STALINGRAD AND THE TURNING OF THE WAR AGAINST THE NAZIS

STALINGRAD

The defeat of the Germans at Stalingrad (now Volgagrad)— an industrial city and transportation hub on the Volga River—is regarded by many historians as the turning point of the war. In June 1942, the Germans began advancing eastward towards Stalingrad from the Donets River basin. The objective was to gain control of the lower Volga River region and advance to the Caucasus oil fields. Stalingrad was on the west bank of the river. After losing this battle, the Germans lacked the strength to sustain their offensive operations against the Soviet Union.

On August 24, the Germans reached the outskirts of Stalingrad. They hoped to capture the city in a few weeks after pummeling it with artillery and air strikes. But things did work out like the Germans planed. It took a months of fierce house-to-house fighting just to reach the center of the city. Soviet civilians and soldiers fought back ferociously even though they suffered terrible casualties.

During the six month battle and four months of intensive fighting, Stalingrad was reduced from a large metropolis of 445,000 people to a smoldering ruin with only 43,000 people. More than 6,000 Russians were killed each day and perhaps a million people on both sides were killed in the entire battle. Because of heavy snow in the winter of fighting a lot of the bodies weren't even found until spring. In contrast the savage slaughter at Stalingrad, the Normandy landing on D-Day resulted in only 10,000 deaths. The Soviet general Vasily Chuikov liked to point out that the 42nd Russian Guards Regiment killed more enemy soldiers than the Germans lost in the capture of Paris.

Soviet forces put up fierce resistance even after the Germans had reduced the city to rubble. Both Hitler and Stalin ordered that there be no retreat. Finally, Soviet forces led by General Georgiy Zhukov surrounded the German attackers and forced their surrender in February 1943.

Stalingrad losses from August 1942 to February 1943: 1) Russians and Soviets: 479,000 dead and 651,000 wounded; 2) Germans: 147,000 dead and 90,000 captured (most of whom died) By another reckoning there were 1,109,000 dead. German suffered 200,000 loses and 650,800 Soviet soldiers were injured but survived. Only 1,515 civilians of 500,000 the pre-war population were found alive.

Books: Stalingrad: The Fateful Siege 1942-1943 By Anthony Beevor (Vikings 1998). Film about Stalingrad: Enemy at the Gates directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud (who made The Name of the Rose and Seven Years in Tibet), staring Jude Law, Joseph Fiennes, Bob Hoskin and Ed Harris. The film is about a real life sniper, Vassili Zaitsev, who is said to have killed more than 400 Germans, and his love for a beautiful Russian soldier.

War Turns Against Germany

In 1942 it seemed as if Hitler had all but conquered Europe. In the summer of 1942, Germany stood at the Volga and the Nile and the British defending the Suez Canal and digging tank traps in the Khyber Pass to keep the Nazis out of India. But from that point on, Germany would never win another important battle. As a hint of things to come, Russian forces surrounded the II Corps of Germany's 16th Army near Staraya in February, 1942. In the summer of 1942, the Wehrmacht launched a limited, last desperate blitzkrieg against the Red Army, which failed and stranded the German army in Russia as winter approached.

The credit for Russia's success against the Nazis is often given to Marshall Georgi K. Zhukov and Klimet Voroshilov. Gen. Zhukov assumed command of the Moscow defenses on October 10, 1941 and masterminded much of the counter-offensive against the Germans.

By the time the tide turned against the Nazis at the Battle Stalingrad, Hitler was starting to go batty. By this time he had taken over direct command of the German army and was deeply involved in the planning on the attack of Stalingrad. In December 1941, Hitler incomprehensibly declared war against the United States as the Red Army mounted a counter-offensive. The German supply lines in Russian were stretched for more than 1000 miles from north to south.

The Red Army inflicted 75 percent of Nazi Germany's casualties. So many Germans were killed on the eastern front that Hitler had to draft workers into the army and foreign workers, mainly French and Russian prisoners, had to be brought in to run the factories.

