80 years ago, the Soviets began defending Stalingrad against Germany
The Battle of Stalingrad, with its five months of fierce fighting, began exactly 80 years ago, on Aug. 23, 1942. An estimated 750,000 Soviets died defending the city, delivering an enormous blow to the seemingly unstoppable German war machine, a psychological turning point of World War II.
German dictator Adolf Hitler had set his sights on Stalingrad in part because it was named after his rival, Soviet leader Josef Stalin. Hitler had publicly announced that he would take the Soviet city and assumed he would do so with ease.
He was wrong.
The Germans' push to take the city resulted in some of the most intense urban combat in history, according to West Point's Modern War Institute. Hitler's hubris was matched by that of Stalin, who was determined to defend the city, today called Volgograd, at all costs.
Soviet forces had retreated in earlier battles, and as a result, Stalin issued Order No. 227, known as "Not One Step Back," said Rutgers University history professor Jochen Hellbeck.
Hitler's forces had conducted an aerial bombardment campaign early on, destroying the city's structures and roads and killing as many as 40,000 civilians. When the Germans began to engage Soviet ground forces, they found their opponents were better fighters when it came to urban combat.
The world watched for months as the Soviets repeatedly beat back the enemy, who, until that time, had rolled across Europe without defeat, Hellbeck said. Many believed that the outcome of Stalingrad would dictate the fate of the war.
"The same stakes that Hitler had laid out for the Germans also applied to the Soviets. This would have been a huge public loss for the Soviet Union," Hellbeck said. "It's quite possible that in the end, if Hitler had won Stalingrad, the first atomic bomb blast would have happened over Europe."
Ultimately, it was Hitler's determination to fight to the end that led to the Germans' defeat. Many of his commanders were unhappy with how the battle was going but didn't have the courage to stand up to their leader.
The battle came to an end on Feb. 2, 1943, after the Germans had been encircled by the Soviets and eventually surrendered. The estimated loss of life at Stalingrad varies, but the Modern War Institute puts the death toll at approximately 1.2 million people.
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