Saturday, November 22, 2014

Our Debt to Stalingrad

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?

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    1. CommentedLawrence Marshall

      It is perhaps one of the greatest ironies of recorded history that Stalinist Russia saved western society from domination by a nation lead by a madman bent on world domination and genocide. We do indeed owe our former "enemies" an enormous debt of gratitude.

    2. CommentedRiccardo Mario Corato

      Thank you Professor Bradford.

      Thank you for your intellectual honesty.

      I know that the Battle of Stalingrad is not exactly the most loved subject in your country, so I particularly appreciated your courage and sensibility.

      I would remember to your (very few detractors) that "Historia Magistra Vitae".

      Congratulations from Italy.

      Riccardo Mario Corato

    3. CommentedCarol Maczinsky

      Head to table: Stalin!! Stalin who wasted the lives of his soldiers to win an insignificant city: Stalingrad. Hard to believe there are still Stalinists around. From a military perspective Stalingrad was Soviet madness, the worst "won" battle ever, an inhumane slaughtering of his own people, that is what Communism is about. Sacrificing the people for the higher selfish good of a dictator.

        Portrait of J. Bradford DeLong

        CommentedJ. Bradford DeLong

        You will note that--deliberately--the word "Stalin" does not appear in my column, and that Stalin-the-man is referred to only as a criminal. So why do you read something different from what I wrote?

    4. CommentedJames Corr

      Thanks for being bold enough to step outside the confines of your "natural" discipline and write so eloquently with such a rare combination of heart and intelligence.

    5. CommentedIan Kane

      I am immensely heartened to find such an intelligent and humane contribution to public discourse - I commend especially the introductory first four paragraphs but it is all essential reading.

      The Soviet-Nazi war of 1941-45 was without question the major and most appalling theatre of WW2 in Europe between two despotic titans of psychopathic brutality and viciousness. The heroism, endurance and suffering of the people fated to participate were monumental and horrific.

      It is not something to dwell on for too long because it can brutalise and coarsen those that behold it but neither must it be forgotten.

      Apologies for the portentous language but anything less would be inappropriate.

    6. CommentedAlexandros Liakopoulos

      After quite some decades, you brought sanity back in the historical process and its writings. Once, the rule used to be that "the winner writes the History". This "warrior's attitude" comes from ancient times, when oral history and victory myths got mixed in a very human-friendly, God-imposed manner; it is that same rule that applies till today, proving that when it comes to History, as it is subsequent to Politics and its agenda, academic excellence and scientific process never come first! They always get "influenced", if not altered from political incentives. The excellent work of Keegan, on the History of War is very indicative of the way People tend to remember and/or repeat their past stories.
      Exactly cause of all the above, the Cold War brought a very opportunistic "Historical Remembering" of the facts of WW II to the whole of the West, with the main center being based on the "west of the west", the US coast. As Soviets became the "eternal enemy", they should be deprived from their glorious past and their great successes. And they were, despite their concrete sacrifices, which - with any kind of measurement - are much more significant for the West, than West's own sacrifices against Nazism.

      Your article brings forward Historical Justice! I congratulate you, Sir! As far as the Knowledge is not forgotten, Truth may Prevail, after all! This is a hope, within a very hopeless environment, as far as we get your indicative "lesson" and start learning from History, after we clean it off the Propaganda materials that were incorporated to its corps. You made an excellent work in that sense! Therefore, I feel much obliged to you, even if I am not Russian, for one more specific reason: you bring the question of "proportionate thinking" back to the center of the discussion, something very vital in the New Era of the Extremes (or the Extremists?) that has just begun! Stalingrad should serve as a symbol against Nazism, but the History of Stalingrad and its recollection should also serve as a bad example of Western Thinking, till today! History should be subsequent to facts and Humankind should be as brave as to recognize even his current enemies sacrifices: after all, as History keeps teaching us if we read it without prejudice and dogmatic approaches, today's enemies are tomorrow's allies! So, "altering" History, may - after all - alter the very future itself, as future allies are always subsequent to today's history! Right?

