Pavlov’s House, a fortified apartment building during the Battle of Stalingrad: Volgograd, Russia

Setting Soviet history straight

Would Hitler and Stalin have fought so hard over a city named Tsaritsyn?

This article is taken from the November 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

The Lighthouse of Stalingrad: The Hidden Truth at the Centre of WWII’s Greatest Battle, Iain MacGregor (Constable, £25)

In the summer of 1942, with the German army deep inside the Soviet Union, Adolf Hitler launched Operation Blue, an attack from around Kharkiv in south-east Ukraine across hundreds of miles of steppe towards the oil fields of the Caucasus. Part of the plan required the German Sixth Army under General Paulus to secure the flank by seizing the industrial city of Stalingrad on the banks of the Volga. 

By the middle of September Paulus’s troops were fighting their way, street by street, building by building, and sometimes room by room, through a city reduced to ruins by artillery shelling and the bombs of the Luftwaffe. The fighting was ferocious. Although by November most of Stalingrad was in German hands, several pockets of resistance still held out. Meanwhile, the Red Army was secretly massing for a counter-attack in the open terrain on either side of the city. 

On 19 November 1942, General Zhukov unleashed a giant pincer attack which quickly overran the Romanian, Hungarian and Italian forces protecting Paulus’s flanks. Within days the German Sixth Army found itself trapped in a giant pocket, cut off from the rest of the German army. Here, in the depths of a Russian winter, nearly 300,000 surrounded men tried to hold out as their supplies of food, fuel, ammunition and medicine dwindled away. 

Stalingrad was not the biggest battle, nor the bloodiest

By the end of January 1943, all hope of relief was gone. To Hitler’s disgust, Paulus ordered the remnants of his army to lay down their weapons. Of the 91,000 German soldiers sent into captivity in Siberia, only 5,000 would survive to ever see their homes again. Immense and terrible as the battle was — we will never know exactly how many troops took part, nor how many died, but it is probable that the total of dead, wounded and captured on both sides reached two million — Stalingrad was not the biggest battle of the war, nor even the bloodiest. Nonetheless, it remains, alongside Dunkirk and D-Day, among the touchstones of the Second World War, largely because it encapsulates three linked but distinct stories. Iain MacGregor does a fine job of covering each in his rich study.

First, Stalingrad was one of the most important battles of the war. It marked the high-water mark of the Nazi invasion of the USSR and an end to Hitler’s genocidal dreams of destroying the Soviet Union. Before Stalingrad, and the other crushing defeats the Axis suffered at around the same time in Tunisia and the Solomon Islands, the initiative had always lain with Germany and Japan. Afterwards, the Allies decided where, when and how the war would be fought. 

MacGregor establishes this context neatly. He explains with just the right amount of detail why Operation Blue was launched and what it hoped to achieve. He offers a clear discussion of the decisions taken, and mistakes made, on both sides; and he hints at the logistical weaknesses that probably damned the Germans to disappointment from the start. 

The strongest point of this book, however, is its description of the street-fighting in the heart of the city around a building known as “Pavlov’s House” (codename Lighthouse: hence the title of the book). Here the German 71st and Soviet 13th Guards rifle divisions fought for months. By focusing on this small area and these two formations, MacGregor is able to dig deep enough into the tactical detail to give us a clear sense of the difficulty, violence and terror of urban warfare, without swamping us with repetitive detail. His descriptions of fighting have a cinematic quality, swooping smoothly from panoramic tracking shots of the initial German charge down towards the waters of the Volga into close-ups of bullet-riddled mannequins fought over in the ruins of a department store. 

Second, Macgregor’s approach opens up the human aspects of the battle. Drawing on newly uncovered private letters and memoirs, MacGregor breathes life into a few of the characters on both sides. One of his principals is the German colonel Fritz Roske. A few days before the final surrender, when Roske receives a radio message telling him that his wife has borne him a son, he seeks out a dark corner where, overwhelmed by his emotions and exhaustion, he can weep unseen. Juxtaposing the human with the horror in this way makes a much more sophisticated and effective point about the nature of war than mere litanies of atrocities can ever achieve. 

Third, there has always been a sense in which Stalingrad represented something larger than a city and a battle. The name itself conferred symbolic power. Would Hitler and Stalin have fought so hard over a city known as Tsaritsyn or Volgograd, the other names by which Stalingrad was known in the 20th century? Even whilst the battle was underway, Stalingrad was bigger than itself: it encapsulated rather the whole Eastern Front and served as a symbol of Soviet defiance, courage and, eventually, victory.

Once the lying starts in a dictatorship, it never stops

MacGregor’s book explores the development of this narrative and, in particular, the use of Pavlov’s House in Soviet propaganda to showcase the unity of the peoples of the USSR in defence of their home against the fascist invaders. He shows that there was a brave soldier named Pavlov, and that he did fight in the building that came to bear his name. He was not in charge, as the legend claims, however, and the building was a strongly fortified part of the Soviet defences in that sector, rather than a small band of heroes holding out against impossible odds. 

Pavlov was wounded in an ill-planned attack that should never have been made, and the fight for the building continued for months after Pavlov himself had been evacuated. Like all the most usable myths, there lurks a kernel of truth within, but the propaganda machine of the Soviet Union refined, embroidered and elaborated it beyond recognition. 

This is a very timely book. Urban warfare, as the fighting in Ukraine shows, is an increasingly important skill for modern militaries, and this book presents a case study that professional soldiers will need to read. For a wider audience, also, this book reminds us that history itself is a powerful weapon. When Putin evokes the supposed glories of the Soviet Union and its Great Patriotic War against the Nazis to mobilise Russia against Ukraine and the West, he is of course deliberately misinterpreting the past. 

MacGregor’s contribution is to remind us that, even if Putin were not wilfully distorting history, the version of the past he is relying on is itself based on lies. Once the lying starts, especially in a dictatorship, it never stops. Anyone with an interest in Russia, the Second World War or the history of warfare, will want to read The Lighthouse of Stalingrad. It is the best and richest book yet written about the battle for Stalingrad and what it means today.

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