Eighty years ago, the surrender of Nazi Germany’s Sixth Army marked the end of the Battle of Stalingrad. Today, Russia uses commemoration events for its campaign against Ukraine and reinterprets history.
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 Wehrmacht 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 demanded they hold their position. Similarly, Stalin told his forces in July “not to move an inch.”
Stubbornly, both parties held their positions. And soon, the encircled German forces’ 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 to dwindle 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.
General Paulus’ turn-about
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 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.
The Battle of Stalingrad, in which the Soviet Union was victorious, became a myth. The army of Nazi Germany, long considered the strongest army in the world, was dealt a decisive defeat.
And today, the Russian leadership is serving up this myth once again — in their war against Ukraine. For months, the Kremlin has been justifying its invasion of Ukraine as a new fight against “Nazis.” That is how Putin has been labeling the Ukrainian government which, according to his claims, plans to exterminate the Russian-speaking population in eastern Ukraine. As he gave the order to attack, President Vladimir Putin announced he would “denazify” Ukraine.
Putin’s attribution of the “Nazi label” to the Ukrainian leadership can be considered a mere pretext for his war of aggression. And the parallels he draws between today and the situation 80 years ago are historically untenable. In 1941, the Soviet Union was invaded by Nazi Germany and fought in self-defense. In 2022 the Soviet Union’s successor state, Russia, attacked neighboring Ukraine without having been threatened.
The Stalingrad Museum in present-day Volgograd also plays a role in Putin’s narrative. It is one of Russia’s most visited institutions. Now, it is the site where ceremonies for the families of Russian soldiers who died in Ukraine are held. The museum also hosted a ceremony of the Patriotic Youth Army, funded by the Ministry of Defense, in which children were praised as “descendants of the victors of Stalingrad.”
The well-known war memorials of Volgograd have also become places where Russian soldiers gather on their way to Ukraine.
How differently the past is seen in Russia and Ukraine is also evident in the assessment of the person of Josef Stalin: On the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Stalingrad, a new bust of the former Soviet dictator has now been unveiled — in Volgograd. The city was renamed in 1960 after Stalin’s death out of respect for the millions of people who lost their lives during Stalin’s reign of terror.
In Ukraine, Stalin is remembered for “Holodomor” (“murder by starvation”). In 1932 and 1933, up to four million people in Ukraine alone fell victim to a severe famine which historians have claimed, was deliberately brought about in order to break the resistance of Ukrainian peasants to their forced collectivization.
In 2022, both the German Bundestag and the European Parliament recognized Holodomor as genocide.
This drew angry reactions from Moscow at the time: It claimed that the members of the Bundestag had “decided to defiantly support this political and ideological myth, which is cultivated by the Ukrainian authorities at the instigation of ultra-nationalist, Nazi and Russophobic forces,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said.
German-Russian military cemetery
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.
This article was originally published in German.
A previous version of this article was first published in February 2018 and has been updated in 2023 to reflect recent developments.