Why Stalingrad Matters Today

On the 70th Anniversary of the Victory at Stalingrad, Mark Perryman explains why this battle and its outcome still matters today.

Stalingrad PlateSeventy years ago, 2 February 1943 is the date of the Red Army victory at Stalingrad. From the moment of near-certain defeat the previous year, the siege of the city – Hitler’s gateway to success on the Eastern Front – had been turned into an encirclement of the German forces and their eventual, and humiliating, surrender. Up to this point in early 1943, despite the reverses in North Africa and the failure to launch an invasion of Britain the Nazi blitzkrieg had appeared virtually invincible. Hyped up by the Goebbels propaganda machine, German morale was at its height and the Allies could see no obvious end to the War. Stalingrad changed all of that, decisively.

This was a victory all committed to the anti-fascist war could celebrate. Stalingrad inspired those working underground in the resistance throughout Nazi-occupied Europe. King George VI commissioned a sword that Churchill himself presented to Stalin. On its blade the inscription read “To the steelhearted citizens of Stalingrad a homage of the British people.” The Communist Party was meanwhile engaged in what without doubt was the biggest and broadest campaign in its history, for a second front to relieve the awful pressure that the Nazi onslaught continued to impose on the Russian people.

Almost all of this history was to be hidden, first by the onset of the Cold War in the late 1940s. And then again during the second Cold War of the 1980s era of Thatcher and Reagan. At the time Scottish folksinger Dick Gaughan put the need to reclaim this past from the rewriting of the history books rather neatly in his song Think Again: “Do you think that the Russians want war? These are the parents of children who died in the last one.” But the sentiments that Gaughan turned into such a moving song were not only submerged under the weight of the second Cold War, they also had to contest with a bitter division in the Communist Party that revolved sharply around attitudes to the Soviet Union while the Trotskyist Left defined itself by how it would classify its critique of the USSR. Stalingrad and all it represented became almost lost.

1989, and the fall of the Berlin Wall was celebrated at the time by right-wing commentators as the ‘end of history’. Their neo-liberalism of course in large part produced the economic crisis of some twenty years later and the austerity we are still being forced to endure and resist as a consequence. But 1989 had another, perhaps less obvious, after-effect. Unburdened by the Cold War rhetoric that had adopted the so-called Iron Curtain as a means to divide the world into the free and the unfree, the true legacy of World War Two could be revisited by historians who previously might have been wary of according the Eastern Front the vital place it of course occupied in the defeat of Nazi Germany. Likewise the Communist, and to a lesser extent Trotskyist, Left were no longer defined by their reading of the development of the USSR into whatever they called it. Anthony Beevor’s epic book, ‘Stalingrad’, first published in 1998, was a surprise and runaway best-seller. Beyond the Left this helped to begin to establish a popular, and mainstream, understanding of the epic heroism the Red Army victory at Stalingrad represented and, more broadly, the Eastern Front’s key role in the eventual defeat of Nazi Germany.

But the kind of breakthrough in understanding that Beevor’s book began was soon to be reversed by the aftermath of 9/11, the so-called ‘War on Terror’, the invasion of Iraq and the occupation of Afghanistan. The popularisation of the ‘Help for Heroes’ message has facilitated the militarisation of national culture, the FA Cup is carried on to the Wembley Final pitch nowadays by uniformed members of the armed forces, while Remembrance Sunday has effortlessly connected Afghanistan to World Wars Two and One with no distinction made between the causes served by these vastly different conflicts. World War Two has become an epic of nostalgia entirely disconnected from the cause of anti-fascism, the sacrifices made by the Red Army on the Eastern Front once again hidden from history. Stalingrad, forgotten, scarcely meriting a mention in the mainstream media despite its fixation with all things WW2.

Stalingrad’s 70th Anniversary of course is not something to celebrate; on the Eastern Front an estimated 25 million Soviet citizens lost their lives. But it is an opportunity to engage with the processes that for long periods effectively hid the crucial role of Stalingrad and the other epic battles in the East that would lead to the eventual defeat of Nazi Germany. And at the same time connect that history to the cause, of anti-fascism, then, now and for ever.

