Re­mem­ber­ing Stal­in­grad 75 years later

With all their cur­rent med­dling, it’s easy to for­get Rus­sian hero­ism

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary - By Vic­tor Davis Han­son

Seventy-five years ago this month, the Soviet Red Army sur­rounded — and would soon de­stroy — a huge in­vad­ing Ger­man army at Stal­in­grad on the Volga River. Nearly 300,000 of Ger­many’s best sol­diers would never re­turn home. The epic 1942-43 bat­tle for the city saw the com­plete an­ni­hi­la­tion of the at­tack­ing Ger­man 6th Army. It marked the turn­ing point of World War II.

Be­fore Stal­in­grad, Adolf Hitler reg­u­larly boasted on Ger­man ra­dio as his vic­to­ri­ous forces pressed their of­fen­sives world­wide. Af­ter Stal­in­grad, Hitler went quiet, brood­ing in his var­i­ous bunkers for the rest of the war.

Dur­ing the hor­rific Bat­tle of Stal­in­grad, which lasted more than five months, Rus­sian, Amer­i­can and Bri­tish forces also went on the of­fen­sive against the Axis pow­ers in the Cau­ca­sus, in Morocco and Algeria, and on the is­land of Guadal­canal in the Pa­cific.

Yet just weeks be­fore the Bat­tle of Stal­in­grad be­gan, the Al­lies had been near de­feat. They had lost most of Euro­pean Rus­sia. Much of Western Europe was un­der Nazi con­trol. Axis armies oc­cu­pied large swaths of North Africa. The Ja­panese con­trolled most of the Pa­cific and Asia, from Manchuria to Wake Is­land.

Stal­in­grad was part of a re­newed Ger­man ef­fort in 1942 to drive south­ward to­ward the Cau­ca­sus Moun­tains, to cap­ture the huge Soviet oil fields. The Ger­mans might have pulled it off had Hitler not di­vided his forces and sent his best army north­ward to Stal­in­grad to cut the Volga River traf­fic and take Stalin’s epony­mous fron­tier city.

By the time two Red Army pin­cers trapped the Ger­mans at Stal­in­grad in Novem­ber, Rus­sia had al­ready suf­fered some 6 mil­lion com­bat ca­su­al­ties dur­ing the first 16 months of Ger­many’s in­va­sion. By Ger­man cal­cu­la­tions, Rus­sia should have al­ready sub­mit­ted, just like all of the Third Re­ich’s prior Euro­pean en­e­mies ex­cept Bri­tain.

In­stead, the Red Army drew the Ger­mans deeper into the tra­di­tional quag­mire of Rus­sia un­til the 6th Army was low on sup­plies, freez­ing in the win­ter cold, and trapped more than 1,500 miles from Ber­lin. How did the Red Army not only sur­vive but go on the of­fen­sive against the deadly in­vaders?

In part, it had no choice. Ger­many was in­tent on not just ab­sorb­ing Rus­sia, but wip­ing it out or en­slav­ing mil­lions of its cit­i­zens. In part, Bri­tain and the United States un­der the lendlease pol­icy be­gan send­ing huge amounts of ma­te­rial aid, pro­vid­ing ev­ery­thing from boots to lo­co­mo­tives. In part, Red Army sol­diers were ter­ri­fied of their own com­mu­nist strong­man, Josef Stalin.

Prior to the Ger­man in­va­sion, Stalin was re­spon­si­ble for some 20 mil­lion Rus­sian deaths through forced farm col­lec­tiviza­tion, planned famine, show tri­als and purges, and the mur­ders of his own Red Army troops. More than 10,000 sol­diers were likely ex­e­cuted at Stal­in­grad by their own of­fi­cers.

But most im­por­tant, no Euro­pean in­vader — nei­ther Swe­den un­der Charles XII in the early 1700s nor France un­der Napoleon in the early 1800s — had ever suc­cess­fully in­vaded and de­feated Rus­sia.

The coun­try was too large, both ge­o­graph­i­cally and de­mo­graph­i­cally. Good weather was too brief be­tween the spring floods and the bit­ter Rus­sian win­ter. And Rus­sians al­ways fought hero­ically as de­fend­ers of their own soil, even if this wasn’t al­ways the case when they were fight­ing abroad as in­vaders.

De­spite the hor­rors of Soviet com­mu­nism, the Al­lied win­ners of World War II owed a great deal to the Rus­sian peo­ple. Rus­sia’s male and fe­male sol­diers were most re­spon­si­ble for de­stroy­ing Hitler’s vast ground forces, hav­ing killed more than two-thirds of the Ger­man sol­diers lost in the war.

The Soviet Union lost about 27 mil­lion sol­diers and civil­ians — about 60 times more than Amer­ica lost in the war. Due to mem­o­ries of the Soviet Union’s Cold War ruth­less­ness, and be­cause of Vladimir Putin’s au­to­cratic gov­ern­ment, it is now fash­ion­able to de­mo­nize Rus­sia. Moscow sent troops into east­ern Ukraine, ab­sorbed Crimea and has sought to tam­per with a U.S. pres­i­den­tial elec­tion.

But most Amer­i­cans have for­got­ten key as­pects of Rus­sia’s 20th-cen­tury his­tory, a tragedy of un­speak­able hu­man losses. Out­side Kiev

More than 10,000 sol­diers were likely ex­e­cuted at Stal­in­grad by their own of­fi­cers. But most im­por­tant, no Euro­pean in­vader — nei­ther Swe­den un­der Charles XII in the early 1700s nor France un­der Napoleon in the early 1800s — had ever suc­cess­fully in­vaded and de­feated Rus­sia.

in late sum­mer of 1941, more than 700,000 Rus­sian sol­diers were killed or cap­tured by Ger­mans in a sin­gle bat­tle.

In one of the costli­est sieges in his­tory, at Sev­astopol in July 1942, 100,000 Rus­sians were killed or cap­tured in a failed ef­fort to save the port on the Black Sea.

We rightly see Mr. Putin as an ag­gres­sive au­to­crat. But mil­lions of Rus­sians view Ukraine and the Crimea as sa­cred, blood-soaked Rus­sian ground. Af­ter the col­lapse of the night­mar­ish Soviet Union, Stal­in­grad was re­named Vol­gograd “city on the Volga.” To­day, few in the West know ex­actly what hap­pened there 75 years ago this month.

This Vet­er­ans Day, we should also re­mem­ber those heroic Rus­sian sol­diers. In bit­ter cold, and af­ter los­ing hun­dreds of thou­sands of lives, they fi­nally did the un­be­liev­able: They halted the march of Nazi Ger­many. Vic­tor Davis Han­son is a clas­si­cist and his­to­rian with the Hoover In­sti­tu­tion at Stan­ford Uni­ver­sity.


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