The Battle of Stalingrad, with its five months of fierce fighting, began exactly 80 years ago, on August 23, 1942. An estimated 750,000 Soviets were killed defending the city, dealing a massive blow to the seemingly unstoppable German war machine, a psychological turning point of the Second World War.
The German dictator Adolf Hitler had his sights set on Stalingrad, partly 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.
Pressure from the Germans to take the city resulted in some of the most intense urban battles in history, according to the West Point Modern War Institute. Hitler’s hubris was matched by that of Stalin, who was determined to defend the city, now called Volgograd, at all costs.
Soviet forces had withdrawn in previous battles, and as a result, Stalin issued Order No. 227, known as “Not One Step Back,” said Jochen Hellbeck, a history professor at Rutgers University.
Hitler’s forces had launched an aerial bombardment campaign early on, destroying the city’s buildings and roads and killing as many as 40,000 civilians. When the Germans began attacking Soviet ground forces, they found that 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 had until then rolled through Europe without defeat, Hellbeck said. Many believed that the outcome of Stalingrad would dictate the fate of the war.
“The same commitment that Hitler made for the Germans also applied to the Soviets. This would have been a huge public loss to the Soviet Union,” Hellbeck said. “It is quite possible that eventually, if Hitler had won Stalingrad, the first atomic bomb detonation would have happened over Europe.”
Ultimately, it was Hitler’s determination to fight to the end that led to the defeat of the Germans. Many of his commanders were not satisfied with the course of the battle, but did not have the courage to stand up to their leader.
The battle came to an end on February 2, 1943, after the Germans were surrounded by the Soviets and eventually surrendered. The estimated loss of life at Stalingrad varies, but the Modern War Institute estimates the death toll at about 1.2 million people.