Fighting at Stalingrad

At Stalingrad, the Germans advanced quickly at first. They reached the outskirts of the city on August 24 but then it took them a month of house to house fighting, sustaining heavy casualties, to advance to the middle of downtown. [Source: Richard Bernstein, New York Times, August 26, 1998]

The fighting at Stalingrad was characterized massive fighting forces, complicated logistical operations and a huge cast of characters but much of pivotal action was house-to-house fighting in the rubble and ruined buildings creatted by massive German bombing. The ruins produced ideal conditions for Russian defenders to repel the German invaders.

The Battle of Stalingrad also featured the Russian cult of the sniper, the Soviet motto, "Comrade, kill your German," German fixation with suicide rather than surrender, the German-devised technique of carpet bombing, the deportation of tens of thousands of Russian citizens as slave laborers, and the willingness of the Russians to sacrifice their lives for the fatherland.

Both sides fought with little regard for the lives of civilians or their own troop. Victory was all that mattered. Of the 10,000 men in the Russians' 13th Guards Rifle Division, only 320 were still alive when the four month battle was over.

The Germans were able to reach their object: the Volga. But by the time the Germans had reached central Stalingrad their army was exhausted and depleted and Russian reinforcements arrived. While the Germans were advancing towards the Volga, Russian generals amassed a million troops to attack the weakly-guarded Nazi flanks. On November 19, the Russian army attacked the north and south flanks. Over the next month the Russians moved steadily forward and ultimately surrounded the Germans.

The 300,000-man German army was encircled and unable to break out and regroup. The German generals asked for permission to fight their way back to the German lines. Hitler denied the request. "Where the German soldier set his foot, there he remains." An effort by the Luftwaffe to resupply the German army by air failed, miserably, resulting in the loss of 600 transport planes.

Eyewitness Accounts from Stalingrad

Describing the fighting in December 1942, the German infantryman Benno Zieser wrote: "One night the great freeze up began...we froze miserably in our funk-holes. In the morning we would be numb with cold, our rifles and guns completely coated with thick hoar-frost...When shells came over, each detonation rang out with a new, hard resonance and clods of earth which were thrown high were like lumps of granite." [Source: In Their Shallow Graves, Elek Books, 1956]

"The remnants of defeated division after division fell back from all sides, before the on-pressing enemy, crowding and cramming into the heart of the cauldron. Gradually, the columns of converging transport blocked all roads. On the road guns were blown up, and weapons of all kinds, tanks included, which had come to a standstill for want of fuel. Fully laden trucks, bogged in the snow, went up in flames."

German Surrender and Retreat from Stalingrad

While the German army was surrounded, German soldiers suffered greatly. Temperatures dropped to -30°F and men starved and resorted to eating horses, cats, dogs and rats. Shortages of winter clothing greatly increased the death rate among German soldiers. Trainloads of winter clothing were stopped short of the front because the German High Command didn't want soldiers to think that the fighting would last into the winter.

Battered and starving, a quarter of a million German troops surrendered en masse on January 30, 1943 and Germany formally surrendered at Stalingrad on February 4. Zieser wrote:"Endless columns, with blood-soaked bandages and tattered uniform,summoning the last vestiges of their strength merely to drag themselves through the snow.” By the road was equipment that “had belonged to the countless men now rigid and dead, of whom nobody took any more notice than we did of all the abandoned material." [Source: In Their Shallow Graves, Elek Books, 1956]

"Whenever an individual could do no more, when even the onward-driving lash of fear of death ceased to have meaning, then like an engine which had used its last drop of fuel the deliberated body ran down and came to a standstill. Soon the kindly shroud of snow covered the object and only the toe of a jackboot or an arm frozen to stone could remind you that what was now an elongated white hummock had quite recently been a human being.”

