Will Baghdad Be Another Stalingrad?

News Abroad

Mr. Roberts is a senior lecturer in modern history at University College, Cork. He is the author of Victory at Stalingrad: The Battle that Changed History (2002) and a writer for the History News Service.

"Iraq will become a second Stalingrad for the British and American invaders," claimed Tariq Aziz, Saddam Hussein's deputy, in an interview with Izvestia. Aziz's comments were prompted by the 60th anniversary of the German surrender at Stalingrad in February 1943.

His words would have struck a deep chord with the Russian newspaper's readers, but Baghdad is not Stalingrad. While Aziz might have hoped for a dramatic reversal of the Anglo-American invasion, the lessons of Stalingrad suggest otherwise.

At Stalingrad the Red Army drew the Germans into an exhausting war of attrition. By the end of the battle 150,000 Germans has been killed, while 100,000 more were captured by the Soviets. Defeat at Stalingrad marked the end of Hitler's invasion of Soviet Russia and the beginning of the Red Army's victorious march to Berlin.

Aziz is not alone in evoking the Stalingrad analogy. Many in the antiwar movement point to the massive casualties that might result from a prolonged street-by-street fight for Baghdad. Whether the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq could founder in the face of a desperate defense of Baghdad remains to be seen. But if the Iraqis hope to emulate the Red Army at Stalingrad it will take more than a few gun battles in the streets of Baghdad.

In summer 1942 Hitler launched a war for oil in southern Russia. His aim was to occupy the Baku oil fields, which lay on the other side of the Caucasus mountains. Capturing Stalingrad was deemed necessary because of its strategic position on the Volga -- the river being the main conduit for oil supplies to northern Russia.

By October 1942 Hitler's armies occupied 90 percent of Stalingrad but the German plan failed because of an awesome defense of the city by the Red Army. In three months of intense combat Soviet troops clung to their positions along the western banks of the Volga.

Supporters of Iraq hope for a repeat performance by Saddam Hussein's elite Republican Guard. But the important point about the Red Army's performance at Stalingrad is that it was only one of many such heroic episodes on the Eastern front. Driving that defense was the ferocious nature of the German campaign in Russia -- an unprecedented war of destruction, plunder, enslavement and annihilation.

The war against Iraq will be a war to secure western interests, but it will also be a war to liberate the country from Saddam. As long as the British and Americans avoid large-scale civilian casualties it is difficult to envisage more than a tiny minority of Iraqis being prepared to wage war to the death.

The Red Army's biggest asset at Stalingrad was not heroics, but the Volga. Soviet control of the east bank of the river meant essential supplies and reinforcements could be ferried across to Stalingrad's defenders on the west bank. These defenders were supported by hundreds of Soviet artillery guns on the east bank that rained down shells on German positions in the city, while in the skies above there was a daily battle for air superiority.

Another defensive plus was the battleground itself -- hundreds of square miles of rubble-strewn terrain -- created courtesy of massive German air attacks, which killed 40,000 civilians. After these raids most of Stalingrad's civilians were evacuated, enabling the Red Army to concentrate on battling the Germans for key positions in the city's ruins.

Such tactical factors will not feature in any battle for Baghdad. Iraqi firepower has been considerably depleted by a decade of United Nations containment. There will be no way of evacuating the civilian population and no source of supplies and reinforcements -- the key to Soviet success at Stalingrad.

A better analogy -- but one that will not appeal to Tariq Aziz -- would be with the battle for Berlin in April 1945. That operation cost the Soviets 80,000 lives, but the Germans' desperate defense was of no real strategic significance. Stalin opted for a direct assault on Berlin for symbolic, psychological and political reasons. A short siege of the capital of the crumbling Nazi regime would have done the job just as well.

That may well be the Anglo-American tactic if the Republican Guard should dig in for a fight. Saddam Hussein may speak of the "mother of all battles," as he did during the Gulf War of 1990-1991. But no battle for Baghdad could have the world historical significance of Stalingrad -- a battle that led to Hitler's inevitable defeat in the wider global struggle with the Allies, and to a very different future for Europe and the world.

