The Battle of Stalingrad in Film and History

by Louis Proyect (



Most people who became radicalized during the 1960s have no trouble understanding the importance of General Giap's victory over the French at Dienbienphu or the defeat of the 'gusanos' at the Bay of Pigs. In both cases victories of the liberation movement over imperialist invasions helped to lay the foundations for further advances in the class struggle.


For a previous generation, the Battle of Stalingrad, which began in the summer of 1942 and ended in January 1943, had a similar importance. In this most costly of military engagements, the Nazi army suffered not only its first major defeat, but one that essentially paved the way for the collapse of the Third Reich. The ability of the workers state to defeat the seemingly invincible fascist army lifted the morale of every antifascist and anticapitalist armed movement worldwide, from Mao's Red Army to the French Resistance. Despite the determination of Anglo-American imperialism to pick up where Hitler left off, the mood of resistance continued well into the 1950s as the Soviet Union remained a symbol of working-class power.


For those who had lost faith after the defeat of the Spanish Republic or with the signing of the 1939 Nazi-Soviet Pact, the victory at Stalingrad brought a sense of renewal. Painters, sculptors, novelists and poets found ways to express their admiration for the Soviet people, including Pablo Neruda's "Nuevo Canto de Amor a Stalingrad."


The Nazi defeat also opened the door to new horrors. Arno Mayer argues convincingly in "Why the Heavens Did not Darken" that the Judeocide (his term--and one that makes sense to most scholars outside the "Holocaust industry") was provoked by the disaster at Stalingrad. Prior to January 1943, Jews, although persecuted, were not in danger of being exterminated en masse. After the Stalingrad debacle, Hitler understood that his days were numbered and decided to resolve the "Jewish problem" once and for all.


German losses at Stalingrad were staggering. Field Marshal Friedrich Paulus's Sixth Army began its campaign with 600,000 soldiers. On Jan. 31, 1943, he disobeyed Hitler and surrendered. On February 2 the last of his remaining 91,000 troops became Soviet prisoners. The Soviets recovered 250,000 German and Romanian corpses in and around Stalingrad and total Axis deaths (Germans, Romanians, Italians, and Hungarians) is estimated at 800,000. Of those taken captive, only 6,000 lived to return to their homeland.


At one key battle for control of a factory, there were more casualties than during the entire campaign in France the previous year. Official Russian military historians estimate that 1,100,000 Soviet soldiers lost their lives in the campaign to defend the city, all this in a span of six months.


I first became interested in the Battle of Stalingrad after reading Harrison Salisbury's masterpiece "The 900 Days" which tells the story of the siege of Leningrad. In Salisbury's book, a testimony to the ability of a people to survive the German assault, residual socialist beliefs weigh heavily. Despite all of Stalin's abuses, the ordinary citizens of Leningrad believed that their system was worth fighting and dying for.


The Battle of Stalingrad had a different character since most noncombatants were evacuated across the Volga before the worst fighting began. Therefore, any book on the subject would tend to be focused on the battle itself rather than the texture of everyday life under siege. This is certainly the case with Antony Beevor's "Stalingrad, the Fateful Siege: 1942-1943" that was published. Although Beevor was not sympathetic to the left, his book is a useful introduction to the enormous struggle of the Soviet people.


The battle of Stalingrad has also inspired two sharply contrasting films in recent years that are both available in home video. German director Joseph Vilsmaier's 1993 "Stalingrad" is a powerful antiwar film that focuses on the disintegration of the German army under the combined forces of the Soviet army and the brutal Russian winter. Made in 2001, Jean-Jacques Annaud's "Enemy at the Gates" is much less successful. Although Annaud is French and his film was made in Europe (with the largest budget in the continent's history), "Enemy at the Gates" represents a Hollywoodization of material that would defy such a treatment. Instead of focusing on the massive social forces that made the German defeat possible, Annaud would have us believe that victory revolved around the feats of an individual sniper. Indeed, the film's publicity revolved around the slogan "A single bullet can change history"


With graphic depictions of battlefield horrors, Vilsmaier's film is the dark side of Stephen Spielberg's "Saving Private Ryan." Unlike Spielberg, Vilsmaier felt no need to make his characters heroic since the reputation of the Wehrmacht is beyond salvation. His goal instead was to dramatize the suffering of the everyday German soldier in a war that had no redeeming qualities. Unlike the flag-waving Spielberg, Vilsmaier dramatizes men who kill only to avoid being killed themselves, and who, when they finally decide to desert, attain a level of humanity that had been denied them up to that point. Unlike Spielberg's wretched war-hawk lead-actor Tom Hanks who dies in the final scene holding off a German tank with a pistol, the two lead characters of "Stalingrad" die in each other's arms during a blizzard, in desperate flight from the action.


