Victims of Stalingrad

British historian Antony Beevor has established himself as one of the great chroniclers of warfare, particularly in his battlefield studies of Berlin, D-Day and Arnhem. I have just finished reading his volume Stalingrad: The Fateful Siege. The book is part of a newer generation of histories that rectify the deficiencies of Cold War research. By making use of recently opened Soviet archives, Beevor offered fresh details and perspectives.

Earlier studies of the “Eastern Front” tended to underestimate the crimes of the Soviet regime. The horrors of Stalinism, for example, were not exposed to the general public until the advent of historians like Robert Conquest and Richard Pipes. A similar reassessment of the German military overturned the prevailing outlook that Nazi atrocities could be attributed mainly to SS and police units. A significant number of regular army troops (including high ranking commanders) had participated—either directly or indirectly—in the killings of Jews and other civilians.  

Beevor’s account is a skillful blend of analysis and anecdote. He describes instances of bravery, kindness and cruelty on both sides. This is not a matter of moral equivocation. The Nazis were clearly the aggressors in the conflict, and their genocidal conduct was even more systematic and intense than Soviet persecutions. In addition to 8 million Soviet military dead, an estimated 15 million Soviet non-combatants perished. Beevor describes German troops looting food and clothing from Russian peasants or ejecting them from their homes during the Stalingrad campaign.

A Nazis conquest of the famed city on the Volga might have resulted in the economic collapse of the USSR. The Soviets entered the war with diminished agricultural capacity thanks to Kremlin policies. This was on top of the millions starved (either intentionally or through bureaucratic ineptitude) or sent to the Gulags in the pre-war period.

Up to a point, fanaticism on the part of the Soviets worked to their advantage. According to Beevor: “The biggest mistake made by German commanders was to have underestimated ‘Ivan’, the ordinary Red Army soldier. They quickly found that surrounded or outnumbered Soviet soldiers went on fighting when their counterparts from western armies would have surrendered.” Yet when pushed too far such ruthlessness was counterproductive: “That the Soviet regime was almost as unforgiving towards its own soldiers as towards the enemy is demonstrated by the total figure of 13,500 executions” for alleged cowardice during the battle. At the hands of political commissars such punishments were not only draconian but often arbitrary.

Even sadder was the fate of civilians at Stalingrad. The Germans inflicted the greatest losses through indiscriminate bombings, reprisals and callousness. But as Beevor notes, when starving Russian children were bribed with food to fetch water for besieged German soldiers the Soviets started shooting them as well.

If one thing is made clear by Beevor’s chronicle, it is that the inhuman ideologies of Berlin and Moscow made an already terrible conflict even more protracted and brutal than necessary.

Related commentary: The Soviet Contribution to Hitlerism and Lessons in Nazi Amnesia

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