Soviet soldier waving the Red Banner over the central plaza of Stalingrad in 1943 Photo: German Federal Archives Georgii Zelma
By Jane West
The battle fought across the Volga River in Stalingrad from summer 1942 until 2nd February 1943, which cost the lives of an estimated half a million Soviet solders was one of the greatest and most decisive class struggles in history. It broke the back of Hitler’s Eastern army and ensured Nazi defeat in the Second World War.
Together with the events of 7th November 1917, the victory in Stalingrad on 2nd February 1943, constituted the two most decisive events in the first half of the 20th century. Not only did this battle ensure the defeat of German fascism, and the victory of the USSR, but the successful revolution in China in 1949 could only have happened given this victory.
In short the battle of Stalingrad was a decisive hinge of history.
Its consequences – in the victory and survival of the USSR – continued until 1989-91 saw the Soviet bureaucracy deliver the victory Hitler had failed to achieve in re-establishing capitalism in the Soviet Union – and indeed destroying the USSR itself. The Russian working class is still paying the price of that defeat. It led to the worst decline in life expectancy ever seen in peacetime in an economically developed economy and an absolute decline in the population of Russia..
But in 1943, the victory in Stalingrad, and the immense sacrifice by the Soviet population that achieved it, ensured the end of Hitler’s imperial ambitions for German Nazi domination of both Western Europe and Russia. Its genocidal racist ideology that created the death camps and the murder of millions of Jews, alongside gypsies, gay people, communists and socialists, was smashed.
The incredible resistance put up by the soldiers of the Red Army and the people of the Soviet Union not only defeated Hitler in the East but, in breaking the back of the military capacity of the German Reich, ensured its defeat in Western Europe was just a matter of time.
The immediate consequence of that Soviet victory – the driving back of imperialism from the whole of Eastern Europe – laid the basis for a new rise of the anti-colonial struggle, of which the high points were the Chinese revolution and the defeat of the US in Vietnam, and included the end of the British colonial empire in India and Africa. It also created the conditions for the wringing of concessions out of capital in Western Europe in the form of the ‘welfare state’.
This reality is, of course, scarcely noted in the West, where the revisionist histories of the Cold War and American ascendancy have minimised or even airbrushed out entirely the role of the Soviet Union in defeating Hitler. Instead the conventional wisdom is that the West was saved by the timely intervention of the US and, rather than the heroic Red Army soldier freezing on the banks of the Volga, the victory is put down to the GIs rolling through France.
In fact, by the time of the D-Day invasions on 6th June 1944, Hitler was already defeated and the long-delayed decision to launch the invasion was primarily to prevent the westward advance of the victorious Red Army.
Churchill and Roosevelt had ignored Russian pleas for the opening of a Second Front in the West, which Stalin made continuously from the launch of Operation Barbarossa in June 1941 through to the defeat at Stalingrad in 1943. Instead the US and Britain, on the particular insistence of Churchill, concentrated on securing Britain and France’s colonial interests in North Africa and Southern Europe. Hitler was already in headlong retreat before the advancing Soviet troops when D-Day was launched.
Moreover the scale of sacrifice involved between the US and Britain on one side and the USSR on the other simply does not bear comparison.
The personal courage of those who participated in D-Day is undoubted and equivalent to those of the individual Soviet soldiers. While every single one of the estimated 4,414 British and US lives lost in the D-Day landings was a sacrifice no less than any other death, nonetheless in sheer scale it should be noted that the USSR lost nearly this many people every single day during the 164 days of the battle on the Volga.
However, even the crushing victory in the battle of Stalingrad could not have been won by the USSR, indeed the fight would not even have taken place there, if the German army had not already been turned suffered its first defeat in the war at the gates of Moscow in December 1941-January 1942.
Two factors made the victory at Moscow possible.
Firstly was the rapid industrialisation of the USSR in the 1930s, which, despite Stalinist distortions, had only been possible because of the revolution of 1917 and the resulting state control of economic development. This meant that by 1939, total Soviet industrial production was second only to that of the United States and equal to that of Germany.
However, the centre of Soviet industrial strength lay in the west of Russia, right in the path of the Nazi invasion. As the German armies advanced through Western Russia, by an amazing feat of organisation, these factories were moved, brick by brick, to the east of the Urals, and re-assembled for production within weeks.
The second factor was the determined struggle of the Chinese people against Japan. Bogging it down in protracted resistance, meant Japan’s intention to break its neutrality pact with the USSR and launch an invasion to support Barbarossa from the east was not possible. The removal of this threat allowed the USSR to move its Siberian divisions from the Eastern front to the defence of Moscow precisely when the initial defeats by the advancing German Panzer ‘Blitzkrieg’ made the city’s fall seem likely.
If it was the victory of the USSR in the Second World War that made possible the Chinese revolution of 1949, it was the Chinese people’s resistance to Japanese invasion that made possible a Soviet victory by preventing the USSR being invaded not only from the west but from the east.
This struggle of the Chinese people against Japanese imperialism in the second Sino-Japanese war also involved the most incredible level of sacrifice. The Japanese occupation of Nanjing alone resulted in the massacre of 300,000 people.
In the Second World War, the Russian dead numbered 27 million, 14 per cent of the entire population. In absolute numbers only China approached this with up to 30 million dead, but this was a much lower proportion of China’s population.
By way of comparison, the accepted figure is that around 185,000 US soldiers lost their lives in the European theatre of WWII, with a total loss of lives, including in the Pacific, of 418,000 (0.32 per cent of the population). British lives lost totalled an estimated 451,000, just less than 1 per cent of the population of the time.
The historical debt owed by humanity to the defenders of Stalingrad is therefore almost impossible to over-estimate.
Recently it was put eloquently by Brad Delong, Professor of Economics at Berkeley, who is by no means a socialist or fan of the former Soviet Union. His blog commented of Stalingrad:
‘We are the heirs to their accomplishments. We are their debtors. And we cannot repay what we owe to them. We can only remember it.
‘But how many NATO leaders or European Union presidents and prime ministers have ever taken the time to visit the battle site, and perhaps lay a wreath to those whose sacrifice saved their civilization?’
‘May there never be another such battle. May we never need another one.’