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Morality and Warfare: Reflections on the Battle of Stalingrad and the Historian’s Treatment of Dirty Hands

March 1, 2011

Ever since excerpts from “The Fog of War” were aired in lecture, I have felt compelled to re-examine and evaluate my approach to historical writing. From the onset of ninth grade, when I first learned of terms such as ‘political correctness’ and a ‘holistic approach,’ I have constantly strived to present my observations in a fair, level-headed manner. In particular, McNamara’s testimony reminded me of a paper I wrote during Junior year in high school. For my 20th Century World History class, I was required to prepare a 1000-1500 word research paper, which I believe was titled something like “The Role of the Red Army Infantry Soldier during the Battle of Stalingrad.” I am ashamed to admit it, but my choice of topic was greatly motivated by a video game. The following mission, from Activision’s  Call of Duty: Finest Hour proved my strongest influence (only three to four minutes of the video is necessary.)

Actually, the paper exceeded my expectations. I recieved a high grade, and genuinely positive comments. My feelings began to change over the summer, however, as I began brainstorming topics for my extended essay (a 4000 word paper that is part of the IB Diploma, a program roughly equivalent to AP.) Initially, I planned to stand by my strengths by returning to the WWII Eastern Front. An analysis of both sides’ tactics, perhaps, would prove interesting. Nevertheless, something held me back -aside from the obvious lack of originality, of course-; As I laid out my plans, I considered the perspective I had written my first paper from. Yes, I did write a good analysis of the strategic situation, the factor which, from childhood, had always fascinated me, but I suddenly realized that I had also ignored one strikingly obvious aspect of Stalingrad: the bloody, gruesome slaughter which afflicted both sides during the battle. Of course, the structure of my paper absolved me of any need to account for issues of morality, yet what disturbed me was the blatant self-deception I had subjected myself to. My fallacy was not merely basing a paper on the rhetoric of a Call of Duty game; I had, subconsciously, also chosen the topic as a way to avoid morality altogether.

Now, I suppose you are wondering how the concept of dirty hands plays a role in my incessant ramblings. During the Battle of Stalingrad, the Red Army utilized several “dirty” tactics. From the onsent, Stalin forced the civilians to remain in Stalingrad rather than evacuate, choosing a strong defense of the city over the chaos that fleeing refugess would cause. On the German side, numerous atrocities were commited behind the battle lines, from mistreatment of people in German occupied regions to – of course – the acts of genocide instigated by the Nazi party. And, above all, the war between Germany and Russia was forever stained by the inherent racism mutually expressed between the two warring nations. Quite simply, dirty hands, and issues of morality played an integral part in the Battle of Stalingrad, and the Eastern Front as a whole.

Overall, my problem is not with the paper itself, but my own self-awareness of the topic when I wrote it.  As an aspiring historian, I feel it is my duty to present my analyses as thoroughly as possible, with at least self -acknowledgement of the other major factors involved. Now, I accept that full knowledge of an historical event is most likely impractical, there are simply too many perspectives, as each participant’s recollections have a valid – albeit biased – account of the event. While I did not need to account for morality and dirty hands in my paper, I should have, nevertheless, at least considered these factors as I formulated my analysis. Thus, I feel it is an historian’s responsibility, if not duty, to understand as many of these different perspectives as possible, even if only with a passing thought.

  1. lapinsk12 permalink
    March 1, 2011 10:27 PM

    I wouldn’t put what Hitler did to the Jews under dirty hands but rather as plain evil. What he did wasn’t for the betterment of his people or himself but just plain evil and wrong.

    • Peter Chutcharavan permalink
      March 2, 2011 1:16 AM

      I would definitely agree that Hitler’s actions against the Jewish population were immoral and, as you put it, ‘evil’. However, I believe you may have misinterpreted the context of my post. Above all, I should point out that I was not referring specifically to the Jewish holocaust, but “the ACTS of genocide instigated by the Nazi party.” Over the course of World War II, the Nazi party sent many other demographic groups to the concentration camps, including gypsies, homosexuals, and the mentally ill. In fact, I specifically avioded the term “Jews” or “Jewish.” to prevent such an issue.

      Still, I understand that your primary concern is with how I consider genocide as an issue of dirty hands. I believe the issue comes from my treatment of the terms ‘dirty hands’ and ‘morality’. As you have correctly observed, I allow the difference between the two to blur when I talk about the immoral nature of the WWII Eastern Front. Nevertheless, I feel that such ambiguity is appropriate, if not necessary. I do not disagree with your assertion that genocide is morally unjustifiable; I just hope to remind you that morality and dirty hands are not necessarily mutually exclusive. As the professor demonstrated in class, some comparisons, such as the one between freedom and safety, are not a linear relationship. An decrease in freedom does not always imply an increase in safety. Likewise, an event which is immoral can also be a case of dirty hands.

      Above all, I would like to thank you for your insight. If I completely dismissed your argument, then I would not have needed to put this extra time and effort to account for my assertions. You have produced resonable criticism, and I have, therefore, needed to provide an equally reasonable response. Still, I assert the validity of my arguments. Dirty hands and morality are quite compatible, and my knowledge of the Eastern Front leads me to consider it the epitome of such a relationship. The war between Russia and Germany was a conflict steeped in mutual hatred and, because of that underlying rancor, the distinction between dirty hands and issues of morality often became difficult, if not impossible, to separate.

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