Seventy years since the Battle of Stalingrad – How the Soviet Union defeated the Nazis

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Saturday marked the 70th anniversary of the end of the Battle of Stalingrad, with the surrender of German troops, a key turning point in the Second World War, where about 800,000 German and Axis troops were either killed or captured, including the entire German Sixth Army and its commander-in-chief – a shattering blow to Hitler.

The Battle of Stalingrad was where that the might of the Wehrmacht was finally halted after a bloody slogging match for control of the city of Stalingrad (now called Volgograd) in the south west of the Soviet Union. By comparison the British victory in the Battle of El Alamein was a puny affair.

The battle began on 23 August 1942 and only ended on 2 February 1943. All this time the Germans and their allies were locked in a savage hand-to-hand struggle fought in ruined streets and shattered buildings that were reduced to rubble.

The combined German and Soviet casualties amounted to nearly two million. The staggering losses inflicted on the German army decisively affected the outcome of the whole war. After the Battle of Stalingrad, German forces never recovered their strength and fighting morale, while the triumphant Red Army began the greatest military advance in history.

This highlights an important fact that to this very day western historians are reluctant to admit: the Second World War in Europe was in reality a gigantic conflict between Hitler’s Germany, with all the resources of Europe behind it, and the Soviet Union.

Right up till the last moment, Britain and America, remained mere onlookers in the European conflict. The Normandy landings of 1944 were an impressive and costly military operation, but they cannot be compared to the scale of the Red Army's offensive in the east. This was quite clear to anyone with the slightest knowledge of the conduct of the war, including the Allied commanders and the governments they represented. In August 1942 the US Joint Chiefs of Staff drew up a document that said:

"In World War II, Russia occupies a dominant position and is the decisive factor looking toward the defeat of the Axis in Europe. While in Sicily the forces of Great Britain and the USA are being opposed by 2 German divisions, the Russian front is receiving the attention of approximately 200 German divisions. Whenever the Allies open a second front on the Continent, it will be decidedly a secondary front to that of Russia; theirs will continue to be the main effort. Without Russia in the war, the Axis cannot be defeated in Europe, and the position of the United Nations becomes precarious." (quoted in V. Sipols, The Road to Great Victory, p. 133.)

These words accurately express the real position that existed at the time of the D-day landings. The truth is that the war against Hitler in Europe was fought mainly by the USSR and the Red Army. Following the invasion of the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941, Moscow repeatedly demanded the opening of a second front against Germany. But Churchill was in no hurry to oblige. The reason for this was not so much military as political. The policies and tactics of the British and American ruling class in the Second World War were not at all dictated by a love of democracy or hatred of fascism, as the official propaganda wants us to believe, but by class interests.

The real war aims of imperialism

When Hitler invaded the USSR in 1941, the British ruling class calculated that the Soviet Union would be defeated by Germany, but that in the process Germany would be so enfeebled that it would be possible to step in and kill two birds with one stone. It is likely that the strategists in Washington were thinking on more or less similar lines.

The conflicts between Churchill and Roosevelt on the question of D-day were of a political and not a military character. Churchill wanted to confine the Allies' war to the Mediterranean, partly with an eye on the Suez Canal and the route to British India, and partly because he was contemplating an invasion of the Balkans to block the Red Army's advance there. In other words, his calculations were based exclusively on the strategic interests of British imperialism and the need to defend the British Empire. In addition, Churchill had still not entirely given up the hope that Russia and Germany would exhaust themselves, creating a stalemate in the east.

The interests of US imperialism and British imperialism were entirely contradictory in this respect. Washington, while formally the ally of London, was all the time aiming to use the war to weaken the position of Britain in the world and particularly to break its stranglehold on India and Africa. At the same time it was concerned to halt the advance of the Red Army and gain control over a weakened Europe after the war. That explains the haste of the Americans to open the second front in Europe and Churchill's lack of enthusiasm for it. Harry Hopkins, Roosevelt's main diplomatic representative, complained that Churchill's delaying tactics had "lengthened the timing of the war."

What really tipped the balance in the War was the Soviet counteroffensive in 1942, which culminated in the Battle of Stalingrad and later in the even more decisive Battle of Kursk. After a ferocious battle, the German resistance collapsed. To the fury of Hitler, who had ordered the Sixth Army to "fight to the death," General Paulus surrendered to the Soviet army. Even Churchill, that rabid anti-Communist, was compelled to admit that the Red Army had "torn the guts out of the German army" at Stalingrad.

