Feb. 2 marked the 70th anniversary of the end of one of World War II’s most decisive and utterly destructive battles, the five-months of slaughter in the Russian city then called Stalingrad.
In 2012, this column revisited several major battles of 1942, including Midway and El Alamein. Midway destroyed Japan’s strategic offensive capabilities. El Alamein began the Western Allies’ long drive to Berlin. Winston Churchill saw Britain’s North African victory as, “perhaps, the end of the beginning.”
Subsequent allied victories on the Western and Eastern fronts proved Churchill correct, with Stalingrad the eastern end of the beginning.
However, the defeat Adolf Hitler’s war machine suffered at Stalingrad was far more thorough, demoralizing and militarily devastating. Stalingrad and combat operations linked to the city fight cost the Germans between 500,000 and 800,000 casualties (killed, wounded and captured). Germany lacked the manpower and training capacity to replace such a ghastly loss of experienced combat troops. Equipment losses were enormous. Little wonder more than a few scholars contend that Germany lost WWII in Stalingrad’s rubble-strewn streets.
Other strategic considerations support the case for Stalingrad’s significance. North Africa and the Mediterranean were secondary German efforts. Conquering Eastern Europe, to include Russia’s European and Central Asian territory, fulfilled fundamental Nazi ideological goals (among them, Lebensraum in the east).
Full control of Russia’s vast store of natural resources would give the Nazis the resource base to pursue global domination. A Royal Navy sea blockade could not strangle German industries supplied with petroleum produced by Greater Germany’s Caucasian oil fields. If the panzers had quickly seized Stalingrad in August 1942, crossed the Volga River and smashed Russian resistance in the region, Gross Deutschland today might well include Azerbaijan, parts of Kazakhstan and the Caspian Basin.
The ifs in the last sentence are big ifs, however. Russia is huge. In fall 1942, Stalingrad may have been a city too far, given fragile German supply lines. Russian commanders saw the city as a trap for German panzers, where Russian infantrymen could “hug” German infantry, limit their mobility and force them into a extended battle of attrition, just as General Winter arrived with snow and ice.
The Russians set the trap. With the German Sixth Army enmeshed in Stalingrad, in November 1942 the Russians attacked the German flanks, isolating German forces in the city.
Every German attempt to relieve the trapped Sixth Army failed. Herman Goering boasted that the Luftwaffe could supply the Stalingrad pocket. It couldn’t. House by house, Russian infantrymen won a close-in battle of grenades and submachine guns. The Russians paid for their victory: 750,000 casualties in the city, 1.1 million in the region.
So far, this column has avoided mentioning the Soviet Union. The USSR no longer exists. Stalingrad no longer exists by name. Thanks to de-Stalinization, today the city goes by Volgograd. Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin began WWII as Hitler’s ally. The Soviets took eastern Poland and occupied the Baltic states. National Socialist and Marxist Socialist (aka communist) potentates cooperated for almost two years, until Hitler decided Eastern Europe had room for only one socialist totalitarian.
As the Red Army fled the Nazi offensive, Stalin didn’t appeal to proletarian solidarity. He called on Russian nationalists to stop another German invasion.
Russian nationalism figured prominently in ceremonies commemorating Stalingrad, held in Volgograd on Feb. 2, 2013.
Former KGB agent and current Russian President Vladimir Putin, a man in whom czar and commissar mix seamlessly, showed up. “Stalingrad,” Putin said, “will forever remain a symbol of unity and invincibility of our people, a symbol of genuine patriotism, a symbol of the greatest victory of the Soviet liberator soldier. And as long as we are devoted to Russia, our language, culture, roots and national memory, Russia will be invincible.” Putin portrays himself as the heroic embodiment of Russian nationalism.
Several Stalingrad vets, men in their late 80s and early 90s, attended. They won’t be around for 80th anniversary ceremonies. These men were, apparently, the real heroes recognized at the commemoration. And well they should have been.