Battle of Stalingrad | Photo: unknown | CC BY-SA 3.0 | cropped from original Battle of Stalingrad | Photo: unknown | CC BY-SA 3.0 | cropped from original

In the first of two articles on the anniversary of the German defeat which marked a turning point in the Second World War, Chris Bambery looks at the background to the war in Russia

This week 80 years ago a turning point was reached in the war against Nazi Germany with the surrender of the final units of the German 6th Army in the ruins of the Russian city of Stalingrad (now Volgograd). A quarter of a million German soldiers were captured, few would ever return home. Their commander General von Paulus had surrendered on 31 January, the day after Hitler had appointed him a field marshal. No German of that rank had ever surrendered and Hitler expected von Paulus either to go down fighting or to take his own life.

This was Germany’s first significant defeat in the Second World War and it was a body blow to Hitler, who could not bring himself to broadcast to his people, leaving it to his propaganda minister, Goebbels. Hitler began withdrawing into himself, distrustful of the generals he blamed for defeat and listening more to old friends and his courtiers. In 1943 he would make only two big public addresses plus a radio broadcast. He would spend little time in Berlin until the final days of the Third Reich

In contrast the victorious Red Army would begin a series of advances which, in May 1945, would lead to their capture of Berlin. From 1941 until the fall of the German capital the Red Army faced the bulk of Hitler’s forces, even after the Anglo-American invasion of France in June 1944. The Russians broke the back of the Third Reich.

But if you look at where Stalingrad lay, on the banks of the River Volga, the obvious question is how had the Germans advanced so far east?

Hitler and the Russian dictator were sworn enemies by 1943 but that was not always the case, from August 1939 until the June 1041 German invasion of the Soviet Union they were effectively allies. From 1935 until the Munich conference of September 1938, when Britain and France agreed to hand over a third of Czechoslovakia, Stalin had pursued an alliance with both democracies against Hitler. After Munich he sought to reach an accord with Hitler.

For his part the German dictator, planning an invasion of Poland in the summer of 1939, wanted to avoid a two-front war, with Britain and France in the west and Russia in the East. His solution was to send his Foreign Minister, Ribbentrop, to Moscow where he signed a ten-year non-aggression pact with his counterpart, Molotov, with a beaming Stalin looking on.

A secret protocol to the pact divided Eastern Europe into German and Soviet spheres of influence.  Finland, Estonia and Latvia were apportioned to Russia. Poland was to be partitioned in the event of its ‘political rearrangement’. In September 1939, as the Germans neared Warsaw, the Russians invaded Poland from the east to secure their share of the spoils. They would soon gobble up the Baltic States and a tranche of Romania. Russian exports of oil, food and other raw materials to the Third Reich were central to Hitler’s success in the west in 1940.

Stalin believed he could trust Hitler to stand by the Pact, ignoring warnings in the spring of 1941 from his own spies in Berlin and British intelligence that Hitler was ready to invade the Soviet Union. Consequently, Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion, fell on unprepared Russian forces lined up along the largely unfortified new border with the Third Reich. For his part when Hitler launched Barbarossa in June 1941, he believed he would notch up another quick victory.

Underscoring that was his racist dismissal of all Slavs. His dream was to advance to the Ural Mountains, build a defence line there and behind it colonise the vast track of captured Soviet territory with German farmers, making it the bread basket of Germany. The remaining Slavic inhabitants would be left to die through hunger, disease or slave labour. But Hitler had also assured his generals Russia was a rotten door they could kick in easily. His thinking was based on Stalin’s virtual destruction of the Red Army command and officer corps in a vicious purge launched in June 1937, with the show trial and execution of eight marshals and generals – including the Soviet Chief of Staff, Mikhail Tukhachevsky.

Between then and the German invasion out of 85 senior officers on the USSR’s military council, 71 were killed by 1941. Out of 837 army and navy commanders, ranging from colonels to marshals, 720 were executed or sacked.  Thirty thousand officers, out of a total of 75,000 to 80,000, were imprisoned or executed. The Red Army command was devastated Its performance in the Winter War of 1939-1940 against Finland was woeful, encouraging Hitler still more.

In the first four months of the German invasion the Red Army almost collapsed. Hundreds of thousands of its soldiers were captured and then left to die from disease and hunger. Their commanders were unable to coordinate air, tank and artillery operations to match the Germans. By autumn the Germans were besieging Leningrad (St Petersburg), had captured Ukraine and the Crimea and were nearing Moscow. On 3 October Hitler boasted at a Berlin rally that Russia was finished, with the Germans taking 2.5 million prisoners. Stalin had approved approaches to the Germans regarding surrender via Sweden but no reply was received.

From 1929 Stalin had constructed a state directed top-down economy. That involved the destruction of the revolutionary soviets and any vestige of worker’s democracy; prioritising accumulation over consumption; liquidating the right of self-determination for the non-Russian Republics and the elimination of the bulk of the old Bolsheviks in the purges.

