News of the crushing Soviet victory at Stalingrad in February 1943 over the Third Reich and its satellite states struck the rest of Europe, indeed the globe, like a thunderbolt. If Adolf Hitler and his Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, dreaded what reports of the destruction of the German 6th Army might do to morale inside Germany, members of anti-Nazi groups on both sides of the Atlantic drew comfort from the success of the Red Army. For those involved in resistance activity, “Stalingrad” became a word loaded with inspiration, defiance, and determination.
Several decades after Field Marshal Friedrich Paulus’s surrender at Stalingrad, it is not at all uncommon to read emphatic characterizations of the battle by historians. Jochen Hellbeck, for one, is not reluctant at all to describe the Battle of Stalingrad, with its death toll surpassing 1,000,000, as the “most ferocious and lethal battle in human history,” and he subtitles his outstanding book on the subject “the city that defeated the Third Reich.”[i] More modestly, Richard Overy, in his recent and magisterial Blood and Ruins, says this about the historical salience of Stalingrad: “the contests at Guadalcanal and El Alamein were important turning points in both theaters, but they were dwarfed by the gigantic conflict that emerged from the German effort to cut the Volga and to capture Soviet oil.” Stalingrad, Overy summarizes, was a “remarkable victory, grandiose beside more modest successes on Guadalcanal and at El Alamein.”[ii] Despite all the classic adages about the advantages of hindsight, people at the time understood perfectly well what the titanic struggle over the city bearing Joseph Stalin’s name meant for the course of World War II.
Saul Friedländer reminds us of this fact, writing, “the battle for the city soon became, in the eyes of millions the world over, a portent of ultimate victory or defeat.”[iii] As Hellbeck and Overy point out, newspapers in both Allied and Axis countries covered the combat extensively. For example, as fighting at Stalingrad entered its second month the New York Times published this comment on September 14, 1942: “Whether Stalingrad stands or falls, its desperate defense must have a profound effect on the development of the war. If the Russians accomplish a miracle and hold out, the event could mark the turning of the tide not only in Russia but all over the world. If the city falls, the war will certainly be prolonged, though the cost of a delayed victory will be felt by Germany in all her future campaigns.”[iv] Men, women, and children who comprised the resistance did not need the mainstream press to instill awareness of how much was at stake in the battle. They knew how much hinged on Stalin besting Hitler in the city on the Volga.
Reactions from resistance groups to the reports of the German surrender came swiftly. “Devastated, our nation stands before the downfall of the men of Stalingrad,” opened the sixth—and final—pamphlet produced by the White Rose group in Munich. Largely authored in early Feburary 1943 by philosophy and music professor, Kurt Huber, the pamphlet denounced “the world-war lance corporal’s [Hitler’s] ingenious strategy,” which “has driven 330,000 German men to their death and destruction without reason or responsibility. Führer, we thank you!” Contempt, mixed with mockery, ran throughout the text. It closed with the warning that “the dead of Stalingrad beseech us” and the ultra-brazen prediction that “Our nation is on the verge of rising up against the enslavement of Europe through National Socialism, in the new, devout breakthrough of freedom and honor!”[v] If only that had been true. Just as Huber, Sophie and Hans Scholl, Alexander Schmorell, Willi Graf, Christoph Probst, Traute Lafrenz, and others in the White Rose’s network felt emboldened to expand their leafletting and to scrawl anti-Hitler graffiti in Munich, the Gestapo closed in on them. A mere three weeks after the Nazi dictatorship admitted to the German public the 6th Army’s surrender at Stalingrad, leading members of the White Rose were arrested, quickly tried by a People’s Court led by the repellent Roland Freisler, and beheaded.
Workers in Italy, the first country brought under the heel of fascism, seized the moment and decided to act in the weeks after Stalingrad. In Turin, in the area of northwestern Italy known as the Piedmont, workers at FIAT’s Mirafiori factory laid down their tools at 10am on the morning of March 6 and streamed out of the plant. Turin had a long history of proletarian militancy dating back to the end of World War I and the early 1920s, when Marxists, like the famed Antonio Gramsci, lived there. This was a heritage Benito Mussolini, once a member of the Socialist Party in Italy, surely knew. David Broder, whose research has uncovered so much vital material about the role of the Italian Left in the downfall of Fascism, taps the Communist lore that credited Leo Lanfranco, a technician and member of the Communist Party of Italy, as the first to halt work on March 6.[vi]
Over the next two weeks, the strike spread to railways and other factories. After ordering the arrest of more than 800 workers to suppress it, Mussolini fretted over what the strike portended. He raised to his subordinates accounts of workers proclaiming the imminent arrival of“Buffone” (the Big Moustache), a nickname for Joseph Stalin, on Italian soil. However unrealistic such bravado was, it revealed a reborn boldness in leftist elements in Italy’s working class. Claudio Pavone, a onetime member of the Italian resistance who later became one of its chief historians, showed how Stalingrad both inspired and incited a desire for revenge in underground, anti-Fascist networks. He quoted assertions like this one: “We want to avenge those who fell in Russia. Our oath says: ‘For every Italian who died in Russia, ten Fascists and ten Germans are to be done in.’”[vii] That year, mass resentment against the Mussolini dictatorship burgeoned into outright mass resistance.
