The Stalingrad Myth from 1943 to the Present in a Russian-German Comparative Perspective
Call for Papers
Deadline: 30 Apr 2019
The German war of aggression and annihilation in Eastern Europe took a decisive turn with the capitulation of the 6th Army in Stalingrad in February 1943. While the defeat in Stalingrad in the German tradition is to this day often regarded as a »synonym for apocalypse« (Jens Ebert), the victorious »battle of the century« (Vassili Chuikov) in post-Soviet Russia is still seen as a prime example of heroic fortitude in the ›Great Patriotic War‹. No other decisive battle or ›place of remembrance‹ has remained so oppositely coded for the parties fighting at the time and has had to fulfil such different imaginative political tasks over the course of time as ›Stalingrad‹.
The planned conference aims to remedy this national limitation of the Stalingrad myth by systematically confronting the German-German and Soviet or Russian views of the battle with one another. After all, with increasing historical distance, the assumption arises that the radically different significance of Stalingrad for the victors and the defeated was for decades able to cover significant similarities both in the experience of war at the time and in the taming or exaggerating of these similarities in memories and rituals after the fact.
Against this backdrop, the conference will pursue two goals. On the one hand, we will examine how the Stalingrad myth has changed on all sides over the course of time, and how the battle significantly shapes the competing views of the Second World War and possibly also of the war as a whole. On the other hand, the focus should increasingly be on the social and memory politics functions in the respective countries that initiate and implement such change in the first place. While ›Stalingrad‹ in West Germany consolidated and served a soldierly victim imagination until the 1950s and 1960s, which kept post-war society as far away as possible from participation in war crimes or even genocide, the USSR, especially since the 1960s, has recognised the opportunity to gradually replace the October Revolution as the founding myth of its own state with the collective symbolic power of commemorating the ›Great Patriotic War‹.
The systematic comparison of West and East German and Soviet and post-Soviet Stalingrad images and narratives from 1943 to the present is to be carried out on as broad a basis of material as possible, with special attention being paid to the anniversaries of ›Stalingrad‹ (1953, 1963, 1993 and 2003). In particular, three thematic questions are at the centre of interest, which seem to remain relevant for the entire period from different perspectives, accentuation, and emphasis.
1.) Victory and defeat – mourning and triumph: The struggle for Stalingrad was symbolically highly charged from the beginning, because the city bore Stalin's name from1925 and therefore offered itself as a prism to imagine the entire war as a kind of duel between the two heads of state Stalin and Hitler. But how did Hitler's and Stalin's imaginations change with regard to the representations of victory and defeat, but also of mourning and triumph? What aspects must victory celebrations in the USSR and Russia overlook in order to be able to convert mourning into triumph again and again? How much mourning can a forced heroic form of death memoria allow in which media at all? In the Soviet case, for example, to what extent could the victims of the Stalinist terror of the 1930s be mourned in the course of the Destalinization that has occurred since the mid-1950s, and how were they related to the military triumph? And how does the political channelling of mourning on the German side complement this? While mourning became the most important signature of a soldierly victim's imagination in West Germany, the question arises as to whether the GDR was able to develop an independent Stalingrad myth at all or whether it remained entirely committed to the adaptation of Soviet victory and mourning narratives.
An additional problem with regard to mourning on the German side is of course the ›perpetrators‹. From the 1960s onwards, public awareness grew in Germany that the 6th Army had been massively involved in war crimes. But how can criminals be mourned? And how was the quite different problem of the involvement of many war veterans in the Stalinist terror or the topic of collaboration on the Soviet side negotiated? The conference will systematically examine how literature and film deal with the ambivalences, contradictions, and paradoxes of such political problems and their affective conglomerates.
2.) Politics and Collective: The conference will also focus on the retrospective representation of collectives in the context of battle. Are they in principle connected with ›official‹ standpoints and imaginations of society or do they reveal the blind spots of such self-images? For this it is necessary to focus more on the respective group or community formations in the context of battle representation (comradeship, militarily proven nobility, classless society, etc.). In addition, there are the multiple intertextual references to older patterns of representation: how are traditional role models, social status and class affiliations or the relationship to the respective authorities narrated? To which media (and in the case of the Soviet Union and the GDR: censorial) constraints do literature and film possibly react with a focus on certain groups or affiliations? Do the texts (e.g. field letters, diary entries of the civilian population, memoirs) or films speak according to their self-understanding to an anonymous, universalistic collective or do they try to mobilise parcelled collectives for certain political purposes? What influence do the possibly dominant soldierly patterns of perception in the depictions have on a contemporary interpretation of the battle on the part of historically or politically interested addressees?
3) Religion and Ideology: A third focus of the conference will be on the abundance of religious and mythological allusions and references found in the various Stalingrad representations. The conference intends to devote increased attention to these, because they often lead explicitly or implicitly to the centre of the political or ideological design of the battle. While in wartime the USSR allowed a partial return to the Russian Orthodox Church in order to strengthen fighting morale, the NS leadership failed to decide to send corresponding signals to the churches. But how were popes or priests, the church as an institution or Christian symbolisms represented in the respective Stalingrad literature or movies? What role did they play – also in a confessional sense – in the context of moral philosophical or metaphysical interpretations of the battle? These are to be examined also with regard to their Christian and ancient prefigurations. From a comparative perspective, it is above all to be asked whether the recourse to such religious-mythic elements suggests general ideological conclusions concerning the legitimacy of the battle. Especially with respect to the increasingly ritualized public remembrance of war in the late Soviet Union and the far-reaching fading of the Stalingrad myth in the Federal Republic of Germany since the 1970s, it would also have to be asked whether the arts did not already prefigure religious interpretations earlier, which promote such a spiritual appropriation or also question it.
We encourage proposals for papers that address these and similar questions in regard to the Stalingrad mythos from the fields of literary, cultural history, film, and media studies.
The keynote will be delivered by Nina Tumarkin (Wellesley College).
The conference will be held at the German-Russian Museum Berlin-Karlshorst, Berlin, Germany, from 7–9 November 2019. Depending on conference funding, we will be able to cover costs for travel and accommodation. The conference language will be English. A publication of the conference papers is planned.