Why the Russians Won at Stalingrad

Historian Antony Beevor believes that the Russians eventually prevailed at Stalingrad because Stalin listened to the advise of his field commanders and Hitler didn't. Hitler ultimately refused to see the facts of what was going and blamed the defeat on the cowardice of his soldiers and officers. "He lived in a fantasy world of maps and flags," one German general said. "It was the end of all my illusions about Hitler.”

Beevor also said that yes, long supply lines, cold and mud were all factors in the Russian defeat of the Germans but the main factor was the willingness of the Russians to keep fighting until they died, which he partly credits to the discipline and fanaticism developed by the Soviet system.

"That the Soviet regime was almost as unforgiving towards its own soldiers as toward the enemy is demonstrated by the total figure of 13,500 executions, both summary and judicial, during the battle of Stalingrad,” Beevor wrote. “Not only were Red Army soldiers shot if the deserted they were also executed "if they failed to shoot immediately at any comrades seen trying to desert or to surrender to the enemy."

Aftermath of Stalingrad

The German defeat at Stalingrad shattered the image of Nazi invincibility. The Russians switched from a defensive mode into an offensive mode and began driving the Germans back and didn’t stop until they reached Berlin. Describing Stalingrad from the air in December 1943, the New York Times correspondent C.L. Sulzberger wrote: "cold chimneys stood beside the sluggish Volga, casting shadows on a fantastic mess of wreckage and a visit of Hitler's finally shattered hopes." In March 1945, near the end of the war, Sulzberger wrote, "From the Stalingrad airport you see across an immense wreckage being sorted out for salvage. Streaks of smoke rose from restored factory chimneys which looked down proudly upon Nazi prisoners mutely helping to rebuild the city."

After Stalingrad, the Soviet Union held the initiative for the rest of the war. By the end of 1943, the Red Army had broken through the German siege of Leningrad and recaptured much of the Ukrainian Republic. By the end of 1944, the front had moved beyond the 1939 Soviet frontiers into Eastern Europe. With a decisive superiority in troops and weaponry, Soviet forces drove into eastern Germany, capturing Berlin in May 1945. The war with Germany thus ended triumphantly for the Soviet Union. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

Red Army Pushes Back the Germans in the Ukraine, Belarus and Poland

Much of the fighting that took place after Stalingrad as the Red Army drove the Nazis back towards Germany took place in the Ukraine. Kharvov and Kiev were retaken after the end of 1943. After this the Red Army mobilized a force of 2.3 million men that drove the Germans back to Germany, but left Ukraine a wasteland.

After Stalingrad, the Russian won a decisive battle at Kursk and the Germans were driven from the Volga and the Russian began pushing them back towards Germany. According to historian Stephen Ambrose, "The Red Army strategy—that a flexible defense can give under pressure and strike back when the attacker is overextended—best suited the conditions of World War II.

On November 7, 1943, Russian forces liberated the "mother of Russian cities," Kiev, where 50,000 Jews had been exterminated by the Nazis. In the beginning of 1944, Russian offensives in the Ukraine drove the Nazis from another 16,00 square miles of territory.

The Nazis were driven out of the Belarus in July 1944. Some of the most intense fighting of the Red Army counterattack took place there. The damage and loss of life was perhaps worse than anywhere else. Belarus lost 2.2 million people—a quarter of its population—in World War II. A total of 209 of the 270 major population centers were ruined. Minsk was leveled. Only 50,000 people remained there.

On August 1, 1944, the Polish Home Army attacked German forces in Warsaw, but the Red Army across the Vistula River stood by while SS troops slaughtered Poles and razed most of the city.

