Saturday, Feb. 2 marks a very obscure date for Americans, but one that saved the lives of hundreds of thousands of young American boys in World War II: It is the 70th anniversary of the final surrender of German forces at Stalingrad – The decisive battle of World War II.
Some 400,000 German soldiers died in the more than five month battle for the city named after one of the worst tyrants in history on the steep western banks of the Volga River. Another 265,000 Hungarians, Romanians and Italians in the armies of Germany’s allies were killed or captured. The battle annihilated Adolf Hitler’s Sixth Army, the most formidable infantry assault force the world had ever seen. Afterwards, the Germans only managed only one more major tactical victory, around Kharkov, in the whole war. Russian casualties at Stalingrad exceeded one million.
Today, all those generations later, the extraordinary struggle for Stalingrad still defines 21st century Russia. Standing atop Mamayev Kurgan, the focal point of the battle of Stalingrad, as I did some years ago, it is easy to see why.
The colossal scale of the fighting between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union in what Russians call the Great Patriotic War was well recognized by Americans and Britons at the time but it has been virtually forgotten since. But it dwarfed every other battlefront of the war combined. Eight out of 10 German soldiers killed in World War II died fighting the Red Army. The colossal total of nearly 27 million Soviet military and civilian dead was more than twice the death toll of all Americans, Britons, Commonwealth, French and even Germans killed in the war combined.
And the focal point of all of it was this surprisingly tranquil and atmospheric strip city that unfolds for 30 miles along the great River Volga. Named at the time after Soviet Premier Josef Stalin, it was the dramatic apparent last stand of the Soviet Red Army against an apparently invincible Wehrmacht that had conquered the entire European continent in less than three years. But at Stalingrad all that changed.
“Beyond the Volga there is nothing!” went the Soviet rallying cry — and there wasn’t. Even now looking east from the imposing heights of Mamayev Kurgan, it is eerie to see that on the other side of the great Volga, a river as broad and impressive as the Mississippi, the embodiment of the soul of Russia, there literally is — nothing. Just low sand dunes that gave the city it’s originally name of Tsaritsyn, or “Golden Sand” back in 1589. And they stretch off for thousands of miles across the lower Eurasian steppe.
Mamayev Kurgan is a war memorial like no other on earth — for it is dominated by an angry goddess. The most gigantic, impressive and eerie statue in the world, Rodina-Mat, the Mother Goddess of Russia, touts up 160 feet without any pedestal, 20 feet higher than the Statue of Liberty. She weighs 1,000 tons, more than 15 times the Statue of Liberty. But all that is the least of it.
Lady Liberty is at ease and serene, but Rodina-Mat is dynamic and furious. Her beautiful, surprisingly girlish face conveys nightmarish shock, fury and rage. Her arm is not relaxed and passively extended, carrying a torch like Lady Liberty. It is upraised carrying a 70-foot long sword that soars so high in the sky it has to have a red navigation light on its tip to alert low-flying aircraft.
Seen from afar, the sight is even more impressive, even terrifying. For Rodina-Mat is on the commanding height of the ridge skyline above the city at its most fought over point. You can see her from anywhere you drive along the main arterial north-south roads along the Volga. She always appears in movement, alive, striking down the invaders with her amazing sword. It is as if Athene or Aphrodite had stepped out of the pages of Homer’s Iliad and across time from the battlefields of Troy or as if a gigantic astronaut-god visualized by Erich von Daniken again strode across the earth.
During the 200 days of Stalingrad, Mamayev Kurgan was fought over for 130 of them. Today, it is the resting place for 35,000 Soviet soldiers.
According to British military historian Anthony Bevoir, 1.1 million Soviet soldiers died in the Battle of Stalingrad and that does not include the at least 100,000 and possibly three times as many civilian inhabitants of the city massacred by the repeated waves of indiscriminate Luftwaffe air attacks. More than twice as many Russian civilians perished in the first week of air raids as died in the Allied bombing of Dresden. When Soviet interrogators asked Field Marshal Friedrich von Paulus, the captured commander of the Sixth Army, why he had authorized such needless slaughter, he really did reply that he was only following orders.
Nazi losses were colossal, too. According to Russian estimates, 1.5 million German and Axis soldiers lost their lives in the entire campaign, more than five times the entire U.S. combat dead for all of the war and more than twice the combined Union and Confederate dead of the entire U.S. Civil War. None of the Axis remains that were found and identified were buried within the city. It is sacred soil to the Russian people. Only the heroic defenders of Stalingrad and the Motherland, or Rodina, are allowed the ultimate honor of resting there.
The entire German Sixth Army — some 300,000 men — at the time the most renowned and invincible infantry on earth, perished at Stalingrad. Just 90,000 of them survived to be taken prisoner with their commander, Field Marshal Friedrich Paulus. Of them, only 9,000 survived their long captivity to ever be repatriated home to Germany.
Paulus’ headquarters in the basement of Univermag, the Central Department Store of the city, is now a museum, too, one of the strangest on earth and a striking contrast to the primeval, heroic, epic grandeur of the statuary and memorials at Mamayev Kurgan.
Univermag is a department store again now — very reminiscent of the kind you would see in Sioux City, Iowa, or Iowa City that was built on the 1920s and that flourished until Wal-Mart swallowed them all up. Just go through the main entrance, walk past children’s toys, turn left, navigate past lady’s pajamas and glassware, and without any warning you are there.
The basement has been filled with reconstructions of Sixth Army’s last stand. Behind one door, models of two dying German soldiers lie in what really was an emergency operating room. Behind another, an animatronic Paulus endlessly rises from behind his office desk to hear the latest news of catastrophe from another officer. Everywhere, the whine of the unforgiving winter steppe wind and merciless whroosh of the Soviet Katyusha or “Little Katie” rocket mortars sound their accompaniment.
Ilya Ehrenburg, greatest of all Soviet war correspondents, wrote the soldiers in their basement and rubble strongholds clinging on to the banks of the Volga by mere feet and yards, loved those rocket mortars and it is still true today. Some years ago, the faces of 80-year-old highly decorated veterans of the battle light up with boyish enthusiasm and joy when I asked them what their favorite weapon of the entire war was. “Katyusha!” they cried, jumping up and down, the years falling away from them by magic. “Katyusha!”
Some 70 years after Paulus surrendered, and more than 67 years since the Third Reich was finally crushed, the memories and scars of that struggle still define modern Russia. Communism is dead but Russian patriotism is not. And that is why in an era of growing differences and alienation between Russia and the United States, we need to remember the passionate intensity of that struggle, how much it contributed to our victory too and what it cost the Russian people.
Russia remains a great, proud and militarily mighty nation that cannot be ignored. Global peace and security in the 21st century are impossible if we cannot cooperate with it. The Russian people cannot be ignored or underestimated: The wild, ferocious but utterly authentic emotions that play across the extraordinary face of the Rodina-Mat testifies to the dangerous costs of forgetting that.