Vilsmaier deliberately avoids the war movie cliché--his soldiers have no personalities. We only know them by their first names: "Fritz", "Rollo", etc. Rather than spinning out nostalgic monologues about how they can't wait to get back to Saxony to work on their father's farm, they apologize for shitting their pants during battle. By the end of the film, they are too sick, hungry and shell-shocked to make much conversation at all.


In the opening scene, they are shown relaxing on an Italian beach fresh from victory in North Africa. Oozing self-confidence, they assume that the Soviet Union will be a cakewalk as well. The first hint that things might turn out differently this time is suggested when the troop train is deep into the heart of Russia, en route to the front line. One soldier turns to the other and remarks, "How strange--we just passed by that same exact spot six hours ago." The vastness of Russia was ultimately one of the main weapons against the Nazis, just as it was in the war of 1812 against the Napoleonic armies.


Stalingrad's geographical position helps us to understand why Hitler's Sixth Army was doomed. Now called Volgograd, it sits on the Volga River, which runs from north to south, toward the Caspian. It is in the southern steppes, just north of Grozny where the Chechen war recently came to a bloody conclusion. If you transpose its location onto a United States map, Stalingrad would be found at Oklahoma City. As is the case with Oklahoma City, the Russian city might have well been dropped from the sky on a completely flat terrain. But unlike Oklahoma City, Stalingrad has winters like those of central Canada.


Hitler expected the war to be over in a few months. His overweening sense of self-confidence was predicated on the easy victories against reactionary France, and against a Poland suffering from rotten semifeudal class relations. He believed his own propaganda about Bolshevik "untermenschen" who would lack the desire to fight for higher values.


In chapter four of Beevor's book, titled "The Whole Rotten Structure Will Come Crashing Down", we learn why Hitler thought victory would come easy. He had been following Stalin's purge of his top military leaders with keen interest, especially how this impacted the Red Army's performance in Finland during the Stalin-Hitler pact:


Two and a half years after the purge began [1937], the Red Army presented a disastrous spectacle in the Winter War against Finland. Marshal Voroshilov, Stalin’s old crony from the First Cavalry Army, displayed an astonishing lack of imagination. The Finns outmanoeuvred their opponents time after time. Their machine-gunners scythed down the massed Soviet infantry struggling forward through the snowfields. Only after deploying five times as many men as their opponents, and huge concentrations of artillery, did the Red Army begin to prevail. Hitler had observed this lamentable performance with excitement.


Notwithstanding the ineptitude of a depleted Red Army, Hitler failed to understand the powerful social roots of the army, which would sustain it in a total war. In the following paragraph, Beevor shows some insight into the class nature of the Soviet resistance. As one might expect, he uses the term "Stalinism" and "Socialism" interchangeably. Substitute the latter term for the former and his comments ring true:


Whatever one may think about Stalinism, there can be little doubt that its ideological preparation, through deliberately manipulated alternatives, provided ruthlessly effective arguments for total warfare. All right-thinking people had to accept that Fascism was bad and must be destroyed by any means. Fascism was totally devoted to the destruction of the Communist Party, therefore it should lead the struggle. This form of logic is captured in Vasily Grossman’s novel, "Life and Fate." "The hatred Fascism bears us", declares Mostovskoy, an old Bolshevik who had fallen foul of Stalinism, "is yet another proof — a far-reaching proof -- of the justice of Lenin's cause."


When Vilsmaier's soldiers finally arrive at the outskirts of Stalingrad in the summer of 1942, the sight that awaits them is enough to make them turn around and head back for Germany. Sprawled on the ground in all directions are the bandaged and bloody casualties of the preceding months' fighting, who moan and weep inconsolably. If the Russians are "untermenschen," these soldiers are certainly not "obermenschen."