After Stalingrad, Robert Gildea contends, Charles de Gaulle, leader of Free French forces, no longer doubted that Germany would be defeated. Since Hitler’s downfall was now a matter of time, he threw his energies into plans for holding onto France’s overseas empire.[viii] In his memoirs, de Gaulle recounted his trip to the Soviet Union in November-December 1944. Having requested a visit to Stalingrad and, consequently, received tours of the battlefield and factories in operation, de Gaulle bequeathed to the city, still in ruins, a sword of honor. It is quite revealing that he called Stalingrad “the war’s decisive victory.”[ix]
Even those in the French resistance with politics diametrically opposed to de Gaulle’s conservatism and imperialism did not differ with him with respect to the new optimism unleashed by the victory at Stalingrad. Jean-Paul Sartre, who after his release from a German prisoner-of-war camp in March 1941, devoted much of his time to systematizing his Existentialist philosophy of human freedom, a philosophy deeply antithetical to Nazism and all forms of fascism, shared de Gaulle’s sense of certainty. In the 1961 essay about his longtime friend, the philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Sartre recalled that “after Stalingrad we felt assured” of the “future German defeat.”[x] Spread of the news about Stalingrad definitely contributed to the increasing role the Communist Party of France (PCF), led by Maurice Thorez, would play in the National Council of the Resistance. The Council was founded three months after the battle’s conclusion, largely through the efforts of the indefatigable Jean Moulin. A group of Communists insisted on a thorough purge of officials who collaborated with the Nazis and called for a “people’s army, a modern, passionate army on the model of the Sambre-et-Meuse, Valmy, 1793, the Marne, Bir-Hakeim, and Stalingrad.” Stalingrad was, tellingly, the sole non-French example![xi] Communists and non-Communist resistance fighters burned in 1943 to more openly confront the German occupiers and the collaborationist regime headquartered in Vichy. Nazi demands for foreign workers to come to Germany and toil in war industries fueled that already raging fire.
In the Netherlands, the resistance had been decimated by informers and relentless repression under the reprehensible Reich Commissar Arthur Seyss-Inquart. Figures from the Dutch far Left, like Henk Sneevliet and Willem Kraan, had been apprehended and executed by the Nazis in 1942. Nonetheless, information about the Soviet triumph did galvanize opposition. Moreover, the Nazi turn to total war after Stalingrad meant heightened demands for Dutch workers for the German war economy.[xii] In April and May 1943, more than 500,000 participated in a strike against the conscription of workers by Fritz Sauckel, the Third Reich’s Plenipotentiary General for the Deployment of Labor. It started in the countryside and featured, quite remarkably a suspension of deliveries of milk. Though reprisals were typically vicious (95 killed and more than 300 wounded), the strike helped rekindle a spirit of subversion in the Netherlands.
Scandinavia did not stand outside this dynamic of inspiration and intransigence generated by the Red Army’s demolition of the Germans at Stalingrad. For instance, in Denmark, Stalingrad provided new impetus for individuals to more directly resist. The policies of the Erik Scavenius government and King Christian X, designed to maintain good relations between Copenhagen and Berlin, coupled with the charm offensive launched by Reich Plenipotentiary Werner Best to encourage docility from the Danes, frustrated the British and Americans. The latter were themselves divided about whether to push for greater opposition in Denmark. Stalingrad helped to change that. As Olivier Wieviorka documents, “after the Battle of Stalingrad, the defeat of the Reich appeared on the horizon, and Copenhagen undoubtedly realized the need to abandon the pro-German line Erik Scavenius was following.”[xiii] Attacks by Danish resisters almost doubled from January (24) to June 1943 (47). There had been 59 altogether in 1942. The Communists preferred acts of sabotage. Such actions against railway networks, factories, and ships multiplied in 1943-44. Denmark’s working class wielded its own blows against German dominance in the country, with a strike movement leading to a tenth of the population (390,000 people) refusing to work. Ultimately, this new unruliness in Denmark engendered a direct confrontation with Best and the German military in the summer of 1943.
The Red Army’s routing of the Germans on the Volga River had been one of the signs for Communist-led partisan movements in Yugoslavia and Greece of a momentous shift in fortunes. In both countries, German and Italian occupation policies had caused enormous anger. The Yugoslav case had been exacerbated by a fascist regime in Croatia, Ante Pavelić’s Ustaša, which had embarked on its own genocidal program against Serbs, Jews, and Roma. Milovan Djilas, who worked very closely with Josip Broz Tito, remembered, “the Germans had surrendered at Stalingrad, and the Russians continued to advance. In the flaming circle which was tightening around us, we recognized that event as very important.”[xiv] The “flaming circle” referred to the new onslaught unleashed against Tito’s National Liberation Army by Hitler in early 1943. The National Liberation Army would weather that maelstrom and emerge even stronger. Djilas and Tito’s counterparts in Greece underwent a similar realization about the Battle of Stalingrad. In Athens in fact, a neighborhood proudly supporting the EAM, the National Liberation Front (the most powerful party represented in it was the Communist Party of Greece, the KKE), became known as “Little Stalingrad.”
