Victory on the Volga

The anniversary of Stalingrad has inspired major celebrations in Russia, but a strange silence here

Sixty years ago the greatest battle of the second world war reached its climax. The site of that decisive battle was not the windswept sands of north Africa beloved of British war mythology, nor the broad expanses of the Pacific favoured in the American version, but the debris of a devastated city on the Volga.

The German surrender at Stalingrad in February 1943 was the strategic turning point of the second world war. After Stalingrad, Hitler had no hope of winning on the eastern front and that meant inevitable defeat in the wider conflict.

In Russia, the 60th anniversary of the battle has been marked by great celebrations. President Putin led the commemoration in Volgograd (as the city was later renamed) and was joined by the British and American ambassadors. But in Britain and the US the silence about the battle has been deafening.

At Stalingrad the Soviets lost a million people – more than the British and Americans during the whole war. Such sacrifices, as Churchill said, tore the guts out of the German war machine. More than 90% of German losses were suffered on the eastern front, including 10 million military casualties.

All other theatres were a sideshow compared with the gigantic battles in Russia. At the time it was clear that the second world war was primarily a Soviet-German war. During the cold war, however, the western narrative of the struggle against Hitler was rewritten to minimise the Soviet contribution and to exaggerate an Anglo-American crusade to make Europe safe for democracy.

The Soviet war effort was not so much a crusade as a struggle for national survival. When the Germans attacked Russia in June 1941 they launched a war of annihilation – a campaign to destroy “judeobolshevism” by the mass murder of Soviet citizens. Among the victims of the Germans in 1941-42 were 2 million Soviet Jews – a massacre that marked the beginning of the Holocaust.

The German campaign inspired a popular mobilisation to save the Motherland. “Kill the Germans,” exhorted the Soviet writer Ilya Ehrenburg, “or they will desecrate the whole of Russia and torture to death millions more people.”

Among the many heroic episodes on the eastern front, none was more awesome than the Red Army’s defence of Stalingrad following the launch in June 1942 of a German offensive in southern Russia. This was Hitler’s war for oil, the aim being to reach Baku on the other side of the Caucasus and occupy the oilfields that supplied 80% of Soviet fuel.

The capture of Stalingrad was a secondary objective, but deemed vital to the German defensive line along the Don and Volga rivers and a convenient point to intercept oil supplies shipped to northern Russia. Neither was the symbolism of a German occupation of the “city of Stalin” lost on Hitler. By October 1942 General Friedrich Paulus’s 6th Army occupied 90% of Stalingrad. Yet the Soviet defenders clung to positions on the western banks of the Volga, denying the Germans complete control of the city.

The traditional story of Stalingrad has emphasised the heroism of the Red Army’s defence. Antony Beevor questioned this heroic narrative, highlighting the coercive measures used by the Soviets to force their troops to fight. His reinterpretation has been seized upon by many conservative commentators, keen to depict the struggle as a contest between totalitarian systems in which the more ruthless emerged as victor. But the contemporary evidence of Soviet heroism at Stalingrad is enormous and cannot be dismissed as wartime propaganda or retrospective romanticism.

The turning point came in November 1942 when the Red Army launched a massive counter-offensive that broke through the Germans’ flanks and trapped Paulus’s 6th Army in the city. Within three months Paulus had surrendered and 150,000 Germans lay dead, with another 100,000 captured.

Maintaining a foothold in Stalingrad was crucial to Soviet plans for the great counter-offensive, which aimed not only to encircle Paulus but to entrap another half million Germans fighting in the Caucasus. A few days after springing the Stalingrad trap, the Red Army launched another counter-offensive in front of Moscow, aiming to destroy German positions all along the eastern front. This was to be followed by a drive to Berlin that would deliver victory against Hitler in 1943.

In the event Stalin had to be content with stunning success at Stalingrad. Hitler’s last chance came at the great tank battle at Kursk in July 1943. The Germans lost that, too, and thereafter the war on the eastern front was one Soviet victory after another.

Stalingrad was the most decisive encounter in military history, a clash of two European superpowers that determined the outcome of the second world war. It meant that the main victor of the war would be the Soviet Union: a result that determined the shape of Europe.

[Dr Geoffrey Roberts is senior lecturer in modern history at University College Cork. His book Victory at Stalingrad: The Battle that Changed History is published by Longman. ]