Korsun Salient

The Germans were routed in the Korsun Salient in central Ukraine in February 1943. Describing the action, Major Kampov wrote: "All that evening the Germans had been in a kind of hysterical condition. The few remaining cows in the village were slaughtered and eaten with a sort of cannibal frenzy. When a barrel of pickled cabbage was discovered in one hut, it led to wild scrambles...These troops had been living mostly by looting. the local population. [Source: Russia at War, Barry and Rockcliff, 1964]

"They flocked to the ravines near the village , and then took the desperate decision to break through early in the morning. They had almost no thanks left—they had been lost and abandoned during the previous days fighting, and what few tanks they still had now had no petrol...They were a strange sight, these two German columns that tried to break out of the encirclement. Each of them was like an enormous mob.

"Then it happened. It was about six o'clock in the morning. Our tanks and our cavalry suddenly appeared and rushed straight into the thick of the two columns. What happened then is hard to describe. The Germans ran in all directions. And for the next four hours our tanks raced up and down the plain crushing them by the hundreds. Our cavalry, competing with tanks, chased them through the ravines, where it was hard for the tanks to pursue them...In a small area over 20,000 Germans were killed. I had been in Stalingrad but never had I seen such a concentrated slaughter as in the fields and ravines of that small bit of country."

Kursk

On July 5, 1943, the Germans begin their last major counter-offensive after Stalingrad on eastern front at Kursk. Codenamed Operation Citadel, the tank offensive was stopped cold. The Germans suffered "horrendous casualties" and Hitler lost any hope of conquering the Soviet Union.

The Battle of Kursk was the largest tank battle in history. It involved 6,000 tanks, 4,000 aircraft and more than 2 million troops along a front nearly 500 miles long. During the Battle of the Kursk Bulge between July 5 and August 5, 1943, German tanks attempted a pincer movement on Kursk. The attack was slowed by mine fields and ended with German in a full scale retreat.

After Kursk, Ambrose wrote: "Hitler's only hope was to negotiate a new division of eastern Europe between the Nazi and Soviet empires, akin to what existed from August 1939 to June 1941. This meant persuading Stalin that the Wehrmacht was still be a serious threat and that the Allies could not be depended on. To do that, Hitler had to hurl Allied forces back into the sea when they made their inevitable offensive." [Source: Stephen E. Ambrose, U.S. News and World Report, May 23, 1994]

Russian Advance on Germany

By the autumn of 1943, the Russians had reclaimed much of the Ukraine. By the autumn of 1944, the Russians had taken the remainder of the Ukraine, plus Belurussia, half of Poland and most of the Balkans.

Around the time of the Normandy invasion in the summer of 1944, the Russians launched Operation Bagration on the Eastern front with 1.7 million Soviet soldiers and 2,700 tanks. In July, 1944, a giant pincer movement trapped 100,000 retreating Germans at Minsk. In October, Soviet forces shot their way through the Tatar Pass in the Carpathian Mountains into Hungary and drove quickly to Budapest.

One survivor from Kaliningrad told National Geographic that in the closing months of the war, "I saw in back of us a red sky and heard bombing, a terrible noise. Dead horses lay in the fields around us, and we ate potato peels from the garbage of abandoned farms, and I was sick. When we arrived in Germany, I was put in an orphanage."

In July 1944, Alexander Werth wrote: "In Moscow today all hearts are filled with joy. Every night, sometimes once, sometimes twice, sometimes even three times, a familiar deep male voice, speaking like a man giving orders to soldiers, announces a new major victory, and then ten minutes later guns booms and thousands of colored rockets light up the sky...The new places now being captured by the Russians are in distant Lithuania or in western Byelo-Russia." [Source: “Russia at War 1941 to 1945" by Alexander Werth, 1964]

"The present debacle is the biggest disaster the Germans have suffered since Stalingrad. The casualties are mounting up and are approaching the half-million mark. Division after division has been encircled and wiped out, hundreds of thousands killed and about a hundred taken prisoner. Of these hundred thousand or more prisoners, fifty-seven thousand were paraded through the streets of Moscow with their generals at their head...Most of the Germans shuffled along with a hang-dog look. Others, the younger ones...seemed startled at the clean, cheerful nd well-fed appearances of the crowds."