Stalin had decided to hold the line at the city named after him, no matter the expense. This meant enacting one of the most controversial measures known in modern warfare: all Russian soldiers running away from the fighting would be shot by specially assigned NKVD operatives. If a Russian had a choice between dying from a German bullet and one made in his own country, he would likely opt for the former. While the workers state promised the chance of a better future, merciless discipline was required to hold the line in the here and now so as to make that future possible.


A combination of class-consciousness, patriotism and ultra-Spartan discipline helped to forge the Red detachments in Stalingrad into a Nazi-killing machine. Furthermore, the Soviet Union had something that Germany sorely lacked: sheer numbers. Vast numbers of inexperienced youth were drafted into action, with very little training. This led to enormous casualties in face of the better-trained and equipped Wehrmacht. Even schoolchildren were mustered into action. In chapter seven, "Not One Step Backwards," Beevor writes:


Younger schoolchildren, meanwhile, were put to work building earth walls round the petroleum-storage tanks on the banks of the Volga. Supervised by teachers, they carried the earth on wooden stretchers. A German aircraft suddenly appeared. The girls did not know where to hide, and the explosion from a bomb buried two fourteen-year-old girls. When their classmates dug them out, they found that one of them, Nina Grebennikova, was paralysed with a broken back. Her shocked and weeping friends cleaned off the wooden stretcher, and carried her on it to a Stalingrad hospital, next to where the Tsaritsa gorge opens on to the Volga.


In early autumn the fighting had concentrated in the rubble strewn streets of downtown Stalingrad. Hitler had vowed not to allow another "Verdun" to take place, referring to the most famous and costly trench warfare episode in WWI, but this is exactly what the Battle of Stalingrad turned into. Instead of trenches, Soviet soldiers and their Nazi counterparts fought from behind shattered buildings, often no more than fifty feet apart.


Such action is dramatized in a vivid fashion in a lengthy scene in the middle of Vilsmaier's film. The Germans are huddled in one bombed out factory building and the Soviets face them off in another. Between them is a courtyard strewn with the bodies of the already dead and dying. As the German officers order their troops to attack the Soviet stronghold, each successive wave of attackers is mowed down by Soviet fire. Unfortunately, the film fails to portray the heroism of the Soviet defenders who were vastly outnumbered. This flows logically from an esthetic/political decision to show the horror of the war only from the German point of view.


For the Soviet perspective, we have to turn to Beevor:


While the bitter struggle for the Mamaev Kurgan [a park] continued, an equally ferocious battle developed for the huge concrete grain silo down by the river. The rapid advance of Hoth’s XLVIII Panzer Corps had virtually cut off this natural fortress. The defenders from the 35th Guards Division cheered and joked when reinforcements from a marine infantry platoon commanded by Lieutenant Andrey Khozyanov reached them during the night of 17 September. They had two old Maxim machine-guns and two of the long Russian anti-tank rifles, which they used to fire at a German tank when an officer and an interpreter appeared under a flag of truce to ask them to surrender. German artillery then ranged on to the vast structure preparing the ground for the Saxon 94th Infantry Division, whose insignia were the crossed swords of Meissen porcelain.


The fifty-odd defenders fought off ten assaults on 18 September. Knowing that they could not expect resupply, they conserved their ammunition, rations and water carefully. The conditions in which they continued to fight over the next two days were terrible. They were choked with dust and smoke, even the grain in the elevator had caught fire, and they soon had almost nothing left to drink. They were also short of water to fill the barrel jackets of the Maxim machine-guns. (Presumably the marines resorted to their own urine for the purpose, as was so often the practice in the First World War, but Soviet accounts avoid such details.)


All their grenades and anti-tank projectiles had been expended by the time more German tanks arrived to finish them off on 20 September. Both Maxims were put out of action. The defenders, unable to see inside the elevator for smoke and dust, communicated by shouting to each other through parched throats. When the Germans broke in, they fired at sounds, not at objects. That night, with only a handful of ammunition left, the survivors broke out. The wounded had to be left behind. Although a fierce fight, it was hardly an impressive victory for the Germans, yet Paulus chose the huge grain silo as the symbol of Stalingrad in the arm badge he was having designed at army headquarters to commemorate the victory.