Philosophy Football have produced a 70th Anniversary Victory at Stalingrad commemorative plate. A limited edition of 70, individually numbered, available from here

16 comments on “Why Stalingrad Matters Today

  1. Today one of the lesson’s of Staligrad can be applied to the feeling many of us in the working class have of being surrounded by hostile forces, bleaguered, led by fools, donkeys or devils.
    The message of Stalingrad is that a heroic stand can be made and just when darkness threatens to engulf us we can break the siege and push back the enemy at the gate… and mobilise an offensive to defeat them!
    an appropriate time for the launch of the Left Unity website http://leftunity.org/what-kind-of-left-do-we-need/

  2. Mmmm I don’t disagree with the sentiment but somehow the sacrifice and heroism of the Red Army at Stalingrad doesn’t compare with the varying shoot ourse;ves in the foots of the contemporary British Far Left.

    Mark P

  3. Mark P,

    hi Mark P. yep the pathetic hoplessness of virtually all strands of leftist self flagelation was not what I was refering to…. for example I have just returned [at the age of 50] from one of my three part time jobs – delievering a local freebie Newspaper… my total income last month was £90 for the entire month.. I am deemed by the DWP not to be entitled to any benefits and …. there are several million people like me in England, Scotland and Wales in a similar position of social exclusion.. in addition I have several health problems and require repeat prescriptions from my GP … I have to pay for these scripts as my status as impoverished person not in reciept of benefits doesnt have a box to tick on the scripts… Clearly, my situation is not similar in anyway to the experience of the working class residents of Stalingrad in 1942/3… but although I am not facing an immediate ‘life and Death Struggle’ I do feel besieged and I know many other people feel the same.. it is in this context that I raised the necessity for a decisive move to resist this encirclement by hostile forces – and just as many people in Stalingrad who were hostile to Stalinism from both a Left Oppositionist perspective and from other political traditions understood the imperative of UNITY in the struggle against Facsism – we need in England today to do the same… move towards a functioning practical unity against the vicious assault of Capital on the working class… In this way I was simply holding up the example of the people of Stalingrad as an example of the SPIRIT we need to adopt in the current conjuncture… and that this should link up with Ken Loachs SPIRIT OF 1945 in unifying and galvanising working class resistence to the Con/Dems….

  4. Mark P: Mmmm

    Maybe Ken’s Film deserves a T’Shirt or a plate too??.. I can envisage film showings organised across the country which help rebuild the confidence of ordinary people and educate a new generation about how the NHS was created…[your T’Shirts would go down well!]
    What about a mobile DVD crew going from town to town and doing film shows in public places … Showing ‘Enemy at the Gate’ followed by the ‘Spirit of 45’…. Mark P, Ken L, and Andrew B… could become the “Alexander Bogdanov and Anatoly Lunacharsky and writer Maxim Gorky’ of the Coming English Revolution? By this I mean by practically establishing a pre revolutionary version of ‘Prolkult’ in the here and now… this year to play a decisive role in the English Spring

  5. saothar on said:

    Good article on the importance of the battle then and now, and the way in which its significance has been played down in the West.

    I remember a great book by Progress Publishers ‘Decisive Battles of the Soviet Army’ which covered the battle in great detail, and others such as Moscow and Kursk, and Operation Bagration. I think the book was published in the early 80s, at a time when, as Mark Perryman indicates, many western historians were treating the war in the East in a cursory fashion. One interesting aspect of that book was that it drew on archival material including communiques, telegrams, speeches etc which showed that at that time, in the 1942-45 period, all of the Western powers were fully aware of the central role being played by the Soviets and how it dwarfed their own combined role with ease. I hope the event at the weekend in London is a success.

  6. George Hallam on said:

    saothar: I remember a great book by Progress Publishers ‘Decisive Battles of the Soviet Army’ which covered the battle in great detail, and others such as Moscow and Kursk, and Operation Bagration. I think the book was published in the early 80s, at a time when, as Mark Perryman indicates, many western historians were treating the war in the East in a cursory fashion.

