The fighting in Stalingrad, lasting from August 1942 to February 1943, and ending with the surrender of Hitler’s army, changed the course of World War II and world history. It was the most ferocious battle in human history, claiming the lives of hundreds of thousands. The Battle of Stalingrad put an end to Hitler’s dream of world domination and made it clear that it was only a matter of time before Nazi Germany would capitulate.
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Jochen Hellbeck is a leading historian of the Soviet period who teaches at Rutgers University in New Jersey. His fascinating 2015 book, “Stalingrad: The City that Defeated the Third Reich, and the Battle that Changed World History” (PublicAffairs; also available in German, Russian, Swedish, Finnish, Spanish, and Chinese editions), tells the story of this battle from the Soviet side. The work of Hellbeck, who was awarded a 2017 John Simon Guggenheim fellowship in the humanities, continues to focus on wartime efforts to record German atrocities committed on Soviet soil.
Born in Bonn, West Germany, Prof. Hellbeck, 51, is also founder of an online project, facingstalingrad.com, at the heart of which is a series of in-depth interviews – conducted jointly in 2009-2010 with photographer Emma Dodge Hanson – with surviving veterans of the fateful battle from both Germany and Russia. The interviews, as well as rare photographs and letters shared by the veterans, show how differently the battle is remembered on both sides.
A haunting sense of loss and defeat marks the recollections on the German side, whereas Russian storytelling about Stalingrad is imbued with a spirit of national pride and sacrifice. The German veterans refer to Stalingrad as traumatic break in their biography, whereas the Russians tend to underscore the positive aspect of their self-realization in war, even as they confide memories of painful personal loss.
Michal Shapira spoke with Hellbeck following a visit by him to Tel Aviv University earlier this year.
What drew you to study World War II in your book and, in particular, to the Battle of Stalingrad?
My previous work had explored personal diaries written in the Soviet Union under Stalin. It revealed that many people kept diaries, contrary to popular belief. Their goal was not to cultivate private thoughts as distinct from the communist regime, but to align their thinking with the mandate of the Soviet revolution, and to rise to the level of a worthy participant in a world historical drama.
I then became curious about how these strivings compared to the Nazi German revolution and its version of the “New Man.” Stalingrad, as a culminating and prolonged clash between the two totalitarian regimes, seemed like the right place for this next study.
'You see young girls, children hanging from trees in the park. Does that get to you? That has a tremendous impact.'Vassily Zaitsev
Being German, I am of course also susceptible to Stalingrad’s towering place in German collective memory. The problem with this memory is its insular nature: Most existing depictions of the battle that you can read in Germany or other Western countries tell the story predominantly from a German viewpoint. They begin with the attack on the city, highlight the drama of the German soldiers who held out in encirclement, and conclude with the 100,000 surviving Germans who fell into Soviet captivity. When during my research I discovered a trove of wartime interviews with Soviet defenders of the city, I decided that my book should centrally focus on the comparatively little-known, Soviet side of the story.
The book is based on interviews with Red Army soldiers that you found in the archives. They describe shocking violence. Can you talk about the nature of the violence?
The interviews were recorded in Stalingrad, during the final stage of the battle and its immediate aftermath. They resonate with the din of the battlefield, and violence is everywhere in the picture. Red Army soldiers describe how they fought their way into the city center, blowing up basements and entire buildings filled with Germans after at least some of them refused to lay down their arms. What becomes very clear is the extent to which the Soviet defenders were driven by hatred toward the Germans. In the interviews I was surprised to discover the source of this hatred.
Take Vassily Zaitsev, the famed sniper at Stalingrad, who killed 242 enemy soldiers over the course of the battle, until he suffered an eye injury, in January 1943. Asked by the historians about what motivated him to keep fighting to the point of exhaustion and beyond, he talked about scenes he had personally witnessed: of German soldiers dragging a woman out of the rubble, presumably to rape her, while he helplessly listened to her screams for help. [Quoting Zaitsev]: “Or another time you see young girls, children hanging from trees in the park. Does that get to you? That has a tremendous impact.”
