In the Western popular imagination — particularly the American one — World War II is a conflict we won. It was fought on the beaches of Normandy and Iwo Jima, through the rubble of recaptured French towns.
In reality It was the Western Allies’ extreme good fortune that the Russians, and not themselves, paid almost the entire ‘butcher’s bill’ for defeating Nazi Germany.
According to the West and their Hollywood films, it was a victory shaped by the steeliness of General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the moral fiber of (always drunken) British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and the awesome power of an atomic bomb.
When the Western armies landed on the French beaches, Hitlers tank divisions were decimated, or all but destroyed during the battle’s against the Russians. Teenagers were deployed for the Wehrmacht to be killed in France. The Invasion was called success.
But that narrative shifts dramatically when you go to Russia, where World War II is called the Great Patriotic War and is remembered in a vastly different light. The Germans suffered three-quarters of their wartime losses fighting the Red Army.
In 2016, Russian President Vladimir Putin hosted one of Moscow’s largest ever military parades to mark the 70th anniversary of the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany.
More than 16,000 troops will participate, as well 140 aircraft and 190 armored vehicles, including the debut of Russia’s brand new next-generation tank.
Unfairly or not, the current tensions obscure the scale of what’s being commemorated: Starting in 1941, the Soviet Union bore the brunt of the Nazi war machine and played perhaps the most important role in the Allies’ defeat of Hitler.
Of course, the start of the war had been shaped by a Nazi-Soviet pact to carve up the lands in between their borders. Then Hitler turned against the U.S.S.R. The Red Army was “the main engine of Nazism’s destruction.
The Soviet Union paid the harshest price: though the numbers are not exact, an estimated 26 million Soviet citizens were intentionally murdered during World War II, including as many as 11 million soldiers.
The epic battles that eventually rolled back the Nazi advance — the brutal winter siege of Stalingrad, the clash of thousands of armored vehicles at Kursk (the biggest tank battle in history).
This had no parallel on the Western Front, where the Nazis committed fewer military assets. The savagery on display was also of a different degree than that experienced farther west.
This included the wholesale massacre of millions of European Jews, the majority of whom lived outside Germany’s pre-war borders to the East. But millions of others were also killed, abused, dispossessed of their lands and left to starve.
The Holocaust overshadows German plans that envisioned even more killing. Hitler wanted not only to eradicate the Jews; he wanted also to destroy Poland and the Soviet Union as states, exterminate their ruling classes, and kill tens of millions of Slavs.
By 1943, the Soviet Union had already lost some 5 million soldiers and two-thirds of its industrial capacity to the Nazi advance. That it was yet able to turn back the German invasion is testament to the courage of the Soviet war effort. But it came at a shocking price.
The Soviet Union under Stalin also had the blood of millions on its hands. But that was in the years preceding World War II, Stalinist purges led to the death and starvation of millions. The horrors were compounded by the Nazi invasion.
Marshal Zhukov told Churchill, so many numbers of women, children and old men had been killed that the Russian Government would never be able to estimate the total.
For Russia’s neighbors, it’s hard to separate the Soviet triumph from the decades of Cold War domination that followed.
One can also lament the way the sacrifices of the past inform the muscular Russian nationalism now peddled by Putin and his Kremlin allies. But we shouldn’t forget how the Soviets won World War II in Europe.
Independent / ABC Flash Point News 2019.