While urban trench warfare proceeded through the end of 1942, the Soviet Union was operating munitions factories twenty-four hours a day in the Eastern part of the country not yet under Nazi control, as it drafted a huge new army to dislodge the invaders. The stubborn fighting in Stalingrad prevented the Nazis from moving eastward. After the new Soviet forces were assembled, a top-secret decision was made to surround Paulus's Sixth Army from the north and the south. This counter-attack coincided with the full brunt of the Russian winter for which the German army had no contingency plans. Not only were the Nazis short of food, ammunition and water, they lacked winter combat gear. Since Hitler had gambled that the fighting would be long over prior to the onset of winter, his ill-equipped soldiers began to suffer frostbite and worse. To survive, many removed the underclothing of dead Soviet soldiers or wrapped rags around their shoes.


In the final section of the film, Vilsmaier depicts his soldiers, now whittled down to a haggard and ailing group of ten or so, trudging through the deep snow trying to escape both the fighting and the inclement weather. Although it is impossible to feel any kind of sympathy for these killers, we do understand his main point, namely that WWII was a catastrophe for the German people both physically and spiritually. In the context of various reactionary ideological trends in recent years, which range from German historiography minimizing the horrors of the Nazi regime to Reagan's placing a wreath at Bitberg, Vilsmaier deserves applause.


However, the film did not receive a positive response, especially from critics in Great Britain and the United States who objected to any attempt to humanize German foot soldiers. They took exception particularly to several incidents that showed them taking mercy on Russian soldiers or civilians. Obviously they still adhere to the Manichean worldview of WWII in which "our" side never raped, plundered or murdered innocent civilians. Another possible factor was worry over the uncompromisingly antiwar vision of the movie. If the new Germany were to take its place in helping to once again "civilize" Yugoslavia and other countries to the east, it would be necessary to instill a fighting mood among its youth. Alluding to the possibly subversive effect of the film, Peter Millar wrote in the January 31, 1993 London Times:


If Vilsmaier's end was to produce a pacifist catharsis in his audience, he succeeds. On a wet Friday night, an audience of noisy, mostly young, Berliners who had rolled in from the Kurfurstendamm, beers and popcorn in hand, filed out after the credits in stunned silence. If, despite the international pressure to ''play a grown-up part'' in UN peacekeeping efforts, no German government can raise a majority for sending troops to Bosnia, Stalingrad will have played its part. Stalingrad is expected to open in London in late spring.


In an interview with the March 16, 2001 Minneapolis Star Tribune, Jean-Jacques Annaud said, "You'll never believe me, but when I started this, I thought to myself, 'What a great little film,'" He added, "I read this anecdote about two snipers dueling during the battle of Stalingrad, and I was struck by this tiny, tiny, tiny story's repercussions on the course of history." And so he proceeded to make a film in which the Battle of Stalingrad is reduced to a duel between a Russian and German sniper, played respectively by Jude Law and Ed Harris.


Law's character is based on a real hero of the Soviet army, a former shepherd named Vassili Zaitsev who was turned into an "exemplary" figure in typical Stalinist fashion, like the worker Stakhanov whose prodigious feats on the assembly line were rewarded with glory and extra pay. Zaitsev becomes the project of Commissar Danilov, played by Ralph Fiennes. Challenged by Khrushchev (Bob Hoskins) to find a way to motivate Soviet soldiers--beyond threatening them with execution if caught fleeing--Danilov suggests elevating Zaitsev to super-hero status.


When Zaitsev succeeds beyond expectation, the Germans summon one of their top marksman, a Major König who is played by Ed Harris. The remainder of the film consists of a cat-and-mouse fight between the two men, with the German appearing invincible. Except for these highly choreographed scenes, which seem to owe much to recent Hong Kong cinema especially John Woo, most of the drama consists of Jude Law agonizing over his feelings of inadequacy. In time-honored fashion, Law prevails and the Red Army celebrates victory.


In a March 24, 2001 Sunday Telegraph article, Antony Beevor has some bitter complaints about Annaud's version of the Battle of Stalingrad on two scores. He challenges the film's veracity on a number of matters, including whether there were Soviet women snipers (there were none). He objects to the tendency to create striking visual images also at the expense of veracity. For example, he calls attention to a lingering shot that establishes the exterior of General Paulus's headquarters. It shows "dozens of German panzers perfectly lined up in a triumphal avenue leading to the entrance, an ideal parade-ground target for the Soviet air force." In fact there was no panzer reserve near German headquarters and even if there were, they would have not been exposed to Soviet firepower in this fashion. This might be impressive as cinematography, but less so as history.


