This post is by Matthew Poth, 2017-18 Library of Congress Teacher in Residence.
As summer slowly turned to fall in 1941, Hitler’s war machine had crushed everything in its way, and it seemed the Soviet Union was on the verge of being defeated. Hitler’s eastern armies were rolling Soviet defenses back at such breakneck speed that supplies struggled to keep pace and only 50 miles separated German forces from Moscow. Though down, the Soviet forces were not out and knew that their greatest ally, winter, was only weeks away.
As the Russian landscape became frozen tundra, German forces were battered by both the elements and a determined Soviet counterattack that pushed the front away from Moscow. In the spring of 1942, Hitler directed his forces south toward the oil-rich fields of the Caucasus. As part of the new plan, he wanted his forces to destroy Stalingrad, though the city was of little military importance. The following five months of intense fighting over the city would be some of the bloodiest in history, with roughly two million casualties.
Many historians consider the defeat of the Nazis at Stalingrad the turning point in World War II, yet this battle is given little attention in most U.S. classrooms. Typically, lessons focus on the major American experiences like Pearl Harbor, D-day, and the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan. While the American experience in World War II is important, focusing on such limited topics misses an opportunity to understand the global impact of the war.
To develop a sense of the global impact, the class can create a chart or timeline that outlines the war around the world, highlighting significant events. Consider starting each class of the unit with a short activity in which students investigate newspapers from Chronicling America. Using the key word “Stalingrad,” for example, I would search from July 1942-February 1943, starting with the month before the battle through the month after the battle ended, to identify pages for study and analysis. Students may also search for their own topics, using keywords and the date selection tools.
Divide students into groups and assign each group one month to investigate. Each group would be responsible for giving an overview of developments in the Battle of Stalingrad as well as other major events of the war that took place in the month, both domestically and abroad. Students might discover and include in their overview:
- Brazil’s declaration of war on Germany (Sep 4, 1942),
- an op-ed by Eleanor Roosevelt about Russians fighting at Stalingrad (Oct 2, 1942),
- British tank battles in Libya (Jan 1, 1943), and
- the reasons U-Boats made Winston Churchill very nervous (Feb 26, 1943).
At the end of the World War II unit, students would have created a detailed overview of various theaters of the war. Depending on the time allotted for the activity, students could use the Chronicling America articles as a starting point and continue with independent research to support their findings.
The Soviet Union’s contributions were crucial to the Allies’ successes, but Soviet leaders felt that they’d been inadequately supported. That perception colored Soviet relations with the West, and particularly the U.S. for decades to come. This foundational understanding can help students better understand subsequent events.
What deeper understandings did your students gain?