Monday, August 19, 2013

FTT Wildly Off-Topic: PBS Takes You To Stalingrad

Where No One Wanted To Be
So when faced with the dual "appeals" of the usual 4-hour goat ride to tedium that is a Red Sox - Yankees game, or the only NFL exhibition game on the roster (Giants vs. Colts, like any preseason game, OK for about 15 minutes if you aren't personally invested in the laundry)...

Well, kids, I called an audible, and went to the Neftlix queue. And dialed up a PBS special on the new research into the decisive battle of World War II, which is having the histories rewritten based on the recent release of heretofore undiscovered records.

The simple story of what is now universally regarded as the deadliest battle in the long sad history of warfare is that Stalin, displaying realpolitick cunning and the tactical advantage of more men and home court advantage, played rope-a-dope with Hitler, allowing the Germans to advance too far into the region of his namesake city, then closed the trap around the Sixth Army, taking a quarter of a million soldiers as prisoners, and more or less showing how the next 2+ years were going to go for the Nazis -- i.e., very badly indeed.

But the real story, as you might guess, is actually far more complex and interesting.

Stalin actually doesn't agree to any retreats at all -- he more or less expected the soldiers to die as they stood rather than retreat, and was spending his time working out secret police purges of anyone who ordered a less than rigorous defense. Which made the Red Army even less effective, and cost them dearly when it came to the city's defense.

What really happens is threefold:

1) Hitler gets overconfident because the Russians look so ready to fold -- overconfidence being a pretty common problem for the unspeakable monster -- so he sends the tanks south to secure oil fields south of the area. Not the best move when it comes to needing to secure a city in house to house fighting. By the time they get back, it's too late for the Sixth, because...

2) The Russians get the Second World War's best tank into the game, the T-14. The Germans get to have the experience of watching shells bounce off their enemy, and can only take them out from short range, with soldiers on the ground. Soldiers who are not, well, protected inside of a tank. Not terribly conducive to winning battles.

3) By the time the Sixth gets to Stalingrad, they've been exhausted by a surprisingly tough fight along the Don River, and the Siberian shock troops that get wiped out in the northern burbs of the city. It also didn't help that Stalingrad really didn't have great military value, beyond being named for the country's dictator. There is, of course, much more the story and the documentary, but you get the gist. What is seen as simple is nothing but.

The documentary producers wrap it all up by noting that had the Russians failed to hold back the Germans at Stalingrad, the war might have ended very differently... and there is no denying the fact that no country did more to stop the Nazi menace than the Russians, or suffered more. Never in human history had a country given up more land and casualties without falling. But on some level, I can't imagine that the Russians were going to just collapse had they lost the South, given the uninterrupted output and fresh contribution to the effort that the Americans were soon to make, or that the regime was more or less built on theft and racial purity. It's not as if the Nazis were adding to their armies with each conquest; they were just spreading the best per capita fighting force in the world over a wider and wider area. Finally, it's note as if someone was about to take power away from Stalin even if his city fell. People generally miss that ol' Joe actually makes Hitler look like a piker when it comes to total body count, but I digress.

The big takeaway I got from all of this -- and the archival footage is kind of astounding, really -- is how when you dig into the details, history is rarely simple, and so much is missed when you don't get into the nuance. Both sides, independent of their pathologies, made howling errors: both sides treated their resources capriciously, and acted as if the public perception of their will and power was more important than any form of pragmatism. Lessons that ring true for all kinds of things, really.


snd_dsgnr said...

Personally I've always found the arguments along the lines of "if the Nazis had only ______ they would have won" unconvincing.

There are certain things that could have prolonged the war, perhaps prolonged it to the point where someone other than Stalin was in charge, but I don't think the Germans were ever going to completely beat the Soviets.

By the time of Stalingrad, just for instance, the Soviets already had war production facilities up and running far inland that would have kept producing war material even if the Nazis had managed to conquer the Russians' major western cities. The manpower advantage wasn't going away (and the Soviets showed no qualms with using it to the individual detriment of their soldiers), the German supply lines would only have been further stretched, etc.

DMtShooter said...

On some level, it's kind of creepy as an intellectual exercise. "What could history's greatest monsters could have done to better achieve their unspeakable ends?"

But it's also totally understandable, given the American worship of work ethic, and the Germans actually, well, having it. No one ever said of that regime, "You know, if they only worked harder..."

Some part of us roots for hard work. No matter what the end result is. Witness the culture's fascination with serial killers, or how much of "Breaking Bad"'s audience is rooting for Walt...

snd_dsgnr said...

Honestly I think the way a lot of people look at the German-Soviet conflict is simpler than that. There has been a tendency for decades in this country to minimize the contributions of the USSR to winning the war. It's understandable of course, given that we were enemies for 50 years after that and American historians wanting to emphasize American victories.

But the result of that, IMO, has been a common notion that the Germans could have beaten the Russians if a few things went differently. Looking at it that way casts the Russian victory as more a result of luck than military prowess.

I'm not claiming that's what you're doing by the way. You said right in the main article that the Soviets did more to stop the Nazis than anybody.

DMtShooter said...

THe Russians would have ended the Germans without U.S. help -- assuming, of course, the Japanese didn't perform a flanking motion that changed things. Which makes me wonder how much coordination those two nations actually had or what Hitler's intentions toward his allies were after he had dealt with the Russians. But enough of What Didn't Happen Theater.

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