On February 2, 1943, the German Sixth Army surrendered in Stalingrad. The battle cost the lives of a million people and has since become a symbol of struggle and reconciliation between Russia and Germany. That hasn’t been possible since the start of the Ukraine war.

They exist, the great battles in wars, which in retrospect settle like a myth in the minds of later generations. In Europe, for example, this was the Varus Battle in antiquity, in which three Roman legions led by their general Publius Quinctilius Varus were crushed by Germanic troops – which, according to German historians, was the beginning of the end of the Roman Empire.

Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo marked the end of French supremacy. And the outcome of the Battle of Stalingrad heralded the end of Nazi tyranny on the continent. This battle ended exactly 80 years ago. The commemoration day falls at a time when Germany is being forced by Putin’s war of aggression to make its tanks available for use against the Russian invaders.

It is a difficult day of remembrance under these circumstances.

The sober description of the historical events reads as follows in the German Federal Archives: In the course of the German summer offensive of 1942, the sixth army under General Friedrich Paulus reached Stalingrad, now called Volgograd, at the end of August. By mid-November, they had conquered around 90 percent of the city. While German shock troops were wearing themselves out in bitter house and street fighting, the Soviet south-west front brought in fresh forces around Stalingrad.

On November 19, 1942, it began a large pincer offensive in the northwest and south. Just three days later, the attack led to the encirclement of the entire Sixth Army and parts of the Fourth Panzer Army and remnants of the Romanian Third and Fourth Armies, together around 250,000 Germans and more than 30,000 Romanian and Russian auxiliaries.

Adolf Hitler then declared Stalingrad a “symbol of the German will to win”. At the same time, he combined the conquest of the strategically important armaments and transport center on the Volga with personal prestige success over his fiercest opponent at the time, Josef Stalin, whose name the city bore. Hitler therefore strictly refused a request from Paulus to be allowed to break out of the approximately 40 by 50 kilometer basin in the west.

Rather, he trusted the meaningless announcements by the Commander-in-Chief of the Air Force, Hermann Göring, that he would be able to supply the trapped people from the air until the planned relief. However, the Wehrmacht did not have the necessary capacities for this. The 300-400 tons of supplies needed daily by the Sixth Army could not be delivered at any time.

A relief attempt begun on December 12 by Army Group Don, which had been hastily assembled under the command of Erich von Manstein – in which armored units came within 48 kilometers of Stalingrad – was broken off after nine days due to Soviet resistance. With his order to hold out, renewed on December 23, Hitler finally left the Sixth Army to its fate.

At that time, the daily food ration of the starving prisoners was two slices of bread and a little tea, occasionally a thin soup. The first deaths from exhaustion and malnutrition began to appear in mid-December. The Russian winter with less than minus 40 degrees also claimed thousands of victims among the Wehrmacht soldiers who were only inadequately equipped to withstand the freezing temperatures.

By January 18, 1943, the German troops had to give up all defense lines and withdraw completely to the city of Stalingrad, where they were split into two partial encirclements. On January 30, Adolf Hitler demonstratively appointed Paulus Field Marshal.

Since no German field marshal had ever surrendered before, the promotion was intended to motivate Paulus to continue fighting with the Sixth Army to the “hero’s death”. Paulus, however, surrendered on January 31, 1943 with his remaining units in the southern pocket. Two days later they also surrendered the emaciated troops in the northern pocket of the city, which resembled a field of rubble. About 150,000 German soldiers had fallen victim to the fighting, the cold or starvation in the pocket.

Most of the city’s residents died. Losses suffered by the Soviet troops were appalling. More than a million people lost their lives in the siege and in the course of the fighting. Around 91,000 German soldiers were taken prisoner by the Soviets, from which around 6,000 survivors returned to Germany by 1956.

So much for the gory facts. The rest is interpretation. On the German side, a majority of historians continue the story like this: Stalingrad was the first devastating defeat for the Wehrmacht. In fact, the tide had already turned against the Germans because Hitler had misjudged distances, weather conditions, and the Soviets’ ability to mobilize. The lost battle finally changed the war situation. The momentum passed to the Red Army.

The impact on the morale of the German population was more far-reaching than the military consequences. The majority of the Germans, shaken by the magnitude of this defeat, recognized the turning point of the war on the Eastern Front. Even the attempt by the German leadership to portray the sinking of the Sixth Army as a grandiose heroic epic and Joseph Goebbels’ proclamation of “Total War” on February 18, 1943 did not eliminate the doubts that arose about the final German victory.

