BERKELEY – We are not newly created, innocent, rational, and reasonable beings. We are not created fresh in an unmarked Eden under a new sun. We are, instead, the products of hundreds of millions of years of myopic evolution, and thousands of years of unwritten and then recorded history. Our past has built up layer upon layer of instincts, propensities, habits of thought, patterns of interaction, and material resources.
On top of this historical foundation, we build our civilization. Were it not for our history, our labor would not just be in vain; it would be impossible.
And there are the crimes of human history. The horrible crimes. The unbelievable crimes. Our history grips us like a nightmare, for the crimes of the past scar the present and induce yet more crimes in the future.
And there are also the efforts to stop and undo the effects of past crimes.
So it is appropriate this month to write not about economics, but about something else. Seventy-nine years ago, Germany went mad. There was delinquency. There was also history and bad luck. The criminals are almost all dead now. Their descendants and successors in Germany have done – and are doing – better than anyone could have expected at grappling with and mastering the nation’s unmasterable past.
Seventy years ago, 200,000 Soviet soldiers – overwhelmingly male and predominantly Russian – crossed the Volga River to the city of Stalingrad. As members of Vasily Chuikov’s 62nd Army, they grabbed hold of the nose of the Nazi army and did not let go. For five months, they fought. And perhaps 80% of them died in the ruins of the city. On October 15 – a typical day – Chuikov’s battle diary records that a radio message was received from the 416th Regiment at 12:20 PM: “Have been encircled, ammunition and water available, death before surrender!” At 4:35 PM, Lieutenant Colonel Ustinov called down the artillery on his own encircled command post.
But they held on.
And so, 70 years ago this November – on November 19 to be precise – the million-soldier reserve of the Red Army was transferred to General Nikolai Vatutin’s Southwestern Front, Marshal Konstantin Rokossovsky’s Don Front, and Marshal Andrei Yeremenko’s Stalingrad Front. They went on to spring the trap of Operation Uranus, the code name for the planned encirclement and annihilation of the German Sixth Army and Fourth Panzer Army. They would fight, die, win, and thus destroy the Nazi hope of dominating Eurasia for even one more year – let alone of establishing Hitler’s 1,000-year Reich.
Together, these 1.2 million Red Army soldiers, the workers who armed them, and the peasants who fed them turned the Battle of Stalingrad into the fight that, of any battle in human history, has made the greatest positive difference for humanity.
The Allies probably would have eventually won World War II even had the Nazis conquered Stalingrad, redistributed their spearhead forces as mobile reserves, repelled the Red Army’s subsequent winter 1942 offensive, and seized the Caucasus oil fields, thus depriving the Red Army of 90% of its motor fuel. But any Allied victory would have required the large-scale use of nuclear weapons, and a death toll in Europe that would most likely have been twice the actual World War II death toll of perhaps 40 million.
May there never be another such battle. May we never need another one.
The soldiers of the Red Army, and the workers and peasants of the Soviet Union who armed and fed them, allowed their dictatorial masters to commit crimes – and committed crimes themselves. But these crimes fall short by an order of magnitude of the great service to humanity – and especially to western European humanity – that they gave in the rubble along the Volga River 70 years ago this fall.
We are the heirs to their accomplishments. We are their debtors. And we cannot repay what we owe to them. We can only remember it.
But how many NATO leaders or European Union presidents and prime ministers have ever taken the time to visit the battle site, and perhaps lay a wreath to those whose sacrifice saved their civilization?