71 years ago today, on February 2, 1941, German and Soviet guns fell silent in the city of Stalingrad. One of the bloodiest battles in human history was over, ending in an indisputable Soviet victory- although the battle’s brutality had all but decimated the triumphant force, as well as humbling the previously mighty Wehrmacht. In a period of just over five frigid, taxing months, an estimated two million people from both sides were either killed, wounded, or taken prisoner.
The Battle of Stalingrad is one of the most well-known battles of the Eastern Front, thanks (at least in part) to Western attention through various video games and the Hollywood film Enemy at the Gates. I feel that this exposure is certainly merited, given the immense human cost and the decisive nature of the conflict. By all accounts, Stalingrad was a particularly hellish battle, and none who even survived it were left unharmed by its unimaginable cruelty.
Photo of Soviet troops engaging in street-fighting: From Wikimedia Commons, attributed to unknown author.
By the battle’s end in early 1943, what had once been a vibrant and busy industrial city was now no more than a pile of rubble populated by some crumbling buildings and thousands of haggard soldiers. One of the most enduring symbols of this destruction was Pavlov’s House- a fortified apartment building defended for two months by Junior Sgt. Yakov Pavlov and forty-five men. At the end of their ordeal, only Pavlov and three others were left alive, having repulsed the Germans so doggedly that their enemy withdrew from the area. The state of this building and of the surrounding area gives a striking idea of what Stalingrad was like thanks to the fierce fighting, and is also a sobering reminder of what its defenders lived through.
Photo of Pavlov’s House: from Russian State Military Archive via Wikimedia Commons. Attributed to unknown author.
The ruins of Stalingrad were well-suited to a sniper’s way of working- the half-destroyed buildings and piles of rubble offered both elevation and camouflage, and enemy soldiers were forced to run through ‘trenches’ in the debris in order to stay hidden. Wehrmacht soldiers called the battle a rattenkrieg, meaning rat’s war, a term which evokes much suggestion as to the grim reality experienced by all soldiers in Stalingrad.
This legendary battle illustrates a startling juxtaposition between the Soviet Union’s state-sponsored ruthlessness and the genuine patriotism and bravery displayed by so many. Stories abound of summary executions, impossibly dubious reasons for punishment, and brutal tactics by Soviet commanders meant to strike fear and loyalty into the hearts of their men.
One of the examples that sticks out for me is the story of a nineteen year old soldier who allegedly shot himself in the hand with a submachine gun in order to escape service- He was condemned because he made the mistake of trying to cover up his guilt by bandaging his wound. Stalingrad, perhaps more than any other battle, exposed the paranoia prevalent in Soviet command, as well as the resulting terror felt by the troops.
Despite these widespread intimidation tactics, many Russian soldiers readily defended the city of Stalingrad to the death. Stalingrad was of great strategic importance as a river port and as the gateway to the mineral-rich Ural Mountains, and its defenders were often eager and resolute in their unenviable task.
Photo of Russian Defenders: from http://battle.volgadmin.ru/front_foto/img/5991.jpg via Wikimedia Commons. Attributed to unknown author.
The Krasny Oktyabr Tractor Factory offers an oft-quoted example: factory workers were repairing a number of T-34 tanks when the German 14th Panzer Division closed in, intent on destroying the valuable factory. Upon hearing of the threat, the diligent workers called a meeting and subsequently decided to drive their tanks out to meet the enemy. They went to battle that day without question and without hesitation, and succeeded in keeping their factory out of German hands.
So, hidden among the dark tales of destruction and horror, there is still a redeeming light. Stalingrad also saw remarkable displays of honour and courage, and the battle’s result was not all bad. The Soviet victory stopped the German advance mere yards short of the Volga River- ground which the Germans never regained- and allowed multiple ensuing offensives which would later end the war in Berlin in May 1945.
But on anniversaries such as today’s, my overwhelming feeling is one of immeasurable sadness. The entire city of Stalingrad paid a sacrifice too large to imagine, and all I can do is remember and be grateful and reverent. For me, the memorable features of this battle are its wide-reaching systemic cruelty, ill-fated obstinacy on the part of Adolf Hitler, and the immense courage and humanity displayed in many instances by soldiers on both sides.
I hope that this post was a suitable overview of a battle that certainly deserves and will receive a great deal more attention from me in the future. 71 long years later, I hope that we have not forgotten the monumental and painful struggle that belonged to a city, but was shared by a nation.
Photo of Bullet-riddled helmets at Mamayev Kurgan Memorial: from RIA Novosti archive, http://visualrian.ru/ru/site/gallery#41111. Attributed to Perventsev.
Beevor, Antony. (1998). Stalingrad: The Fateful Siege 1942-1943. London, UK: Penguin Books Ltd.
Matthews, Rupert. (2012). Stalingrad: The Battle that Shattered Hitler’s Dream of World Domination. London, UK: Arcturus Publishing.
(2014, January 28). Pavlov’s House. Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pavlov%27s_House.