Beevor's biggest complaint is over the tendency to reduce an enormous battle involving contrary social forces into a duel, especially by the final scene in which the Nazi sniper reveals himself inadvertently to Zaitsev: "After a long moment, there is the sound of a coat flapping in the wind. Koenig turns his head, suddenly sensing that Zaitsev has tricked him. He sees him, also standing in the open, with rifle levelled. It is pure Clint Eastwood." Annaud agreed completely with Beevor. It was intended to be pure Clint Eastwood. "Enemy at the Gates" was his personal tribute to Sergio Leone. Just before his death, he urged Annaud to complete the major feature he was trying to make about the siege of Leningrad. One must conclude that by honoring Leone in this fashion, the Soviet people got short shrift.


For insights into the complex interaction between patriotism, class-consciousness and reverence for Stalin, we have to turn to the Soviet people themselves. "Two Hundred Days of Fire: Accounts by Participants and Witnesses of the Battle of Stalingrad," was put out by Progress Publishers in Moscow in 1970. In the chapter "Young Communists Became Men," written by V.I. Levkin, we learn of the fate of a young shoemaker, who appears as a character in both Vilsmaier and Annaud's films. First the true story of Sasha Philippov:


When the nazis took a part of Bryansk Street on Dar- Gora, the home of Sasha Philippov’s parents found itself in enemy-held territory. Sasha slung a bag of shoemaker’s tools over his shoulder and headed for the German unit. He aroused no suspicion and the Germans admitted him to their HQ to repair boots. When the opportunity presented itself Sasha stole secret nazi documents and handed them to our troops. Once as he was crossing the front line he was caught red-handed. He was inhumanly tortured and then hanged from a tree. The inhabitants of Dar-Gora present at the execution told how, when the noose had been placed round Sasha’s neck, he struck a German officer on the cheek and shouted: "You snakes! You still won’t beat the Red Army!"


In Vilsmaier's film, Sasha is altered to serve the director's purpose. Instead of being a young Communist, he is turned into an innocent bystander who stumbles behind German lines into the squad whose fate we are tracking. Later in the film, when the German army is facing immanent defeat, civilians are being rounded up and executed on the flimsiest of charges. Members of the squad are assigned to shoot a group of Russian civilians, including the young shoemaker whom they had befriended earlier. When a lieutenant pleads for the boy's life, not only is he brushed aside by the Nazi commanding officer, he obeys the order to shoot him. Thus Vilsmaier is faithful to his artistic/political vision, while failing at the one that would serve the Soviet side of the story.


Annaud's account is truer to history. His Sacha Filipov, played by Gabriel Thompson, is also hung from a tree after being discovered spying by Ed Harris's character. But in keeping with the exaggeration of the role of the individual in history, this event triggers the final showdown between Jude Law and Ed Harris who both knew the youth as a friend and confidant. Of course, the character that Harris played never existed and Sacha Filipov never met Zaitsev. More importantly, the killing of the shoeshine boy was only a single thread in the vast bloody fabric of Stalingrad.


It is of course one of the crowning ironies of history that Anglo-American imperialism has achieved through economic and military pressure what Hitler failed to accomplish. But despite the near unanimous acceptance of capitalist restoration in the former Soviet Union, there are signs that those at the bottom are uneasy with the changes, especially since the new free market has meant nothing but ruin and degradation. Perhaps the most recalcitrant are those who sacrificed the greatest, during the Battle of Stalingrad and other horrific showdowns. Jonathan Steele reports on their frame of mind in a Guardian article, dated May 9, 1995, and titled "Russian Veterans Reflect on Soviet Union's Lost Glory":


The base of Stalin's bust behind the Lenin mausoleum was carpeted with privately laid flowers. An elderly colonel, who declined to give his name, bent stiffly to place three carnations. He spoke for many veterans when he said curtly: "I didn't fight in the second world war. I fought in the Great Patriotic War. The whole world lives because of the Soviet Union."


