Honour Stalingrad, not Stalinism

February 2, 2013 at 9:15 am (anti-fascism, fascism, hell, history, Jim D, Russia, stalinism, USSR, war)

Adapted by JD from an article on the Workers Liberty website

For the next few days at least, the Russian city called Volgograd since 1961 will revert to its previous name: Stalingrad. Today is the 70th anniversary of the Red Army’s final victory over the German invaders, after a battle that had raged for six cruel winter months at the cost of nearly 2 million lives.

In London, a lavish “Victory at Stalingrad 70th Anniversary Night” is being organised by Philosophy Football (an enterprise run by former Communist Party activist Mark Perryman) and the Hope Not Hate anti-fascist group.

The keynote speaker will be Seumas Milne, associate editor of the Guardian and unreconstructed Stalinist hack (and cheer-leader for Islamist fascism -JD).

Stalingrad, between August 1942 and February 1943, was a turning point of World War Two. So were some British victories in North Africa, and US victories in the Pacific, around the same period.

More than those other victories, Stalingrad is still used to cast credit on the political leaders of the winning side, in particular Joseph Stalin himself and his marshal Georgi Zhukov.

At the time, as Antony Beevor reports in his book Stalingrad (by far the best popular account) : “The triumph of the Red Army boosted the status of the [Communist] Party member and attracted fellow-travellers in droves. Even conservatives could not avoid praising the heroism of the Red Army. In Britain, King George VI commissioned a Sword of Stalingrad to be forged for presentation to the city”.

The Trotskyists of the Workers’ Party USA wrote (Labor Action, 1 February 1943): “Many minds have lost their balance and many eyes have acquired an unusual degree of starriness as a result of the recent Russian military victories. People who had clearly seen, or had begun to see, the tyrannical and anti-labour character of the Stalin regime… are now allowing themselves to be hypnotised into passive acceptance of the Stalinist dictatorship, because the Russian soldiers fight with ability and heroism…

“It is not the Russian soldiers alone who have displayed heroism and enthusiasm. It is a depressing fact, but a fact nevertheless, that on many occasions the German soldiers have displayed the same qualities. And the Greeks, and the British, and the Americans, and many others. Yet who would dare say that the countries for which all those soldiers fight have engaged in just and progressive wars?…

“Because the Russian soldiers fight well, does that in any way change the fact that Stalin is one of the bloodiest dictators of modern history, that he is the grave-digger of the Russian Revolution and the aborter of many other revolutions? Does that change the fact that he is the murderer of the Old Bolsheviks… that he has enslaved the Russian workers, that he has deprived them of every possible liberty and democratic right?”

As Beevor states: “The newspaper reports which claimed that frontoviki (rank and file Russian soldiers) eagerly discussed the heroic leadership of Comrade Stalin in their trenches, and went into the attack with the battle cry ‘Za Stalina!’ (‘For Stalin’) were pure propaganda. Yury Belash, a soldier poet, once wrote a verse:

“To be honest about it —

in the trenches the last thing we thought about

was Stalin”.

Until later, maybe. The Russian command’s enforcement was brutal — it executed about 13,500 troops during the battle, for indiscipline — but at the height the soldiers’ life expectancy was so low, and their acceptance that they had to fight the anti-Slav racist Nazi-commanded army so full, that many reckoned they had little to lose.

“For a young Soviet citizen [newly conscripted to Stalingrad]. the most shocking experience was… the frank speaking of frontoviki on political subjects. Many expressed themselves in a way that prompted new arrivals to glance over their shoulders in alarm. They declared that life after the war should be different. The terrible existence for those who worked on collective farms and in factories must be improved, and the privileges of the nomenklatura restricted” (Beevor, p.288).

The Stalingrad victory, however, helped Stalin stabilise his regime, and soon to extend its model to the countries of Eastern Europe which came under the control of the Russian army as it pushed the German army into retreat.

The desperate courage and unimaginable sacrifices of Soviet soldiers and civilians in this terrible battle deserve to be remembered and honoured. But it would be an obscenity to use their momory to attempt to rehabilitate the prestige of Stalin – the brutal tyrant whose incompetence, complacency and alliance with Hitler between August 1939 and the invasion itself, came close to handing victory to the Nazis. As Nikolai Levichev of the left-liberal Just Russia party told the Guardian, Russia won the battle “despite rather than thanks to”  the leadership of Stalin, whose errors multiplied the Soviet losses.

14 Comments

  1. runia said,

    I wasn’t sure if this or the Trotsky on the Nazis place was best, but Trotsky had a good line on brutal ‘discipline’ in the Red Army too:
    “An army cannot be built without reprisals. Masses of men cannot be led to death unless the army-command has the death-penalty in its arsenal. So long as those malicious tailless apes that are so proud of their technical achievements – the animals that we call men – will build armies and wage wars, the command will always be obliged to place the soldiers between the possible death in the front and the inevitable one in the rear.”

  2. Mark P said,

    Thanks for the plug, and the name check. With almost all tickets sold we predict a sell-out (arf! arf!) last few available on the door.

