The film Stalingrad (Director Joseph Vilsmaier, 1994), which depicts the defeat of the German Sixth Army in the winter of 1942-3, is a competent piece of film making which will engage the interest of audiences. However the view the film gives us of this epic battle leaves a lot to be desired. Sometimes with works of art, what is not said is just as important as what is said and this is certainly the case with Vilsmaier’s film.

On 22nd. June 1941 the Hitler-led German Nazis launched a massive, unprovoked attack on the Soviet Union. Hitler’s ‘Operation Barbarossa’ was spearheaded by 5.5 million troops armed with 2,800 tanks and nearly 5,000 aircraft. Despite tremendous resistance from the Red Army the German armies succeeded in driving deep inside Soviet territories. By the summer of 1942 German forces had penetrated into the southern part of Russia situated between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea.

On 23rd. July 1942 the Red Army suffered a heavy defeat when the Nazi forces captured the city of Rostov on the River Don. The way now seemed to be open for the Nazi aggressors to sweep through southern Russia and the Caucasus region. This would cut off supplies of wheat and oil to the rest of the Soviet Union and enable German forces to attack to the north towards Moscow and break through to the south through Iran and reach the Persian Gulf.

Joseph Stalin, General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and Commander-in-Chief of the Soviet Armed Forces, was well aware of just how serious matters had become. Two days after the fall of Rostov Stalin issued the order ‘Not another step back’ and instituted a rigorous shake up among the higher ranks in the Red Army. Even so the Nazi forces continued to advance and by late August 1942 the German Sixth Army, consisting of one and a half million men commanded by General Von Paulus (briefly depicted in the film), were laying siege to the
strategically located city of Stalingrad on the River Volga. The Soviet authorities began evacuating the civilian population.

On 3rd. September Stalin called for a counterattack and by the middle of the month the battle had taken the form of intense street-to-street fighting as depicted in the film. By the end of the month the Nazis had captured half the city and raised the Swastika over the city hall. It seemed as if the Nazis were likely to succeed in making a strategic breakthrough, one which would have undoubtedly changed the course of the whole war and maybe its outcome. The film Stalingrad completely ignores this crucial point.

Meanwhile, thousands of miles away in China, the Chinese communists led by Mao Tse-tung were fighting the forces of the Japanese imperialists who were allies of the German Nazis. Writing on 12th. October, Mao argued that while the Nazi forces appeared to be outwardly strong they were in fact inwardly weak:

“… in this present war the attack on Stalingrad is the expression of the last desperate struggle of fascism itself. … This battle is not only the turning point of the Soviet-German war, or even of the present anti-fascist world war, it is the turning point in the history of all mankind.”

Mao went on to say:

“Stalin’s brilliant strategic direction has completely gained the initiative and is everywhere drawing Hitler towards destruction. The fourth stage of the war, beginning this winter, will mark the approach of Hitler’s doom.”


“Napoleon’s political life ended at Waterloo, but the decisive turning point was his defeat at Moscow.
Hitler today is treading Napoleon’s road, and it is the Battle of Stalingrad that has sealed his doom.”

On 14th. October the Nazi attack was renewed and the next two weeks saw the most bitter fighting. The severe Russian winter began and in early November Stalin sent one million additional Soviet troops to the battle zone. On 19th. November the Red Army launched their counteroffensive and by only four days later had encircled the Sixth Army in Stalingrad. The predator had become the prey. Hitler ordered his army to stand where it was and promised to fly in supplies of food, fuel and ammunition. However the airlift was completely inadequate and by the beginning of January 1943 the German troops were starving and exhausted.

The Red Army kept up its relentless assault on the German defences capturing their last airstrip (seen in the film) on 21st. January and breaking through the German defence ring on the following day. Hitler ordered his army to carry on fighting to the end but on 31st. January Von Paulus surrendered to Soviet troops commanded by General Rokossovsky. The Wehrmacht (German Army) lost 800,000 men dead and 90,000 were captured including twenty four generals. The German Nazis had lost the strategic initiative and from now on the Red Army would slowly but remorselessly push the aggressors back, culminating in the capture of Berlin in May 1945.

