It is seventy years this February since the ending of the siege of Stalingrad, the denouement of one of the most savagely drawn out battles of the Second World War.
Among the many episodes on the German eastern front, Stalingrad has a legend all of its own. Leningrad is characterised as a siege in which the inhabitants stoically held out in the face of a blockade and subsequent harsh privations, while Kursk was a ‘high-noon’ shoot out spectacle of tank warfare.
Stalingrad was a version of hell on earth, a battle in which large armies became bogged down in an attritional conflict fought from street-to-street and house-to-house. Its evocations of mass suffering, starvation, disease and death were apt signatures of the phrase: ‘Hell on the Eastern Front’.
It was a pitiless contest over an evacuated city arguably fought more for reasons of prestige and less for overall strategic advantage. At least initially. But strategic blunder it ultimately became as Adolf Hitler, the supreme commander of the German armed forces resisted attempts by members of his general staff as well as the leaders of the encircled Sixth Army to break out and re-group with other German armies poised to strike south to the Caucasus from the city of Rostov.
It had been Hitler’s objective to secure Stalingrad in order to cut the oil rich Caucasus from the rest of the Soviet Union before conquering it.
The epic struggles of Stalingrad, Kursk and Leningrad have to be reviewed in the light of Hitler’s promised war of annihilation; an unmerciful and barbaric confrontation between diametrically opposite ideologies.
In Hitler’s view, German National Socialism did not only have to overcome Soviet Communism, it was in the vanguard of racial warfare between Teuton and Slav. Moreover, the ‘cancer’ of Bolshevism, led he believed by ‘world Jewry’, was hell bent on undermining and finally enslaving the Germanic peoples.
It was thus in the eastern lands that the genocidal einsatzgruppen mobile units operating behind invading German armies, began the process of rounding up and exterminating those whom the Nazi ideology designated as untermenschen or sub-human.
The invasions of Poland and the Soviet Union were key planks in his creation of a Greater Reich in order to create new living space or Lebensraum.
Yet these monumental encounters were not envisaged by the Fuhrer. “We have only to kick down the door”, he had asserted before the commencement of Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union, “and the whole rotten edifice will come tumbling down.”
But he had underestimated the Soviets who turned out to be a formidable foe. By now fed up with most of his generals, Hitler was convinced that stiffened Soviet opposition could be overcome. “What we now need is National Socialist ardour rather than professional ability to settle matters in the East,” he berated General Franz Halder as he removed him as Chief of the Army High Command.
The fanaticism of the SS units as well as whatever resolve could be summoned by the Nazi indoctrination of the Wehrmacht, was more than matched by the Soviets in whose ears rang Soviet leader Josef Stalin’s command: “Not one step back.”
Such was literally the case as NKVD troops operating to the rear of advancing Soviet forces were primed to shoot any retreaters. But it was not all about coercion. The ‘Great Patriotic War’, the response to German aggression was conducted under the spirit of a tremendous determination to re-conquer their invaded lands and to exact revenge against the Germans.
Part engaging drama and part tragic theatre, these elements coalesced to turn the battle for Stalingrad into a morality play on the consequences of extreme hubris as well as the triumph of dogged resistance in the face of a brutal and unmerciful invader.
Here tales of desperate troops being reduced to foraging for scraps of edible material and even eating raw flesh off the carcasses of horses stand with intriguing sub-plots such as the story of the ruthless Russian sniper, Vasily Zaytsev, pitted against another German sniper.
It remains famous for Hitler’s gesture of awarding Freidrich Paulus a Field Marshall’s baton on the eve of the collapse of the encircled Sixth Army. It was a signal to Paulus to commit suicide as no German officer of that rank had ever been captured in battle.
Paulus paid no heed and instead signed the instruments of surrender before a panel of Soviet military officers who were startled at having captured so many senior German officers.
The surrender of the Sixth Army was a catastrophe from which the German army would not recover. For the German people, long used to victories, the sense of a reckoning with fate as to the survival of their nation finally hit home.
The response of their leaders sought to gloss over this stark reality. Hitler remarked, “What is life? Life is the nation. The individual must die anyway. Beyond the life of the individual is the nation.”
Joseph Goebbels, the propaganda chief in a speech at Berlin’s SportPalast, would famously exhort the German people to embrace “Total War” as the method for the state to follow if it was to survive the onslaught of the Soviets and the Western allies who were gearing up for a land invasion of the European continent.
The Nazi state, which would not yield to the allied demand of ‘unconditional surrender’, would end just over two years later with millions of Germans and millions more of other nations perished.
The intransigence of Adolf Hitler and, equally, the doggedness of Soviet forces ensured that with the Battle of Stalingrad, the graveyard of German National Socialism was well and truly marked.
(C) Adeyinka Makinde (2013)
Adeyinka Makinde is an author based in London where he lectures in law.