    As for Stalinism. Tonight we make a simple distinction. By bearing witness to the heroism and sacrifice of the victors of Stalingrad we do so in the cause of humanity and anti-fascism. We do not seek to endores the Soviet regime of the era, we believe our audience wll be fully capable of coming to their own conclusions. This site has a particular view of Seumas Milne, however you don’t mention that Seumas is joined by Military Historian Geofrey Roberts and Ediror of OpenDemocracy Russia, Susan Richards to discuss Stalingrad’s legacy. With Clare Solomon now also joining the panel this is a distinctly pluralist discussion with a wide variety of viewpoints.

    Tonight will be both plural and also with some great music. If you can get a ticket you;re welcome to join us.

    • Jim Denham said,

      Despite my views on Mr Milne, I wish the event well, Mark, and hope everyone has a great time. If I lived in London I’d be there (and not just to denounce Milne).

      Feel free to send us a report.

  3. Roger McCarthy (@RF_McCarthy) said,

    It was the presence of Milne that stopped me from attending the Philosophy Football event (and for that matter the last CLPD AGM) – sadly he really does get everywhere.

    But didn’t the Workers Party USA maintain the Revolutionary Defeatist line even after 22 June 1941? – in which case pretty much everything they had to say about the war was bollocks (and even the passage you quote rather smacks of the lazy relativisation of which Milne is the master)

  4. Jim Denham said,

    Prof Norm:
    Posted by Norm at 03:14 PM | Permalink

    The Battle of Stalingrad still

    Here’s an item on the ways and byways of symbolic meaning:

    The city of Volgograd will be temporarily renamed Stalingrad to commemorate the Soviet Union’s victory in the bloody 1943 battle that broke the power of the Nazi invasion, thanks to a decision passed by the city administration.

    The famous city on the Volga River is this year marking the 70th anniversary of the end of the definitive World War II battle of Stalingrad. Celebrations on Thursday included a re-enactment of the moment when General von Paulus, who commanded the German forces, emerged from his bunker to surrender.

    Volgograd will now be referred to as Stalingrad at official events on Feb. 2, the day on which the last of the Axis forces surrendered; on May 9, Victory Day; on June 22, Day of Mourning and Memory; Sept. 2, marking the end of World War II; on Aug. 23, which commemorates those killed in Nazi bombing raids in Stalingrad; and Nov. 19, the start of Operation Uranus, during which the Nazis in the city were encircled, according to a statement posted on the Volgograd City Duma’s website Wednesday.

    Known as Tsaritsyn under the tsars, the city was re-named Stalingrad in 1925. It was changed again, to Volgograd, in 1961, eight years after Stalin’s death.

    The column from The Moscow Times goes on to say that the decision to revert to the name ‘Stalingrad’ for these commemorative purposes was taken in response to pressure from veterans. It seems right to me. To go on calling the city by that name would be to continue to honour a man responsible for the most terrible crimes and sufferings. But to those who fought in it as well as others, the battle will forever be the Battle of Stalingrad. This honours, not Stalin, but all those who died in contributing decisively in that place to the defeat of Nazism. (Via.)

  5. Jimmy Glesga said,

    The British Merchant and Royal Navy should merit some mention.

  6. Mark P said,

    Thanks Mr Denham. Most generous. In due course rather than a report there woll be a fil, woll send you the details to link to. You can then always fast-forward through the bits you find politically disagreeable.

    Mark P

    PS Comrades will be pleased to hear that we did indeed sell out.

  7. Mark P said,

    Whoops. That should of course read in there will be a film.

    Mark P

  8. Jim Denham said,

    Thanks Mark. I look forward to the film. And I’ll resist the temptation to make a joke about the “sell out.”

  9. Mark P said,

    Don’t worry I’ve been selling out for decades now.

    Tho back in the late 1980s I can rember doing a debate in ‘New Times’ at an AWL summer school with fellow fresh-faced revolutionary Alan Johnson. Whatever happened to him?

    Mark P

  10. Jim Denham said,

    He’s an academic and neo-Con involved in some foreign policy think tank possibly connected to the Henry Jackson Society, as far as I’m aware.

  11. Mark P said,

    Point made. Pleny more of those I was arguing with in that era and being denounced for my troubles as a right-wing class collaborator have exited stage Right. I’ve found myself shifting leftwards, especially after 1997. Theres more fluidity, in both directions, than many of those who’ve remained in the same organisation for the duration often give credit.

    Mark P

  12. Malte Brigge said,

    Beevor’s book is full generalisations based on anectdotes and is not respected by those who are serious reseachers of Operation Barbarosa. John Erikson’s The Road to Stalingrad and The Road to Berlin are the definitive studies that deal with strategic, economic as well as military considerations. Beevor is a British apologist and Kershaw is not much better. Omer Bartov has some interesting ideas but lacks the strategic overview that Erikson employs. If you are prepared to quote Beevor with any confidence then I am highly dubious of your understanding of that whole theatre of the war.

  13. Mark P said,

    I’m not enough of an expert on Stalingrad to pass judgement on Anthony Beevor’s book on the battle. The point I was making is a wider one tho’. Its publication in 1998 and its huge success as a bestseller opened up the possibilities of a broader popular understanding of the role of the Eastern Front in WW2. This was scarecely possible during the Cold War years and this was therefore vital. To some extent the post 9/11 ‘War on Terror’, the militarisation of English national culture, the casual slippage between WW1, WW2, Iraq and Afghanistan to treat them all the same in terms of causes and sacrifice has reversed this. Thats why marking Stalingrad, recognising its role as an epic event in a war against Fascism, remains vital.

    Mark P

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