Rather, immediately after the end of the fighting in Stalingrad, the year “1918” could be read in major German cities as a reminder of the German defeat in the First World War. The person of the commander-in-chief Paulus as a hesitant leader who does not oppose a senseless order from Hitler is also discussed. He survived the battle and later died in East Germany, which provided its own perspective on events.

Stalingrad was interpreted here as a place of inner reversal. The soldiers of the Wehrmacht questioned the regime in Berlin. Proof of this thesis is that the soldiers captured by the Soviets had already founded the “National Committee for a Free Germany” (NKFD) and the “Bund deutscher Officers” in 1943, which wanted to conceive a different Germany, to which the GDR always referred.

As a lesson from Stalingrad, the “seduced” German soldiers had the opportunity to turn away from “fascism and war” like the members of the League of German Officers – or to continue to remain in error. In state commemoration and in its campaigns against Western “remilitarization”, the GDR tried to give the impression that it had taken the first of these paths, while West Germany had taken the second.

In the Federal Republic, almost without exception, German soldiers were characterized as victims. The memory that was limited to the “Kessel” was logical in this respect: “Only here”, writes the historian Bernd Wegner in his book “Der Mythos Stalingrad”, “in the final act of the drama, the German soldier was a defender, not an attacker, he was a victim, not perpetrators”.

However, while Stalingrad was used in Nazi propaganda as a symbol of loyalty to “Führer and people” to the death, after 1945 it became a symbol of the alleged betrayal of the Nazi leadership to “the Germans”. Since the 1970s, parallel to the emergence of social history and the historical perspective “from below”, another image of the victim has become the focus of public memory: the emaciated, starving soldier in the Stalingrad pocket.

For the memory in the Soviet Union, the reference point was also the historical primal scene “Kessel”, as Oliver von Wrochem notes in his review of a small exhibition on the 60th anniversary of the battle. In the Soviet Union, Stalingrad was considered a symbol of unstoppable victory. Stalin’s Order 227 of July 28, 1942, which forbade any retreat under penalty of death and which killed tens of thousands of soldiers, was not made available to the Soviet public until the late 1980s.

During the Cold War until around 1970, the memory of Stalingrad also served as a warning to the outside world not to attack the Soviet Union. As a symbol of the invincibility of the Soviet Union, Stalingrad became the most important national memorial site after the reconstruction and the city’s renaming to Volgograd.

After the end of the Cold War, the event became a symbol of reconciliation between former enemies, a media event and an interchangeable code for war drama. The “cauldron” motif was ideal for this. In the meantime, after a phase of relaxation, the Cold War has again entered a hot phase, at the latest with the occupation of Crimea by Vladimir Putin’s Russia – and Stalingrad is once again being used by both sides as a myth for their own purposes.

The Russian ambassador in Berlin, Sergey Nechaev, for example, followed up when he now described the decision to supply Leopard tanks as “extremely dangerous”. “With the permission of the German government, tanks with German crosses will once again be sent to the Eastern Front, which will inevitably lead to the deaths of Russian soldiers, but also civilians.”

The head of the Wagner mercenary group, which is fighting Ukraine, sneers that “Stalingrad was more of a holiday” compared to what is now happening in Ukraine. And the leftist daily Junge Welt scoffs: “Even a leopard only gets as far as Stalingrad.”

The Russian author Wassili Grossmannn wrote what is possibly the most monumental historical novel about Stalingrad at over 1200 pages. Whoever reads him stumbles across completely different parallels: in one section the author reflects on Hitler’s personality and on the assessment of historical greatness.

At the end it says: “Crimes against humanity are committed by criminals, and they remain criminals even if their crimes are remembered historically. They are not heroes of history, they are executioners and imposters created by dark and blind forces. Historical heroes, truly historical figures, leaders of mankind, now and in the future, can only be those who realize freedom.”

Reinhard Meyer, deputy foreign director of the Neue Zürcher Zeitung, has this to say: “Anyone who reads such insights today, and of all things by a Russian author who grew up in the Ukraine, can feel encouraged in his hopes that the warmonger Putin will also leave his Ukraine Raid will not emerge victorious.”

The article “The capitulation of Stalingrad is 80 years old and Putin uses it coldly for himself” comes from WirtschaftsKurier.