At the outbreak of World War II in September 1939, the German Reich and the Soviet Union had a mutual agreement to divide the conquered Poland between them. The agreement was officially entitled the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, allowing both the Germans and the Soviets to claim whatever European lands they invaded as long as they did not go into conflict against each other. By July 1940, the mutual agreement was slowly disintegrating, as Adolf Hitler himself announced his desire for Germany to conquer Ukraine, Byelorussia (modern-day Belarus), and the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Joachim von Ribbentrop – the German Minister of Foreign Affairs – invited Soviet representatives to discuss the possibility of the latter joining the Axis powers through the Tripartite Pact. After the Soviets’ desire for land concessions from Finland, Bulgaria, Turkey, and Japan were rejected, Hitler ordered his military leaders to begin preparations for an eastbound invasion. On Sunday June 22, 1941, Operation Barbarossa saw a massive invading army from across the Axis powers in Europe invade the Soviet Union. Over the next six months, over 3.8 million German, Romanian, Finlandian, Italian, Hungarian, and Slovakian soldiers would be sent to battle, officially opening the Eastern Front in World War II. The Germans had both strategic and ideological goals in their invasion. On a strategic level, a successful invasion would grant the Axis powers access to the agricultural holdings of the vast Soviet territories, and more importantly the oil reserves in the Caucasus region between the Black and Caspian Seas. Ideologically, the Germans sought to implement the Generalplan Ost, which if enacted would have the conquered peoples in the Soviet Union used as forced labor for the war effort, culminating in the creation of more lebensraum (living space) for the German people via the deportation and genocide of the Slavic peoples. Although the Axis powers made significant advances into Soviet territory, the German offensive was halted during the Battle of Moscow in October 1941. Three months later with almost 1.6 million casualties shared between both opposing forces, the Soviets successfully pushed the Axis powers out of Moscow and launched their own counter-offensives throughout the winter season. Both the German-led Axis powers and the Soviets enjoyed victories and suffered defeats across the Eastern Front in 1942, but the most pivotal of the year’s battles would take place in a city that would see the tide of the war in Europe permanently change: Stalingrad.
The city of Stalingrad was a vital strategic position for both the defending Soviets and the invading Axis powers. Seated on the Volga River, the city had direct waterway access to the Caucasus and its vast oil fields. The Caucasus was within Soviet territory and was vital for their war effort, while the Germans were running low on fuel supplies after three years of fighting. Determined to secure access to the Volga River, the Germans deployed the entire 6th Army and parts of the 4th Panzer Army to Stalingrad in August 1942. After a preceding bombing campaign by the Luftwaffe, the majority of Stalingrad was reduced to rubble. Accompanied by additional Axis soldiers from Romania, Italy, Hungary, and Croatia, the invading Germans engaged the Soviets in large-scale urban warfare with infantry and vehicles. By the time the Germans pushed the Soviets back to the western banks of the Volga River, both sides had already suffered casualties numbering in the hundreds of thousands. In mid-November, generals Georgy Zhukov and Aleksandr Vasilevsky initiated Operation Uranus, a large-scale ground offensive that would have several Soviet infantry, tank, and cavalry forces surround the German 6th Army in Stalingrad. The exterior defensive lines of the Germans in Stalingrad were largely composed of inexperienced, ill-equipped Hungarian and Romanian soldiers, posing little threat to the Soviets. Meanwhile, the Axis infantry in Stalingrad did not make sufficient preparations to reinforce strongpoints behind the frontlines, resulting in an unstable and inconsistent response to the sudden Soviet attacks. Above all else, the freezing temperatures of the Russian winter left Stalingrad under constant snowfall, worsening conditions for the infantry forces on the ground, and rendering Axis air support effectively inoperable. After a pair of Soviet field armies linked up at the town of Kalach on November 23, the entirety of Stalingrad was locked from the outside, trapping the remaining German, Romanian, Italian, and Croatian forces. Over the next three months, the Soviets wore out the surrounded Axis forces in Stalingrad, all the while repelling any attempts by the Germans to resupply their forces through aerial drops and incursions from beyond the city. In a decision that many historians have since interpreted as the elimination of the Axis hope for victory, Adolf Hitler took the advice of Field Marshal Erich von Manstein to not order the trapped Axis forces to attempt a breakout, opting rather for an outside breakthrough and a supply airlift. 700 tons of supplies was required on a daily basis to supply the remaining 270,000 Axis forces in Stalingrad, and the demands of the war effort had the officers prioritize fuel and ammunition over food. In addition to many German planes being shot down by Soviet anti-aircraft weaponry, the lack of new food slowly starved the Axis forces across the city. As the fighting continued for the next three months, the Axis military leaders chose to have their surrounded forces fight for as long as they could in Stalingrad, so that they could focus on repelling new Soviet offensives across the region. Several German field officers attempted to communicate with the high command in Berlin – including Hitler himself – warning them of an incoming defeat in Stalingrad. The responses predominantly demanded that the men in the field keep fighting against the odds, as even total annihilation was considered more acceptable to the German High Command than surrendering. Smaller pockets of Axis forces began to surrender to the Soviets, culminating with a complete city-wide surrender on February 2, 1943. With the surrender of 91,000 remaining Axis soldiers, the Soviets had won the Battle of Stalingrad.
