Why Stalingrad Was the Bloodiest Battle of World War II (and Perhaps of All Time)
Since July 2012, the world has watched in horror as the once-beautiful and vibrant Syrian city of Aleppo has been transformed into a perpetual battlefield. Those killed in Aleppo, as well as throughout the rest of Syria during the civil war, are reported to be approximately three hundred thousand. During the U.S.-led war in Iraq from 2003–11, one study reported that 405,000 Iraqis were killed as a direct result of combat, and from 2001–15, an additional 91,991 people were killed due to war in Afghanistan, for a three-country total, over a fifteen-year period, of 796,991. As staggering as the death toll in these wars have been, it pales in comparison to what remains the world’s most barbaric city fight, the Battle of Stalingrad, in which an incomprehensible 1.9 million German and Soviet soldiers and civilians are estimated to have been killed in six months.
In June 1941 Hitler ordered a surprise invasion of the Soviet Union, and for most of the next year the German army routed the Soviet troops, capturing thousands of square kilometers of their country in the process. In August 1942 the German VI Army had pushed all the way to the banks of the Volga River, near the industrial heartland of the USSR. Once captured, the Nazis could sever the Volga, and potentially destroy Moscow’s ability to continue fighting. All they had to do was take one more city. Stalingrad.
The prewar population of Stalingrad was four hundred thousand. It was home to a key river port as well as numerous important war and civilian industries. Because the city bore the name of the leader of the USSR, Joseph Stalin, Hitler took particular interest in capturing the city as a personal hit on the Soviet leader. Stalin likewise placed great importance on holding the city to prevent Hitler from capturing the city carrying his name.
Though Stalingrad carried significant military importance, the psychological importance both leaders placed on the city elevated it to a level of importance above perhaps even the capital city of Moscow. The price both armies were willing to pay to possess it transcended military utility and entered fully into the category of obsession.
Initially the Germans made substantial and rapid progress in conquering the city. The Nazis attacked the city and its defenders with almost uncontested bombardment from the sky, tanks, artillery, mortars and other heavy weapons. By early September 1942 the Germans were still making progress, but the rate of advance had slowed considerably. As a result of the enormous bombardment, the city and its buildings had been pulverized into one giant heap of rubble. The Russians began to develop defensive tactics that took advantage of the wrecked buildings, which ironically gave them advantages.
Nevertheless, by November the relentless German assault had pushed the Soviet line almost all the way to the Volga River. Both sides had endured hundreds of thousands of casualties at this point, and the barbarity of the fighting on both sides of the line had transcended all bounds of human behavior. Right and wrong, morality, and honor among combatants had ceased to exist. The battle had literally descended into an animalistic struggle to survive.
The 2001 Hollywood movie Enemy at the Gates depicted a duel between a specific German and Russian sniper. Snipers had become one of the most feared opponents for both sides. Due to their ability to fire from long ranges, soldiers never felt they were safe and often were shot even in areas they thought to be secure.
One particular Russian sniper, Anatoly Chechov, said of the time he took his first human life. “I felt terrible. I had killed a human being.” But after time and the knowledge of how German troops had killed many of his countrymen, Chechov said when interviewed during the battle, “I started to mercilessly fire on them. I've become a barbaric person, I kill them. I hate them.” To give just a glimpse into the hell of the world that was the battle of Stalingrad, consider these few stories from both countries’ perspectives.