This piece was distributed for non-exclusive use by the History News Service, an informal syndicate of professional historians who seek to improve the public's understanding of current events by setting these events in their historical contexts. The article may be republished as long as both the author and the History News Service are clearly credited.

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mysh - 9/22/2003

the turncoat general was called general Vlasov.

Gus Moner - 3/29/2003

Clearly it is true that many of the Soviets fought fiercely for motherland and family. However, there is an applicable comparison related to today’s war. To what Mr Heuisler points up, I’d add that German regular forces generally fought decently and with the restraint and civility considered correct for the day and age. After they moved forward, however, German SS forces were charged with cleaning the conquered areas of undesirable elements (Jews and unfriendly natives, so most people were affected) to make ‘elbow room’ for future German settlers. These death squads were a sure way to alienate people. However, there was another element to this fanatical resistance no one has brought up.

The Soviet army wilted at the start of he war. The surprise of the attack and the element of “shock and awe”, German air superiority, Soviet impotence and incompetence, coupled with the disputable loyalty of the army all contributed to Germany’s success. Stalin had purged the entire General Staff twice in the late 30’s decapitating the army leadership. Those generals who had not been executed were released from prison in August 41, when the debacle in the front lines made regime survival questionable. Many eventually became excellent commanders and heroes.

German forces captured over 3 million prisoners in the first 5 months of the war, which featured giant pincer movements and rapid advances helped by Stalin’s insistence on not retreating, leading to the encirclement and capture of entire armies, often after the front had moved hundreds of kilometres further into USSR territory. There was even a turncoat general (whose surname, starting with a “V”, I believe, escapes me now) that began forming a Russian anti-Soviet army. German regular army units were generally welcomed in the Baltic Republics and Ukraine, the latter where Stalin had starved the population in an imposed famine to wipe out their Kulaks, capitalist farms, in the 30’s that killed millions.

Many Soviet people worked with the Germans in the first year or so of the war, collaborating with rear-area control, logistics and communications. Many women tagged along with the advancing army and served the soldiers in what is now called ‘comfort women’. The Germans seem not to have forced this behaviour, as opposed to the Japanese. The collapse of the economy and difficulty in obtaining food and other necessities were partially responsible for this.

As the SS began to administer the territories, the only people who remained pro-German were true Fascists and anti-Semitic Christian elements. There was no uprising anywhere in Russia even if Germans were generally welcomed nearly to the gates of Leningrad and Moscow. One would have to attribute this failure to revolt to NKVD control, along with their love of motherland and the fact that the people of the USSR in 1941 were measurably better off than the previous generation, terror apparatus notwithstanding. One could seriously make the case that the Iraqis are far worse-off today that in 1981.

The comparison no one seems to have brought up is with the supposed Feyadeen militias and Ba’ath Party apparatus and the NKVD and USSR Communist Party Political Commissars. Hitler had issued a decree that the Rules of War and Geneva Conventions were inapplicable in the campaign to conquer the USSR due to their not being signatories. All elements of military civility that might have arisen between the combatants, many of whose General Staff members had collaborated for nearly 15 years in the 20’s and early 30’s and were thus friends, were thereby guaranteed to not happen with Hitler’s decree.

He particularly singled out the Political Commissars for instant execution as illegal combatants, for they were party members not soldiers. The role these two security apparatuses had was to shore up Soviet will and resistance. They did exactly what the Iraqis are today accused of doing; standing with guns and threatening to kill the soldiers if they did not march forward. Hence the bizarre German accounts of human wave assaults on their positions that caused them at times to have to remove Soviet cadavers from in front of their positions in order to be able to shoot effectively.

