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The battle for truth about Stalingrad

As Russia marks the 70th anniversary of the Red Army’s decisive victory over Hitler’s armies in the battle for Stalingrad, there are those in Russia who want to use the occasion to rehabilitate the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin.

Stalingrad was renamed Volgograd by Nikita Khrushchev in 1961 during his moves to depose Stalin from the cult status that prevailed until the tyrant’s death in 1953.

But last week local deputies supported by Stalinist Communist Party of the Russian Federation secretary Gennady Zyuganov succeeded in re-naming the city Stalingrad for the duration of the festivities and for six days every year.

His party is campaigning for a permanent re-naming, cashing in on a wave of nostalgia, which includes buses painted with heroic Stalin portraits – much to the anger of anti-Stalinists in Russia and around the world.

Over the weekend, survivors mourned their dead and reflected on one of the harshest of battles ever fought. The total of some two million estimated dead, missing or wounded during the titanic five-month struggle defies the imagination.

The 480,000 on the Soviet side – twice as many as the Germans – includes 13,500 troops who were shot by their own side. Around 40,000 civilians died, largely because Stalin refused to evacuate the city on the eve of the battle.

The Soviet Union faced 165 German divisions on the Eastern front and the fighting dwarfed that in the West as the Red Army inflicted 75% of all German casualties. Some 27 million Soviet lives, including at least 11 million troops, were lost.

British history Max Hastings, amongst others, has noted that Western leaders, including many officers, “were happy that the USSR should have the bleeding and the dying that otherwise the British would have had”.

The re-naming issue raises the hotly-contested question – even at this historical distance – of Stalin’s true role in the World War II and in the battle of Stalingrad itself.

Some in the West have depicted Soviet victory largely as an accident of geography – i.e. the vast distances and bitter winters of Russia. But the opening up of Soviet archives since 1986-7, and the testimony of eye witnesses recorded by historians like Antony Beevor and Jochen Hellbeck continues to reveal that truth was more complex and contradictory.

Until Marshal Grigory Zhukov’s army turned back German forces outside Moscow in 1941 – in what many consider the geo-political turning point of the war – German forces had seemed unstoppable. But as the Zhukov’s uncensored memoirs revealed, now the basis of a 2012 book by Geoffrey Roberts, Zhukov had to confront Stalin and his henchmen on repeated occasions.

Far from Stalin being the great strategic genius behind the war, his orders (eerily similar to Hitler’s) never to retreat – led again and again to massive and unnecessary casualties. For example, over 700,000 troops were lost around Kiev when they were denied time to withdraw. 

In his book on World War II, Beevor says the Red Army had been “caught completely unprepared” by the invasion in June 1941. This is not surprising considering the murder of the flower of the Red Army officer corps in 1937, and Stalin’s utterly disastrous pact with Hitler which led to his disbelief that Germany would ever invade. Some 100 indications of Hitler’s intent were ignored by the Kremlin.

Militarily, victory at Stalingrad was secured through the vast Operation Uranus, the brain-child of the Soviet High command, in particular Zhukov and Alexander Vasilevsky. Shortly before the battle, the role of political commissars – in effect Stalin’s spies – in the army was scrapped and the officer corps seized the initiative.

They developed a sophisticated plan in which Stalin – unlike Hitler – deferred to his generals. Their plan to encircle Friedrich Paulus’ Sixth Army was in fact based on the “deep operations” strategy of the executed Marshall Tukhachevsky.

So victory was achieved despite Stalin and not because of his great “leadership” and through use of the resources that had been developed since the Russian Revolution of 1917. The world owes a huge debt to the people of Russia and the former Soviet Union, so the battle over their history is also all of our concern.

Corinna Lotz
A World to Win secretary
4 February 2013

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