    Young people today might be interested to know of three other books
    The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William L. Shirer, first published in 1959

    Barbarossa: The Russian German Conflict, 1941-1945 by the incomparable (or do I mean insufferable?) Alan Clark, This was first published in 1965.
    Russia at War: 1941-1945 by Alexander Werth

    I was unsure how to characterise Clark His wife Jane was similarly ambivalent.

    “I did once actually throw an axe at him”, ..: “And as it left my hand I hoped it would hit him.
    “But it missed and I was glad my aim was so bad. I know he is an S-H- One-T. But I still think he’s super.”

    Alexander Werth (1901, St Petersburg 1969, Paris)
    Werth’s family were émigrés who settled in the UK. He became a British subject.
    He spent the war in the Soviet Union as the BBC’s correspondent. He was one of the first outsiders to be allowed into Stalingrad after the battle. From 1946 to 1949 he was the Moscow correspondent for the Manchester Guardian.
    One reviewer write recently of Russia at War that “the work is undeniably free of the Russophobia of an accelerating Cold War period”. So much so that Werth has often been written off as a Soviet-apologist.

    Of the three Shirer’s ‘Rise and Fall of the Third Reich’ was probably the most widely read. It certainly made the case for the importance of the Eastern Front.

    A TURN OF THE TIDE 768-9
    QUOTE
    “..on October 3, Hitler returned to Berlin and in an address to the German people proclaimed the collapse of the Soviet Union. ”I declare today, and I declare it without any reservation,” he said, ”that the enemy in the East has been struck down and will never rise again . . . Behind our troops there already lies a territory twice the size of the German Reich when I came to power in 1933.”
    When on October 8, Orel, a key city south of Moscow, fell, Hitler sent his press chief, Otto Dietrich, flying back to Berlin, to tell the correspondents of the world’s leading newspapers there the next day that the last intact Soviet armies, those of Marshal Timoshenko, defending Moscow, were locked in two steel German pockets before the capital; that the southern armies of Marshal Budenny were routed and dispersed; and that sixty to seventy divisions of Marshal Voroshilov’s army were surrounded in Leningrad.
    ”For all military purposes,” Dietrich concluded smugly, ”Soviet Russia is done with. The British dream of a two-front war is dead.” These public boasts of Hitler and Dietrich were, to say the least, premature.† In reality the Russians, despite the surprise with which they were taken on June 22, their subsequent heavy losses in men and equipment, their rapid withdrawal and the entrapment of some of their best armies, had begun in July to put up a mounting resistance such as the Wehrmacht had never encountered before. Haider’s diary and the reports of such front-line commanders as General Guderian, who led a large panzer group on the central front, began to be peppered – and then laden – with accounts of severe righting, desperate Russian stands and counterattacks and heavy casualties to German as well as Soviet troops.
    ”The conduct of the Russian troops,” General Blumentritt wrote later, ”even in this first battle [for Minsk] was in striking contrast to the behavior of the Poles and the Western Allies in defeat. Even when encircled the Russians stood their ground and fought.1054 And there proved to be more of them, and with better equipment, than Adolf Hitler had dreamed was possible. Fresh Soviet divisions which German intelligence had no inkling of were continually being thrown into battle. ”It is becoming ever clearer,” Haider wrote in his diary on August 11, ”that we underestimated the strength of the Russian colossus not only in the economic and transportation sphere but above all in the military. At the beginning we reckoned with some 200 enemy divisions and we have already identified 360. When a dozen of them are destroyed the Russians throw in another dozen. On this broad expanse our front is too thin. It has no depth. As a result, the repeated enemy attacks often meet with some success.” Rundstedt put it bluntly to Allied interrogators after the war. ”I realized,” he said, ”soon after the attack was begun that everything that had been written about Russia was nonsense.” “

    END QUOTE

  7. Jellytot on said:

    @6Barbarossa: The Russian German Conflict, 1941-1945 by the incomparable (or do I mean insufferable?) Alan Clark, This was first published in 1965,

    I was always wary of reading anything by Alan Clark after I saw an interview with him where he argued that Britain should have sued for peace with Germany in 1941 and I always had suspicions, rightly or wrongly, that he was part of the, now largely defunct, “bridging” strain of right wing British Conservatism that sought common-cause with fascists.

    That said I will check out the book by him that you quote as you seem widely read on the subject.

