle of Stalingrad marked a true turning point in the Second World War. Although the Allies had won other important battles, such as El Alamein, it was Stalingrad (now the city of Volgograd) that meant a decisive tipping of the psychological and material balance in their favour.
Victory set the Red Army on the road to Berlin, and towards the eventual Stalinist domination of Eastern Europe. It also strengthened illusions in Stalinism.
Stalingrad is celebrated even now, seventy years on, and not just by way of articles. In London, the anniversary is being marked by a cultural event, whilst the city of Volgograd is set to revert, temporarily, to its old name. But the question arises, in spite of the undoubted military-historical significance of the Battle of Stalingrad, what meaning does it hold for socialists?
The city of Stalingrad was the stage for the most brutal episode in a brutal war. For months, the city was assaulted by the Germans and their allies, and defended by the Russians, in a bitter struggle of attrition that left the city as no more than an unrecognisable heap of rubble.
The battle was industrialised savagery. Men – and, on the Russian side, women too – fought at close quarters, among the ruins, with knives and shovels when they ran out of ammunition for their guns.
Andrey Khozyaynov was a sailor fighting at Stalingrad as a member of the Naval Infantry Brigade. He was the only survivor, from a contingent of thirty Guards soldiers and eighteen sailors, of the battle for the Grain Elevator, which became a symbol of the battle for both sides. Later, he wrote an account of his experience.
“At dawn … enemy tanks and infantry, approximately ten times our numbers, launched an attack from the south and west. After the first attack was beaten back, a second began, then a third, while a reconnaissance ‘pilot’ plane circled over us. It corrected the fire and reported our position. In all, ten attacks were beaten off on 18 September.
”In the elevator, the grain was on fire, the water in the machine-guns evaporated, the wounded were thirsty, but there was no water. This is how we defended ourselves 24 hours a day for three days. Heat, smoke, and thirst – all our lips were cracked. During the day many of us climbed up to the highest points in the elevator and from there fired on the Germans; at night we came down and made a defensive ring round the building. We had no contact with other units”.
What gives the Battle of Stalingrad at least some of its historical significance is simply its sheer scale. Millions of men, and women fought across a battleground that stretched over a swathe of country between the Rivers Don and Volga. A model city intended to demonstrate the virtues of Stalin’s regime was reduced to an apocalyptic landscape, with ragged civilians scratching around for survival in the ruins.
By the end, the Germans had lost at least half a million casualties, and over a hundred thousand prisoners. At least 1.1 million Russians were dead or wounded. But it will probably never be known just how many died or suffered terrible injury – higher estimates put the total of casualties at perhaps two million. The disregard for human life was too profound, the fighting too murderous, the conditions too primitive, for accurate records to be kept.
Before coming to Stalingrad, since the beginning of Operation Barbarossa in June 1941, the Germans and their allies had swept almost unchecked across Russia’s European territories. The major industrial centres had fallen to their advance, as had the bread basket of the Ukraine.
The German offensive of summer 1942, on the southern part of the Eastern Front, was directed at achieving two of Hitler’s immediate aims. Firstly, he hoped to defeat Russia before the material power of the United States decisively swung the balance of forces in favour of the Allies. Secondly, he intended to seize the oilfields of the Caucasus.
The move to capture Stalingrad itself began with intense bombing by the Luftwaffe. Thousands of bombs reduced much of the city to rubble. But this ferocious destruction turned out to be counter-productive, from the German perspective. Rather than breaking the resolve of the city’s defenders, it meant that the Germans quickly became mired in fighting at close quarters, with every building a fortress from which the Russians could only be dislodged with difficulty and at great cost. Although, eventually, the Germans were able to control almost all of the city at times, they were unable to drive out the last Russian troops who held on stubbornly to the west bank of the Volga.
On 19 November 1942, the Russian counter-attack came in the form of Operation Uranus. This pincer attack on the flanks of the Sixth Army broke through into the rear of the German position. The Sixth Army was surrounded in and around Stalingrad. The Russian winter set in. With the Russian offensive continuing, weakened soldiers inside the surrounded German Kessel (cauldron) suffered starvation as supplies rapidly dwindled. Hitler’s insistence that the Sixth Army hold its ground, the lack of any significant forces to launch a successful relief of the besieged army, and the impossibility of adequately resupplying the encircled troops by air, all played their part in the final collapse.
In his best selling book Stalingrad, Anthony Beevor gives a very good account of this great and terrible battle. One of the book’s weaker points, however, is Beevor’s tendency at times to view the conflict as a kind of duel between two tyrants, a personal struggle between Hitler and Stalin.
There is no question that for Nazi Germany, this was an ideological struggle against Communism, carried on by force of arms.
Meanwhile, on the Russian side, it is true that Stalin’s disregard for human life led to immense suffering and loss, with huge numbers of men and women being tossed into the meat grinder that Stalingrad became. Yet it does seem that there were many Russians who fought as courageously as they did because in some degree they still felt that they bore the spirit of the October Revolution. Whatever the objective character of the Stalinist state, whatever the objective circumstances of the war, for many thousands of ordinary workers and peasants fighting in the ranks of the Red Army it was still subjectively a war not only against fascism but to defend the gains of the socialist revolution.
The real picture was far more confused, of course. There were many people who had suffered under the Stalinist bureaucracy who rather foolishly greeted the German army as liberators; until they found that such”liberation” meant only the Nazi terror.
Thousands of deserters and prisoners from the Red Army also turned to serving alongside the German military, often in combat roles on the front line. These Hiwis, as they were dubbed, proved loyal auxiliaries to the Germans right up until the final surrender at Stalingrad.
Their realities cannot be explained away by references to individual cowardice or entirely mercenary motives. The truth is that the Stalinist regime squatted atop a society in which the memory of revolution conflicted with a state of brutal oppression and everyday mismanagement. The nature of Stalinism conditioned the reactions to it, and those reactions often led people to side with the political enemies of socialism.
So, what is there that socialists can take from the story of Stalingrad?
Not Stalinist mythology, that is for sure. The propaganda image of Stalin himself as the great strategist who trapped and destroyed the Sixth Army is as vile as it is absurd. Not the glorification of a bloody battle in which millions were committed to the slaughter at the behest of two dictators.
Having said that, neither can the story of Stalingrad be reduced to the bitter, brutal depths of barbarism to which humanity can sink. Because it is also a demonstration of the almost boundless courage and resilience of people who, even if their revolution had fallen away to no more than a distant echo, believed that they were fighting for the sake of a better world.
We need something of that spirit today. After decades of defeats for the working class; faced with the increasingly cruel class warfare of a millionaires’ government, with austerity, with the recurring dangers of fascism; in this environment, we can still learn something from the indomitable spirit of Stalingrad’s defenders.
There is a story that Argentinean political prisoners, under the dictatorship in that country, adopted and set to music the words of the Communist poet Pablo Neruda, in his New Song to Stalingrad, because those words encapsulated their own spirit of resistance:
Save me a fragment of violent foam
Save me a rifle, save a plough for me
And let them place it at my grave
With a red ear of grain from your soil,
That it be known, if there be any doubt,
That I died loving you and you loved me,
And if I did not fight in your waist
I leave in your honour this dark grenade,
This song of love for Stalingrad.