Stalingrad, 80 Years Later: Amnesia and Folly

A Letter from Germany

A nation is “a large-scale solidarity,” Ernest Renan told his audience at the Sorbonne in March 1882. It is constituted by the feeling of past sacrifices and of those one is prepared to make in the future. A nation’s existence is “a daily plebiscite, just as an individual’s existence is a perpetual affirmation of life.”

The plebiscite manifestly failed in Germany last Thursday, Feb. 2, on the 80th anniversary of the end of the battle of Stalingrad. I can say that because I was there, in Germany, in the city of Constance, on the anniversary date.

On that same date in 1943, the depleted remnant of the German 6th army—up to 100,000 starving, freezing men—surrendered to the Russians. Initially almost 300,000 strong, that army had fought bitterly in and around Stalingrad for the preceding six months under General Friedrich Paulus. The Wehrmacht seemed to be on the verge of taking the city when the Red Army launched a massive late-fall counteroffensive, Operation Uranus. The Russians completed their encirclement of the German force on Nov. 23, 1942, but Hitler forbade it to retreat, sealing its fate for no rational reason. Barely 6,000 survivors, one in 50 of the initial roll call, returned home in 1955.

Stalingrad was the strategic and psychological turning point of the war and immediately recognized as such. This was the first time that an entire German field army, including its commander, surrendered to the enemy. It was the biggest military debacle known to history up to that point (only to be exceeded by the annihilation of the Wehrmacht’s Army Group Center during the Soviet Operation Bagration, June-August 1944).

But on this wintry anniversary day in 2023, in the city of Constance, as in the rest of Germany, not a soul seemed to remember or care about Stalingrad. There were no documentaries announced on national television networks. I searched in vain for a related column in the leading dailies. No university lectures or symposia were held and no memorial services given, neither Catholic nor Lutheran. Those few veterans who returned in 1955 are dead by now, their offspring silent. The chain of collective memory has been broken, without so much as a whimper.

Germany’s ARD public broadcasting network did have a report from the Rossoshka War Cemetery about the anniversary’s significance in Russia. The report was tinged with some crude propaganda du jour:

The atmosphere is oppressive. Although this place actually stands for peace and reconciliation, the present has caught up with history. War is back, despite all warnings never to allow it in Europe again … The 93-year-old Ninel Pirogova is now firmly convinced that Germany is now showing its true, fascist face … Tatyana Prikatschikova is also convinced that Russia is fighting the return of fascism in the neighboring country, against an aggressive, corrupt West. Of course war is terrible, emphasizes the press officer of the Stalingrad Battle Museum … But the question of Soledar or Mariupol, the reference to the present, irritates her.

At a somewhat loftier plane but in the same spirit, historian Habbo Knoch used the anniversary not to consider the significance of the event itself or to assess its effect on the German collective memory of the war but to argue that the consequences of “Stalingrad” as a propagandistic tool have a contemporary impact, “which is manifested not least by the war in Ukraine.” The anniversary of a major past event, which was ignored per se, has now been instrumentalized to justify current German policies and to give vent to the passions of its postmodern ruling class.

It is striking that Germany had nothing else to say, to itself or to others, about this day. “Not only does democracy make every man forget his ancestors,” de Tocqueville wrote in 1835, “but it hides his descendants and separates his contemporaries from him.” He had America in mind, young and vigorous back then; but his warning applies neatly to today’s Germany: tired and old, to be sure, but—worse still—indifferent to the ancestors rather than forgetful of them.

This is a sign of decrepitude. Knowing the past, as manifested in the memorialization of major events—both glorious and tragic ones—is essential for the life of a healthy national community, for the maintenance of its cohesiveness and a sense of purpose. Such intentional ritual reflects at the collective level what makes individuals of stable disposition keen to know the past, and to revisit that past. Such meditative activity speaks to our yearning for immortality through the transmission of our memory to posterity, which is so vulnerable to the apparent finality of death.

The memory of those who come after us is our only chance. Our story needs to become history, just as the stories of those who preceded us have become part of us. History is the precondition of destiny and the guardian of immortality. For a nation and an individual alike, memories must be cherished and retold to secure life itself. By that standard, Germany is dying.

There are many Stalingrad-related themes that can and should be revisited and developed on an occasion like this. The foundation exists, and the possibilities are many. Just weeks after the German surrender, Thomas Mann recorded a radio commentary that was broadcast to the Reich by the BBC. He addressed how the Nazi leadership reacted. Because they could not hide the extent of the disaster, they developed the narrative of a heroic last stand: the victims had not died in vain but consciously sacrificed themselves to save Germany. A Wagnerian finale indeed.

To wit, the Wehrmacht High Command reported in a sombre, almost sorrowful tone on Feb. 3, 1943, that

the last battle took place under the swastika flag, which was hoisted from afar on the highest ruins of Stalingrad. Generals, officers, non-commissioned officers and enlisted men fought shoulder to shoulder to the last bullet. The army’s sacrifice was not in vain. They died so that Germany could live.

Three days’ national mourning followed, with funeral bells ringing.

Goebbels’ diaries show that he soon realized that the news of Stalingrad could not be suppressed as before. As commander-in-chief, Hitler was not to be associated with the disaster. A few days before the end of Stalingrad, Hermann Göring paved the way, on the 10th anniversary of the Nazi power grab (Jan. 30, 1933), when he hailed the “Battle of the Nibelungs,” who quenched their thirst with their own blood, fighting to the end. “Such a battle is raging there today,” the reichsmarschall said, “because a people who can fight like this must win.” The German invaders of Stalingrad finally became its defenders against the Asiatic Russian hordes, immortalized through their heroic resistance.

But there was nothing heroic about the miserable deaths of thousands, then tens of thousands, and ultimately hundreds of thousands of young men who succumbed to hunger, cold, epidemics and the weapons of a superior enemy. Major Bernhard Bechler, commanding the 1st battalion of the 29th infantry regiment, which perished with the 3rd infantry division, recalled in 2000:

At home everyone thought that the Stalingrad heroes fought to the last bullet. But if the fathers, mothers and siblings had seen how their son or brother died … it had nothing to do with heroism at all. That was a senseless death, devoid of will of the one who died: starved, infested with lice, filthy, frozen to death, killed by the lice-transmitted typhus.

The sacrifice of those young men was pointless then, but its futility is heartrendingly sealed in our own time by its consignment to oblivion.

Willful amnesia ensures that past debacles will be repeated. A week before the Stalingrad anniversary, on Jan. 24, German foreign minister Annalena Baerbock declared that “we [the West] are fighting a war against Russia.” On the next day, the German government confirmed that it would send Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine. Russian tanks will fight German tanks, yet again, along the bend of the Dnieper River and on the approaches to the Crimea.

Those whom the gods wish to destroy they first make mad.

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