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Why Stalingrad still matters 70 years on

Seventy 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 blitzkreig 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 became. 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 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.

Details of Philosophy Football’s Victory at Stalingrad extravaganza – tomorrow evening, Saturday 2nd February – are available here.

17 Comments

  1. David Ellis says:

    This is like praising a man for saving somebody from a housefire they started.

  2. Gary Elsby says:

    The humiliating German surrender?
    A joke surely.
    Either that or a misinterpretation of what really happened.
    Sure, if it is a humiliation of Hitler and the Nazi party you are after, then be my guest.

    Von Paulus was a hero and not a humiliated coward. It took immense guts for him to make the decisions he did.

  3. David Ellis says:

    The rout of the German Army following Stalingrad was a thing of beauty and a joy forever but the success of Hitler’s blitzkrieg was entirely down to Stalinism’s various mis-readings of the international situation and its demoralising, cruel, wasteful rule over the Soviet Union and criminal misleading of the Comintern. Need we mention that Stalinism was majorly responsible for the victory of Nazism in Germany in the first place.

  4. Dave says:

    Well said, Mark.

    The heroism and sacrifices made by those fighting against the nazis should never be forgotten. We should remember the words of poet Olga Berggolts, written during the siege of Leningrad:

    “Nobody is forgotten,
    Nothing is forgotten.”

  5. Dave says:

    “Von Paulus was a hero”

    Then why didn’t Paulus disobey orders when it really mattered? Faced with an impossible task Paulus chose to sit on his hands rather save his troops and opt for a breakout.

  6. Dave says:

    * My comment re Paulus’ heroism quotes Gary Elsby’s comment.

  7. Mark P says:

    We carefully and purposefully pass no judgement on the pluses and minuses of the Soviet Union as a social system.

    We believe each can make their own mind up on that.

    Rather we bear witness to the heroism and sacrifice of the Red Army, so vital in the eventual defeat of Nazi Germany, none more so than the victory at Stalingrad.

    It is perfectly feasible, indeed in the interestes of sentiments of basic humanity, to distinguish those two positions. It is in this spirit we produced our commemorative plate of the Victory.

  8. Robert says:

    What an argument, jeez

  9. Gary Elsby says:

    Hitler wanted Von Paulus to fight to the death with every last man.
    He was promoted to Field Marshal in the belief this order would be carried out as no German Field Marshal had ever surrended in history.
    Von Paulus disobeyed this order and saved his men rather than sacrifice them to Hitler.

    This is a heroic act and not one of a psychophantic Nazi.

    Von Paulus was completely cut off and the break out from another army failed. It was at this point that Von Paulus was promoted.

    Von Paulus survived the war and remained in East Germany.

    Rommel did similar in Africa and I hear no criticism of him from either German or British former soldiers of the day.

  10. Robert says:

    History, it did little to stop Blair or Bush did it.

  11. Dave says:

    Gary E: “This is a heroic act”

    Though Field Marshall Von Manstein sent an emissary (Major Eismann) to Paulus to communicate breakout plan – to be kept secret from Hitler. Paulus initially agreed to this plan but changed his mind even though the relieving force had advanced to within 30 miles of the trapped army (20-12-42). Details can be found in Von Manstein’s Lost Victories.

  12. billericaydickie says:

    Mark Perryman should stick to selling T shirts and give up on the Tanky myths that he and a dwindling band of former and remaining Stalinists seem to need to justify their sad existences.

    Stalin was no more a military genius than Hitler. Both were wicked evil men who destroyed millions of human beings. Prior to Mao Tse Tung Stalin killed more people than anyone before him in history.

    The first German defeat came in the Battle of Britain when Hitler and Stalin were in collusion, openly, to carve up Europe and the Communist Party was calling for a negotiated peace with Germany, in other words surrender.

    The tide was turned at Al Amein and Nazism was downhill from then on. Stalin’s purge of competent Red Army officers meant that only sycophants were in charge in July 1941 as the Germans were well aware.

    The bravery of the average Russian soldier should not be confused with the utter waste of lives that Stalin was prepared to impose to halt a German army that should never have been allowed to get as far as it did.

    Had it not been for the Germans having to get the Italians out of trouble in the Balkans then Barbarossa would have been launched in the Spring and Moscow and Leningrad would have fallen before the winter set in. Thanks for everything Benito.

  13. Robert says:

    I do not understand why people look back at wars, when our own leaders learn nothing from them.

    They will never be forgotten, oh yes they are. we have people now in the UK who are sleeping on the streets who were fighting in the Falkland, we will have troops who will be told they cannot have benefits because they can walk more then 50 paces with artificial legs under the WCA to save benefits.

    I do not give a toss if Rommel was a hero or he was not he actually killed people for a nutter called Hitler.

    We hear that trying to blow Hitler up nearly at the end of the war was a great try, but these same people kissed Hitlers ass for years to get promotions.

    Hitler lived and died I’m more worried about the mess today with political parties attacking the poor the sick the disabled and soldier who need help not to sleep on the street.

    2013 I’m more interested in the poor sods alive to day then those that died for a war

  14. Mark P says:

    On Saturday we weren’t looking back at simply a battle but an event that was central to defeat of Nazi Germany. And of course it was the Cold War that in large measure sought to extinguish the rolf of the Eastern Front, Stalingrad in particular, from history.

    In order to win the campaigns of today we need the inspiration of yesterday. The internationalism of those who in 1943 felt Stalingrad mattered, that the heroism of those battling to defeat the Nazis in the worst possibile conditions mattered more than any label politicians might put on them, the popular front against Fascism. These should be components any modern progressive politics should be proud of as part of its tradition.

    Mark P

  15. Gary Elsby says:

    Are you seriously suggesting that Von Paulus rejected a breakout from the rear which was a secret plan kept from Hitler?

    You are having me on.

    He was promoted to field Marshal because he was supposed to shoot himself.

    Manstein (who was unique in openly criticising Hitler’s military strategy without fear) could not reach Von Paulus because Von Paulus was surrounded.
    It was a brave attempt that failed.

    Von Paulus is a hero.
    He chose his men and not Hitler.
    Why did Von Paulus live in Communist East Germany, post war?

  16. Dave says:

    Gary: “Manstein […] could not reach Von Paulus because Von Paulus was surrounded.”

    The Germans lost access to their last airfield within the enclosure on January 23rd ’43 (there were others available earlier in January and December – this was well after Paulus’ meeting Major Eisman and the date of the proposed breakout.

    This link indicates the availability of an airlift communication/supply channel option:
    http://www.stalingrad.net/german-hq/fate-german-generals/german-officers-became-general.htm

  17. Robert says:

    Wilki been busy

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