Home > F. Politics & the Velvet Revolution > Night Witches: Violence and the Victory at Stalingrad

Night Witches: Violence and the Victory at Stalingrad

The deaths in Newtown have reminded Americans in the most forceful way of the quandary that the nation has faced since its inception: how to ensure civil order and peace while upholding the right to bear arms. There can be no doubt that this right was vitally important to settlers during the Revolutionary War: it gave them the means to protect themselves against a tyrannical king on the one side and the Indians on the other. News of the sufferings of Irish peasants in their struggle against the same king (in part caused by an inability to bear arms) was fresh in their minds. And the invention of the American long-rifle in the 1740s gave the settlers a weapon that (along with the subsequent perfecting of the revolver), would play a major role in delivering the middle and western sections of the United States into their hands.

On the other hand, global militarization has led to the death of millions during the last two centuries and skewed political results in the favor of those possessing the latest weaponry. And when exactly does defense become offense and aggression?

These questions hang especially heavy on the civilization of the last 200-300 years. In Europe, the peace of the Victorian era owed much to the system of states and alliances created at the Congress of Vienna in 1814-15. Hats off to Klemens Von Metternich, who chaired the proceedings, which produced a European peace that lasted a century–an impressive achievement by any standard.

On the other hand, this system relied on a web of mutual defense agreements that eventually unwound in the First World War, a conflict of unprecedented savagery and bloodshed, brought to a closure by the progressive but deeply flawed Treaty of Versailles. And two decades later, Europe found itself engulfed in the Second World War. Certainly adroit diplomacy and a just peace are necessary to preventing the next global outbreak of fighting.

This fall marks the seventieth anniversary of the Battle of Stalingrad, one of the most intense battles in history. Fought on the border of Europe and Turkestan for control of the city now called Volgograd, defeat for the Soviets would have meant the loss of vital oil fields and the Caucasus Mountains, and probably a retreat into the Urals. In fact, on the outcome at Stalingrad hung the fate of Hitler’s massive invasion of the Soviet Union (Operation Barbarossa, launched June 21, 1941).

The Axis and the Soviets each committed 1 million soldiers to the fight; in the six months (August ’42-February ’43) that elapsed during the battle (some prefer to think of it as a campaign), the Axis lost 500,000, the Soviets, 750,000 soldiers dead. The city was nearly leveled by intensive bombing campaigns undertaken by both sides (though initiated by an Axis fire-bombing in August). Both armies fought under no-retreat orders from their leaders, and Russian combatants included young women and boys barely out of childhood. The Axis targeted entire families as part of its racial cleansing policy.

The fighting was unbelievably brutal. Acts of criminal savagery, astounding courage, and transcendent heroism were committed. Neither Hitler nor Stalin could be called exemplary leaders. Both sides ignored the law of war and were frequently motivated by the utmost hatred for their enemies. And starting in November, the fighting took place in winter conditions that included heavy snow and temperatures that dropped as low as -40°F. Bodies were often abandoned in the field, where, before the arrival of winter, they generated a stench so strong that it could be smelled on the far bank of the Volga River. Lice, dysentery, and typhus were rampant, the field hospitals, overwhelmed. And this is to say nothing of the conditions that prisoners, whether held by the Axis or the Soviets, endured.

File:Evgeniya Rudneva.jpg

Evgeniya Rudneva, a Soviet Night Witch

Perhaps most haunting of all were the Soviet Night Witches, young pilots–women all–who flew bombing sorties at night in antiquated wood-and-canvas biplanes; the NW would idle their engines as they approached their target, leaving the ghostly noise of the wind to strike terror in the Axis soldiers. The “Night Witch” Bomber Regiment consisted of 80 women; 30 were killed in combat.

The Axis forces, initially confident of a swift victory, were eventually outmaneuvered by the Soviets. In a bold pincer movement during the second half of November (Operation Uranus), the Russians encircled the German 6th army, the main element in the Axis forces, and besieged it until it (its soldiers so weakened that they could barely use their rifles) surrendered on February 2, 1943. It was a shattering defeat, the beginning of the long and bloody Axis retreat back to Berlin and the end of the war.

Comparing one of the most critical battles in history to the string of shootings in America’s schools during the last two decades is of course unfair; the difference in scale alone highlights the enormous difference between these two manifestations of violence. And yet RT cannot help but wonder at the effects of worldwide militarization on people today. The romance of fighting too often obscures its appalling costs (costs that only escalated with the introduction of nuclear weaponry). De-escalating and deglamorizing acts of violence is what is needed. No rational person would advocate the return of appeasement, but surely the introduction of global disarmament negotiations could make a beginning at the reduction of weapons of mass destruction. The intelligent, mutual, considered destruction of weapons stockpiles will make the world a safer place.      RT

Photos: top: A Red Army Soldier Waves a Flag After the Axis Surrender at Stalingrad; WikiCmns; CC 3.0 SA–attribution: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-W0506-316 / Georgii Zelma [2] / CC-BY-SA. middle: WikiCmns; Public Domain.

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