Monday, January 17, 2011

The Siege of Leningrad, September 1941 - January 1944

Battle of the Week 2011-02

Imagine a war unlike any you've ever heard of--more troops, more guns, more tanks, more planes than have ever been put into the field before. Imagine death and destruction on a scale you've read about in novels, but never dreamed could be real, could find its way to your home, your doorstep.

Imagine a vast army deployed across a front wider than any that's ever been attempted before, and winning. Advancing mile after mile across your own country, seemingly unstoppable. Everything your country has thrown at it has been crushed, mangled, destroyed, annihilated. Nothing seems to stop the relentless march.

Imagine that army is made up of soldiers who have been trained to believe your people, the people of your country, are less than they. Less than people, in fact. Less than dogs. Unfit to live. To them, you and your family are fit only to be killed--the strong worked to death, the weak and young and old shot or bayoneted or thrown from high places to reduce the burden they might otherwise put on the army's resources.

And that army has surrounded your city, cut off all access except a narrow avenue across a lake, and settled in to starve you out. No assault, no occupation. All you have to do is survive. But as days drag into weeks, weeks into months, and months into years, as your daily allowance of food is cut in half and then in half again until you are eating less in a day than you did in a meal before, that seems less and less likely. And crows and rats and dogs look more like food than anything else.

It's never happened here. But it happened to Leningrad, the city the world now calls St. Petersburg, in Russia.

We don't study much about the Eastern Front of World War II here in the U.S. After all, we weren't involved directly, although we invaded Normandy partly to draw the Germans west and ease the pressure on the Soviet Union. And for most of the years since the war, the Soviets were our enemies, anyway--and who needs to study the history of one's enemy, right?

Turns out we could learn a thing or two from a study of the Eastern Front. Many of the greatest battles of World War II were fought there: the Battle of Kursk was the largest tank battle ever fought, and more Soviet soldiers fell in the battle for Stalingrad than American soldiers fell in the entire war. In all, perhaps twenty million Soviet citizens died on the Eastern Front. If the war between Germany and the Soviet Union comprised the entire scope of World War II--if the Germans had never invaded France, had never tried to subdue Britain, if the Japanese had never invaded Manchuria or bombed Pearl Harbor, if the United States had never become involved in the war at all--it would still have been the deadliest, most destructive war in human history.

Leningrad was only one act in that vast drama, but to those who lived and died there, it was the central act of the war. The city languished under siege for nearly nine hundred days; a child born on September 8th, 1941, when the siege began, would be walking and talking before he knew a day of peace, if he survived that long. Some time around the 12th of January, 1942, the Soviet army managed to open a narrow corridor across the frozen Lake Ladoga, and this remained open off and on until the siege was lifted, carrying supplies in and people out. But for a city whose population was three million when the siege began, a single corridor was not nearly sufficient. As many as three quarters of a million Leningraders died in the siege.

It's never happened here, or anywhere else. Only in Leningrad. We would do well not to forget, wherever we come from.


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