His verdict on Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika and Mr Yeltsin's reforms was harsh. "In 1941 imperialism wanted to destroy the Soviet Union. They failed. Later it found a way of doing it through our own leaders," he said.


Mikhail Borisov, another veteran who had just visited the Lenin mausoleum, overheard and chipped in that things were not so bad, though "my ideals were destroyed when the Soviet Union collapsed". Proudly bringing out his 50th anniversary medal, he said he emigrated to Israel last year. "I came back for this. I will never spit on the country where I was born and for which I fought," he added.


Veterans were given 5 per cent more than ordinary citizens when pensions went up in April. Many feel this week's ceremonies are small compensation for the economic toughness of their current lives and for the disappearance of their country.


"There's something phony," said Alexander Chudakov, a distinguished scientist, now retired. "If the soldiers had known what was going to happen to their country 50 years later, would they have fought so hard?"


There is a tendency on the part of the anti-Stalinist left to look at the whole Soviet experience as a nightmare that is finally over. Now that the slate has been wiped clean, it is possible to create a new kind of socialism that will avoid all of the sins of the Stalinist past.


Yet it is simply impossible to view the former Soviet Union as some kind of runaway monster with no connection to Marxism. The collective ownership of the means of production characterized the state from its inception in 1917 to its collapse at the hands of Yeltsin. The institutional roots of the Soviet regime explains not only the heroic resistance at Stalingrad, it also explains the help that the USSR gave to countries fighting against colonialism and imperialism, from Vietnam to Cuba. Although the aid was often doled out with an eyedropper, at least the Kremlin was the main obstacle of NATO's goals in contradistinction to the situation today, when Putin openly discusses Russian enrolment with his friends in the West.


Understanding the former Soviet Union dialectically means dispensing with obsessions over "evil" personalities. Stalin took power not because he had superior Machiavellian skills but because the social base of the Bolshevik party had been exhausted by civil war. Stalin's reign was not some kind of excrescence that turned up mysteriously on the Soviet body out of the blue. Rather it was something that emerged organically from a weakened society.


Furthermore, whatever Stalin's sins, there was no question as to the proper attitude of Marxists toward defense of the Soviet Union. They would not have been indifferent as to the outcome of the Battle of Stalingrad.


These questions are very much still with us today, even though Stalin has been dead for nearly a half-century. American imperialism is poised to intervene in Colombia, where political "dinosaurs" who are still inspired by the example of the former Soviet Union lead the FARC.


We must avoid the temptation to reject imperfect attempts to create socialist societies in competition with the perfect ideas contained in our minds, since this kind of philosophical idealism can very rapidly lead to sectarianism. As Marx said in the 18th Brumaire, men make history but not of their own choosing. The entire history of socialism in the 20th century has been fraught with error and misdirection. This is not because the architects of socialism are evil--although that sometimes is a factor. It is rather because the putative ruling class of the new society has lacked the time and the economic power to create embryonic forms of the new state within the crevices of the old. The capitalist class had hundreds of years to build up its economic resources and train an intelligentsia before it finally made a bid for power.


On the other hand, socialism is born out of the trauma of war and economic depression. The working class generally avoids taking matters into its own hands until the final moment. And then when it does, it does so with tremendous force and determination such as was on display at the Battle of Stalingrad. As we evolve toward a new radicalization in the early years of the 21st century, we should not reject everything about the former Soviet Union. When it finally comes time to confront the Nazis of our epoch, we must learn to fight as heroically as a previous generation did.


Save me a fragment of violent foam

save me a rifle, save a plow for me

and let them place it at my grave

with a red ear of grain from your soil,

that it be known, if there be any doubt,

that I died loving you and you loved me,

and if I did not fight in your waist

I leave in your honor this dark grenade,

this song of love for Stalingrad.


(Guárdame un trozo de violenta espuma,

guárdame un rifle, guárdame un arado,

y que lo pongan en mi sepultura

con una espiga roja de tu estado,

para que sepan, si hay alguna duda,

que he muerto amándote y que me has amado,

y si no he combatido en tu cintura

deja en tu honor esta granada oscura,

este canto de amor a Stalingrado.)


Final stanza of Pablo Neruda's "New Song to Stalingrad" (Nuevo Canto de Amor a Stalingrad)