Andreas Kluth

Mariupol Could Be the Thermopylae of the 21st Century

Remember Azovstal. Some phrase like that could soon take the part of “Remember the Alamo” in Ukraine’s heroic war of self-defense against Russia.

Azovstal is a giant steel plant in Mariupol, the city in eastern Ukraine that Russian forces are pounding into submission and, in effect, extinction. In it, a couple of thousand Ukrainian troops, sheltering a smaller number of civilians, are holding out. The Russians first tried to bomb them out, and may now try to starve them out.

This week the defenders scorned a Russian ultimatum to capitulate or be destroyed. In a video message, one of their commanders appealed to world leaders to organize an “extraction procedure” to bring the remaining soldiers and civilians to a safe third country. Such an evacuation would echo that at Dunkirk in 1940, when the Allies rescued their own forces from the Germans to fight another day. But it’s unlikely.

More probably, the defenders at Azovstal will have to decide their fate themselves. Surrender is not an option, they’ve made clear. Their chosen end, it appears, is to die for their country in this last redoubt.

Like heroism generally, such brave last stands appeared to belong to the past, legend or even myth. At their best, they are valiant defeats that make eventual victory all the more poignant. At the Alamo in 1836, the Mexicans besieged and killed the Texans defending the mission. But rage at their atrocities rallied other Texans to defeat the Mexicans the following month. The result was the Republic of Texas.

Something even grander took place in 480 BCE, when King Xerxes brought his vast Persian army to the narrow mountain pass at Thermopylae to attack and subjugate the Greek city states to its south. A tiny force centered around 300 Spartans held the gap for three days until they were betrayed and outflanked. All died. But they had slowed down the Persian assault. The following year, the Greeks won the war.

When warriors give their lives, of course, they must always fear that their sacrifice could be in vain. That uncertainty gives a last stand a more exalted and even poetic meaning. It becomes defiance for its own sake.

So it did in the year 74, when a group of Jewish zealots held out at Masada, a hilltop fortress by the Dead Sea, against an overwhelming Roman force. According to a Roman historian, the 960 men, women and children committed suicide rather than surrender.

In 1877, a samurai army, in effect, did the same thing. In the Satsuma Rebellion, it rose against the imperial government of Japan and the westernization it represented. With their ancient skills of war confronting the mechanized weapons of the new industrial era, the samurai stood no chance. “What happened to the warriors at Thermopylae?” the rebel commander asks his American friend on the battlefield in the movie version. “Dead to the last man,” replies the American, before they throw themselves exultantly at the enemy, and into death.

Sometimes the only motivation for a last stand is loyalty to one’s brothers-in-arms. The Nibelung Song, a Germanic epic, culminates in a slaughter of the Burgundian knights by the Huns who are their hosts. Not self-defense but murder, revenge and betrayal had led them to this point. But together they fought, and died.

When the Germans in World War II needed a narrative for their defeat in Stalingrad, they reached for that story. Hermann Goering, one of Hitler’s top Nazis, likened the demise of the Wehrmacht’s 6th army to the death throes of the Nibelungs. Propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels tried to turn Stalingrad into a new legend, where Germans fought “to the last bullet” and “died so that Germany may live.”

All of this was lies. The Third Reich did not live, and the Germans did not fight to the last bullet. And unlike the ancient Spartans, they didn’t perish because they voluntarily took a last stand in self-defense of their country, but because their evil regime sacrificed them in a war of extermination and enslavement.

If Putin’s propagandists had their choice, they’d paint the Ukrainian defenders at Azovstal with the same brush. The Kremlin peddles the fiction that it must attack Ukraine to “denazify” it. This claim is absurd — Ukraine is a pro-Western democracy with a president of Jewish descent. But to Russian ears, the narrative might superficially match some of the Ukrainian defenders in the steel factory, who include the Azov Battalion, a nationalist regiment with alleged neo-Nazi ties.

So the nobility of a last stand is inevitably at least in part in the eye of the beholder. And yet, Azovstal does resemble Thermopylae. Each was, or is, strategic — Thermopylae was the gate to invade Greece; Mariupol is a land bridge that could connect Russian-held Crimea with the Donbas region the Russians are now trying to swallow.

No matter the particular circumstances, for those of us in more humdrum life situations, last stands remain mysterious. What motivates men and women to face such overwhelming force, and near-certain death? It may be that they’re heeding a primal instinct to fight injustice — even if it only means making the enemy pay the highest possible price. If we sell our lives dearly now, the instinct may whisper, future attackers will think twice about coming after our kin.

The Ukrainians at Azovstal are fighting for one another, for their country, and for history. Maybe, like the rebel samurai and so many others before, they’re also fighting just because the whims of fate placed them in a particular place at a particular time, and they heard the call to take their last stand. If they perish, it will be on their own terms, and with honor.