Background for the Movie Enemy At the Gate

The Red Street Fighters of Stalingrad

Revolutionary Worker #1098, April 15, 2001, posted at

The new movie Enemy at the Gates is now in the theaters creating a lot of interest in the 1942 battle of Stalingrad--where fighters of the Red Army stopped and broke the armies of Hitler that were advancing deep into the Soviet Union.

While the film suffers from the crude anti-communist agenda of the filmmakers--who portray the communist leadership as boorish and brutal and the Soviet socialist system as a corrupt failure--the story of a heroic peasant sharpshooter brings to life the profound heroism of the frontline fighters. The story makes you think about the problems and methods of fighting a high-tech imperialist army for the control of a major city. And almost anyone who thinks about it is left wanting to know more about this battle, about these fighters and about what inspired them to stop the Nazi advance.

The following article tells the background of this historic battle for Stalingrad--and describes more about the style of fighting of these Red commanders and soldiers. This article is a slightly shortened version of the account that appeared in RW #759.

The turning point of World War 2 came in a Russian city sprawled along the Volga River. This is the story of Stalingrad--80 days and nights of bitter urban streetfighting in 1942 when the Red soldiers and workers of the then-socialist Soviet Union took on Nazi Germany's modern army. It is the story of revolutionary fighters applying military and political principles that enabled them to "do the impossible" and change world history.

Sitting on the Mountaintop to Watch the Tigers Fight

On June 22, 1941, Adolf Hitler's Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union with one of the largest armies in history. Hitler believed he would defeat the Soviet Union in three months--and so did most military and political experts in the world.

The German armies invading the Soviet Union were the world's most modern military force. The Nazis' invasion force had three million troops, 3,300 tanks and 7,000 big artillery guns supported by 2,000 aircraft. German imperialist armies had just spent two years quickly conquering one country after another in Europe: Czechoslovakia, Poland, France, Belgium, Holland, Denmark, and Norway.

In 1941 the Soviet Union had only had 20 years of peace since the previous invasion by imperialists. Under the leadership of the Communist Party and Joseph Stalin, those two decades had been intense years of class struggle and socialist construction. Despite significant problems, the Soviet Union was then, in 1941, a genuinely revolutionary and socialist society. The Soviet revolution had established the rule of the working class, eliminating the class privileges and wealth of the rich owning classes, creating the world's first planned socialist economy and collective farming while transforming the whole structure and ownership of industry. The class struggle had been extremely difficult, sometimes approaching the intensity of civil war within the Soviet Union itself.

Soviet armies, though large, were not nearly as well equipped as the German forces. A large portion of the Soviet top officers had been purged in sharp political conflicts of the late 1930s and had been replaced by a new, untested generation of officers.

In short, Western experts believed that Stalin's Soviet Union was a seriously divided country with a fatally weakened military. They did not expect the Soviet Union to defeat Germany.

In fact, the U.S. and British imperialists hoped that the Soviet Union would be exhausted from taking the brunt of the invasion of the German armies on the Eastern Front. And they delayed the opening of a second front in Europe as Hitler's armies pounded the Soviet Union. Mao called the plan of the U.S. and Britain "sitting on the mountaintop, watching the tigers fight below."

Both Hitler and the Western powers seriously underestimated the strength of Soviet socialism. With incredible self-sacrifice, the Soviet people organized a great, just war to confront the Nazi invaders. In an industrial river city called Stalingrad (which means "Stalin City"), the so-called "unbeatable" armies of Adolf Hitler ran head-on into determined red fighters.

Today, when the rulers of the world claim "Communism is dead" and "all attempts at socialism were a failure," it is very valuable to remember the lessons of Stalingrad 1942--where 80 days and nights of house-to-house battle proved the superiority of socialism and the power of an armed revolutionary people.

The Imperialist Logic of Lightning War

Germany's invasion of the Soviet Union was based on the strategy of Blitzkrieg--which means "lightning war." Blitzkrieg aimed for a quick victory that would not intensify class conflicts between the German capitalist ruling class and the masses of German people. The goal of the invasion was to overthrow the socialist rule of the working class, enslave the Soviet people, and destroy this key base area of the world revolution. These reactionary aims and strategies led the Nazi forces to adopt extremely brutal means in their war of conquest.

Right before the invasion, Hitler told Germany's top generals: "The war against Russia will be such that it cannot be conducted in a knightly fashion. The struggle is one of ideologies and racial differences and will have to be conducted with unprecedented, unmerciful and unrelenting harshness... The commissars [the Communist activists within the Soviet Red Army--RW] are the bearers of ideologies directly opposed to [Nazism]. Therefore the commissars will be liquidated. German soldiers guilty of breaking international law...will be excused."

