The Siege of Stalingrad

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Amongst the horrific scale of murder and destruction that characterized the Second World War, the most unprecedented battle — that involved a large number of people and military hardware– happened 71 years before.  Although, the bombings of Pearl Harbor brought in super-power America against Nazis and Japanese, the result of this particular war stopped the pursuit of fascist aggressors. It is at Stalingrad and Leningrad the Nazi Germans learned about the Russians’ unbending resistance.

‘Stalingrad’ was originally called as ‘Tsaritsyn.’ To commemorate Joseph Stalin’s huge role in saving the city from counterrevolutionaries during the Russian civil war, the city was renamed (in April 1925). This industrial city, situated on the banks of Volga River had abundant supply of oil. Tanks and other military hardware were produced from this city. It was also a major transportation midpoint between Northern Russia and Caspian Sea. Amongst all these reasons, the mere fact that the city bore its nation’s leader made Hitler to send his forces to this city. So, Hitler’s main aim is to scathe the Russian’s morale and the mineral resources are just a bonus.

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On June, 1942, the German forces along with the Italian, Romanian, Hungarian, and Croatian forces under Colonel General Friederich Paulus and Hermann Hoth marched toward Stalingrad. The initial German attacks were highly successful. The city looked like a decaying corpse with smoldering ruins of buildings and dead people. Hitler transferred his Panzer (tank) division to capture the oil field of Caucasus. This proved to be a mistake as the move caused traffic jams in the poor roads of Russia, slowing Hitler’s offensive plans. Italian, Romanian and other forces were sent to Northern flank.

Meanwhile, in Russia, Stalin appointed Zhukov in charge of formulating a strategy to stop the invader. Unlike Hitler, Stalin sometimes listened to the words of his expert men like Zhukov. Hitler, on the other hand canvassed others opinions only if they agreed with his. On paranoia and mass murder, the two leaders were at the same level. On November 1942, the Red Army under Zhukov launched a well-planned counter-offensive, two-pronged attack, which totally encircled the beleaguered German forces.

Russian men, who withdrew from the front, are considered as cowards or deserters. Stalin formed a military tribunal, which usually delivered death sentences and sometimes deserters were also shot on the spot. The city was full of debris, but Stalin prohibited the civilian evacuation. Civilians who are found escaping the city endured the fate similar to their army counterparts. When the much feared Russian winter set in (the winter that defeated Napoleon in 1812), the German forces morale dropped. They lost their soldiers to starvation, frost bite and diseases. During the Christmas of 1942, when temperatures soared around -30 degrees Fahrenheit, Colonel General Paulus received a message from Hitler to enter the New Year with unshakeable confidence. Hitler also promised to relieve the some of the defenders of Stalingrad.

A Soviet media unit talks to General Paulus

A Soviet media unit talks to General Paulus

We don’t know how Paulus reacted on Hitler’s promise or words, but under the hideous weather conditions, the Germans were easily repulsed by Red Army. At that point, the industrial city was just a mass graveyard for both Germans and Russians. Despite Hitler’s words, Paulus, on Jan. 24 requested permission to surrender. Hitler immediately refused saying it was their duty to stand firm to the ‘last man.’ However, Paulus finally broke the Fuhrer’s orders and surrendered on Feb. 2, 1943. 91, 000 Germans surrendered. The Axis forces’ death toll in this battle was around 850,000 (half of which were German). The Red Army’s death toll was 479,000 and around 400,000 civilian causalities. The civilian causalities in the outskirts of Stalingrad could not be determined. Among the surrendered men, only 5,000 were repatriated to Germany in 1955. Most of the prisoners failed to survive in the brutal conditions of Russian labor camps. The city of Stalingrad itself was reduced to nothing. The celebratory gatherings happened among the vast pile of rubble, gutted factories and dead bodies.

In Stalingrad, the bloodiest of the battles were fought in Mamayev Kurgan (now known as ‘Volgograd’). This place became the largest mass grave in the world. There is a monument on Volgograd to pay tribute to the soldiers, who lost their lives for their motherland.

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Why did Germans and Russians fought for a city where there was none left to fight for? The answer, although hard to digest, is quite simple: To fuel the egos of two individuals – Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin. They both saw this battle for the city as a matter of honor. However, the unspeakable adaptability and the prowess of Germans, Red Army and Soviet civilians know no bounds. The siege of Stalingrad is not just a remainder for the horrors of war, or of the suffering of innocent. It is a record of the immense pain, misery and deprivation that dictatorship brings to its people – a suffering for which no forgiveness is possible.

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