The Battle of Stalingrad, the longest and bloodiest battle of the war, was indeed the turning point in World War II, something Vilsmaier’s film completely ignores. In the West the British and American imperialists, led by Churchill and Roosevelt, had promised Stalin that they would open up a Second Front in western Europe so as to engage the Germans and thus take some pressure off the Soviet forces on the Eastern Front. However Churchill and Roosevelt were dragging their feet, cynically waiting to see what would happen in the Soviet-German War, hoping that Germany and the Soviet Union would smash each other up and then the Western imperialists could move in and pick up the pieces. After the Soviet victory at Stalingrad the Western leaders realised that this was not
likely to happen and hastily made plans to invade Europe because they feared that a victorious Red Army might advance to the west across the whole of Europe.

Joseph Vilsmaier’s film has a strong anti-war, pacifist theme. ‘War is hell’ is its message. War is a terrible thing. Of that, there can be no doubt. But it is a paradox of human history that, as Mao said, “in order to get rid of the gun it is necessary to take up the gun”.

On the one hand, by using the device of focussing on one particular platoon of the German Army, Vilsmaier gives the impression that most of the German soldiers were reluctant participants in the invasion of the Soviet Union. In fact, while a small minority of Germans did heroically resist the Nazi regime, the great majority became enthusiastic supporters of Hitler and his predatory wars, especially in Russia. The soldiers in the Wehrmacht expected to enslave the Soviet people and be rewarded with their stolen land, (a point which is briefly alluded to in the early part of the film). We know now that the Wehrmacht as a whole, and not just the Waffen SS units, treated the Soviet people with unrestrained savagery, mercilessly slaughtering millions of them. The fact of the matter is that at Stalingrad the German Army began to receive the punishment it so justly deserved.

On the other hand, Vilsmaier’s film ignores the extraordinary heroism and self-sacrifice displayed by the Soviet people at Stalingrad. The casualty figures for the Red Army at Stalingrad were even greater than those of the Germans with 1.1 million dead and countless more wounded. (To put this into perspective it should be noted that the total number of deaths, both military and civilian, sustained by Britain and America during the whole of World War II was less than 800,000). The Soviet people put up this desperate defence, not because they were afraid of Stalin and the NKVD, but because they had something which they thought worth defending, at the cost
of their lives if necessary. During the previous twenty years, under the leadership of Stalin and the Communist Party, the Soviet people had been rapidly transforming a backward, semi-feudal society into a modern socialist society, organised to promote the welfare of workers and peasants. During World War I under the Tsarist regime, when the Russian Army suffered much less severe defeats at the hands of the Germans than happened in World war II, the Russian soldiers had deserted the battle front and gone back home to make revolution. There were some Soviet deserters in World War II but the great majority of the people stood firm under Stalin’s communist leadership.

These days, when it is fashionable to decry and dismiss the past achievements of the Soviet people, we should not forget that if it were not for their tremendous resistance and sacrifice at Stalingrad and elsewhere the world might well be a very different place today. It is quite likely that instead of being able to watch a film about the Nazi defeat at Stalingrad we would be living under fascism and watching a Leni Reifenstahl film about the triumph of the Wehrmacht in Siberia! We hope that you find the film Stalingrad stimulating but also we ask you to spare a thought for those heroic Soviet soldiers and civilians who gave everything to ensure that the Nazi hordes would ultimately be defeated and, indeed, don’t forget the person who led them to victory; Joseph Stalin.


The city of Stalingrad was originally called Tsaritsyn. In 1918, during the Civil War following the Russian Revolution, Stalin was sent to Tsaritsyn by Lenin to organise the transport of grain to Moscow. Forces of the counter-revolutionary White Army were advancing on the city. The local Red Army forces were incompetently commanded by an unreliable ex-Tsarist army officer who had been appointed by Leon Trotsky, then Commander-inChief of the Red Army. In order to save the city from capture Stalin intervened by taking over military operations and successfully reorganised the defence of the city. Trotsky was incensed at Stalin’s action and never forgave him despite Stalin’s attempts at reconciliation. A few years later the people of Tsaritsyn renamed it Stalingrad as a token of thanks for the decisive action taken by Stalin. A few years after Stalin died in 1953 Nikita Khruschev, who led the antisocialist counter-revolution in the USSR, had the city renamed Volgograd as part of the campaign to vilify Stalin and his achievements. However many of the city’s inhabitants still refer to it by its old name of Stalingrad.