Throughout the Soviet Union, the Nazis burned whole towns and left the bodies of the murdered inhabitants unburied. Out of 5,700,000 Soviet soldiers taken prisoner, 3,300,000 died in German prison camps--from hunger, cold, and execution. And nearly three million Soviet soldiers and civilians were shipped to Germany as slave labor.

Learning to Counter the Nazi Strategy

In the beginning, Stalin's Red Army was beaten back in large parts of the Soviet Union. They left behind "scorched earth"--sorrowfully destroying the fields and railroads of their socialist economy to deny the invader any supplies.

As the Red Army retreated, they developed methods of fighting "our way"--countering the German mobility and strength. The Communist Party mobilized the masses in a life-and-death struggle, "not just for the Soviet people, but for the liberation of all people groaning under Fascist oppression."

The Communists organized guerrilla armies deep in the forests, harassing the invaders everywhere. Soviet soldiers learned to use "people's weapons" like grenades and molotov cocktails against tanks. Whole factories were taken apart and moved deep inside Siberia to continue production out of reach of the enemy. Soviet cities like Leningrad and Moscow were turned into military strongholds.

Hitler's Fateful Offensive

As the winter of 1941 closed in, the German invasion had not won its expected victory-by-knockout. The German armies had conquered huge pieces of the eastern Soviet Union, but they were bogged down far inside Russian territory, facing a very long front. And the Germans had to defend thousands of miles of supply lines from the growing guerrilla war. The bitter fighting and brutal winter had cost the Nazis at least a million and a half casualties.

By mid-1942, the still powerful German army could no longer launch a general offensive along the whole front. Hitler had to pick a single target for his summer offensive. He ordered 1,500,000 troops to march southwest--to take the Russian oil fields in the Caucasus Mountains. He intended to cut Soviet oil supplies and supply his own tank armies.

Hitler concentrated the greatest possible forces, assigned many of his best generals, and even moved aircraft and tanks from the North African battlefront. He ordered his forces to first take the city of Stalingrad, to anchor the German northern flank defense. The Nazi plan was to then move on toward more important targets in the south.

Mao Tsetung characterized the attack on Stalingrad as "a final offensive on which the fate of fascism hung."

On August 23 the German 6th Army, commanded by General Friedrich von Paulus, finally punched through to the Volga River, north of Stalingrad. From the air, thousands of German bombing runs pounded the city to flaming ruins. Tens of thousands of people died in the attack. The teenagers of Communist youth organizations organized the people everywhere to search collectively for survivors in the flame and rubble.

Meanwhile the motorized tanks and infantry of the Nazi army advanced on Stalingrad, which stretched along the heights on the west bank of the Volga River. The German plan was to push Soviet armed forces up against the Volga River and defeat them. They planned to win in 24 hours.

Making Their Stand in a City Named Stalin

Soviet leader Joseph Stalin and the Soviet High Command had a different vision: After a long retreat by the Soviet forces down the Don River, they decided to take a stand in Stalingrad. S.J. Leonard writes in the book Just War, Unjust War: An Historical Survey:

"It seemed to many as if the Soviets were on the verge of collapse; in fact, the long retreat down the Don basin had meant nothing of the sort. It had bought time in which Soviet divisions from the center could be moved down to the defense of the south, and in which troops and materiel could be mobilized from east of the Urals. The retreat also signified that at last the Soviets were learning flexible tactics against the Blitzkrieg in place of the traditional stand-and-fight orders that had led to constant encirclements.

"So this greatest moment of weakness held the seeds of future victory, and it made sense when the Communist Party began a campaign to bring thousands of its best cadres to Stalingrad to consciously turn that city into the greatest possible political and military challenge to the Wehrmacht [the German Army]."

The leadership planned to turn Stalingrad into a giant sponge to soak up as many German troops as possible. While the Germans were bogged down in the city, the Soviet military command would secretly concentrate large reserve armies north and south of the city. They were preparing a trap--to encircle and eliminate the whole German 6th Army.

Fierce urban warfare was a key to this Communist plan. The Communist Party started moving thousands of its best activists into Stalingrad.

You can imagine the feverish preparations and intense political discussion as this powerful Nazi army broke through surrounding Soviet defenses and rolled toward the socialist city. Under the leadership of the Communist organizations, the famous Barricades and Red October tractor factories and the city's power station became centers of military preparations. Thousands of workers formed fighting units, equipped with armbands and rifles. Gray-haired veterans of the first Civil War, foundry workers, tractor engineers, Volga boatmen, railway workers, shipbuilders, office workers--women and men--all prepared to fight alongside the regular army soldiers. Around the factory walls, other squads of workers were digging defense trenches.

