Middle Israel: The relevance of Stalingrad, 75 years on

Finally, psychologically, the Germans were fighting on a distant and very foreign soil, while the Soviets were fighting for their home.

A woman walks past a bust of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin in an exhibit dedicated to the Battle of Stalingrad (photo credit: REUTERS/MAXIM SHEMETOV)
A woman walks past a bust of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin in an exhibit dedicated to the Battle of Stalingrad
“NAZIS TRAPPED,” exclaimed the Palestine Post’s full-captioned lead headline on Hanukkah eve, 1942, alluding to the unfolding bloodbath in the snowfields of Stalingrad, 2,000 kilometers away.
No one had illusions about what still lay ahead. Four columns to that headline’s left, another one stated “Extermination Plan Confirmed – Evidence in Hand of Polish Government,” and a third calculated “Two Million Jews Wiped Out, Five Million More in Peril,” while two others reported of special fasts, prayers, and protests in British Palestine and also in the US, where “half-a-million Jewish workers were scheduled to stop work for 10 minutes at 10 o’clock today, as a protest of the Nazi atrocities.”
Even so, the press understood that the war’s tide was finally turning.
A month earlier the British defeated the Germans at Egypt’s gates, several days before Anglo-American forces landed at North Africa’s opposite end. Now, two weeks after the Red Army had broken into Stalingrad, the Germans who had besieged it were themselves besieged, and the Allies sniffed the approach of victory, which indeed arrived 10 weeks on, when the German 6th Army surrendered.
The defeat was monumental, not only because 140,000 German troops had been killed and 96,000 had fallen captive, including 24 generals led by 6th Army commander Gen. Friedrich Paulus himself, but because the German war machine would never recover from this grand blow, after which it steadily retreated until its final burial in Berlin.
What, then, shaped the military drama in Stalingrad, and how is it related to the political drama that is steadily unfolding in Bibigrad?
THE MILITARY causes for Germany’ defeat are clear.
Strategically, Hitler made a mistake when he split the invading armies into two heads, one that galloped to the oil wells of the Caucasus, the other to the Volga’s banks. That choice spread his forces thin, as did his rash retrieval of his lone reserve army in southern Russia in order to reinforce his embattled units in Leningrad.
Tactically, the Fuehrer made a fateful mistake when he rejected his generals’ requests to retreat in the face of their enemy’s pincer movement on Stalingrad.
Logistically, the German soldier’s winter coat was less than half as thick as his Russian rival’s, and the German air force lost the ability to deliver food, medicine and arms to the besieged. And technologically, the Germans had no answer to the Soviets’ mass production of T-34 tanks and Katyusha rocket launchers.
Finally, psychologically, the Germans were fighting on a distant and very foreign soil, while the Soviets were fighting for their home.
The Soviet lot was entirely different.
Mentally, as the attacked party, the Soviets were not only better motivated but also much more familiar with the landscape, and better conditioned to brave its harsh climate. Logistically, since their land was so vast, the Soviets could flood the battlefield with weapons manufactured well beyond the enemy’s reach. And militarily, Stalin did not interfere in his generals’ tactical decisions.
This, then, explains how the Soviets won. It does not explain how their county was overrun in the first place. Why did the Soviet Union have to endure untold horror and lose more than 20 million people, before evicting the Germans from Mother Russia’s domains? Well, the Soviet Union lost 20 million people – and, while at it, enabled the Holocaust – because its government, just like Germany’s, had hijacked police and the press.
Had the Soviet press been free, it would have warned of Operation Barbarossa’s preparations, as Red Army intelligence did in 1941, and in 1939 a free media would have stirred public debate over the wisdom and morality of Stalin’s pact with Hitler.
And had police not been converted from the public’s watchdog to the government’s attack dog, the Red Army would not have arrived at its supreme test without 200 of its best generals, including three of its five marshals as well as hundreds of colonels, all purged in the Great Terror of 1936-1938 along with major authors, poets, scholars and even musicians.
Stalin’s unleashing of police and the secret services on the people, and Russian society’s consequent fear and demoralization, contributed decisively to the German invasion’s initial success.
NO SUCH dynamics can ever play out in the Jewish state.
In the Jewish state suspicion of government harks back to the biblical Samuel, who warned us of the proverbial politician whose vanity would make him “take your daughters as perfumers, cooks and bakers,” whose cruelty will make him turn the people into “his slaves,” and whose greed would make him “seize your choice fields, vineyards and olive groves and give them to his courtiers” (Samuel I, 8:13-17).
This suspicion of power is etched into our DNA, and that is why no one will ever muzzle us Israelis’ media or hijack our police the way Hitler and Stalin did before leading their nations to Armageddon’s flames.
That is why, unlike the gullible citizens of Germany and the Soviet Union in their times, we nip in the bud whatever we suspect even just smacks of despotism’s tiniest seed.
That is why recent weeks’ attempts to ban police probes into a sitting prime minister’s alleged felonies, or to gag such an investigation’s conclusions, or to intimidate the chief policeman by cutting his salary have backfired this week, sending thousands to the streets of Tel Aviv, and the prime minister to sheepishly stage a legislative retreat.
No, Hanukkah 2017 is not Hanukkah 1942.
We are free. Our media and police have exposed the sins of a president, a prime minister, and a chief rabbi not because of a journalist’s fastidiousness or a cop’s whim, but because this is what our Jewish heritage demands.
That is why our politicians will never successfully intimidate police, as the coalition chairman who consorted with reputed gangsters has this week learned, and that is why the politicians will never conquer our media, as one prime minister and one publisher have learned after having apparently toyed with the idea of bargaining away one newspaper’s conviction.
That is why Jerusalem will light next week Hanukkah’s candles so shorn of 1942’s fear, sorrow and guilt.