Stalingrad: Understanding the Global Impact of the Eastern Front in WWII

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.

Stalingrad-Süd., 1942

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.

The midland journal, February 26, 1943 (Rising Sun, MD)

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?

2 Comments

  1. Thomas Holbrook
    March 14, 2018 at 2:40 pm

    It’s grotesque that the importance of heroic (and successful) defense of Stalingrad is overlooked in the USA. If anything can be pointed to as the beginning of Hitler’s and Germany’s demise it is that battle; thereafter Germany was in retreat on all major fronts. The West prefers to point to the D-Day Allied invasion of Europe, but without the Russian success in Stalingrad that may never have happened successfully. Surely many Germans must have realized that, as may Hitler in his deepest self. Thereafter the vise began to close on Germany, and its imminent defeat was unmistakable–no Thousand-Year-Reich, but only a complete defeat in less than four years.

  2. E. Siguel
    November 20, 2020 at 5:20 pm

    Did Stalin know the strength of his industry and armed forces by November, 1942?
    Did he realize Russia was stopping Germany on most fronts in Russia?
    Did he conceal Russia’s strengths to continue to receive substantial supplies from the US and UK?
    Despite asking for an invasion of France (2nd front), was Stalin really interested in postponing the invasion of France, to delay a western attack on Germany, to have more time for Russia to conquest the East of Europe? Could he be thinking so far ahead to the cold war?
    There was already a 2nd front in Europe in 1943. No need for an invasion of France. Germany already had many forces to prevent an invasion. A real invasion was not needed to help Russia.
    Stalin was smart. There were many smart people in Russia. They were good in math. They must have roughly calculated that the Allied Bombing over Germany was keeping busy huge armies to defend Germany from the air.
    The Africa war, and later the invasion of Italy was also keeping busy a huge number of soldiers and weapons.
    Stalin at that time did not care much about Africa.
    Italy was also not important to him.
    Attacking Germany via Italy or Greece did not seem feasible to Stalin or the Allies.
    Attacking Germany to end WW2 in Europe required the invasion of France.
    If the US + UK invaded France and moved quickly through Europe, Russia may not have enough time to enter Poland and several other countries.
    Did Stalin figure out that it was in his best interest to present a substantial appearance of weakness and being on the verge of collapse, so that Allies would send more things to Russia, and would postpone the invasion of France from 1943 to 1944?
    US was aided by the battle of the Atlantic and many other events. But the Allies were able to invade Africa and Italy by 1943. Could they have done France instead? If they sent far fewer airplanes and resources to Russia, could they have done it?

    I propose that the US and UK sent huge amounts of resources to Russia to prevent its collapse, so Germany would send many troops and resources to Russia, as it did. But they did not realize the strength of Russia by 1943 and how quickly Russia would move to conquer Europe.
    It appears that Russia stopped its efforts when Warsaw rebelled against Germany in 1944, to let most rebels die, so it would be easier to install a desirable government in Russia.
    What were the real reasons why the US allowed Germany to kill millions of Jews? To deplete Russia and Eastern countries of intellectuals, prevent communist takeover of Eastern Europe? Why were the factories and camps and railroads not destroyed? They did not have many antiaircraft weapons.
    Perhaps there was a hidden plan to let Germany destroy as much as possible of Russia, and Russia concealed its strength to maintain that appearance that Germany was destroying Russia, while preparing to take over Eastern Europe.

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