On the 75th anniversary of Germany’s surrender at the iconic Soviet city, it is evident that Stalingrad was also a turning point in the larger practice of empire.
This year marks the 75th anniversary of the victory of Soviet forces over Nazi Germany and its allies at the city of Stalingrad on the banks of the Volga.
It was in the nature of those times of epic proportion that a confrontation involving millions of people, with hundreds of thousands of lives lost and bodies maimed, and entire armies destroyed, is remembered as a ‘battle’. The Battle for Stalingrad, nevertheless, became a symbol for heroism, sacrifice, bloodletting, tenacity, ruthlessness and tragedy all in good measure. For the communists it was a byword for hard-fought victory. Its place in the annals of military history survived communism’s fall from grace, and J.V. Stalin’s tumble from the pedestal. There is much in the story that continues to fascinate students of warfare: one of the largest tank battles ever fought, strategic blunders and masterstrokes, a personal duel between Hitler and Stalin, the brilliance of General Zhukhov, but above all, “a psychological turning point” of the Second World War.
After a series of spectacular successes against ill-prepared Soviet defenders, Nazi German forces attempted to take Moscow in November 1941. Their progress ground down, however, and by December they were forced to abandon the attack. In the meanwhile, things had gone well for them in the south, and having captured the main grain producing areas of the Ukraine and Russia, Hitler decided to make a lunge for Caspian Sea oil. Stalingrad was the gateway to Baku. This decision more or less sealed the fate of the war in Russia. From the military point of view, there would be a turning point, if not in Stalingrad, then somewhere else along this route. Stalin appears to have understood this, decided that the stand will be made at the city named after him, and gave General Zukhov the task of laying a trap and then closing it.
But how did Hitler’s forces allow themselves to get ‘trapped’ so deep into Russia, at the far end of Europe? If the fate of Napoleon’s armies in the winter of 1812 at the hands of the Russian expanse and winter had preyed upon the minds of Hitler and his generals, why would they choose to extend their supply lines even further to the east?
To the extent that Hitler’s politics, as laid out by him in Mein Kampf, were in the driving seat, we have an answer. Race was the predominant theme. Two groups were singled out as inexorable enemies of the noble Aryan: the “cunning parasitic Jew” and the “subhuman Slav”. A central tenet of foreign policy was to create living space or Lebensraum for Germans by annexing Poland, Ukraine and Russia for settler colonisation. The inhabitants of these lands would either be deported or turned into slave labour for German settlers. With expanded territory and resources, Germany could truly become a “World Power” so that the Aryan race could takes its rightful place as the builder of civilisation.
Some wartime commentators in the west argued that Hitler had abandoned his plans of Mein Kampf, which was published in 1925, in favour of a more ‘conventional’ aim of replacing the Bolshevik government with a collaborationist regime, like the Vichy in France. The conduct of the war in the east formalised under new rules of engagement such as the notorious Commissar and Jurisdiction Orders, however, made it clear that Hitler saw this as a “war of annihilation”, not just of the “Jewish-Bolshevik” regime, but of the people of the occupied land. What seems, with the benefit of hindsight, like an ill-thought and suicidal lunge to the east was no “mission creep”. It was a primary aim of Nazi Germany’s war.
In his book, Hitler set out his position in favour of Lebensraum compared with the policy of seeking colonies in Africa and Asia. He argued against an overseas colonial policy, not because he thought it was outmoded and collapsing, but because he believed that it was firmly entrenched. A racial empire was there to stay, it would be difficult for anyone, let alone the natives themselves, to dislodge England from its colonies:
“England will never lose India unless she admits racial disruption in the machinery of her administration (which at present is entirely out of the question in India) or unless she is overcome by the sword of some powerful enemy. But Indian risings will never bring this about. We Germans have had sufficient experience to know how hard it is to coerce England. And, apart from all this, I as a German would far rather see India under British domination than under that of any other nation.
“The hopes of an epic rising in Egypt were just as chimerical. The ‘Holy War’ may bring the pleasing illusion to our German nincompoops that others are now ready to shed their blood for them. Indeed, this cowardly speculation is almost always the father of such hopes. But in reality the illusion would soon be brought to an end under the fusillade from a few companies of British machine-guns and a hail of British bombs.”
The Soviet Union, however, was a different proposition altogether:
“This colossal Empire in the East is ripe for dissolution. And the end of the Jewish domination in Russia will also be the end of Russia as a State. We are chosen by Destiny to be the witnesses of a catastrophe which will afford the strongest confirmation of the nationalist theory of race.”
While Hitler admired England’s racially-ordered colonial system, it was the other contemporary landgrab which was seen as the more appropriate model for German expansionism. America’s Manifest Destiny had come to final fruition in 1890 with the end of armed resistance by the native peoples at Wounded Knee.
The moral and strategic arguments for the landgrab to the east were one and the same. A superior race deserved resources it could fight to take. Just as Indians and Egyptians could not overthrow the English, and the native peoples could not resist the United States, so the ‘Jewish-Bolshevik cabal’, by violently removing the German blood line of the Tsars, had left the lands of the Slavs ready for the picking. While racial supremacy and territorial hunger were not the sole preserves of Nazi Germany, Hitler’s shrill and frantic articulation of these ideas had closed off the possibility of a more cold-headed assessment of ground realities.
Hitler’s forces were not just trapped by the Soviet strategy – or muddle – of retreating before the Nazi German advance, while keeping the bulk of their military strength in secret reserve. They were also trapped on the wrong side of history. The Battle of Stalingrad was a turning point in the practice of empire. Racially-ordered settler colonialism, which was at its apogee when Hitler’s ideas were formed, and which had seemed feasible enough at the start of Nazi Germany’s war in the east, went into unstoppable retreat, with perhaps one or two notable exceptions remaining. The British Empire ended, India and Egypt became independent, and Germany emerged as a world power without any further need for Lebensraum.
It is in the nature of epics to leave behind as many lessons as there are lesson-seekers. Stalingrad will be remembered this year by disparate groups – anti-fascists, Russian nationalists, Soviet nostalgists, communist holdouts as well as the many families and communities who lost or found something there. One of its many lessons is that history does not end, ideas and power centres that lose moral legitimacy will also lose ground, shrill rhetoric notwithstanding, and it is good to keep looking out and preparing for the turning points, because they will come.
Haris Gazdar is an economist who lives and works in Karachi. He tweets at @HarisGazdar