    7. CommentedTheodore Schrader

      For those interested (and don't know about it already) there is this wonderful, moving book by a historian, Timothy Snyder, Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin. It is not about the Battle of Stalingrad, but it does capture the scale of the tradegy in the East that I think those who have never lived there can hardly imagine, and its focus is that collision between the Soviet state and Hitler's Nazi regime.

    8. CommentedVitalii Moshnikov

      So much thank You for the article! Their feat of arms and their sacrifice I hope will live in centures and it wouldnt be forgotten.
      "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" - brilliant and so true words!!!

    9. CommentedPaul A. Myers

      Stalin and Hitler were both awful, but I would say an important test would be postwar behavior. If Hitler had won, he would have continued his genocides (plural because he was eliminating a lot of different peoples). In contrast, Stalin seems to have gone back to the quiescence of running a "normal" police state of using some terror and brutality to suppress political dissent and dissidence. Not nice, but a situation that permits time to eventually bring about its changes.

      So Western leaders correctly made the cold decision to side with the enemy of their enemy.

      I have read several accounts of Stalingrad and the efforts of the Russian soldiers deserve a very respectful look back at their bravery and tenacity. (I was trained as an infantryman for Vietnam but was assigned to a headquarters; it's that last mile that can kill you.)

    10. CommentedJerry Fields

      Let's not miss DeLongs' point here. It is not that without Stalingrad the world would be different-- of course it would, which is true of all counter-factual conditionals. It is not that crimes committed by the Soviets, and by many people of the old USSR are offset. It is that there are heroes which the West does not acknowledge. I, for one, believe that the courage of the people at Leningrad and Stalingrad rank among the most noble of human achievements.

    11. CommentedThomas Haynie

      I've been to the WWII memorials there and it is quite moving. The numbers of lives lost in once conflict are breath taking.

      I havent read all remarks above. I'm almost afraid to. I only hope your sharp audiences can decouple from Soviet Criticism" enough to appreciate what was done then despite the political differences that would later emerge.

      True death tolls were only known somewhat recently as I understand and estimates at that.

    12. CommentedChristian Thwaites

      "How little we know..." No, I think from Clark's work on the subject is extremely well known and Hastings covered it again in "All h#** broke loose".
      Also, remember these poor soldiers had the NKVD at their back and the casualties from killing their own were pretty horrific.

    13. CommentedProcyon Mukherjee


      Such an excellent article on great sacrifice and human endurance, the likes of which is never so easily visible in the current times, cannot be lost in the tirades of old fashioned soviet-bashing, which has long lost its use in the currency of politics of our times, but it still shows the latent potency of the wrath that existed some decades back on the dehumanization pogroms of all kind.

      What your lucid writing portrays is that there were times when men and families stood for their Fatherland, staking their lives in the process, and they must be remembered if not for their sacrifice but for their service to humanity; their ordained destiny led Europe and the larger humanity to better times and instead of doubting their allegiance and sincerity pay homage that we never create such appalling conditions where such sacrifice becomes necessary.

      Procyon Mukherjee

    14. CommentedHarold Bridges

      Disagree that the Allies would have won without Stalingrad and the Red Army. The US and UK would have come to terms with a Germany that had defeated the Soviets. Culture concerns aside, the economic interests of the US lay in the Pacific, not Europe. That's why the US announced a Europe First strategy and then proceeded to launch its opening offensive in the Pacific more than a year before Sicily.

      And for the abbreviation minded, here's the shortest history of WWII in Europe you will ever read: The only two European countries that had positive GDP growth in the 30's, Germany and the USSR, had a war. The US waited on the sidelines until the eleventh hour and then seized the prize, the Mideast oil.

    15. CommentedJohn Doe


      What to me is interesting about Stalingrad is how little we know about what happened given its importance.