This was a shattering blow to the German army. Though accurate figures are not available, it seems that half of the 250,000 men of the Sixth Army died in combat, or from cold, hunger and disease. About 35,000 reached safety, but of the 90,000 who surrendered, barely 6,000 ever saw Germany again. The Russian victory had cost them about 750,000 men dead, wounded or missing. The cumulative picture was even blacker. In just six months of fighting since Mid-November 1942, the Wehrmacht had lost an astonishing 1,250,000 men, 5,000 aircraft, 9,000 tanks and 20,000 pieces of artillery. Over a hundred divisions had either been destroyed or ceased to exist as effective fighting units.

Martin Gilbert writes: "In the first weeks of 1943 the resurgent Red Army seemed to be on the attack everywhere. Operation Star was a massive Soviet advance west of the river Don. On 14 February the Russians captured Kharkov, and further south they were approaching the Dnieper river." (M. Gilbert, Second World War). Far more than the Normandy landings, the battle of Kursk in July 1943 proved to be the most decisive battle of the Second War. The German army lost over 400 tanks in this epic struggle. After this shattering blow, the Russian armies began to push the Germans on a long front back towards the west,  the greatest military offensive in all of history.

The second front

Throughout the war the conduct of by the British and US imperialists – as we have seen – was dictated, not by the need to defeat fascism and defend democracy, but by the cynical considerations of great power politics. The divisions between London and Washington arose because the interests of British and US imperialism were different, and even antagonistic. American imperialism did not want Hitler to succeed because that would have created a powerful rival to the USA in Europe. On the other hand, it was in the interests of US imperialism to weaken Britain and its empire, because it aimed to replace Britain as the leading power in the world after the defeat of Germany and Japan. This is precisely why Churchill's attention was fixed on the Mediterranean.

However, from late 1943 it became clear to the Americans that the USSR was winning the war on the eastern front and if nothing was done, the Red Army would just roll through Europe. That is why Roosevelt pressed for the opening of the second front in France. Churchill was constantly arguing for delay. This led to severe frictions between London and Washington.

The concerns of the imperialists were openly expressed in a meeting of the Joint British and American Chiefs of Staff that took place in Cairo on November 25, 1943. They noted that "the Russian campaign has succeeded beyond all hope and expectations [that is, the hopes of the Russians and the expectations of their "allies"] and their victorious advance continues." Yet Churchill continued to argue for a postponement of Operation Overlord.

The rapid advance of the Red Army in Europe at last forced Churchill to change his mind about Overlord. From a position of supine inactivity in Europe, the Allies hurriedly moved into action. The fear of the Soviet advance was now the main factor in the equations of both London and Washington.

So worried were the imperialists that they actually worked out a new plan, Operation Rankin, involving an emergency landing in Germany if it should collapse or surrender. They were determined to get to Berlin before the Red Army. "We should go as far as Berlin […]", Roosevelt told the Chiefs of Staff on his way to the Cairo meeting. "The Soviets could then take the territory to the east thereof. The United States should have Berlin." (FRUS, The Conferences at Cairo and Teheran, 1943, p. 254.)

Despite the successes of the Red Army, however, Hitler still had considerable forces at his disposal. The Wehrmacht remained a formidable fighting machine, with over ten million men, over six and a half million of them in the field. But two-thirds of these were concentrated on the Russian front. The only contribution of the British and Americans was the bombing campaigns that devastated German cities like Hamburg and killed a huge number of civilians, but which completely failed either to destroy the Germans' fighting spirit or halt war production.

The German forces on the eastern front had 54,000 guns and mortars, more than 5,000 tanks and assault guns and 3,000 combat aircraft. In spite of the Allied bombing raids, Hitler's war industries were increasing their production in 1944. They produced 148,200 guns, as against 73,700 in 1943. Production of tanks and assault guns increased from 10,700 to 18,300 and of combat aircraft from 19,300 to 34,100.

Subsequently, he decision to open the front in Italy was dictated mainly by the fear that, following the overthrow of Mussolini in 1943, the Italian Communists would take power. The main aim of the British and Americans was, therefore, to prevent the Italian Communists from taking power. So at a time when the Red Army was taking on the full weight of the Wehrmacht in the battle of Kursk, the British and Americans were wading ashore on the beaches of Sicily. In vain Mussolini pleaded with Hitler to send him reinforcements. All Hitler's attention was focused on the Russian front.