German atrocities, which many Soviet soldiers were familiar with, certainly played an important role in mobilizing them to fight, and fight hard. There was in addition ample violence within the Red Army, perpetrated against soldiers who were unwilling to risk their lives. In his interview, Gen. Vassily Chuikov described how he shot several commanders, as their soldiers watched in line formation, for retreating from the enemy without permission.
Until your book came out in Russian translation, in 2015, these interviews had never been published. Why is that?
The testimonies were too truthful and multifaceted for their times, and Stalin forbade their publication, not least because he alone claimed full credit for the victory at Stalingrad. Little changed after Stalin’s death. Yes, leading generals of the Stalingrad battle, like Chuikov, were able to publish accounts of their role in the battle, but they carefully omitted any reference to executions within the Red Army. In his memoirs, Chuikov writes that he issued “a sharp rebuke” to his cowardly officers.
Archival documentation tells me that at least some Soviet historians read the interviews, but it seems that they were at a loss about how to integrate individual, “subjective” voices, as they called them, into a mandated “objective” (communist) history of the war, and so the documents were overlooked and forgotten. I was extraordinarily lucky to have been the first historian to fully explore the 215 interviews conducted with Soviet defenders of Stalingrad, and publish them. I found them in the archive of the Institute for Russian History of the Russian Academy of Sciences.
‘Edge of Europe’
Who was conducting the interviews and why? Who were the interviewees of these “Stalingrad transcripts”?
The testimonies were too truthful and multifaceted for their times, and Stalin forbade their publication, not least because he alone claimed full credit for the victory at Stalingrad.
The interviews were conducted by historians from Moscow who responded to the German invasion in 1941 with a plan to document the Soviet war effort in its totality, and from the ground up. From 1942 to 1945, they interviewed close to 5,000 people – most of them soldiers, but also partisans, civilians who worked in the war economy or fought in the underground, and Soviet citizens who had survived Nazi occupation. These historians hoped that the published interviews would mobilize readers for the war. They also wanted to create an archival record for posterity. I was struck by how they made this decision as early as fall 1941, when the Soviet Union seemed to be teetering under the German assault. But the historians drew confidence from history, notably the War of 1812, when the Russian people had been able to defeat a technologically superior invader. Hitler, they were certain, would meet Napoleon’s end.
Why did Stalingrad become important to the Nazis and the Soviets in 1942? In what way was it a battle that changed world history?
When the Germans resumed their offensive, in spring 1942, their strategic target was the oil fields of the Caucasus. Only as Army Group South advanced toward Maikop and Grozny did Hitler order a separate attack on Stalingrad. He banked on the psychological blow that the fall of “Stalin’s city,” which is what Stalingrad literally means, would deliver to Stalin. It was largely because of its symbolic charge that the battle for Stalingrad turned into a decisive showdown between the two regimes.
What was the role of world media before and during this battle?
Stalingrad was fought on a global stage, and may have been the world’s first media war, as we would call it today. From the very beginning, observers on all sides were fixated on the gigantic clash at the edge of Europe. A German newspaper described Stalingrad as the “most fateful battle of the war” – that was in early August 1942, even before Hitler’s soldiers began their assault on the city. The global media reports pushed both sides onward. Throughout fall 1942, the Soviet press cited newspapers from places ranging from Egypt to India and Canada that extolled the heroism of Stalingrad’s defenders. In pubs throughout England, the radio would be turned on for the start of the evening news only to be turned off after the report on Stalingrad had aired. Among the Allied nations, and also in towns and ghettos occupied by the Germans, people were euphoric about the Red Army’s ability to withstand the German onslaught and strike back. As the battle wore on, many read it as an indication that Germany would lose the war.
The violence and the horror during the fighting for Stalingrad were ferocious. What were the conditions that made the violence and the loss of life so immense?