The immediate and long-term effects of the Battle of Stalingrad were significant for both the Axis powers and the Soviet Union. While the specific figures are still disputed among historians, it is known that over two million people – Soviet and Axis – were either killed, wounded, captured, or missing after five months of fighting. The millions who were deployed to Stalingrad and the surrounding area made this the largest battle ever fought in World War II, as well as the deadliest in the history of modern warfare. In Germany, the defeat was first announced via radio on January 31, preceded by an orchestral performance of the Adagio movement from Bruckner’s Symphony No. 7. Joseph Goebbels – the Minister of Propaganda – gave his Sportpalast speech, where he called for the German public to accept the possibility of a total war that would require the effort and sacrifice of the entire population. Hitler was supposed to give a public address on January 30, as it was the ten-year anniversary of his rise to political power. Instead, a pre-written speech was read out by Goebbels over the radio, and implied that the Germans were no longer on the offensive, but rather on the defensive, indicating a tonal shift in optimism for the war’s outcome. Meanwhile for the Soviets, the victory fueled a major surge in morale and support for the war effort. Other Allied nations who believed that the Soviets would not be able to withstand the rapid invasion changed their perspectives accordingly, and in so doing renewed hope that the Axis powers could be pushed back in Europe. Stalin’s leadership of the Soviet Union was reaffirmed with the victory, and individual soldiers such as Vasily Zaitsev were awarded the Hero of the Soviet Union, the highest medal of distinction that the country could ever give. The Axis defeat in Stalingrad also gave way to mockery of the German Reich’s assertions of being the champions of a “master race” of unstoppable soldiers, as a popular Soviet catchphrase boasted that one “cannot stop an army which has done Stalingrad.” As the Battle of Stalingrad began in 1942 – and took place around the same time as Operation Torch in North Africa and Operation Watchtower on Guadalcanal in the Pacific Ocean – these battles highlighted the year 1942 as the definitive turning point for the Allies’ favor in the war. From 1942 onward – owned in part to the inter-Allied victories of the year – the Axis powers who had once appeared to be an unstoppable force were driven into fighting on the defensive, with the three remaining years of World War II increasingly foreseeing the likelihood of Allied victory.
After three more years of intensified fighting, pivotal Allied victories, and critical Axis defeats, Germany’s capital city of Berlin was captured by the Soviet Union, forcing their formal surrender to the Allied forces in May 1945. The first and only two atomic bombings in warfare – that being against the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki – forced the Empire of Japan to surrender that same year four months later, marking the end of World War II. By the time the war was over, between 70 to 85 million people were dead, of which 50 to 55 million were civilian men, women, and children from across the world. In addition to the heavy casualties sustained in battle by both the Allies and the Axis, attacks on civilian targets, famine, disease, genocide, and other calamities had raised the number of civilian deaths to heights yet-unseen in the history of warfare. As the world began the long-term process of recovery, the victorious Allies implemented their wartime plans to create an international alliance with the stated goal of promoting global cooperation and diplomacy, so as to prevent such a devastating conflict from happening again. These efforts culminated in the creation of the United Nations, as it formally commenced its operations in October 1945. The many geopolitical, industrial, and scientific advancements that had taken place throughout the war placed both the United States and the Soviet Union as the two foremost powers of the world. In spite of their wartime alliance – as well as both countries being co-founders of the United Nations – the United States and the Soviet Union quickly gave way to rivalry against one another. For the next forty-six years, the Soviet Union and the United States would be engaged in a series of diplomatic, economic, and indirect military conflicts in the era of world history known as the Cold War. This new era of history was directly influenced by the circumstances of World War II, as the legacy of the global conflict could be felt from the United Nations’ commencement in 1945 to the Soviet Union’s dissolution in 1991.
Written by Nicholas J. Dilley, Ronald Reagan Presidential Library & Museum