Why the Soviet Union won

The plans of both the British and US ruling circles were fundamentally flawed. Instead of being defeated by Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union fought back and inflicted a decisive defeat on Hitler's armies. The reason for this extraordinary victory can never be admitted by the defenders of capitalism, but it is a self-evident fact. The existence of a nationalised planned economy gave the USSR an enormous advantage in the war. Despite the criminal policies of Stalin, which nearly brought about the collapse of the USSR at the beginning of the war, the Soviet Union was able to swiftly recover and rebuild its industrial and military capacity.

The Russians were able to dismantle all their industries in the West – 1,500 factories – put them on trains and ship them east of the Urals where they were beyond the reach of the Germans. In a matter of months the Soviet Union was out-producing the Germans in tanks, guns and airplanes. This demonstrates beyond doubt the colossal superiority of a nationalised planned economy, even under a bureaucratic regime.

In 1943 alone, the USSR produced 130,000 pieces of artillery, 24,000 tanks and self-propelled guns, 29,900 combat aircraft. The Nazis, with all the huge resources of Europe behind them, also stepped up production, turning out 73,000 pieces of artillery, 10,700 tanks and assault guns and 19,300 combat aircraft. (See V. Sipols, The Road to a Great Victory, p. 132.) These figures speak for themselves. The USSR, by mobilising the immense power of a planned economy, managed to out-produce and outgun the mighty Wehrmacht. That is the secret of its success.

There was another reason for the formidable fighting capacity of the Red Army. Napoleon long ago stressed the decisive importance of morale in warfare. The Soviet working class was fighting to defend what remained of the gains of the October Revolution. Despite the monstrous crimes of Stalin and the Bureaucracy, the nationalized planned economy represented an enormous historic conquest. Compared with the barbarism of fascism – the distilled essence of imperialism and monopoly capitalism, these were things worth fighting and dying for. The working people of the USSR did both on the most appalling scale.

Even before Hitler had been defeated, British and US imperialism were preparing for the coming conflict between the West and the USSR. That is why they hastened to open the second front in 1944: to ensure that the Red Army's advance was halted. George Marshall expressed the hope that Germany would "facilitate our entry into the country to repel the Russians." (ibid., p. 135.).

The Battle of Kursk was the biggest tank battle in history. The Germans had about 3,000 tanks and assault guns, 2,110 aircraft and 435,000 men. It was one of the greatest concentrations of German fighting power ever assembled. And yet it was not enough. The Red Army launched a huge offensive in late December, 1943, which swept all before it. After liberating the Ukraine, they pushed the German forces back through Eastern Europe.

The way the Soviet Union was able to smash Hitler’s forces in the Battle of Kursk in July and August 1943 set the alarm bells ringing in London and Washington. In August 1943 Churchill and Roosevelt met in Quebec against the background of a powerful Soviet offensive. The Soviet victories at Stalingrad and Kursk forced the British and Americans to act. The remorseless Soviet advance obliged even Churchill to reconsider his position. Reluctantly, Churchill gave in to the insistent demands of the American President.

The fact is that both Roosevelt and Churchill (not to mention Hitler) had underestimated the Soviet Union. In the event, the Allies met the Red Army, not in Berlin but deep inside Germany. If they had not launched Overlord when they did, they would have met them on the English Channel. That is why the D-Day landings were launched when they were. If they had not organized the Normandy landings in 1944, they would have met the Red Army, not in the middle of Germany but on the English Channel.

Hitler had also hugely miscalculated. Stalin had purged the Soviet army of some of its best commanding officers. Therefore Hitler believed this would be to his advantage and would allow him to sweep eastwards and in so doing he would be able to destroy the Soviet Union and its planned economy. But the planned economy, in spite of the bureaucracy, proved far more resilient. As we have seen, it was what gave the Soviet Union its strength and ability to fight back.

The Soviet Union’s great victories, and eventual smashing of Hitler’s once mighty war machine, despite all the mythology that was subsequently created about Stalin the “Great War Leader”, were in spite of Stalin and the bureaucracy. They had brought the Soviet Union to the very brink of catastrophe. Only the determination of the Soviet workers and soldiers to defend the USSR and the gains of the October Revolution and the striking superiority of the nationalized planned economy saved the day.

London, February 2, 2013

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