Even for those facing the darkest circumstances, like the Jews of the Warsaw and Lvov Ghettos, the name “Stalingrad” possessed great power. Samuel Kassow notes how the story of the German defeat seeped into the Warsaw Ghetto, offering hope to Emanuel Ringelbum, the organizer of the Oyneg Shabes Archive, and comrades of his, such as Israel Lichtenstein, Israel’s wife, Gele Sekstein, and their daughter, Margalit. Their efforts to preserve the history of the Ghetto, shadowed by Heinrich Himmler’s plans to murder the last of its inhabitants and the readiness of the Jewish Combat Organization to rise up against the Nazis, now entered a new phase with Ringelblum preparing to escape the Ghetto and find refuge in the “Aryan” section of Warsaw. To be sure, he and the team behind the Oyneg Shabes Archive, much less those who would follow Mordecai Anielewicz and Marek Edelman into battle during the uprising of April-May 1943, did not require news from elsewhere to buttress their resolve. The physical and historical survival of the Jewish people was at stake. Jewish fighters had already resisted the SS during the January 1943 deportation to Treblinka. Still, Stalingrad, along with the Allied victory at El Alamein, showed that Nazi Germany was vulnerable. If, as Kassow expresses it, the hopes generated by these victories were “fleeting,” they were also quite real.[xv]
Jews from the Lvov Ghetto also received word around February 2 about Stalingrad. For the group of about twenty hiding in Lvov’s sewers, such as Leopold Socha, Stefan Wrobleski, and Halina Wind, this was truly a reason to celebrate. Wrobleski and Socha distributed vodka and toasted the surrender of the German 6th Army. According to Martin Gilbert, of the 21 Jews hidden in the sewers, 10 would hold out and be liberated by the Soviets a year later.[xvi]
Magnified by the victory at El Alamein over the Germans and Italians and the American seizure of Guadalcanal from the Japanese, the Battle of Stalingrad dramatically altered the perception and reality of the balance of forces in World War II. Even if the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics’ contribution to the defeat of Hitler is still not sufficiently appreciated in the United States, Stalingrad shattered the aura of invincibility surrounding Nazi Germany’s military. The Red Army’s achievement in 1942-43 signaled that it could not only withstand the mightiest of blows from the Germans but could inflict irreparable damage on the entire, monstrous Axis project of subjugating the Soviet peoples. This monumental success on the Russian battlefield stirred expectations among resistance fighters in country after country suffering under Nazi or collaborationist rule. Hundreds of thousands would eventually join the struggle against Hitler, contributing in myriad ways to fascism’s collapse in Europe.
[i] Jochen Hellbeck, Stalingrad: The City That Defeated the Third Reich, trans. Christopher Tauchen and Dominic Bonfiglio (New York: Public Affairs, 2015), 1.
[ii] The two quotations are from Richard Overy, Blood and Ruins: The Last Imperial War, 1931-1945 (New York: Viking, 2022), 258, 264.
[iii] Saul Friedländer, The Years of Extermination: Nazi Germany and the Jews, 1933-1945 (New York: HarperCollins, 2007), 401.
[iv] “Stalingrad,” The New York Times, September 14, 1942.
[v] This translation of the White Rose’s Sixth Leaflet is available at https://www.gdw-berlin.de/fileadmin/bilder/publikationen/begleitmaterialien/Faksimiles_PDFs_englisch/FS_15.6_ENGL_1.Aufl_RZ-web.pdf.
[vi] David Broder, “The Strike Against Fear,” Jacobin, March 5, 2018 (online edition).
[vii] Quoted in Claudio Pavone, A Civil War: A History of the Italian Resistance, trans. Peter Levy, with the assistance of David Broder, ed. Stanislao Pugliese (London: Verso, 2013), 104.
[viii] Robert Gildea, Fighters in the Shadows: A New History of the French Resistance (Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2015), 291. American involvement in the war had already raised de Gaulle’s hopes.
[ix] Charles de Gaulle, The Complete War Memoirs, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, Inc., 1998), 735.
[x] Jean-Paul Sartre, “Merleau-Ponty,” in We Have Only This Life to Live: Selected Essays of Jean-Paul Sartre, 1939-1975, eds. Ronald Aronson and Adrian van den Hoven (New York: New York Review Books, 2012), 315.
[xi] Quoted in Gildea, Fighters in the Shadows, 282.
[xii] See Olivier Wieviorka, The Resistance in Western Europe 1940-1945, trans. Jane Marie Todd (New York: Columbia University Press, 2019), 147.
[xiii] Wieviorka, The Resistance in Western Europe 1940-1945, 238.
[xiv] Milovan Djilas, Wartime, trans. Michael Petrovich (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1977), 219.
[xv] This material is taken from Samuel Kassow, Who Will Write Our History? Emanuel Ringelblum, the Warsaw Ghetto, and the Oyneg Shabes Archive (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2018), 5, 359.
[xvi] I take this information from Martin Gilbert, The Holocaust: A History of the Jews of Europe during the Second World War (New York: Henry Holt & Company, 1985), 587-588.