      Take just Nikta Kruscheva. He was there but what was his role? And draw a straight line from Stalingrad to the fascinating photo in Roosevelt and Hopkins to the Secret Speech.

    16. Portrait of J. Bradford DeLong

      CommentedJ. Bradford DeLong

      Tom W: Touché. I do think that halving the death toll cost of defeating Hitler and also giving an opening to keep western Europe from becoming a radioactive abattoir was a service greater than the crimes of the Soviet Union--albeit a service for different people than those the crimes were committed against. If not--well, then, we were on the wrong side in World War II, weren't we? And I don't believe that.

      I do now wish that instead of writing "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..." I had written "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 of the soldiers, workers, and peasants fall short by an order of magnitude of their great service to humanity..." I would rather leave the crimes of the CPSU to the side, for discussion and thought another day. Today is for the soldiers commanded by Chuikov, Rokossovsky, Vatutin, and Yeremenko...

        CommentedTom W

        Thank you for your thoughtful reply. I don't doubt the heroism of those Russian (and other) soldiers of the Red Army. Even those of us who strongly criticize the Soviet empire, both in its action and philosophy, should feel a debt of gratitude and humbly thank them for their WWII sacrifice. The world should know of it.

        But perhaps a (so-so) analogy would work to express my view better. Let's say I live with my family on the first floor of a 3 story apartment building. I'm friendly with some neighbors, less with others. Next door is a madman. One day the madman tries to burn down the building starting with my unit and ones adjacent. The crazed man tries to throw gasoline on me and my family. He means to torture, subdue and kill us. I and my family make desperate efforts to subdue the madman and contain the fire in order to escape. We suffer injuries and a child and my brother die protecting ourselves and fighting our way out. This buys time for the fire department to come, which limits the extent of the fire and damage and certainly saves several lives of those living above. During my escape and later while the building is cordoned off I and some family members return to steal various objects from neighbors' homes. We also abuse many of them and when people move back in we take control of the ground floor mafia-style and also threaten the upstairs neighbors. My heroic deeds in *protecting myself and my family* outweigh these later dastardly acts because in protecting myself I helped some of those other people as an unintended consequence. Were it not for my acts of self preservation perhaps the whole building would have burned.

    17. CommentedTom W

      So... the Soviet regime's "crimes fall short by an order of magnitude of the great service to humanity". I'd ask Brad to show us his model. What measurements is he using to make such a bold order of magnitude claim?

      Note that he does NOT seem to be saying that the Soviet empire's crimes were less than those of the Nazis. He seems to be saying that were it not for the heroic efforts of the Soviet Army and people the terrible results of Nazi victory would have dwarfed the actual Nazi record. Even if we concede this, we have to ask ourselves whether the monstrous Soviet empire was necessary to effect these heroic deeds? I think not.

    18. Commentedsam smith

      The killing was worse under Stalin in Ukraine, Belarus and Poland within the USSR, than even the Germans could inflict in or outside their borders....

    19. CommentedMarten Klein

      More soldiers flew into the pocket than out of it. The German military was beaten by General Winter. Of the 110000 captured axis soldiers only 5000 survived Stalin's camps. Only after the war the US became aware that it was a huge mistake to side with Comrade Stalin.

        CommentedStefan Siewert


        great and timely article. Russian-bashing and selective knowledge of history is quite often a projections of the West's shortcomings. It is easier to speak about shortcomings and atrocities at your neighbour than about yourself and your history some years ago. The riches teaches the poor, but, quite often, the rich (West) and the poor (East) are two sides of one coin. But, indeed, one reason for hate and selective perception ist that the Soviet Union tried to be an alternative system to capitalism and played this role for almost 72 years, but failed to deliver, contributing to the "trial-and-error" phase of humankind in the 20th century in regard to market institutions, democracy and the rule of law. Hopefully, history will give way to a more appropriate understanding of the shortcomings and achievements of the Soviet Empire.