When we happen to recall the Second World War’s notable battles, the emphasis is more on those fought by the Western Allies — Dunkirk, Pearl Harbor, El Alamein, Midway Island, D-Day landings and Arnhem, et al, given the large amount of books and films they have inspired. The Eastern Front rarely gets the same attention, though having equally significant clashes — especially the one by the Volga in southern Russia.
A couple of days ago (February 2) marked the 75th anniversary of the end of the largest (over two million soldiers from six nations), most bloodiest (up to two million killed, wounded and captured) and a major turning point of World War II.
The over-five-month-long Battle of Stalingrad, which marked the high point of Nazi Germany’s eastern advance, has become synonymous with urban warfare at its fiercest as well as a microcosm of war’s mix of bravery and cowardice, brutality and resilience, and ambition and tenacity.
And it has its fair share of cultural depictions: In books and films, but also music (from classical to heavy metal), poetry and video games, as well as recollections of participants as well as analyses, both general and scholarly. How authentic are they? But before we take a look at them, let’s get a brief idea of what led to the battle itself and its broad contours.
Nazi Germany attacked the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941, and despite occupying large swathes of the country, failed to capture key objectives like Leningrad or Moscow or comprehensively defeat the Red Army. In June the next year, its Army Group South began “Case Blue” to take east Ukraine and the Caucasian oilfields. Split into Groups A and B, respectively, to take the Caucasus and defend their flank near Stalingrad, the latter reached Stalingrad’s outskirts on August 23 and were ordered to capture it. Thus began the battle in the city, from which the Soviets had removed all food stocks and equipment possible but forbidden civilian residents to leave.
The fighting continued for the next five months and 10 days, street by street, and house by house, before the Germans, forbidden by Hitler to retreat, shrank into smaller and smaller areas, cut off from each other. The pitiful remnants, led by newly-promoted Field Marshal Friedrich Paulus, eventually surrendered on February 2, 1943.
If we rule out the huge amount of Russian and German works, and keep to English, the battle figures in any standard, overall history of WWII but the conflict’s huge canvas precludes much detail. Those devoted to the Eastern Front like Russian-born British journalist Alexander Werth’s “Russia At War, 1941-1945” (1964) give it better play.
Werth, who covered the war from Moscow and was among the first Western journalists allowed to visit Stalingrad after the battle, also gave a stark, unsettling picture in “The Year of Stalingrad: An Historical Record and a Study of Russian Mentality, Methods and Policies” (1946).
More Western interest was evoked after the publication of twice Hero of Soviet Union Marshal Vasili Chuikov’s translated memoirs — “The Beginning of the Road: The Story of the Battle for Stalingrad” (1963). Chuikov, who had commanded the 62nd Army in the battle and was present in the city itself, played a key role with his several innovative tactics like “hugging the enemy”, where Soviet soldiers kept in close proximity to the Germans to minimise their superior weaponry and air power.
While there is also the military study “Velikaia Bitva na Volge (The great victory on the Volga)” by Marshal K.K. Rokossovsky, who served as commander of the Don Front, it was Chuikov’s memoirs that would influence the next books on Stalingrad.
An early one was William Craig’s “Enemy at the Gates: The Battle for Stalingrad” (1973) — from which the three pages about the duel between famed Russian sniper Vassili Zaitsev and an unnamed German opponent formed the basis, with considerable artistic license, of the Jude Law film “Enemy at the Gates” (2001). Then there is British historian Anthony Beevor’s magisterial strategic and social account “Stalingrad” (1998) and Geoffrey Roberts’ “Victory at Stalingrad: The Battle that Changed History” (2002).
Michael K. Jones, whose “Stalingrad: How the Red Army Survived the German Onslaught” (2007), however, purports to offer a new perspective, drawing extensively from newly-released archival material and interviews with survivors and their families. American military historian David M. Glantz, who has a spate of specialised books on the Soviet experience and operational art, contends that the earlier books suffer from over-reliance on Chuikov’s memoirs, which were intended to be “propagandist”, inflating German strength and focussing more on “pure” Russian formations among others.
On the other hand, if you prefer fiction, the best is Red Army journalist and author Vasily Grossman’s “Life and Fate”, his German counterpart Heinz G. Konsalik’s “Doctor of Stalingrad” or even Canadian author John Wilson’s “Four Steps to Death” (2005).
But whatever you read, fiction or non-fiction, German, Russian or other, the basic message is the same: War is Hell. And if this percolates into our minds, Stalingrad’s significance is assured.
(Vikas Datta is an Associate Editor at IANS. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at [email protected])