The nondescript house that determined the outcome of World War II


Sometimes the fight for just one small strength can tip the whole balance of a bigger battle. One thinks of the closing of the gates of Hougoumont Farm in Waterloo, or the bloodless German capture of Fort Douaumont in Verdun – a mistake that took around 100,000 French lives to reverse. According to Iain MacGregor, this role in Stalingrad was played by an undescriptive four-story building in the central district of the city, named “the lighthouse”, but subsequently known as “Pavlov’s house”, from after one of the leaders of his garrison, Sergeant Yakov. Pavlov.

MacGregor’s meticulously documented account of the titanic battle that marked the turning point of World War II focuses on the epic two-month struggle for possession of this unique structure between its Russian defenders and German attackers.

The fierce siege of the building – with much help from Soviet propaganda after it was praised in the army newspaper Stalin’s Banner – became emblematic of the larger battle that would represent the shattering of Hitler’s hopes of triumphant conquest and the beginning of his downfall.

So many characteristics of the Stalingrad battles – the rattenkrieg the hand-to-hand combat fought for cellars that repeatedly changed hands, or for pounded mounds of rubble that had been apartment buildings—were replicated in miniature in the ding-dong struggle for the lighthouse. Surrounded by the Germans on three sides, the home’s beleaguered defenders – civilian women as well as soldiers – clung ominously, knowing that if they lost it, the whole of Stalingrad might fall with it, allowing Hitler to claim a famous victory in the city that bore the name of its rival dictator.

The Lighthouse owes its importance to its strategic position. Located on January 9 Square on the banks of the Volga, it was one of the last strongholds of the city held by the Red Army on the west bank of the vast river. As the Wehrmacht wasted valuable time and resources trying to take it and other stubborn redoubts, Marshal Vasily Chuikov built up his forces around the city until he was ready to break the jaws of his encirclement, trapping General Paulus’ Sixth Army in the Kessel (cauldron) which would become their tomb.

MacGregor is fair on both sides and gives a starring role to General Friedrich Roske, an officer barely mentioned by Antony Beevor in his famous study of the battle. MacGregor credits him with brokering the surrender of Paulus when the newly promoted Marshal locked himself in his Univermag department store HQ in a state of nervous collapse. After the surrender, Roske spent years in the gulag and did not return to Germany until 1955, committing suicide a few months later.

The book is truly an overview of this brutal battle. Unlike Beevor, who is good at superior strategy, MacGregor takes us straight into the war above and below ground, devoting relatively little space, for example, to the feuds Hitler and Stalin had with their generals, and none at all. what happened to the captured German commanders after the battle, when some, like Paulus himself, turned traitors and became Stalinist puppets while others remained loyal to the Führer and suffered the consequences .

But the author goes beyond Chuikov’s praise, seeing him in almost Soviet terms as the spotless architect of victory and the very model of a modern comrade general: “He was loved…a man who knew its place in the Great Patriotic War. …he made sure he would be the leader among his equals when it came to celebrating his country’s greatest victory.

Indeed, my main criticism concerns the giddy manner in which MacGregor speaks of the heroism of the Red Army and of those responsible for the hard-fought victory over Hitler. They were “unsung heroes…who had performed superhuman feats.” No doubt there were many such men who fought at Stalingrad, but the book makes no mention of Lavrenty Beria, Stalin’s sinister secret police chief, waiting behind lines with his NKVD killers to shoot anyone who would back down and run away.

It’s a gripping and well-informed account, but some of the purple Russophile passages may have been taken directly from Pravda in 1942. It’s not the fault of the author, of course, but at a time when Russian soldiers are known more for their rapes, tortures and unprovoked assaults than for the simple heroic acts recounted here, the publication of the book could hardly have come at a worse time.

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