As the German forces advanced, the people of Stalingrad rushed to harvest crops and dig anti-tank defenses, and most of the city's 500,000 inhabitants were evacuated to safety on the east side of the Volga. German Stuka dive-bombers attacked many evacuation ferries crossing the river and dropped cluster bombs on the riverbanks crowded with civilians.

One bourgeois historian writes about the first battle on the outskirts of Stalingrad's trenches: "In a miracle of overnight organization, Russian militia had dug interlocking strongpoints and assimilated the rudiments of modern warfare. Now, dressed in workclothes or Sunday finery, they crouched behind mortars and machine guns and challenged the finest tank army in the world. When [the German army's] Combat Group Krupen staggered under their hail of shells, the Russians even opened a counterattack, sending unpainted T-34 tanks straight from the factory assembly lines at the Germans."

Meanwhile, there was sharp line struggle with those, including defeatists within the local party and military leadership, who thought it was impossible to hold Stalingrad and who wanted to flee across the Volga. But Stalin rejected any plans to abandon the city: "The most important thing is not to let panic take hold; do not be afraid of the enemy threats and keep your faith in our ultimate success." This line struggle would continue to break out at various levels throughout the months of battle. It was important that the immediate leadership of the battle, General Chuikov, shared Stalin's pit-bull determination to win.

The masses of soldiers and workers, of course, could not be told of the leadership's secret overall plan to trap the Germans. But when orders came down to fight to the death to hold Stalingrad, the masses increasingly understood that a historic mission had fallen into their hands. A fierce unity and determination took shape in the people's hearts. Their proud slogan became: "Stalingrad will be the grave of Hitlerism!"

The stage was set for an historic showdown.

Fighting Street by Street

The Germans threw a vastly superior force in men, tanks, and airplanes against the city. In bitter battles, the German advance could be measured in only hundreds of yards a day. When the Nazis reached the Volga in the south on September 10, they had pinned the 62nd Army in Stalingrad, with its back to the Volga River. Bitter streetfighting began.

On September 13 the Germans launched a concentrated attack in the center of the city. They wanted to seize a large hill called Mamayev Kurgan. From this high ground, their artillery would have been able to target the whole city, including the workers' settlements and the ferries on the Volga River which brought reinforcements and supplies to the 62nd Army. The fighting was fierce. In two days, the Germans had lost a total of 8,000 to 10,000 men and 54 tanks. One key point changed hands 15 times in five days of bloody fighting. Still the Germans failed to take Mamayev Kurgan.

Thousands of red fighters sacrificed their lives to slow the German advance. Their sacrifice gave their comrades throughout the city precious days to regroup and dig in.

By September 24 most of Stalingrad was in enemy hands--miles and miles of smoldering ruins. The Germans had lost 10 percent of their 6th Army and still unbroken resistance continued around the northern factory districts of the city. Many of the Soviet reinforcements arriving across the Volga were teenage fighters from the border regions of Soviet Asia.

On October 14 the Germans tried to launch a final crushing assault--sending in 3,000 airplane sorties to bomb the Soviet positions, while three German infantry and two tank divisions attacked. By October 30, the 62nd Army held only three pockets along the Volga, but still the Germans could not defeat them.

One German tank officer wrote: "We have fought for fifteen days for a single house with mortars, grenades, machine-guns and bayonets. Already by the third day, fifty-four German corpses are strewn in the cellars, on the landings, and the staircases. The front is a corridor between burnt-out rooms; it is the thin ceiling between two floors. Help comes from neighboring houses by fire escapes and chimneys. There is a ceaseless struggle from noon to night. From one floor to the next, faces black with sweat, we bombed each other with grenades in the middle of explosions, clouds of dust and smoke."

One more German offensive was launched on November 11 where the fighting went on for every yard of earth, for every brick and stone. One day into that offensive, on November 12, the German forces found themselves exhausted by the months of bitter fighting.

An In-Your-Face Style of Fighting

The Nazis were heavily armed with tanks, artillery and aircraft. The Soviet Communist troops had some heavy weapons, including anti-aircraft artillery, but they were forced to rely much more heavily on light weapons--grenades, molotov cocktails, and tommy-guns similar to today's street gats.

The heavy weaponry of the German imperialist army defined their preferred "way of fighting"--just like it does for the U.S. army today.