Abuses and Atrocities by Russian Soldiers

When Russians entered Berlin there was a massive rape of German women. In the advance towards Berlin, Russian soldiers killed German farmers and chopped up their bodies and fed to their hogs.

The rape and murder of German women was systematic by Russians. One soldier said, "In a farmyard stood a cart to with four naked women were nailed through their hands in a crucified posture...in the dwelling we found a total of 72 women, including children, and one old man dead...some babies had their heads bashed in."

One elderly woman told the Washington Post, "During the war, a Russian soldier once came to my house with a blanket and told my mother to sew him a shirt. My family was poor but we had a sewing machine. When she finished, he took the shirt, thanked her and he took the sewing machine. That's the problem. They're unpredictable...and big...very, very big."

The Russians took Sachsenhausen concentration camp in easterb Germany in August 1945. At least 12,000 of the 60,000 people kept prisoner there by the Russians died, many from starving or freezing to death during the frigid winters of 1946 and 1947.

Yalta

In February, 1945, Stalin met with Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt at Yalta. The Yalta Conference was the meeting of Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt that redrew post-World War II national borders and established spheres of influence in Europe.

Relations between the Soviet Union and the U.S. and Britain began to sour when the war turned in the Allies' favor. The postponement of the European invasion to June 1944 became a source of irritation to Stalin, whose country meanwhile bore the brunt of the struggle against Germany. Then, as Soviet armies pushed into Eastern Europe, the question of the postwar order increased the friction within the coalition.

At the Allied Conferences at Yalta in February 1945 and Potsdam in July, 1945, Allies defined new borders and tried to establish a new European order but ended splitting the continent into East and West. At Tehran in 1943 and Yalta in 1945, Stalin imposed strict terms. The United States and Britain went along them with because of the Russian army’s success and the great sacrifices the Russians made.

At Yalta, in eight secret meeting in Livadia Palace, the Allies worked out the terms for end of the war and carved up the globe. Stalin clashed with U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill over Stalin's plans to extend Soviet influence to Poland after the war. At the same time, however, Stalin promised to join the war against Japan ninety days after Germany had been defeated. Breaking the neutrality pact that the Soviet Union had concluded with Japan in April 1941, the Red Army entered the war in East Asia several days before Japan surrendered in August 1945. Now, with all common enemies defeated, little remained to preserve the alliance between the Western democracies and the Soviet Union. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

On Stalin, Roosevelt said n 1941, “I think if I give him everything I possibly can and ask for nothing in return...he won’t try yo annex anything and will work with me for a world of democracy and peace.” In 1945 he said, We can’t do business with Stalin. He has broken every one of the promises he made at Yalta.” Critics of the Yalta agreement assert that Roosevelt sold out to Stalin on Poland and gave signs to him that he had a free hand there. Roosevelt died two months later.

Fighting Outside Berlin

Describing the fighting near Berlin in mid-April 1945, Norman Norris, a British POW at a German camp, recalled:"We marched away from huts and barbed wire. Even the camp guards marching with us were happy to be marching westward...In the morning of 16 April we reached Potsdam. It had been raided the night before and there was chaos everywhere, with numbers of German soldiers hopelessly drunk. But as we marched through all this destruction, tough SS troops were erecting barricades in a desperate attempt to stem the Russian advance. Terror and panic could be seen amongst the civilian population.

“Eventually we reached a small village named Senzke...It appeared it was being used for a headquarters and even our guards were not happy about remaining there so we marched on and rested under some trees. An hour later some Russian aircraft came over to strafe the village and without any opposition dived backwards and forwards as if enjoying themselves."

