Once you get over the irony of my talking first about Stalingrad and then about American Thanksgiving, you’ll hopefully keep reading. But, just for a moment, remember that on that very American holiday in 1942, a quarter million Germans started starving to death along the Volga, trapped by America’s erstwhile allies, the Soviets.
Beginning in late summer, 1942, Germany and the Soviet Union were locked in a hand-to-hand battle along the Volga over the City of Stalin: Stalingrad. Today, the word means as much to us as Verdun: unceasing fighting in attritional firefights. But Stalingrad wasn’t just forts and trenches, it was where infantry platoons fought for days over single stairwells; companies launched assaults on the floor of the building above them; battalions attacked enemy lines to fight over a field bakery. From September to November 1942, the German Sixth Army under Friedrich von Paulus, the Romanian Third Army under Petre Dumitrescu, and the Romanian Fourth Army under Constantin Constantinescu-Claps fought the Soviet Stalingrad Front under Andrey Yeryomenko and Konstantin Rokossovsky’s Don Front, and the Southwestern Front under Nikolai Vatutin in an ever-noisy world of dust and smoke, dying and fear.
To break the deadlock and take advantage of weaker German flank elements, Georgy Zhukov, then Deputy Commander-in-Chief of the Red Army, planned a counterstroke to encircle the Germans in Stalingrad. Another quarter million Soviet troops were poured into the region, while the embattled fighters in the city were merely told to hold on.
The plan unfolded on 19 November 1942, and except for some uniform confusion close to the city itself, successfully trapped Sixth Army, both Romanian armies, parts of the Italian force and part of Germany’s Fourth Panzer Army in its clutches. A subsequent Soviet operation, Mars, beat back other elements of Germany’s Army Group B, closing the trap on over 200,000 Axis soldiers in the Stalingrad area by 23 November–three days before Thanksgiving in the US.
Both German and Soviet survivors of the Stalingrad fighting declared that they could imagine nothing worse. Because both sides were surrounded and under constant observation, there was no respite from the threat of a sudden sniper shot or artillery barrage. With every significant landmark, building, hillock, clearing and street intersection zeroed in by artillery batteries of all sizes and both sides, any and all attacks were costly in human terms. Gradually, the fighting over buildings was so sustained that some collapsed merely from the concussion of days or weeks of nearby bombardments.
Stalingrad ended for everyone on 2 February 1943. It is unclear exactly how many Axis soldiers went into captivity (probably somewhere about 91,000), but fewer than 10,000 survived to be repatriated as late as 1965.
In the late 1990s a Soviet general, on his deathbed, said that his greatest regret in life was that, as the medical officer in charge of the prisoner transports, he didn’t spend any time arguing that an accurate count of the number of Axis prisoners taken at Stalingrad was needed, so that no one knew how many to expect. “Not enough of us cared,” he was reported to have said as he expired. True or not, it feels true.
This Thursday is Thanksgiving Day in the US, a holiday known better for football and overeating than for prayerful offerings, as was originally intended. But you have to ask “who intended” before you go too far down that path. The first official Thanksgiving was from Washington’s proclamation of 1787, but days of fasting and feasting had been observed in French and Spanish New World colonies in the 16th century, and in Virginia as early as 1607. The Pilgrim’s Thanksgiving that most Americans identify as the first Thanksgiving was, therefore, a latecomer in 1621. Lincoln fixed the day as the fourth Thursday in November in 1863, and Congress set it on the fourth Thursday in 1941.
Now, watch football if you’re so inclined, or play football if that thrills ya. But, the imagery above and to the right here should tell you what the holiday is for. Yes, they are Norman Rockwell paintings, and they were all done during WWII, but you don’t see them very much. The reason for that is both clear and obscure: not very cheery. While superficially true…the girls are alive, folks, in one piece but living in ruins that were not of their making. The GIs had enough to share and gave out of their bounty because they could, and they wanted to.
Pay attention, people.
The message of this sequence is that some people have more to be obviously thankful for than others. The GI to the right is clean, probably healthy and reasonably well-fed–possibly a rear-area guy. He looks older–maybe in his late 20s or 30s–than we’re used to seeing NCOs in uniform. But, too, he might be old enough to be a father who missed feeding his own little girl, who is safe at home on the other side of the world. And the top kick who gave the young woman above his jacket can always get another.
Think about it.
No, I’m not going to preach anymore. Have a happy and safe holiday.