The German air force generally waited until a clear "no-man's-land" separated the Soviet and Nazi positions--and then they bombed hard on the Soviet trenches and strongholds. German tank-crews usually wouldn't expose themselves until after the German air force had pounded the Soviet positions. And finally, the German foot-soldiers usually wouldn't join in the fighting wholeheartedly until tanks had broken through barricades and shot up Soviet strongpoints first. When the Soviet forces made it impossible for the Germans to fight this way, the German troops often stopped and turned back.

Soviet commanders discovered that a close-up, in-your-face style of fighting made it hard for the Germans to "fight their way." The commander of the 62nd Soviet Army at Stalingrad, Vasili Chuikov, writes: "It occurred to us, therefore, that we should reduce the no-man's land as much as possible--to the throw of a grenade." Soviet fighters tried to get as close to the enemy as possible, so the German air force could not bomb forward Soviet units and trenches without risking German soldiers.

Chuikov writes that the Germans hated close-fighting, "Their morale would not stand it. They did not have the spirit to look an armed Soviet soldier in the eyes. You could locate an enemy soldier in a forward post from a long way off, especially by night; he would constantly, every five to ten minutes, give a burst on his tommy-gun, obviously to boost his morale. Our soldiers could find such `warriors,' creep up and polish them off with bullet or bayonet."

The Offensive within the Defensive

The Soviet 62nd Army inside Stalingrad was mainly fighting a defensive battle--holding ground and delaying the German army, so other Soviet armies could surround the Germans. But even in an overall defensive battle, it was extremely important to constantly attack. Offensive actions limited the initiative of the German army--their ability to decide when and where the fighting would be.

Chuikov describes the Soviet's active defense: "Whenever the enemy penetrated into our lines, he was wiped out by fire or counterattacks, which, as a rule, were surprise attacks in the enemy's flanks or rear."

Red fighters ambushed German tanks that were rolling up predictable routes. They waited until the tanks were almost on top of them--and then knocked them out at close range with anti-tank rifles and heavier anti-tank weapons. This stalled the German infantry who usually crowded up behind the burning tanks. It was then possible for Soviet forces to get in close to the German infantry, while making it impossible for the German Stukas and J-88s to hit the Soviet fighters from the air.

Chuikov writes, "The infantry and the tanks which had broken through were destroyed separately: the tanks were unable to do very much without infantry and, without achieving anything, they would turn back after suffering big losses...Counterattacks always caused the enemy heavy losses, frequently forcing him to abandon his attack in a given area and rush up and down the front searching for a weak point in our defenses, lose time and lower his rate of advance....We often had the aim not only of causing the enemy losses, but, by surprise attack with infantry and tanks, with artillery and air support, to penetrate into the enemy's starting positions, upset his formations, break his attack and gain time."

City fighting made it difficult for both sides to command and maneuver large formations of troops. Chuikov described how the red fighters used this to their advantage: "City fighting is a special kind of fighting. Things are settled here, not by strength, but by skill, resourcefulness and swiftness...and the center of stage is taken by small infantry groups, individual guns and tanks."

The Soviet commanders learned to organize some of their forces into small, mobile units called "storm groups." Chuikov writes: "These were small but strong groups, as wily as a snake and irrepressible in action." Timing, surprise, speed and daring were key to the success of storm group operations.

These storm groups were hard to hit from the air. They would infiltrate between enemy strongpoints to hit targets. The Soviet soldiers crept up on all fours, hiding in craters and ruins. They dug tunnels and passageways at night, camouflaged them by day. The storm groups would suddenly appear right among the German forces--where German artillery, armor and airpower was little use. The red soldiers attacked for maximum advantage--when the enemy was sleeping, or eating, or about to change shifts. In close combat with bullet, grenade, dagger, and sharpened shovel, the red fighters would drive the Nazis out of key positions--fighting for a cellar, a room, a corridor.

The Communist Party started a "Snipers Movement" among the soldiers of the 62nd Army. Soldiers tried to make every bullet count--there was training in marksmanship and successful sniping was discussed widely among the Red troops. Hidden in the endless piles of rubble, small squads of snipers could tear far larger advancing groups of enemies to pieces.

The Red Army relied on the masses of people, those who stayed behind in Stalingrad, for crucial information on the enemy's plans. For example, at a key moment one courageous woman emerged from behind German lines, through the smoke and rubble, to provide critical intelligence about a coming German attack.

Soviet soldiers waiting to be ferried across the Volga read leaflets explaining this whole close-up style of combat, "What a Soldier Needs to Know and How to Act in City Fighting." Such mass line methods unleashed ordinary soldiers and the working people to make the maximum contributions to victory. By "fighting our way," the Soviet forces neutralized the heavy firepower of the enemy. This style of fighting relied on high consciousness and tremendous self-sacrifice. Repeated victories, even if it was just reclaiming a cellar or a few yards of a ravine, greatly increased the fighting morale of the Red troops.