Norris late found refuge in a Red Cross headquarters on a farm. "As the Russians drew nearer," he wrote, "shells and mortars began to fall in and around the farm. German anti-tank gunners, dug in to resist the Russian armored attacks, drew terrific fire...Gunfire, coupled with the heavy explosions of mortars, now became intense. The Russians were pouring heavy fire on the area. Long lines of German troops could be seen running across the fields...with hunted looks in their eyes as they struggled to run even faster through the sea of mud. Two Polish prisoners of war, who were watching the fighting from the yard, were killed by one exploding mortar shell, mutilated beyond recognition."

"A German anti-tank gun still continued to fire. The Russians now poured a withering fire at this last remaining gun crew, completely eliminating them. Unfortunately our Sergeant Major with another man was sheltering in a house near the gun site. A heavy tank shell went right through the walls, decapitating them both. It was indeed a tragedy after four years of imprisonment to be killed within minutes of freedom."

"To soften up the German opposition for a further advance, the Russians now employed a remarkable weapon, the Katusha, or 'Stalin Organ.' This was a mobile rocket ramp which fired off an amazing number of projectiles. They put a long line of them across the fields, wheel to wheel, and at the drop of a hand poured what seemed to be an endless rain of fire into the retreating Germans."

Chaos in Berlin

Describing the fighting in Berlin, Berlin resident Claus Fuhrman wrote: "Panic had reached its peak in the city. Hordes of soldiers stationed in Berlin deserted and were shot on the spot or hanged on the nearest tree. A few dangling only in under clothes were dangling on a tree quite near our house. On their chest they had placards reading" 'We betrayed the Führer.' The Werewolf pasted leaflets on the houses: 'Dirty cowards and defeatist/ We've got them all on our lists!'

"The SS went into underground stations, picked out among the sheltering crowds a few men whose faces they did not like, and shot them then and there. The scourge or our district was a small one-legged Haupptschar-führer of the SS, who stumbled through the street on crutches, a machine pistol at the ready, followed by his men. Anyone he didn't like the look of he instantly shot. The gang went down cellars at random and dragged all the men outside, giving them rifles and ordering them straight to the front. Anyone who hesitated was shot."

"Everything had run out. The only water was in the cellar of a house several streets away. To get bread one had to join a queue of hundreds, grotesquely adorned with steel helmets, outside the bakers shop at 3 a.m. At 5 a.m. the Russians started firing and continued uninterruptedly until 9 or 10.

Fighting in Berlin

The Russians took Berlin in April and May 1945. They lost 102,000 men and 195,000 were wounded. Around 125,000 German civilians and between 150,000 and 200,000 German troops were killed.

"The front was a few streets away," Fuhrmann wrote. "Walloon Waffen SS had taken up position; wild, desperate men who had nothing to lose and who fought to their last round of ammunition...The continual air attacks of the last months had worn down morale; but now as the first shells whistled over our heads, the terrible pressure began to give way. It could not take much longer now...Russian low-flying wooden biplanes machine-gunned people as they stood apathetically in their queues and took a terrible toll on the waiting crowds. In every street dead bodies were left lying where they had fallen.

“The pincers began to narrow on the capital. Air raids ceased; the front lines were too loose now for aircraft to distinguish between friend and foe. Slowly but surely the T.52 tanks moved forward through Prenzlauer Allee, through Schonhasuer Akkee, through the Kaiserstrasse. The artillery bombardment poured on the city from three sides in unbroken intensity. Above it, one could hear sharply close and distant, the rattling of machine-guns and the whine of bullets. Now it was impossible to leave the cellar...Almost all men had revolvers; we squatted in the farthest corner of the cellar to avoid being seen by patrolling SS.

"We left the cellar a longer and longer intervals and often we couldn't tell if it was day or night. The Russians drew nearer; they advanced through the underground railway tunnels armed with flame-throwers; their advance snipers had taken up positions quite near us; and their shots ricocheted off the houses opposite. Exhausted German soldiers would stumble in and beg for water—they were practically children."

