About the project

The project preserves and explores the memories of both German and Russian veterans from the battle of Stalingrad.  Facing Staligrad illustrates competing recollections of the battle, and provides us with two divergent, living cultures of memory.

Fought over a duration of six months, the battle of Stalingrad (1942/43) marked a tidal shift in the Second World War.  Both the Nazi German and the Soviet regimes went to extremes to force the capture, or defense, of the city that bore the Soviet dictator’s name.

Amidst such intense mobilization on both sides of the front, how did enemy soldiers make sense of the war?  What animated them to fight, and to fight on against formi­dable military odds?  How did their views of themselves and the enemy evolve during this critical moment in world history?

These are questions that I posed for a book project which was to observe in comparison and interaction the wartime experiences of German and Soviet soldiers and civilians. To retrieve the intense emotions unleashed in wartime communities of love, hatred, and destruction I searched for personal documents from the time of the battle – diaries, letters, and photographs.

Especially in Russia, state archives house few personal records from the war, and so the search for these documents led me to the doorsteps of Russian and German survivors of the battle.

I discovered a domain of the war experience that no archive could reveal.

Some of the veterans willingly shared their let­ters and photo collections from the war, but the personal encounters made me aware of something he had initially overlooked: the enduring presence of the war in their lives, and the strikingly different ways in which Germans and Russians engage with war memories. The battle may lie almost seventy years in the past, yet traces of it are powerfully etched into the bodies, thoughts, and feelings of its survivors. Here was a domain of the war experience that no archive could reveal.

This experience pervades the veterans’ homes: it whispers through the pictures and artifacts from the war that hang on walls or are safely stowed away; it holds itself in the straight backs and courteous manners of former officers; it flares up in the scarred faces and limbs of wounded soldiers; and it lives on in the veterans’ simple gestures of sorrow and joy, pride and shame.

To fully capture the war’s complex, enduring presence required a camera in addition to a tape recorder. Emma Dodge Hanson, an accom­plished photographer and a friend, kindly accompanied me on my vis­its. In the short span of two weeks, Emma and I traveled to Moscow and a range of cities, towns, and villages in Germany, where we met nearly twenty veterans in their homes. Emma has a singular ability to record people when they are at ease with themselves, nearly oblivious to the photog­rapher’s presence. Shot with natural light whenever possible, the pictures capture the gleam reflected in the subjects’ eyes. The richly nuanced images bring out the fine wrinkles and furrows that grow deeper as the veterans laugh, cry, or mourn. Studied together, the hours of taped testimony and the stream of photographs captured portray the veterans residing in their recol­lections, as real to them as the furniture surrounding them.

Emma and I were invited into homes both mod­est and ornate, we spoke with decorated war veterans as well as simple soldiers, and we watched their hosts celebrate or silently grieve. We recorded some men changing into parade uniforms that looked huge on their shrunken bodies, and we held in our  hands the small objects that had sus­tained survivors through war and the prison camps. In essence, we  observed the workings of two contrasting cultures of memory: the haunt­ing shadows of loss and defeat in Germany, and the broad sense of national pride and sacrifice in Russia. Uniforms and medals were much more widespread on the Soviet than the German side, and Russian women claimed a more active role for themselves as participants in the war. In German story­telling, Stalingrad often marks a traumatic break in the person’s biography. Russian veterans, by contrast, tend to underscore the positive aspect of their self-realization in war, even as they confide memories of painful personal loss.

Soon the veterans of Stalingrad will no longer be able to discuss the war and how it shaped their lives. This makes it impera­tive to record and compare their faces and voices now. Of course, the manner in which participants reflect on the battle nearly seventy years later should not be equated with the terms in which these individu­als experienced the war in 1942 or 1943. Each individual’s experience is a linguistic construction, socially shared and histori­cally unstable.

Their recollection of World War II thus inherently evolves over time, reflecting changing social attitudes toward the war. Yet this shifting narrative can provide us with crucial insights: both about Stalingrad itself and the vacillating nature of cultural memory.

(Source: Jochen Hellbeck, “Facing Stalingrad: One Battle Births Two Contrasting Cultures of Memory,” Berlin Journal 21. Fall 2011)

Project Contributors

Jochen Hellbeck is Professor of History at Rutgers University. He is currently preparing a book on the Soviet experience of the Nazi German occupation regime in World War II. His award-winning publication, Die Stalingrad-Protokolle. Sowjetische Augenzeugen berichten aus der Schlacht [= The Stalingrad Transcripts: Soviet Eyewitnesses Report from the Battle] (Frankfurt: S. Fischer, 2012), is being translated into seven languages, and will shortly appear in English translation, as Stalingrad: The City that Defeated the Third Reich. Hellbeck is also the principal editor of Russen und Deutsche im Zeitalter der Katastrophen [=Russians and Germans in an Age of Catastrophe] (Moscow: Rosspen, 2012). His planned comparative study of Germans and Russians at Stalingrad, which triggered the “Facing Stalingrad” project, is now on the back burner.

Emma Dodge Hanson is a photographer with a wide-ranging portfolio of portraiture works. She brings to her work a singular perspective and casual grace that is both fresh and candid. A non-profit activist and world traveler, Emma lives in Saratoga Springs, New York, with her husband and two children.

Dina Fainberg is Assistant Professor of East European Studies at the University of Amsterdam. She served as the Assistant Managing Editor of the project.

Noreen Brenner translated the German interview transcripts into English.

Vitaliy Eyber translated the Russian transcripts into English.

Playfields is the agency behind the identity, design and development of this site. They are a creative consultancy focusing on service design, branding and user experience.

The project was generously supported by the Rutgers University School of Arts and Sciences and the American Academy in Berlin.

2014 © Facing Stalingrad. All rights reserved. Unless otherwise stated, all text by Jochen Hellbeck, photos by Emma Dodge Hanson.
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