The German soldiers were unnerved by these Soviet tactics. They often fell back, abandoning even key strongpoints they had fortified.

Creating Anti-Nazi Strongpoints

The Soviet commander Chuikov explains that "The buildings in a city are like breakwaters. They broke up the advancing enemy formations and made their forces go along the streets. We therefore held on firmly to strong buildings, and established small garrisons in them, capable of all-around fire if they were encircled. Particularly stout buildings enabled us to create strong defensive positions, from which our men could mow down the advancing Germans with machine-guns and tommy-guns."

Chuikov says Red fighters liked to use burned-out stone buildings, because the Nazis had nothing to light on fire during attacks. There were strongpoints of many different sizes--some defended by a small squad of men, some defended by a whole battalion. Strongpoints were set up so that they could fire in all directions and continue fighting even if cut off for several days.

The Red fighters built trenches and used sewers to link the strongpoints to surrounding buildings. Enemies trying to pass between the strongpoints would be caught in crossfires, or else would be blocked by obstacles. Chuikov writes: "A group of strongpoints, with a common firing network, under a single administration and also supplied for all-round defense, constituted a center of resistance."

The Fighting Women of Stalingrad

Women volunteered for the army--often replacing the heavy losses that the Red Army suffered early in the war.

Vasili Chuikov writes: "It is no exaggeration to say that women fought alongside men everywhere in the war....Anyone who visited the front would see women acting as gunners in anti-artillery units, as pilots of airplanes doing battle with the German air aces, as captains of armored boats, in the Volga fleet, for example, carrying cargoes from the left bank to the right and back again in unbelievably difficult conditions....

"The majority of gun crews in the Stalingrad anti-aircraft defense corps, in both anti-aircraft batteries and on search-lights, consisted of women...They would stick to their guns and go on firing when bombs were exploding all around them, when it seemed impossible not merely to fire accurately, but even to stay with the guns. In the fire and smoke, amid bursting bombs, seemingly unaware of the columns of earth exploding into the air all about them, they stood their ground to the last. The [German Air Force's] raids on the city, therefore, in spite of heavy losses among the anti-aircraft personnel, were always met by concentrated fire, which as a rule took a heavy toll among attacking aircraft. Our women anti-aircraft gunners shot down dozens of enemy planes over the blazing city."

Some of the Soviet Union's most famous night-flying bomber pilots were women.

Slamming the Trap Shut on the Nazis

On November 19 everyone in Stalingrad heard distant artillery--the great Soviet counteroffensive had started! The heroic Red fighters of Stalingrad had held their ground long enough for their comrades to close the trap on this whole German-Nazi army.

The German commanders knew that a large Soviet force was being built up--but they didn't dream that the Soviet people could organize a counteroffensive on this scale. Over a million Soviet troops now went on the move north and south of Stalingrad with incredible speed. In four and a half days, the Red Armies had encircled all 330,000 soldiers of the German 6th Army in an iron grip. Two German break-out attempts failed. Fighting continued inside the city until January 31, when German General von Paulus and his headquarters were captured.

It was one of the greatest military victories in history. The streetfighters of Stalingrad had stunned the world. Even Douglas MacArthur, the arch-imperialist general of the U.S. ruling class, said "the scale and grandeur of the effort mark it as the greatest military achievement in all history."

Stalingrad was the beginning of the end for Hitlerite Germany. The Red Army would now push the Nazi invaders off Soviet soil and pursue them to Berlin, where Hitler and his regime were destroyed.

Stalingrad--A Fight for the Future of the World

When the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, the capitalist world announced that Communism was doomed. But they underestimated the strength of Soviet socialism and the incredible will of the Soviet masses to defend their society. In the rubble of Stalingrad, you can see the truth that the masses of people can defeat a heavily armed, technologically advanced capitalist enemy.

A key to that victory was the leadership of the Communist Party and the organization of the people after decades of revolutionary class struggle. Answering the call of Stalin, thousands of Communists joined the troops at the front. In every battlefront, the Communists stepped forward as the most fearless, self-sacrificing fighters. When the Red Army needed special scout units to penetrate German lines, they recruited many of them from the Communist youth organization. In the rubble of streetfighting, the Communists everywhere conducted political work--helping the masses of fighters understand that this was a cause worth killing and dying for.

While the German soldiers sank into despair and fear, the Red fighters stared death in the face and fought fearlessly, even when individual fighters were cut off and surrounded.

The people of the world owe a great debt to the fighters of Stalingrad: for their victory over Hitler and for the valuable lessons in revolutionary urban warfare they pass on to us.

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