"An old man who had lived in our house had been hit by a shell splinter a few days ago and had bled to death. His corpse lay near the entrance and had already begun to smell. We threw him on a cart and took him to a burnt-out school building where there was a notice: 'Collection point for Weinmeisterstrasse corpses.' We left him there; one of us took the opportunity of helping himself to a dead policeman's boots."

“Whilst the city lay under savage artillery and rifle fire the citizens now took to looting shops. The last soldiers withdrew father and farther away...On the morning of 1 May our flat was hit by a 21-cm. shell and almost entirely destroyed. On the same day water carriers reported that had seen Russian soldiers. They could not be located exactly; they were engaged in house to house fighting. The artillery had been silent for some time when at noon on 2 May rifle fire too ceased in our district. We climbed out of the cellar.”

Fall of Berlin and Surrender of Germany

Berlin fell to the Red Army on May 2, 1945 after 12 days of bloody house-to-house street fighting between the disintegrating German army and the Soviet army lead by Marshals Georgi Zhokob and Ivan Konev. The Germans were willing to surrender a day earlier but a Russian major who approached to conduct negotiations was taken out with a sniper bullet to the head and the furious Russians retaliated with a massive barrage of artillery.

The Germans surrendered to the Allies at a trade school in Reims, France, where Eisenhower had set up his advanced headquarters, at 2:41am (European time) on May 7, 1945, eight days Hitler killed himself and 11 months after D-Day. The terms were negotiated buy German Colonel General Alfred Jodl, the last chief of staff of the German army, who sought out the Allies in France because he didn’t want to surrender to the Russians in Berlin. "With this signature," Jodl said, "the German people and the German forces are, for better or worse, delivered into the victors hands...In this hour I can only express the hope that the victors will treat them with generosity."

The war "ended, appropriately, with the Nazis fighting from the sewers of Berlin," reported Time magazine. "There armies were annihilated. Every inch of the land was occupies. Their cities. great and small, were largely reduced to rubble. As a people, those who survived were completely beaten and very nearly destitute."

The fall of Berlin was marked with the Raising the Red Flag Over the Reichstag, a photograph taken by Yevgeny Khakdei which some historians have suggested is the greatest photograph ever taken be cause it so vividly captured one of history’s biggest moments. The only problem is the photograph was staged. Khakdei and his uncle made the red flag from a tablecloth and waited at the Riechstag for some soldiers to show up, and gave them the flag and told them how to pose. After the photograph was developed some smoke was altered for aesthetic reasons and a second wristwatch on the flagbearers arm was removed as evidence of looting or blackmarketeering.”

According to Moscow, 507,000 Germans were killed or captured in the Battle of Berlin. British, French and American troops marched into a ruined Berlin in July 1945, two months after the city had fallen to the Soviet army.

Berlin in Ruins

Describing Berlin at the time of the city fell, a Soviet corespondent wrote in Time: "Ruins, craters, burned out tanks, smashed guns, tram cars riddled with holes, half-demolished trenches, heaps of spent cartridge shells, fresh graves, corpses still waiting burial, masses of white flags, crowds of glum and hungry inhabitants lie before our eyes." [Source: Time, May 14, 1945]

"On Friedrcihstrasse...it is impossible to pass on foot...The pavement has sunk into the ground. The ceiling of the subway which runs just below the street has caved in...The Tiergartne is burning: trees crack and writhe in flames. The Riechstag is smoking...The new Imperial Chancellery, Hitler's Berlin residence, is also burning. The windows are blocked with heaps of books, and machineguns stick out between them...Inside it is hot—fire is spreading nearer, floors are glowing with heat and about to collapse. Across the street is the Air Ministry, the Ministry of Göring, protected by a thick stone wall...The building is burning and we cannot enter it. The gigantic air-raid shelter is untouched."

Fuhrnman wrote: "A Short distance behind the Alexaderplatz everything was in a state of utter turmoil and confusion. Russian nurses armed with machine-pistols were handing out loaves of bread to the German population...At our street corner I saw two Russian soldiers assaulting a crying elderly woman and then raping her in full view of the stunned crowd...Every shop in the district was looted."

