The commemorations and celebrations of the 75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War were mooted this year. No obligatory parades or gathering took place at the time of a pandemic, particularly as these would have had to involve the last remaining veterans of the war and so those most vulnerable to the virus. COVID might have kept the Greatest Generations in self-isolation, but it did not stop another round of the war of words in the never ending history wars over the events of the last century:
Russia accused the United States on Sunday of not recognizing the contribution the Soviet Union made in World War II, saying it wants “a serious conversation” on the issue.
“We are extremely indignant at the attempt to distort the effect… of our country’s decisive contribution,” Russia’s foreign affairs ministry said in a statement.
A statement from Washington, which was posted on Facebook this week, to mark the 75th anniversary of Victory Day, only mentioned the United States and Britain as victors over Nazi Germany.
“American officials have neither the courage nor the will to pay homage to the undeniable role and the huge death toll suffered by the Red Army and the Soviet people in the name of all humanity,” the Russian statement continued.
Calling the White House’s statement “particularly petty,” Moscow urged Washington not to make this “a new problem for bilateral relations, which are already going through a difficult time.”
This is the offending Facebook post:
The post it technically correct, since Stalin chose 9 May as the day to celebrate, ostensibly because the German surrender agreement signed 7 May 1945 directed that all hostilities would cease at 23:01 Central European Time, 8 May 1945, which due to the time difference was already 9 May in Moscow, but in reality as a bit of a FU to the Western Allies over the fact that the original surrender was not taken in Berlin and did not involve a senior enough Soviet representative (it was signed at the SHAEF HQ at Reims in France and had to be restaged on 8 May in Berlin in attendance of Zhukov). Stalin did not forget the perceived slight to the mighty Red Army and his honour.
But this is a small quibble.
To be fair to Russians, the United States tends to downplay everyone’s contribution to the war. Even the Facebook post, while graciously including Great Britain, neglects to mention all the other Allies. It’s true that the US and the UK provided in the West the most troops and the most resources, but many other countries had their soldiers fighting and dying in Italy, France, the Low Countries and finally Germany, including France, Poland, Canada, New Zealand and even Brazil.
The official White House statement is somewhat more effusive, talking as it does about “the Allied Powers” in general, before taking more questionable angles:
The campaign to end fascism in the European Theater is a somber reminder of the price of freedom. More than 30 million lives were lost and tens of millions more were shattered in the war. Most of those who perished in Europe were civilians, including 6 million Jews and millions of others from Poland and the former Soviet Union. The United States also suffered incredible losses. Of the more than 2 million Americans who deployed to Europe and the Mediterranean or patrolled the Atlantic Ocean, more than 186,000 paid the ultimate sacrifice, and more than twice that number were wounded.
The figure of 30 million is quite low. The Soviet Union alone lost, it is now thought, 27 million people. There are around 2 million Jews in that total, leaving the other 4 million, 3 million of them from Poland, to add to the grim final bill. Also include 3 million ethnic Poles, and while it is perhaps morally incorrect to consider the aggressor’s losses, 7.5 million Germans died too. The European total is well over 40 million, perhaps close to 45. In this context, without wanting to downplay anyone’s sacrifice, the 180,000 or so American soldiers who had died in the slaughterhouse of Europe constitute “incredible losses” in personal sense, but arguably not the greater scheme of things, whether in absolute or relative terms.
Russia is right that its wartime horrors do not receive the sufficient acknowledgment in the West. An overwhelming majority of German troops month for month fought and died on the eastern front. The area from the river Oder in the west to the outskirts of Moscow in the east, which historian Timothy Snyder calls “the bloodlands”, was a massive meat grinder for millions of the fighting men and tens of millions of civilians caught in between. Historical hypotheticals are largely a waste of time, but it’s probably fair to say that the Western Allies would not have won the war against Nazi Germany without the Soviet Union, while the Soviet Union probably could have won the war alone, albeit at an even greater cost and in a much longer time frame.
But while the Russian – or, more correctly, Soviet – role in defeating Hitler is beyond question and deserves wider attention and recognition, there are several reasons why the Western acknowledgement of the eastern front will always remain qualified and somewhat ambiguous.
Firstly, while Russia continues to variously deny, downplay or excuse the fact, the Soviet Union was the initial co-aggressor in World War Two and for the first two years a Nazi ally and collaborator. Stalin might have had legitimate realpolitik reasons for the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact, in effect sacrificing Europe to win more time to prepare for the inevitable war with Germany (nice in theory, the gambit in any case did not work out in practice), but the fact remains that in concert with Hitler, Stalin invaded Poland and was rewarded with its eastern half, subsequently also helping himself to Bessarbia, annexing the Baltic states and invading Finland. In turn, the fact that Hitler assured himself he would not be facing a war on two fonts, which doomed Germany in World War One, allowed him to successively snatch Poland, Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium, France, Yugoslavia and Greece, giving Germany a complete dominance over the continental Europe from the Atlantic to the Bug river and the Arctic Circle to Crete. And while Great Britain stood alone against Germany for a year from mid-1940 to mid-1941, Soviet resources and produce kept flowing in, feeding and arming the Nazi monster. This makes Stalin’s subsequent anger over the Allied delay in launching the Second Front in the West quite hypocritical – where was the Second Front in the East while Luftwaffe was blitzing Britain and its troops were battling Italians and Rommel in north Africa?
