Saturday, February 02, 2013


On June 22nd, 1941 Germany launched the largest land invasion in the history of warfare.  Around three million Wehrmacht troops, along with a further million from the other Axis powers, crossed the border into the Soviet Union.  Few invading armies in history have enjoyed the advantages they did.  Stalin initially refused to believe it was happening - then once the reality was unavoidable he acted, according to the contemporary sources, like the proverbial rabbit caught in the headlights.  Among the consequences of this initial inaction was the destruction of large swathes of the Soviet air force before they had even got off the ground.

Anthony Beevor's description of the initial stages of the campaign has an eerie quality to it - the way the soldiers of the invading army oscillated between euphoria and fear.  The Wehrmacht had made astonishing territorial gains, yet the landscape seemed limitless like the ocean.  They had killed two million Red army soldier in the first few months of Barbarossa yet still they came.  And they came with a ferocity that the Germans were not quite prepared for.  Two things struck the invaders: the indifference the Soviet commanders showed to casualties among their own forces and the extent to which the Red Army soldiers were prepared to fight long past the point at which the Americans or the British would have surrendered.  One should not imagine this was solely on account of the brutality of the Soviet military command, although this was undoubtedly a factor.  Greater was the urge to defend the Motherland along with expectation of the likely outcome  in the event of surrender.  The latter was entirely rational: over five and a half million Russians were taken prisoner of war in the Second World War; only two million of them survived this experience.

'Barbarossa relauched' centred around the city of Stalingrad.  Hitler became obsessed with its downfall, having convinced himself it was key to his Eastern campaign.  It would give him access to the oil-fields in the Caucuses and the downfall of the city that had taken its name from the Russian dictator would deal the forces of Bolshevism a psychological blow from which they would be unable to recover.

As it turned out, in its hubris it was the ambition of the Third Reich that never recovered from their defeat at Stalingrad.  In just about every detail of the campaign, the grotesque vainglory of the Nazi regime was exposed.  Troops lacked the necessary winter kit they needed for the cruel Russian winter because it was assumed that it would be over before any such thing was required.  On hearing that the Russians were out-matching the Germans in the production of tanks, Hitler banged his fists on the table in disbelief.  The 6th army could have broken out of their encirclement in Operation Uranus had it not been for Hitler's insistence that they hold their position whatever the cost.  Goering had claimed the Luftwaffe could air-drop the necessary provisions but in reality the troops were now receiving a third of the rations they required.

By January, half-starved, having already killed all the horses, the 6th army was at the point of surrender.  It would almost be possible to feel sorry for them - had it not been for the fact that they had unleashed barbarism across an entire continent.  

Hitler rejected Paulus's request to capitulate, believing that as a matter of honour the commander of the 6th army  should die fighting or take his own life, since no German Field Marshall had ever been taken prisoner.  Instead he surrendered and the German 6th army was formally defeated on the 2nd of February,  1943.  

Stalingrad was won at enormous human cost and was witness to acts of unbelievable barbarity but also to extraordinary feats of endurance and bravery.  One can only hope those proponents of a peculiarly vulgar species of the totalitarian thesis do not really mean what they say when they claim there was nothing to choose between Stalinism and National Socialism; in order to be consistent, they would have to say plainly that the outcome of this battle was of little consequence in world history.  For the rest of us it was on this day seventy years ago that marks the beginning of the end of the most brutal and degraded regime in human history.  The duty the living owe to the fallen is to remember them.


Luis Enrique said...

If you have a 800-page epic sized hole in your life, I recommend filling it with Vassily Grossman's Life and Fate. It covers Stalingrad from various perspectives, perhaps most memorably from that of a handful of soldiers marooned in a house just yards from the Nazi front line

Trofim said...

Life and Fate - just as memorable is, as far as I know, the only account in literature of the experience of one's last moments of life in the gas chamber.

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