Tomorrow it’s the 9th of May. On that day Russia and many ex-Soviet countries celebrate Victory Day. The day that Nazi Germany was defeated and the flag of the USSR was planted on the Reichstag in Berlin. For many folks outside Russia this not known or has very little significance. But it deserves to be recognised and the Russians deserve to be recognised as the ones that won the Second World War and prevented the tyranny of Adolf Hitler taking over the world.
Judging by the amount of attention it gets in the media and the popular works like films, series and games that are based on it, people in the West get a distorted image of the course of the war. We typically recognise four theatres of war: North Africa, the Pacific, the Eastern front and the Normandy invasion. From all these the latter is the most iconic and most often depicted in popular media.
Roughly we can recognise a few decisive battles over the course of 1939 to 1945. These are the victory in El Alamein, the Battle of Midway, the air force Battle of Britain that broke the Luftwaffe and the success of Operation Overlord, better known as the D-Day landings. They all pale in comparison though with Stalingrad and perhaps the Battle of Kursk too. The former was the absolute turning point and the beginning of the end for the Germans. After initial success in Operation Barbarossa that saw the invasion of the Soviet Union by the Nazis, the Battle of Stalingrad and the counter offensive that followed, saw the Soviets destroy Hitler’s army beyond repair.
To put it numbers: Stalingrad saw the clash of over a million German soldiers and 1,3 million Russians. By 1945 the Red Army was 6,4 million soldiers strong and the Germans who started the war in Russian with 3 million men, had a mere 1,6 million left by the time of their defeat. Compare that with D-Day and you won’t believe your eyes. The Normandy landings saw 156,000 Allied troops face off against about 50K Nazis. The famous battle of Iwo Jima cost the US about 7 thousand lives, the Soviet Union lost 750 thousand troops in Stalingrad alone.
This is not meant to diminish or make light of the sacrifices that the US and their allies made during the war. But it’s important to see the event in perspective. The Germans were defeated by the Soviet Union. The troops sent to the Eastern front consisted of 75% of the entire German army. The other 25% were the ones defeated in North Africa and Europe. The Battle of Kursk, to this day the biggest armoured battle in the history of man, was between 3000 Axis tanks and 7,3 thousand on the Red Army side. The failed attempt of the British and Americans to liberate the Netherlands during Operation Market Garden, involved 88 tanks.
If you look at that way, it’s not strange that Russians and their close neighbours usually refer to the Second World War as a war between them and Germany, with help from the US and Great Britain. This help, by the way, is far from under appreciated. Talk with a Red Army veteran today, and many of them will fondly talk about the aid they received from the West. Help as they fought their war. Shortly before that famous Battle of Stalingrad, Churchill and Stalin had a less than pleasant meeting in Moscow. Stalin was angry that he wasn’t receiving any help whilst the Germans were advancing and Churchill basically came to tell that things weren’t going to be any better. However, although the Western allies couldn’t provide man power, they sent millions of food, materials and other goods to help the Red Army. The relationship between the capitalist west and communist Russia was positive those days. They put aside their differences and Stalin was affectionately referred to as “Uncle Joe” in the States and “Good ol’ Joe” by the British.
That’s how subconsciously we see the Eastern Front, the Pacific and the European campaigns as three thirds of a whole. Whilst realistically we have to see it as 80% war in Russia, with the rest of the conflict slurping up the remaining 20. But this is not only the fault of the amount of attention we give to these battles respectively. When we talk about the Russians in the media today, Western pundits, storytellers and creators of popular media, will try to undermine the Soviet involvement, and their significance for the victory over Nazi Germany.
Read about the Red Army and we are often confronted with the fact that their foot soldiers were literally forced into battle. Commissars were standing behind the advancing troops, killing anyone who dared the retread. Watch a documentary about the Soviet advance into Germany and they will highlight how the soldiers terrorised German civilians: destroying homes, raping women and burning down crop fields. Stalin was a murderer and dictator and the USSR first cooperated with Hitler. Eastern Europe was occupied and annexed after the war.
All of this is true but it gets a disproportionate amount of attention in comparison with the US and Great Britain. We forget that Churchill was an extremely conservative, right wing Prime Minister. He wanted to retain Britain’s colonial foreign policy and deliberately let millions of Indians starve to death during the Bengal Famine of 1943. He was fond of Benito Mussolini and didn’t want to go with Hitler unless it was absolutely necessary. The US put Japanese citizens in internment camps and decided the war with the biggest terrorist attack in history: the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. While advancing into Germany, US troops were known to drive civilians out of their houses and loot their possessions and valuables.
The narrative of the brave sacrifices of the Yankees and Tommies, as opposed to the bloodthirsty Soviets that sent their men and women into the meat grinder, is one that took further shape during the Cold War. To paint the Russians as nihilist and evil was something that suited the leadership of the West in those times. And as currently tensions between the Moscow and the rest of the world are rising, it’s again in the favour of Western leaders to downplay the Soviet involvement and highlight their own. It’s unfair and we need to change it.
Not only because it’s a piece of history that needs to be documented more accurately. Also because the ability of the Soviets to counter-attack the Germans after a seemingly imminent defeat at Stalingrad is exemplary of the superiority of communism. The only reason why the United States got involved in the war as late as it did and the long time it took them to prepare and launch Operation Overlord, was their free market economy and the inefficiency of it. The USSR was able to build an entire new army, weapons, vehicles and equipment in such a short period of time because of their planned economy. The success of the Red Army was a result of mass production and an unprecedented scale.
Remember the Russians tomorrow and don’t forget that for all its flaws, Stalin’s Soviet Union was the reason we were able to defeat the Axis and stop Adolf Hitler from seizing power. Long live the Red Army! Long live Russia! Hurray!