Secondly, without in any way diminishing the German barbarity in the east, a significant proportion of the Soviet military and civilian casualties were unnecessary and resulted from the communist government’s complete and utter disregard for the lives and well-being of its subjects. Stalin fought the war as he fought the peace at home. The man who prior to 1941 had managed to send somewhere upwards of 15 million of his own people to an early grave, clearly wasn’t going to spare the long suffering population when faced with an external existential threat. The Soviet Union might not have (at least initially) had much else, but it certainly had people, and they were sacrificed in obscene numbers by the man in the Kremlin and his minions on the ground. For most of the war, several Red Army soldiers were dying for every one German, while obeying absurd orders to stand ground or frontally attack in total disregard for the local circumstances or for that matter any reasonable tactical and strategic consideration. When Eisenhower and Zhukov caught up some time later in the war and the conversation turned to the best method of clearing mine fields, the Russian astonished the Allied Commander-in-Chief when he nominated simply sending the infantry through as the easiest and the cheapest method. This wasn’t a joke either; it was the way the Red Army fought from the first days of Barbarossa all the way to Berlin, even though the eventual overwhelming material superiority did save many an Ivan’s life in the later stages of the conflict. Not enough, however, to wipe out the entire generation of men born in the mid-1920s.
Thirdly, while the Red Army did indeed end the brutal Nazi occupation of the Central and the Eastern Europe, it did not bring freedom in any meaningful sense of the word, except perhaps (in most cases) freedom from sudden death. Debates about similarities and differences between the two totalitarian systems will no doubt continue well into the future. Unquestionably, for an average Slav, the Soviet domination was a better option that the Nazi one. Nazis, by and large, considered Slavs to be subhuman (though making some allowances, often quite significant, for their Slavic allies, like the Slovaks, the Croats or the Bulgarians), fit only to be initially enslaved and eventually exterminated. This was the far deadlier and much more ideological continuation of Germany’s 1000-year “drang nach osten” or the “civilising” mission to expand into the fertile east. Particular hatred was reserved for the Poles, who stood as a barrier for most of that millennium, preventing the dream of lebensraum from being realised. Russia was a much more recent enemy, having overlaid its Slavic barbarity with a Bolshevik malignancy. Even the initial Nazi plans called for starving between 25-30 million Belorussians, Ukrainians and Russians in order to free up food and resources for Germany. Communists could be deadly too, of course, and both the Reds and the Blacks were fond of decimating the local elites and intelligencia, but the Soviets at least did not see their Slavic brethren as subhumans but as proletarian masses to be converted to the glories of Marxism-Leninism.
Be that as it may, the Soviet liberation did not bring liberty or independence to the people of Eastern Europe. That had to wait until 1989-91. Or as the joint statement a few days ago by the US Secretary of State and the Foreign Ministers of Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, and Slovakia has it:
Marking the 75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War in 2020, we pay tribute to the victims and to all soldiers who fought to defeat Nazi Germany and put an end to the Holocaust.
While May 1945 brought the end of the Second World War in Europe, it did not bring freedom to all of Europe. The central and eastern part of the continent remained under the rule of communist regimes for almost 50 years. The Baltic States were illegally occupied and annexed and the iron grip over the other captive nations was enforced by the Soviet Union using overwhelming military force, repression, and ideological control.
For many decades, numerous Europeans from the central and eastern part of the continent sacrificed their lives striving for freedom, as millions were deprived of their rights and fundamental freedoms, subjected to torture and forced displacement. Societies behind the Iron Curtain desperately sought a path to democracy and independence.
The Soviet Union undoubtedly played a dominant role in the defeat of the Nazi war machine. The other judgments about the winners and the losers are more ambiguous. Great Britain won the war but lost her Empire and the superpower status. Germany lost the war but won the peace. Eastern European ostensibly won the war but not their freedom. The Soviet Union won the war and half of Europe but at a staggering cost. Perhaps the United States was the only real winner, emerging as an undisputed political, military, economic and cultural superpower, all at a relatively light cost (compared to other combatants).
Perhaps as we celebrate the 75th anniversary of the end of World War Two, we should remember that it has only truly ended only 30 years ago, finally leaving Europe as it should have been in 1945: democratic, free, and safe from the totalitarian menace.