  8. MAF You come out with some absolutely great stuff and then you talk shite. I’m also 50 (or will be in a few weeks) and remember you from my USFI days(the last time I spoke to you was on a train about 1988 (clue- Stella Artois) by which time we were in different groups, and you haven’t changed in that respect (I’m sure you’d probably say the same about me).

    Sorry about your current circumstances btw.

    And on the subject of Gorky, did you ever see the Scottish adaptation of his autobiographical trilogy (by Bill Douglas I think)?

    George H

    I agree with you about both the Shirer and Clarke books. The last paragraph of the latter has always stuck in my mind since I read it as a schoolboy.

    Are you going to Mark P’s event tommorrow btw?

  9. #7 Your suspicion of him is justified in terms of his politics. The book however is a classic work on the subject, albeit much overtaken in terms of stuff that has come to light since it was published.

  10. #6 There is a clear case for the argument that the true significance of Stalingrad is political rather than military, and that the real defeat (as in what made the war unwinnable for the Germans) was the counter-offensive at Moscow in December ’41.

  11. Manzil on said:

    Vanya:
    #7 Your suspicion of him is justified in terms of his politics. The book however is a classic work on the subject, albeit much overtaken in terms of stuff that has come to light since it was published.

    Care to expand on that? I find myself physically incapable of reading military history without losing the will to live, so I always take a perverse interest in these discussions on SU.

    (Also I was born the same year you last spoke to mark anthony france – ‘tomorrow belongs to me’!)

  12. George Hallam on said:

    Vanya: Are you going to Mark P’s event tommorrow btw?

    I’m afraid I have a prior commitment in Lewisham – LPBP Burns’ Supper.

    Vanya: There is a clear case for the argument that the true significance of Stalingrad is political rather than military, and that the real defeat (as in what made the war unwinnable for the Germans) was the counter-offensive at Moscow in December ’41.

    The latest research by Glantz suggests an even earlier date.

    See BARBAROSSA DERAILED: THE BATTLE FOR SMOLENSK 1941 Vol 2

  13. Manzil: Care to expand on that?

    No, sorry, it would take too long :)

    Manzil: (Also I was born the same year you last spoke to mark anthony france – ‘tomorrow belongs to me’!)

    You’re having a laugh, surely?

    George Hallam: The latest research by Glantz suggests an even earlier date.
    See BARBAROSSA DERAILED: THE BATTLE FOR SMOLENSK 1941 Vol 2

    I’ll check that out. Shame you won’t be there.

  14. Manzil on said:

    Vanya: No, sorry, it would take too long :)

    You’re having a laugh, surely?

    Bloody typical. You could have précised it!

    You know, by assuming I have the average attention span of someone in his mid-twenties. :P

  15. George Hallam on said:

    [I tried to post the following last night. Perhaps it has been caught in something called a ‘spam filter’. If so then please delete the duplicate.]

    Jellytot: I was always wary of reading anything by Alan Clark after I saw an interview with him where he argued that Britain should have sued for peace with Germany in 1941 and I always had suspicions, rightly or wrongly, that he was part of the, now largely defunct, “bridging” strain of right wing British Conservatism that sought common-cause with fascists.

    I tried to post the following last night. Perhaps it has been caught in something called a ‘spam filter’. If so then please delete the duplicate

    Shirer used German sources; Werth relied more on Soviet accounts.

    I mentioned Barbarossa because Clark was one of the first to use both.

    A lot of his account is dated but it is very readable.
    Clark’s faults were legion. This is true whichever way one looks, personally, politically or intellectually.

    As you know I don’t regard the left-right distinction as a very useful tool of analysis. Alan Clark would be an example of how misleading it can be.

    Consider “The Donkeys”, his book about British generals in the early years of the First World War (published1961)
    . Clark said ”I was horrified by what I found out when researching that book..”
    “I realised what hideous crimes had been committed by us on our own people – we just completely betrayed them. The betrayals of 1914-1918 and the slump that followed it caused the masses to lose faith in the elite who were giving them such bad leadership.”

    Who knows, perhaps, in some parallel universe the young Alan Clark was recruited by IS (which case the Tony Cliff in our time line had a lucky escape).