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H-Museum - Stalingrad / Volgograd 1943 / 2003

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Stalingrad / Volgograd 1943 / 2003

Memory - Remembrance



by Wigbert Benz, Germany

While the fighting at the battle of Stalingrad in 1942/43 itself, the facts of which and the military-strategic consequences appear to have been to a great extent explored in relevant studies by German and Russian historians, [1] the different forms of commemorating the war in East and West only gradually lead to a process of mutual understanding.

Hitler’s “Unternehmen Barbarossa” cost the former Soviet Union more than 20 million lives. Stalingrad itself caused the death of more than 250.000 German soldiers; the human sacrifice of the Soviet Union is estimated at half a million. This incomprehensibly great number of destroyed life-histories with its devastation in the individual memories of millions of relatives, the trauma of the German attack, the appalling devastation by the Wehrmacht were not able to develop a strong Soviet identity in accordance with the wishes of the rulers of the state. They relied upon the final triumph: the defeat of Fascism. Heroic commemorating instead of painful and paralyzing remembrance of the victims should enable the state to act internally as well as externally. Stalingrad as a place of remembrance represents the core of this heroic remembrance: a heroic memorial complex, one kilometer long, and crowned by a 90 meter-tall statue of Mother Homeland. 438 objects of remembrance, i. e. plaques, obelisks, mass graves, and moments, were counted by Sabine Arnold when carrying out research for her doctoral thesis. [2] The combination of hero worship and Stalin worship was followed after Stalin’s death by a mass heroism: a veritable flood of publications built up ordinary men and women into heroes, be it heroic female gunners, heroic female medical orderlies etc. “At some point in time”, writes Michael Jeismann, “it (=Stalingrad) was something mainly for the metal plate wallpapers of medals on the breasts of Russian heroic veterans.” It was only Gorbachev’s Perestroijka that opened the eyes to a (self-)critical reflection, [3] which however until today appears to be broken in many ways, e. g. in the instrumentation of the old cult of heroic commemorating for the war against Afghanistan. Here the gap between the official heroic statements and the stories of the soldiers who returned from the war opens wide. Until today the traumatic experiences with their split into collective and individual remembrance weigh heavily on the different generations of post-Soviet society.

In view of the total defeat in 1945 the myth created by Goebbels of the “heroes of Stalingrad”, whose “sacrifice” must not have been in vain, so that enduring and holding out in the war became an end in itself and any thought of a German capitulation a betrayal of the fallen heroes, had no chance of surviving the Nazi Regime. The German society saw itself confronted with accusations of having supported, by active participation or toleration, a criminal regime in the Holocaust and the war of extermination. While the society in the German Democratic Republic attempted through identification with the Nationalkomitee Freies Deutschland and the Red Army beating back the fascist war of conquest to present itself as the “better Germany” after 1945, the society in the Federal Republic of Germany needed a different form of exoneration from the assessment as a society of evildoers. The defeated 6th Army, abandoned by a criminal government and left to die of cold, hunger, or by the hand of the enemy, mutated in its character as a conquering army pushing deep into the attacked Soviet Union into one of a pure community of victims. Novels published in unbelievable mass-editions brought together the selective individual memory of destitution and misery with the social needs of a society of evildoers. “In the sectorally limited look at the suffering of the soldiers in the war in the East (…) the society of culprits (evildoers) became, in the way it saw itself, a society of victims, while the people of the attacked Soviet Union again and again were represented in a mixture of anti-communist stereotype and pejorative anti-slavic images of man so that the own role as a victim was elevated. [4] “Which other cipher (than Stalingrad, W.B.) in connection with a merciless war of extermination unleashed by Hitler could have offered them (=the Germans) a better chance to take on the role of the victim,” asks with relevance to current affairs the editorial of a great German news magazine. [5] In contrast, the attempt by the Hamburg Institut fuer Sozialforschung in its first Wehrmacht-Exhibition to trace the bloody trail of the 6th Army during its advance on Stalingrad lasting for months, and to deal also with its crimes, enraged not only the surviving veterans of the Wehrmacht. [6]

60 years later it appears to be the more urgent to focus on the paradigms, demanded already ten years ago, of an appropriate culture of discussion and remembrance of the battle of Stalingrad: [7]

- the hopeless suffering of the ordinary man, who was squeezed into a military system of government and could not escape;
- the loss of the human perspective among the political and military leadership of the Nazi Regime;
- the extreme questionability of absolute military obedience;
- the destructive laws of movement of a “Volksgemeinschaft”, which for its social life adopted the military system of rules;
- the escape from the realities into an illusory world created by the propaganda of the “heroic epic” and the alleged defense of the values of the Occident against Bolshevism;
- the character of extermination of the German war of conquest against the Soviet Union.

These and other questions will be discussed at an academic conference of Russian and German historians at the University of Volgograd from April 3 – April 6, 2003. The broad subject is: “Stalingrad – What have Germans and Russians learned 60 years later.” On the German side will take side: Norbert Frei (Bochum), Hans-Heinrich Nolte (Hannover), Manfred Messerschmidt, Wolfram Wette, Gerd R. Ueberschär, Julia Warth (all Freiburg), Winfried Vogel (Bad Breisig near Bonn), Detelf Bald (München) and Wigbert Benz (Filderstadt). The exact program of this international academic conference will be published here as soon as it is available as will be a report on the essence of the given lectures.


1) Wegner, Bernd: Der Krieg gegen die Sowjetunion 1942/43. In: Das Deutsche Reich und der Zweite Weltkrieg. Bd.6. Der globale Krieg. Die Ausweitung zum Weltkrieg und der Wechsel der Initiative 1941 – 1943, ed. by the Militärgeschichtliches Forschungsamt, Stuttgart 1990, p. 761-1102; this book include further literature.
2) Arnold, Sabine: Stalingrad im sowjetischen Gedächtnis. Kriegserinnerung und Geschichtsbild im totalitären Staat, Bochum 1998.
3) "Wiederentdeckung einer Schlachterfahrung. Sechzig Jahre nach Stalingrad. Eine vorbildliche historische Dokumentation in der ARD zeigt den Krieg und die Menschen", in: Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 20.12.2002.
4) Jahn, Peter: Russlandbild und Antikommunismus in der bundesdeutschen Gesellschaft der Nachkriegszeit, in: Quinkert, Babette (Ed.): "Wir sind die Herren dieses Landes". Ursachen, Verlauf und Folgen des deutschen Überfalls auf die Sowjetunion. Hamburg 2002, p. 223-235, p. 234.
5) "Hitlers Stalingrad. Vor 60 Jahren: Der Anfang vom Ende des Dritten Reiches", in: DER SPIEGEL, 16.12.2002, p. 50-74, p. S.53.
6) Boll, Bernd /Safrian, Hans: Auf dem Weg nach Stalingrad. Die 6.Armee 1941/42, in: Vernichtungskrieg. Verbrechen der Wehrmacht 1941 bis 1941, ed. by Hannes Heer and Klaus Naumann, Hamburg 1995, p. 260-296.
7) Stalingrad. Mythos und Wirklichkeit einer Schlacht, ed. by Wolfram Wette and Gerd R. Ueberschär. Frankfurt/Main, p.11.

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