A HANDFUL of German and Austrian survivors of Stalingrad are poised to return to the scene of their suffering this weekend as Russia prepares to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the battle which lost Nazi Germany the war.
In doing so, the country is even briefly rehabilitating Josef Stalin, with a fleet of buses bearing an image long removed from public view.
More than 150,000 Germans perished and 108,000 were taken captive in the city on the Volga that Adolf Hitler was determined to capture at all costs because it bore the name of his greatest enemy.
Only 5,000 German soldiers who went into the Soviet Union’s prison gulag survived to return home. Soviet casualty figures stretched to more than a million.
With all the pomp and ceremony it can muster, the Kremlin is shifting eastwards to Volgograd – the name of the heroic city after its namesake died – to remember the most glorious and bloodiest chapter in what Russians call the Great Patriotic War.
The Victory Bus initiative was organised through private donations and with the support of Russia’s Communist party.
In Volgograd, five mini-buses with the portrait of the former Soviet leader will operate until 9 May, when Russia celebrates the defeat of Nazi Germany in the Second World War.
The initiative has already sparked criticism from rights activists, politicians and nationalists. However, organisers are confident the action is completely legal.
“We don’t paint swastikas. Thank god, Communist ideology and Stalin’s image have not been officially condemned. We only urge the preservation of memory of the WWII victory and people who contributed to it,” said a Victory Bus spokesman.
Volgograd lawmakers have also decided to restore their city’s former name – but only for as long as the celebrations last.
Russian and German musicians will perform together at a concert tomorrow – a day after the 70th anniversary of the German capitulation.
More than 100 musicians of the symphony orchestras of Volgograd and Osnabrueck accompanied by a 150-member choir will perform Beethoven’s 9th Symphony – Ode to Joy – and a piece written by composer Yelena Firsova for the anniversary.
There are parades planned, a ball for Red Army veterans and president Vladimir Putin will be in the city to honour them. In Germany, the war history museum of the German Bundeswehr in Dresden has opened Germany’s first exhibition about the battle for Stalingrad, with photos and soldiers’ letters from both sides.
In 1943, a German army ground to a halt in the ruins of Stalingrad in a battle that last five months.
Soldiers of the German Sixth Army, conquerors of Poland and France, were reduced to cannibalism towards the end of the fighting in temperatures that dipped to minus 40, 50 and 60 degrees Celsius.
Now its survivors, men in their 90s, are making a pilgrimage to the city to meet with the Red Army veterans who thwarted them in the goal of victory for theThird Reich.
Franz Rechberger, 91, from Hagenberg in Austria is among those making the journey.
“It was hell,” he said. “I lost so many good mates. I want to return to pay my respects to them. I remember comrades buried in mass graves like planks of wood and thinking: good that their mothers can’t see them like this.”