A Christmas tree, complete with tinsel and stars, seems an incongruous inclusion in an exhibition dedicated to one of the most appalling battles of World War II. The object in question, slightly sparse but still glittering, was one of several that were delivered to German troops in the Russian city of Stalingrad in December 1942. It’s one of the more unexpected items on display in an exhibition titled “Stalingrad,” currently on show at the Militärhistorischen Museum der Bundeswehr in Dresden, Germany.
More than 70 years have passed since the battle officially ended, on February 2, 1943, but it remains synonymous with the worst excesses of World War II. The battle is commonly referred to as a turning point, after which Allied forces rarely suffered a serious setback. The city of Stalingrad, today Volgograd, lies 901 kilometers (560 miles) southeast of Moscow and suffered six months of fierce fighting as the German Sixth Army attempted to push through to Russia’s Caucasus oil fields.
The battle is estimated to have cost as many as 1.2 million Russian and 400,000 German lives — as well as those of tens of thousands of Romanians, Croats, Italians and other German allies.
The “Stalingrad” exhibit showcases various items that survived World War II.
In what is the first major exhibition of the battle to be held in Germany, the Dresden museum sets out to tell its story through 600 photographs, letters and objects, some 200 of which are on loan from the Stalingrad Museum in Volgograd. Jens Wehner, the exhibition’s curator, believes it challenges perceptions of the battle and its context. “One factor that was underlined for me in bringing together the displays is that there is no objectivity in military history, but a subjectivity created by the press and other media, often as part of government propaganda,” he says.
“People think Stalingrad was the turning point of World War II, because that’s what the propaganda of both sides told them.”
In some items, the evidence of battle is plain to see. Wehner’s aim in putting together the exhibition was partly to question the myth that has arisen around the battle. He suggests there were other battles, just as merciless, fought in 1944 and 1945, but that for a variety of reasons propagandists attached less importance to them. Stalingrad, he points out, was mentioned every two or three days in German newspapers in late 1942 and, after their victory, the Soviets were quick to emphasise its importance.
“The Eastern Front was clearly the principal battleground of World War II,” he adds. “It was there the Red Army won the war. “Stalingrad was one of the war’s bloodier battles, but it was neither the bloodiest, nor the turning point. World War II had no special turning point, but was a process of mass production and mass killing on all fronts.”
The exhibit attempts to show the realities of one of the war’s bloodiest battles. The exhibition seeks to go beyond conventional military history and to provide an insight into the realities faced by the individuals who were caught up in that lethal process. Among more predictable objects, such as uniforms, vehicles and artillery pieces, are personal items such as letters, photographs and accoutrements. These help explain the timeline of the battle and how the perceptions of the opposing sides changed as it progressed.
A bullet hole in a book — did the owner survive? One of the more moving objects is a pocketbook that belonged to a German soldier named Johan Kriegel. A chemistry student from Dresden, Kriegel was killed north of Stalingrad in September 1942. The opening pages of his book are still clearly legible, with his name, address and phone number inscribed in neat handwriting. Also visible, though, is a hole that marks where a bullet has torn through its cover and pages, quite possibly taking the life of its owner.
Other items hint at the initial overconfidence of German troops on the Stalingrad front. Neatly packaged in the original box in which it was sent home is a mussel shell, picked up on the bank of the river Don by a soldier, while the caption to a photograph depicting smoke rising above the city, taken in September 1942, reads: “The last hour before the fall of Stalingrad.”
Many of the soldiers took time to write and collect items while waiting for the war to end. That hour was to come, but not in the way the caption writer had envisaged. In November 1942, the Red Army staged an offensive that cut off around 200,000 German troops and their allies in what became known as the Stalingrad Kessel, or cauldron. Among the trapped soldiers was a Protestant pastor and German Army doctor named Kurt Reuber.
Sitting in a muddy bunker at Christmas 1942, no doubt well aware of the perils of his situation, he drew a picture of a mother and child on the back of a captured Russian map.
A glimpse into the psyche of a Stalingrad veteran. Entitled the Stalingrad Madonna, the drawing has become a symbol for the suffering of both sides in the battle and is on loan to the Dresden exhibition from its usual home at the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in Berlin. In one of his last letters home, Reuber described his artwork: “The picture looks like this: the mother’s head and the child’s lean toward each other, and a large cloak enfolds them both. “It is intended to symbolize ‘security’ and ‘mother love.’ I remembered the words of St. John: light, life and love. What more can I add?”
The Madonna was flown out of Stalingrad on one of the last German transport planes to leave the city. Reuber and more than 90,000 others were taken prisoner. Only about 6,000 of them ever saw their homes again. The artist-doctor wasn’t among them; he died in a Soviet prison camp in 1945.
“Stalingrad” is at the Militärhistorisches Museum der Bundeswehr in Dresden until April 30, 2013; www.mhmbw.de