Both regimes mobilized to the utmost to conquer or defend the city. Before entering Stalingrad with troops and tanks, the Germans began with a two-week long carpet-bombing campaign that burned and razed much of the cityscape and took 40,000 lives. Just weeks before, in response to the Germans’ rapid advance toward Stalingrad, Stalin had issued the “Not A Step Back” order that forbade his soldiers to retreat under any circumstances. Even civilians were considered vital defenders of “Fortress Stalingrad” and not allowed to evacuate until several days after the beginning of the bombardment. Contemporary observers, German as well as Soviet, agreed that the Red Army troops at Stalingrad fought with enormous fervor. They only differed in their interpretations of this resistance. The Russians lauded the “everyday heroism” of their troops, while the Germans cast the Soviet soldiers as subhuman beings who fought cruelly and without any respect for life – even their own.
“For the socialist motherland!” and “For comrade Stalin!” – these were some of the slogans of those fighting in Stalingrad. What role did Bolshevism play in the fighting? What are your main findings?
Communist ideology had an enormous mobilizing power during the war; this is one of the core arguments of my book and it challenges how other scholars have understood the Soviet war effort. The prevailing notion in scholarship is that Stalin was politically bankrupt when the war began – duped by the Germans, on the defensive, and deeply unpopular. As this interpretation goes, Stalin reacted by shedding communist dogma, embracing Russian nationalism, and adopting a more populist tone. While some of these things indeed happened, they did not signal an abdication of communist rule, quite to the contrary. My book shows in great detail how Red Army soldiers were inducted into the Communist Party.
How did this happen on the ground?
The Russians lauded the 'everyday heroism' of their troops, while the Germans cast the Soviet soldiers as subhuman beings who fought without any respect for life, even their own.
There was an enormous membership drive over the course of the war, so much so that by the end of the war, the Red Army was predominantly communist, and the party had features of a military organization. The most important condition for a soldier to join the party was not doctrinal knowledge, say, the ability to recite party textbooks, but proof that the soldier had killed Germans. That, for instance, is how sniper Zaitsev talked about how he got inducted into the party. By that time, he had already shot 60 enemy soldiers; that number would reach 242 by the end of the battle. To join the party was a matter of honor and prestige for him and other soldiers.
So how political was the Red Army?
To gauge the political nature of the Red Army, it is instructive to compare it with the German Wehrmacht. Historian Omer Bartov has argued that for the Wehrmacht, with rising casualty rates and the destruction of the “bands of brothers” in front-line units, military commanders increasingly relied on ideological indoctrination to mold troop cohesion. But even such Nazi ideological work paled against the systematic, communist, political conditioning that took place in the Red Army from the hour the Germans attacked in 1941. Ideology was the cement that the Red Army command used to bind together its diverse soldier body. Preached incessantly and targeting every recruit, it was made up of accessible concepts with an enormous emotional charge: love for the homeland and hatred of the enemy. The Germans became very impressed with this. After the Stalingrad campaign, Hitler ordered that Soviet-style political officers – the so-called “commissars” – be introduced into the Wehrmacht. But the army resisted this overt intrusion of the political into the military realm.
Women’s wartime role
World War II was a total war, in which civilians as much as soldiers were part of the war. The economy, culture and society were fully mobilized by governments. What was women’s role in the Battle of Stalingrad?
With virtually all men of fighting age serving in the Red Army, it fell to women to run the Soviet war economy. Unlike Germany, where foreign slave workers made up 25 percent of the war economy by 1944, or Great Britain with its exploitation of colonial resources – the Soviet model was one of self-exploitation. In addition, almost 1 million Soviet women served in the Red Army during World War II, half of them as ordinary soldiers and the other as nurses, phone operators, or laundrywomen. Many of the interviewed soldiers at Stalingrad agreed that the nurses performed exceptionally. Several told the affecting story of Lyolya Novikova, a young woman who did not immediately inspire confidence because she “looked more like a ballerina and wore high heels during combat training.” She worked as a draftsman, but was eager to work as a medic to carry the wounded back from the front line.
