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Battle at Rzhev

In the early days of World War II, 1939 to 1940, the Nazi German war machine advanced across eastern Europe, until its soldiers stood on the outskirts of Moscow, deep into the Soviet Union, poised and ready to attack the Russian capital city.

However, the Battle of Moscow stalled when the Soviet’s Red Army found sufficient strength to initiate a counter offensive, at Joseph Stalin’s insistence, that pushed Germany’s 9th Army west, some distance from Moscow. The counter-offensive worked for a time, until the German army stopped.

The Russian town of Rzhev, located 140 miles west of Moscow, boasted a population of 56,000 on October 11, 1941, the day that its citizens watched in horror as the dreaded Nazi soldiers marched into their town, and seized control.

In the first months of the occupation, the Nazi’s exported some 9,000 of the town’s citizens back to Germany to work as forced laborers, and another 9,000 they shot, tortured, or starved in a concentration camp that they built in the town’s center.

There in Rzhev, the Germans dug in. They built concrete bunkers, constructed a series of short anti-tank mounds, and fortified their perimeters with trenches and bulwarks. The Russians may not have known how well positioned the Germans were, and how capable they were to withstand an attack.

The war came home in earnest for Rzhev’s citizens when the first of a series of battles erupted in the fields outside their town on January 8, 1942, that pitted Nazi Germany’s 9th Army against the Soviet Union’s Red Army.

The Soviets looked upon the Nazi Germany army ensconced in Rzhev as “a dagger pointing at Moscow.” Stalin, his generals, and his officers wanted to obliterate the 9th Army, and free Rzhev.

A question arises though, “what happens when an irresistible force encounters an immovable object?” The answer, Rzhev happens, a “little known but astonishingly bloody battle.”

The worst of this series of battles began on July 30, 1942, and ended on August 23, 1942, eighty years ago this month. It was noted then and since, that “it inflicted great loss of civilian and military lives,” and that “the Russian army’s soldiers suffered massive casualties for little gain.”

One military historian described the battle’s first days.

“The frontal attacks of the 31 July set the pattern for coming days. Soviet commanders did not have the latitude or imagination to develop flexible tactics, and often rigidly executed orders from above, even if it meant attacking head-on, across the same ground for days or even weeks at a time.”

Behind their barricades, the Germans mowed down wave after wave of Soviet soldiers, who were ordered to attack entrenched German positions. “Soviet infantry tactics remained crude with dense masses of men rushing forward, shouting ‘Hurrah!’” Hence, the term the “Rzhev Meat Grinder.”

For the Soviets, total casualties in the three week battle numbered 291,172; for the Germans, 53,000.

The Germans held Rzhev for another seven months, and then without fanfare they packed up and left. Not a win for the Soviets, nor a loss for the Germans. Rzhev was liberated on March 3, 1943.

The brutality of the Nazi Germans though almost wiped out Rzhev’s entire population. Only 150 people remained alive after the battle, plus another 200 who had fled to nearby towns and villages.

On June 30, 2020, two years ago, Vladimir Putin attended the unveiling of a statue in the town of Rzhev, a commemoration of the fierce battle that claimed the lives of almost 300,000 Russian soldiers. He laid roses before the statue that stands 25 meters tall, and rests upon a mound 10 meters high.

It is of a single Red Army soldier, whose right hand holds a gun near his right side. For a shirt he wears a uniform with double pockets, and across his back there is a cape with strings tied at his neck.

In the minds of most older Russians, there remains stuck a memory of the horrible things that the Germans did, once they stood on Russian soil, in mid-twentieth century.

They see it in their statues, read of it in their histories and accounts of the Great Patriotic War, hear of it in the memoirs of those who survived the German occupation. Security from Western Europe’s aggression is crucial to a typical Russian.

None of what happened in World War II though can be construed to excuse Putin and the Russian army’s aggressive and brutal tactics in Ukraine this year. The world should hold accountable those responsible for the destruction they have inflicted upon the Ukrainian people the past five months.