July 19, 2024
Stalingrad at 75, the Turning Point of World War II in Europe
A Soviet soldier waves the Red Banner near the central plaza of Stalingrad, 1943.
A Soviet soldier waves the Red Banner near the central plaza of Stalingrad, 1943.

This month, three quarters of a century ago, the most famous battle of the Second World War began. More than four million combatants fought in the gargantuan struggle at Stalingrad between the Nazi and Soviet armies. Over 1.8 million became casualties. More Soviet soldiers died in the five-month battle than Americans in the entire war. But by February 2, 1943, when the Germans trapped in the city surrendered, it was clear that the momentum on the Eastern Front had shifted. The Germans would never fully recover.

Fourteen months before Stalingrad began, Hitler had launched Operation Barbarossa, the largest military offensive in human history. After two years of decisive victories over France, Poland and others, Hitler and the German High Command (Oberkommando des Heeres, or OKH), were confident that the Soviet Union would fall within six weeks. At first, their prediction seemed correct: the attack in June 1941 caught Stalin unawares, and the Red Army unprepared. By December, the Red Army had suffered nearly five million casualties.

But despite enduring staggering losses, the Red Army continued to resist. In August 1941, senior members of the Wehrmacht began growing increasingly uneasy. The Chief of the OKH staff, General Franz Halder, noted in his diary that ““It is becoming ever more apparent that the Russian colossus…. Has been underestimated by us…. At the start of the war we reckoned with about 200 enemy divisions. Now we have already counted 360… When a dozen have been smashed, then the Russian puts up another dozen.”

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