Are there any parallels? I think not many, at least not in strategy and outcome. Stalingrad was defended tenaciously with the “help” of these NKVD men and CP Commissars, Brezhnev and Kruschev later Soviet leaders, amongst these cadres. There were rear lines of supply, steady and numerous Soviet reinforcements and the Soviet were able to contest the air power of the German Luftwaffe deep in Soviet territory where logistics became a nightmare due to winter weather and distance, but most importantly in another parallel, due to Partisan guerrillas. The harried supply lines even before encirclement were having difficulty delivering the required supplies and reinforcements. Once trapped, German forces were insufficiently supplied by air, as the Luftwaffe, led by the drug addict Herman Goering, was incapable of delivering on his promise to deliver the required daily tonnage. Eventually, after running out of munitions and food, and down to some 80,000 soldiers, the von Paulus’ 6th Army surrendered in the shattered basement of a department store, I believe. Less than 5,000 of these soldiers were repatriated ain the 1950’s Soviet-German thaw.

Baghdad is an entirely different scenario, as reinforcements would be hard to get into the city if properly surrounded and besieged. The besieged would not be the invader, but rather the native, and weather would be a factor, this time desert sand storms and + 40ºC heat rather than –20ºC and snowstorms.

Nevertheless, one has to question what chance any of the so-called Republican Guard divisions, with obsolete equipment and decreasing supplies of munitions, fuel, food and reinforcements, have against an enemy with total air control and GPS and laser guided weaponry. Once blasted to smithereens, what would be left to resist a UK/US advance into the city?

The UK/US supply lines could be a factor in favour of Iraq if a genuine guerrilla movement arose. With the new threat of suicide bombers having arisen, another element not existing in 1942 has to be considered.

In the end, the besieged will be defending their homeland, a factor hard to measure until the moment of combat, for much can happen to change the mood of the populace against the USA and UK if the civilian casualties mount up, a point Mr Heuisler claims has not been lost on the US and UK planners. Time will tell.

I hope this helps Mr Karr until he reads up on his history, as Mr. Dan has encouraged.

Arch Stanton - 3/25/2003

That's why what could have been a war of liberation from Bolshevik rule would instead be remembered as the Russian Great Patriotic War. By the way, Calhoun College was, and is, just one of the "residential colleges" for Yale undergraduates, not an independent institution.

Joe Dryden - 3/25/2003

I wonder if Bush can afford a prolonged siege of Bahgdad. The political costs of this thing rise considerably if it becomes long and drawn out -- the dreaded quargmire of Vietnam. How feasible is a Berlin-style assault -- but one that will take a minimum of American and civilian lives?

Bill Heuisler - 3/25/2003

Mr. Karr,
The combat Wehrmacht Blitzkrieg swept Eastern Europe quickly and relatively painlessly for civilians not trapped in bombardments. This all changed as rear units and Einsatzgruppen entered the cities and towns. They treated Russians as subhuman Slavs, killing many and enslaving others. The Soviets spread the word well. The world picked up on the atrocities and more.

A book called "World War II" by Frank Monaghan, Former Asst. Prof. at Calhoun College and Yale was written and published in 1943. What is interesting about this book is the immediacy and uncertainty - they didn't know they were going to win. Monaghan detailed the seiges of Leningrad and Kiev, portraying a brutal slaughter of 250,000 civilians in Odessa and tales of German soldiers "engaging in a massacre of 52,000 citizens" in Kiev. These numbers would be logistically suspect today, but were obviously believed by Professor Monaghan...and the Russians.
The Russians fought so hard because there was no alternative - no surrender, only death. The Germans treated them like brutes, took away all hope and guaranteed fanatical resistance.
This lesson seems to have been well learned by the Coalition Forces in Iraq.
Bill Heuisler

dan - 3/25/2003

The key is for you to read some history. Then get back to us.

Ronald Dale Karr - 3/25/2003

"The war against Iraq will be a war to secure western interests, but it will also be a war to liberate the country from Saddam. As long as the British and Americans avoid large-scale civilian casualties it is difficult to envisage more than a tiny minority of Iraqis being prepared to wage war to the death."

What I've never been able to understand is why the Russians fought so hard for a tyrant like Stalin. Surely they had no love for a monster like Uncle Joe, did they? Could the Germans have really been that much worse for non-Jewish Russians? Why didn't they just surrender in droves?

Frank Lee - 3/25/2003

Professor Roberts has presented a worthwhile and insightful historical analysis free of the polemical hype that so often plagues this website.