The anniversary of Stalingrad

This weekend marks 70 years since the historically significant German offensive

Tomorrow, February 2, is the 70th anniversary of the end of the Battle of Stalingrad. I’m noting that publicly here because the Battle of Stalingrad, strange as it may seem, was the first “adult” story which fired my childhood imagination.

When I was 11 or so, I started plowing my way through a book written by a survivor of the German Sixth Army, and a subsequent survivor of post-battle Soviet imprisonment — “The Forsaken Army” (published in German in 1957, in English one year later), a copy of which I still own and read.

Perhaps it was because, growing up on the Saskatchewan prairie as I did, I could just look out my window and see a frozen steppe, and easily populate it with hundreds of thousands of ghosts, starving and shelterless, constantly subject to the maximum violence humans can inflict upon each other.

The German Sixth Army attacked Stalingrad in the autumn of 1942. After two months of horrific combat, a surprise Soviet offensive surrounded the entire German army — originally 270,000 men.

To make a long story short, Adolf Hitler ordered this army to fight to the last man, as a symbolic gesture. Resupplying this army proved futile, and finally even evacuating the wounded was impossible. The Soviets starved the German army for more than two months, and after the final attack, only 91,000 Germans were left to surrender in February. Of those, only 6,000 survived the war years in captivity, and only a handful ever made it back to Germany after the war — one of whom was the author of “The Forsaken Army,” Heinrich Gerlach. How he wrote his book is a story in itself.

Two million people — soldiers and civilians — died in the course of that time.

I have since read other great works of fiction and non-fiction on the subject. In recent years, the release of old Soviet archives have shed a great deal of light on the subject, perhaps most of all confirming that it was the key point of a war between two totalitarian ideologies, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, who treated both their enemies and their own people — including their own soldiers — with inhumanity which seems incomprehensible to us today, though it is all well documented, of course.

This anniversary is important because the Battle of Stalingrad was the turning point of the Second World War. It also set a benchmark for ferocity; it’s generally recognized as the most vicious battle (if such a word even applies anymore). There was plenty of viciousness left to come, of course.

In Russia, they’re marking this anniversary by changing the name of the city back to Stalingrad, at least on the days commemorating the victory. The city was renamed Volgograd in 1961 as part of the Soviet Union’s rejection of dictator Joseph Stalin’s personality cult. But the name Stalingrad is inseparable with the historic battle.

Still, it’s cause mixed feelings, to put it mildly.”It’s blasphemous to rename the great Russian city after a bloody tyrant who killed millions of his fellow citizens,” said one Russian lawmaker on Thursday. A Russian human rights activist said the move was among those that “legally and politically recognize the crimes committed by the Bolshevik regime, particularly Stalin and his inner circle.”Russian communists said the renaming for only a day or two was a “half step.”

And in other Stalingrad anniversary news, the symphony orchestras of Volgograd and Osnabrueck, in Germany, accompanied by a 150-member choir, will combine perform Beethoven’s 9th Symphony “Ode to Joy” for the occasion, which strikes me as inappropriate, though neither Germany nor Russia asked me.