Faced with the German advance in 1941 some 1,532 factories, including 1,360 related to armaments, were transferred to the Volga River, Siberia and Central Asia between July and November 1941. Almost 1.5 million railcars were involved. Even allowing for the hyperbole so common to Soviet accounts, this massive relocation  and reorganisation of heavy industry was an incredible accomplishment of endurance and organisation. But it also involved a further hike in already high rates of exploitation. The working day was increased in length from seven to eight hours but in practice was 11; holidays were abolished, and a seven-day week introduced.

Arms production centred on a few models of each particular weapon, keeping them simple; the T34 tank, the best of the war, for instance.  In contrast the Germans tried to produce too many varieties of tanks and planes and weapons too complicated often for mass production. The Soviet Union fought the mad-dog idealism of the Nazis with weight of material and machines, outproducing even the United States in tanks and artillery. The Russians produced 29 times more ordnance in 1941–45 than in 1914–17 – three times the quantity produced by Britain and the US. By 1942 war production was five times the 1940 level in the Urals and 27 times the 1940 level in Western Siberia.

Stalin was forced to make further changes to the regime’s tone in order to stiffen resistance. Russian nationalism was given official approval, controls on the Russian Orthodox Church were loosened and  promises were made that life would improve once victory was secured. When Stalin spoke in Red Square on 7 November to mark the anniversary of the 1917 Revolution, he told the assembled troops, “The war that you are fighting is a war of liberation, a just war. May you be inspired in this by the valiant image of our great ancestors – Alexander Nevsky, Dimitri Donskoi, Kuzma Minin, Dimitri Pozharski, Alexander Suvarov, Mikhail Kutusov.”  This was an appeal to Russia’s Tsarist and feudal history. As the realisation spread that German victory meant mass slavery and potential genocide, not just for the Jews  but all of the Slavic population, Russian nationalism became central to Stalin’s  propaganda.

Germans were the enemy and propaganda urged the destruction of all of them. Throughout the war this no attempt to appeal to the German working class, the bulk of whom had never voted Nazi but for the Social Democrats and Communists. Like Hitler, Stalin remembered the First World War had ended with revolution in Germany. The Russian leader wanted no repeat.

The 1941 the German advance on three fronts, towards Leningrad, Moscow and into Ukraine, was too dispersed. The Panzer tanks ran ahead of the infantry, who had to advance over huge distances on foot, so that when the tanks reached Leningrad they had to wait for troops to catch up, allowing the Red Army to fortify the city. German supply routes were inadequate, relying on the railways the Russians had destroyed and horse drawn transport.

The reality was that for Barbarossa to succeed the Red Army had to be destroyed quickly so it could not retreat eastwards in any kind of order. It was clear that the Red Army, though badly mauled, had survived the initial blows. Stalin’s spy network in Tokyo also informed him that the Japanese had decided on war in the Pacific with the US rather than joining Hitler’s attack on Russia. Battle hardened troops could be brought from Siberia to defend Moscow, led by a general who had proved himself in battle against the Japanese, Georgy Zhukov, who took charge of the defence of Moscow.

For some 700 miles of the front the Germans had no reserves and their offensive was petering out into ‘penny packet’ attacks which were blocked by Russian resistance. Moscow was not taken and the Red Army counter-attacked. Russia’s survival depended on the fact that it was fighting a war on a single, albeit massive, front against Germany. But there was also a difference between the two warring dictators. As the war progressed Hitler took more and more control over it. Stalin, in contrast, after he had regained his nerve in the summer of 1941, was far more open to the advice of his generals. Russia’s war was fought under a relatively collective leadership, with Zhukov the key figure.

Defeat in front of Moscow also led Hitler to seek to intensify the destruction of European Jewry. The Holocaust was planned in the weeks after the defeat there.

In the winter of 1941-1942 Stalin insisted on launching offensives despite Zhukov insisting the Red Army was not ready. He was proved right. Each was a costly failure. Meanwhile the Germans were waiting for the spring to renew their attack. In planning for a new offensive in the spring and summer of 1942 the priorities for Hitler were the wheatfields of southern Russia and the oilfields of the Caucasus region. Stalin was convinced the Nazis would once more attack Moscow and concentrated the Red Army around the capital, giving the Germans superiority in the south where the attack came. 

Once more the Germans advanced, crossing the River Don and reaching the Volga and Stalingrad. But this northern offensive was meant to be secondary, acting as a shield for the main objective, Baku and the oilfields, in case of a Russian attack southwards. Yet as his 6th Army neared Stalingrad, Hitler demanded its capture, seeing the fall of a city named after the Russian dictator would be a fatal blow to his regime. Once more Hitler dismissed the ability of the Russians to resist. It was a fatal mistake. The Germans were being drawn into a battle of attrition which sucked in more and more men, aircraft and tanks at a cost the Germans could not afford in both time and resources.

Chris Bambery is author of The Second World War: A Marxist History


Chris Bambery

Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.

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