Seventy-five years ago, the surrender of Nazi Germany's Sixth Army marked the end of the Battle of Stalingrad. It was a major turning point in the war, and remains important for many Russians to this day.
During World War II, Nazi Germany's Wehrmacht intended to conquer the industrial city of Stalingrad — named after then Soviet leader Joseph Stalin — before advancing onward to capture its intended goal: the Caucasus oil fields. Given the city's name, both Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin afforded great symbolic meaning to the Battle of Stalingrad that transcended its strategic importance.
Due to the very long supply routes, the German Sixth Army's offensive on Stalingrad was risky from the outset. Led by General Friedrich Paulus, the attack began in mid-August 1942, roughly one year after Nazi Germany first invaded the Soviet Union.
Back then, Hitler had claimed: "The Russians are exhausted." His assessment proved to be wildly inaccurate. Despite fierce resistance, the Wehrmacht did succeed in conquering most of Stalingrad by mid-November 1942. By this time, however, Soviet forces had launched a two-pronged attack to encircle the German troops.
In late November, the Red Army had encircled Germany's entire Sixth Army and elements of the 4th Panzer Army — together, almost 300,000 German soldiers. Hitler, in turn, demanded they hold their position. Similarly, Stalin told his forces in July "not to move an inch."
Stubbornly, both parties held their positions. German forces were encircled. And soon, their situation began to deteriorate. Over the course of several weeks, Germany's Luftwaffe attempted to provide necessary supplies. But this was not enough.
With the advance of the Red Army, supplies began dwindling further. Then winter set in, with temperatures dropping as low as -30 degrees Celsius (-22 degrees Fahrenheit). Consequently many German soldiers died, not from fighting, but from starvation and hypothermia. A German relief operation, after many delays, arrived to try and break the encirclement — and failed.
Paulus disobeyed Hitler in final moment
Despite these dire circumstances, General Paulus obeyed Hitler's order to "stand and fight,” rejecting a Soviet offer to surrender on January 8, 1943. On January 29, Paulus sent the following message to Hitler: "On the 10th anniversary of your assumption of power, the Sixth Army hails its 'Führer.' The swastika flag is still flying above Stalingrad. May our battle be an example to the present and coming generations that they must never capitulate even in a hopeless situation, for then Germany will be victorious. Hail my Führer!"
But when the Red Army stormed Paulus' headquarters, located in a cellar beneath a department store on January 31, he was captured alive. Paulus had also forbidden his officers to commit suicide to avoid capture so they would share the same fate as ordinary German soldiers.
At this stage, the surrounded German troops had been split into two encircled camps, one in northern Stalingrad, the other in the south. By late January, troops in the southern half surrendered. On February 2, 1943, those in the north followed suit. Hitler was furious when he learned of the surrender.
A horrendous death toll
Over half a million Soviets died in the Battle of Stalingrad, among them numerous civilians. This was due to Stalin refusing to evacuate non-combatants throughout the conflict. More than 40,000 died in German air raids during the early days of the battle. Of the 75,000 civilians who remained in Stalingrad until the German surrender, many died of starvation and hypothermia.
Between 150,000 and 250,000 Germans are estimated to have died in Stalingrad. Of the 100,000 Germans who were taken as Soviet prisoners of war, only about 6,000 returned to Germany up until 1956 — among them, General Friedrich Paulus.
For Germany's Wehrmacht, Stalingrad was not the battle that exacted the highest death toll, nor did it carry the greatest strategic significance. But "the psychological impact of Stalingrad was immense and in that sense it played a decisive role in the war," said Jochen Hellbeck, a historian at Rutgers University in New Jersey.
"It took on this important meaning because both sides declared it to be crucial when the battle began," he said. Hellbeck has collated testimonies from German and Russian Stalingrad war veterans on his website "Facing Stalingrad." He says after the Red Army emerged victorious in Stalingrad, it was keen to show the world it had "beaten the world's best army."
Stalingrad, which was renamed Volgograd in 1960, boasts many reminders of this bloody battle. The city's Stalingrad museum is one of Russia's most visited institutions. The legacy of Stalingrad is also evident in the Russian controversy surrounding the recent British comedy, "The Death of Stalin."
In Russia, Stalin has been held responsible for the death of millions of Soviet citizens, yet is also revered for defeating Nazi Germany. Russia's Minister of Culture, Vladimir Medinsky, banned the satirical film from being shown in the country's cinemas, saying: "Many people [...] will perceive the film as making a mockery of the Soviet past." And, he added, it would be particularly distasteful to show the film one day before the annual ceremony to commemorate the Battle of Stalingrad on February 2.
Neither side ready for grand reconciliation gesture
So now, 75 years later, is there reconciliation between both sides? There are small gestures, certainly. Altogether, more than 700,000 soldiers and civilians died in the Battle of Stalingrad.
To this day, corpses and mass graves are discovered during construction work in and around Volgograd. Thanks to the cooperation between the German War Graves Commission and Russian authorities, remains are transferred to official military cemeteries like the one at Rossoschka outside Volgograd. Here, German Wehrmacht soldiers and Red Army soldiers are buried in a single cemetery, albeit separated by a road.
There is still a long way to go before there will be any kind of gesture of reconciliation similar to the handshake between German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and French President Francois Mitterand in 1984 on the former battlefields of Verdun. Historian Jochen Hellbeck thinks Germans and Russians are not yet ready for this step. He says Russians still have reservations and in Germany there is "no willingness and no feeling that corresponds to the feeling toward the western neighbors, the French, British or Americans."
Hellbeck believes reconciliation requires both sides to accept each other's way of remembering the past. "You cannot simply decide that both Germans and Russians must commemorate the Battle of Stalingrad as a senseless slaughter," he said, adding that the battle certainly had great importance to the Soviet side. Still, he remains optimistic: "I hope that I will someday witness German and Russian leaders shaking hands over the graves of Stalingrad."