"The starving people flung themselves like beasts over one another, shouting, pushing and struggling to lay their hands on whatever they could. I caught hold of two buckets of sugar, a few boxes of preserves, sixty packages of tobacco and a small sack of coffee which I quickly took back home before returning for more...In order not to be trampled down themselves the Russians fired at random into the crowds with machine-pistols, killing several...I cannot remember how I extricated myself from this screaming, shouting chaos; all I remember is even here in this utter confusion. Russian soldiers were raping women in one of the corners,"

Soviet Union and Japan at the End of World War II

At the Yalta conference in February 1945 Stalin promised to join the war against Japan ninety days after Germany had been defeated. Breaking the neutrality pact that the Soviet Union had concluded with Japan in April 1941, the Red Army entered the war in East Asia several days before Japan surrendered in August 1945. Now, with all common enemies defeated, little remained to preserve the alliance between the Western democracies and the Soviet Union. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

The Soviet Union declared war on Japan August 8, 1945 two days after the Hiroshima bomb was dropped. In a massive offensive that began the next day, on August 9, Soviet forces moved into Manchuria and occupied it and northern Korea and southern Sakhalin (a Russian island off the Russian Far East occupied by Japan during the war). The moves were made by the Soviets without fighting any major battles.

In Manchuria, Russians and Japanese continued fighting for at least five days after the surrender. One man in Harbin in northeastern China told writer Paul Theroux: "it all ended in 1945, when the Japanese front collapsed. the Russian soldiers, who had been criminals and prisoners, were unmerciful. They took the city and began raping and murdering."

According to Japanese sources around 600,000 Japanese were taken to Siberia as prisoners. About 55,000 died in prison or doing forced labor between 1945 and 1948. Many persihed from disease and malnutrition. Survivors endured slave labor, starvation and bitter cold. A few managed to make it back to Japan. Many remained in the Soviet Union after their release from prison.

Scholars speculate that if the U.S. didn't drop the bomb off Hiroshima, hastening the end of World War II, the Soviet Union might have invaded Japan and the country might have ended up divided like North and South Korea.

The day after Japan surrendered Stalin demanded the U.S. and the Soviet Union act as co-equals in an occupation of Japan. Truman refused, fearing a divided Japan. Two days later the Soviet military attacked the Kurile Islands. The Soviets raised the idea of occupying northern Hokkaido but MacArthur firmly rejected it. In Yalta a decision was made to give the Kuriles to the Soviets in return for entering the war against in Japan.

Legacy of World War II on Soviet Union

The end of World War II saw the Soviet Union emerge as one of the world's two great military powers. Its battle-tested forces occupied most of Eastern Europe. The Soviet Union had won island holdings from Japan and further concessions from Finland (which had joined Germany in invading the Soviet Union in 1941) in addition to the territories seized as a consequence of the Nazi-Soviet Nonaggression Pact. But these achievements came at a high cost. An estimated 20 million Soviet soldiers and civilians perished in the war, the heaviest loss of life of any of the combatant countries. The war also inflicted severe material losses throughout the vast territory that had been included in the war zone. The suffering and losses resulting from the war made a lasting impression on the Soviet people and leaders that influenced their behavior in the postwar era. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

Events that marked the end of World War II have traditionally been observed with much more seriousness and solemnity in Russia than the holidays like Memorial day and Veterans Day in the United States.

The Soviet Union took an estimated $65 billion worth of booty in World War II. In April 2000, Russia announced it would return the first of some of the trophy art it took: a cache of old master drawings hidden for 50 year under the bed of a Red Army officer. Russians also worked hard to restore damaged treasures at home. One Russian soldier collected 1.2 million fragments from destroyed frescoes at a church in Novgorod and tried to reassemble them.

From time to time children are killed or maimed by World War II artillery shells.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2016

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