On her second day out on the battlefield, while dressing and recovering wounded soldiers, Novikova was killed. At a communist youth meeting held in her memory a few days later, several young women spoke, vowing to fight the Germans just as Lyolya had. During that meeting, Lyolya Novikova was posthumously accepted into the Communist Party.
As Stalingrad was about to fall into German hands in September 1942, the Red Army came up with a plan for a counter-attack that would eventually smash the enemy. Tell us about this dramatic moment.
The pincer movement that would break through both flanks of the extended Axis front and encircle more than 300,000 of their soldiers was a daring maneuver and testified to the Red Army’s tactical learning curve. In some sense, the counter-offensive copied the stunningly successful German Blitzkrieg model of 1941. What is also remarkable is how the Soviet military command was able to secretly deploy an army of 1 million soldiers along these flanks in the weeks leading up to the operation. German intelligence did notice suspicious troop movements, but the German army command did not take these reports seriously, as it was convinced that the Soviets had run out of available human reserves.
What was the meaning of defeat for the Germans?
While it would be more than another year before the Red Army liberated the death camps in Poland, the Battle of Stalingrad disrupted the Nazi death machine.
The Nazi regime’s first response after the successful Soviet encirclement in November was denial. The German press simply stopped reporting about Stalingrad, including the failed attempts to break through to the trapped soldiers and to supply them by air. Yet Nazi leaders could not stay silent about the rout of the Sixth Army, which Hitler had once declared could storm the heavens. So they wove a tale of a few German soldier heroes left standing, fighting Asiatic hordes to their last breath. Up to that point, German propaganda had confidently predicted a new order for Europe under Germanic rule; after Stalingrad, it began to sound alarms about the future of Germany, Europe, and “civilization.”
What did this mean in practice?
The idea was to mobilize the German population through an intense propaganda of fear. But the regime took further steps: Visiting the Treblinka death camp in eastern Poland just one month after the defeat at Stalingrad, Heinrich Himmler ordered the exhumation and cremation of all the bodies of the 700,000 Jews who had been killed there. Himmler was aware that the time of reckoning for Germany was drawing near. While it would be more than another year before the Red Army liberated the death camps in Poland, the Battle of Stalingrad disrupted the Nazi death machine. In this sense, too, Stalingrad marked a turning point in world history.
What were the main ways in which survivors remembered Stalingrad?
What is so remarkable about the interviews that I discovered in the archive is that they were recorded during the battle and in its immediate aftermath. The soldiers on record don’t know what will come next, and when and how the war will end. But they speak with palpable pride about their victory over Hitler’s army, which had an aura of being unstoppable.
Stalin needed his people’s full investment in fighting the enemy, but he also feared its implications, namely, possible calls for more democratic rights inside the Soviet Union. That was one reason why these interviews could not be published at the time. By 1945, Stalin made sure that official publications referred to him as the sole architect of Soviet victory over fascism. Ironically, Stalin’s death and demise [in 1953] dealt another blow to the defenders of Stalingrad. When, as part of the campaign to fight Stalin’s cult of personality, his city was renamed Volgograd in 1961, many veterans objected: With Stalingrad gone, they felt written out of history as well.
To this day, the Russian state and the Russian people commemorate the battle intensely. Recently, the Orthodox Church has incorporated Stalingrad into its prayers, even though the church was hardly present during the battle itself. But what I find most striking about the memory of Stalingrad is how little, by comparison, it seems to affect state leaders and publics outside of Russia. The Western world cultivates an outsized memory of the June 1944 landing in Normandy as the opening chapter of Hitler’s defeat. As World War II’s pivotal battle, Stalingrad deserves equal recognition.
Dr. Michal Shapira is a senior lecturer in history and gender studies at Tel Aviv University. Her research deals with World War II, gender and the history of psychology in the 20th century.