It is no small irony that the victory of the communist Red Army saved western capitalism from Nazi victory.
The Battle of Stalingrad was the turning point in the Second World War. It was the most brutal battle of the Second World War and the bloodiest battle in the history of warfare. Russian victory in Stalingrad made her a superpower and changed the history of the 20th century.
The Battle of Stalingrad began in September 1942. It continued through a terrible winter to February 1943. It is no small irony that victory of the communist Red Army saved western capitalism from Nazi victory.
The Sixth Army of Germany under the command of General Friedrich von Paulus led the assault on Stalingrad. At the rear came the Fourth Panzer Army. Germany’s allies joined the Sixth Army at Stalingrad. He was commanded to occupy the Caucasus and Baku, centre of rich oilfields and the centre of communications in Southern Russia. The Reich’s army desperately needed fuel in the third year of the war. Stalingrad stood on the path of Baku. Therefore, Stalingrad had to be destroyed. Hitler told his generals that conquest of the city bearing Stalin’s name would shatter Soviet morale.
Hitler had no doubts about the outcome of the battle for Stalingrad. Russia had been severely wounded by Operation Barbarossa, or the siege of Leningrad. But even terrible starvation and the death of three million Russians did not break Leningrad’s resistance. Dmitry Shostakovich’s sombre Leningrad Symphony was broadcast across the besieged city to inspire its citizens. Now, in 1942 Russians were grimly determined not to lose Stalingrad and the Caucasian oilfields. Stalin directed the chief commander of Stalingrad, General Zhukhov: “Remember, not a step backwards.”
General von Paulus’ Sixth Army (some 300,000 men) entered Stalingrad and wreaked unimaginable havoc in two months. German soldiers not only killed Soviet soldiers; they killed non-combatants as well; elderly women carrying food to starving soldiers, little boys carrying messages to Red Army officers. (This is shown in the American film “Enemy at the Gates.”) Germans occupied large portions of the city but Russian forces often reoccupied areas within a few days. The relentless German artillery fire reduced the once prosperous town to a heap of rubble.
After sustaining heavy losses of men and weapons, Russians launched a fierce counter-offensive in November 1942. General Zhukov surrounded Stalingrad with six million men. The regiment under Generals Romanenko and Chistykov attacked from the north. Joining them was General Chuikov. The 52nd, 57th, 64th and 65th armies attacked from the south.
Then the brilliant General Zhukov planned the counter-attack that defeated the German assault. He ordered his million soldiers to surround the city on all sides. The formidable German Army was trapped in snow-bound Stalingrad. General von Paulus pleaded with Hitler to retreat and save lives. On 24 January 1943, Hitler telegrammed to von Paulus: “Surrender is forbidden. Sixth Army will hold their positions to the last man and the last round and by their heroic endurance will make an unforgettable contribution towards a defensive front and salvation of the Western world.”
Trapped inside the city, German soldiers died of cold and hunger. Fuel was scarce but most importantly, their ammunition was running out. It was the siege of Leningrad in reverse; the starving besieged were now the Germans. Hitler made Paulus a Field Marshal, warning him that “no German Field Marshal has ever surrendered.” But on 31 January 1943, General von Paulus surrendered the southern sector of Stalingrad. General Scherek surrendered the northern part. Russian victory at Stalingrad was the beginning of the end of Nazi Germany.
With huge loss of manpower and weaponry, the once formidable and now shattered Sixth Army began the retreat from Germany’s eastern front in February 1943. Anticipating Gotterdamarung, Hitler stated: “The god of war has gone over to the other side.”
General Zhukhov contributed significantly to the Russian victory in Stalingrad; he planned the assault on Germany and became the most decorated officer of the Soviet Army. Amidst jubilation in the Moscow Kremlin, Stalin observed “Fascist Germany is facing disaster.”
The losses sustained by both nations can never be known. The approximate estimate is loss of 750,000 men killed, missing or wounded on the German side, while the Soviet army is estimated to have lost 478,741 men, killed or missing, while some 650,878 were wounded. Though thousands of Stalingrad citizens fled from the city by road or crossed the River Volga on makeshift boats, some 40,000 civilians are estimated to have been killed—and not always by crossfire. Civilian Russians, including children, who helped their army compatriots, were killed by the Nazis. The Russians took some 91,000 German soldiers and officers as prisoners of war. General von Paulus was taken a prisoner of war. He refused to return to Nazi Germany and settled in East Germany after the war.
Then the victorious Soviet Army under General Zhukhov began its unstoppable advance to occupy Berlin. Soviet victory over Germany compelled Roosevelt to engage Stalin into a post war agreement. They met at Yalta on the Soviet Crimean coast to discuss the post war scene.
The League of Nations had ended in disgrace by its failure to prevent a global war. Now, the United States wanted to establish the United Nations Organization to bring peace and security to a war-ravaged world. President Roosevelt realised that without Soviet participation the United Nations would meet the same fate as the League of Nations.
The US and Soviet Union wanted to establish a peaceful settlement between the victors. A triumphant Stalin stated his terms for collaboration with the US: acceptance of Soviet sphere of political influence in Eastern and Central Europe and expansion into Eastern Europe which Stalin stated was imperative for the security of Soviet Union: Soviet interest in Manchuria and Sakhalin islands. As Roosevelt wanted Soviet support and Soviet membership of the United Nations, he readily agreed. Soviet Union became a founding member of the United Nations, a member of the Security Council with power to veto any decision detrimental to her interests.
In the meantime, General Zhukov gathered two and a half million troops; 6,000 tanks and 40,000 artillery weapons were deployed for the final battle against Nazi Germany.
On 15 April 1945, Soviet forces launched a powerful artillery attack on German forces west of the River Oder which forced Germans to retreat from their positions. General Zhukov and his army fought to take Berlin.
On 2 May 1945, the Soviet flag was hoisted on the roof of the Reichstag in Berlin—the place where the destruction of Russia was planned. To no avail.
But millions died in pursuit of the mad dream to destroy Russia.
Achala Moulik is a former Education Secretary of India and author of books on history, international relations and novels. She was awarded the prestigious Pushkin Medal for her books on Russian history and literature.