Seventy Years After the 'Great Patriotic War': "Let No One Forget, Let Nothing Be Forgotten"
V-E Day, or Victory in Europe Day, is celebrated every May 8th in Western Europe and the United States, but is celebrated as Victory Day every May 9th in Russia. Why? Because the Soviet Union’s representative had no authority to sign the German document of surrender at Reims, France, on 7 May 1945, but also because, on 8 May, Soviet forces were still shelling German units in Czechoslovakia that had refused to surrender.
Thus, when the surrender ceremony was repeated in Berlin on 8 May, it already was 9 May in the Soviet Union.
Recently, the Ukrainian Prime Minister told German TV:
“I will not allow the Russians to march across Ukraine and Germany, as they did in WWII.”
Putting aside the impossibility of the feeble and feckless government in Kiev doing any such thing, one needs to ask the Prime Minister whether he would have preferred the preservation of the Ukraine – admittedly suffering under Nazi repression, but besmirched during World War II by so many Nazi sympathizers and collaborators — and whether he would have preferred the preservation of the Third Reich?
Recently, three former U.S. Ambassadors to Ukraine, Steven Pifer, John Herbst, and William Taylor absurdly recommended that V-E Day be celebrated in Kiev. Such a recommendation indicates not only profound ignorance of the magnitude of Ukrainian collaboration with the Nazis, but also insufficient appreciation for the accomplishments of the Russians during World War II.
For example, in the first year of the war, Nazi collaborators in Ukraine (a minority of who were Russian) “provided German forces on the Eastern Front with 80 percent of their bread, 83 percent of their meats, 77 percent of their sugar and 70 percent of their potatoes.” (Oleg Zarubinsky, “Collaboration of the Population in Occupied Ukrainian Territory: Some Aspects of the Overall Picture,” The Journal of Slavic Military Studies, June 1997, p. 147) Such Ukrainian collaboration helped to enable German forces to attack Russian civilians and largely Russian forces deep into western Russia.
Moreover, why would anyone except ideologues ignorant of the history of war on the Eastern Front celebrate in Kiev when there were no victories in Ukraine that turned the tide of the war. Celebration in Moscow is justified precisely because the victories that guaranteed Germany’s defeat took place on Russian soil – at Moscow, Stalingrad and Kursk. According to the esteemed expert on the war on the Eastern Front, John Erickson, “The portents of the outcome at Kursk were enormous. Demonstrably the Red Army could strike for Berlin “with no outside assistance,” setting off alarm bells in the West. The “Second Front” was finally agreed in November. ( Journal of Military History, July 1998, p. 665).
Seventy years have passed since the last of some 10 million Soviet soldiers, collectively known as “Ivan,” died in order to defeat Nazi Germany during the Great Patriotic War. (By comparison, American and British forces each suffered less than 420,000 deaths – or less than the number of Red Army deaths suffered at Stalingrad alone.) Of the more than 30 million Soviet soldiers mobilized between 1939-1945, these 10 million made their ultimate sacrifice in order to avenge the invasion of Soviet territory and the racist war of extermination unleashed by Adolf Hitler’s Ostheer (Eastern Army).
Revenge was Ivan’s primary motivation. As Jochen Hellbeck notes, in his newly published book, Stalingrad: The City that Defeated the Third Reich, (Public Affairs, 2015), “Soldiers received forms known as ‘vengeance accounts’ to record the number of opponents they killed and the number of weapons destroyed.” (p. 35) But, in the process of taking revenge Ivan also rescued European civilization and, perhaps, the world, from the scourge of Nazism.
Obviously, Ivan did not earn his glory merely by dying — or suffering wounds or illnesses as another 18 million Ivans did — but by annihilating the “Fritz,” as he called Nazi soldiers. And annihilate them he did, at least when compared with America’s GI Joe and Great Britain’s Tommy. Simply consider these numbers: The Nazis suffered approximately 13,488,000 total losses (deaths, wounds, captures and illnesses) during World War II. But, the fight with Ivan on the Eastern Front caused 10,758,000 of them (David M. Glantz & Jonathan House, When Titans Clashed, University of Kansas Press, 1995, p. 284).
Unfortunately, before rallying to ultimately defeat Hitler’s Wehrmacht in Berlin, Ivan’s army suffered numerous devastating setbacks inside the Soviet Union. In fact, Ivan’s army nearly collapsed within weeks of the Nazi’s 22 June 1941 invasion.
Even more unfortunate was the fate of the Jews left behind during Ivan’s scorched-earth retreat. As Hitler’s Einsatzgruppen (Order Police) filled in behind the advancing Ostheer they began the systematic murder of Jews. Approximately 63,000 were murdered by mid-August, but that was small change compared with the next four months, when “500,000 Jews would be shot in the Soviet Union.” With the help of Ukrainian militia, more than 33,000 Jews were shot at Babi Yar in just two days in September. (David Stahel, The Battle for Moscow, Cambridge University Press, 2015, pp. 38-39) As Oleg Zarubinsky has shown, there was widespread collaboration between the Ukrainians and Nazis from 1941 through 1944.
The Battle of Smolensk (10 July – 10 September) caused a staggering number of casualties. General G.K. Zhukov thought the Germans had been “severely mauled.” But the Soviet Western Front suffered 309,959 irrecoverable losses out of 579,400 forces committed. Yet, for the first time, “Soviet troops had penetrated prepared German defenses and recaptured substantial chunks of territory” (Chris Bellamy, Absolute War: Soviet Russia in the Second World War, Knopf, 2007, p. 259 and pp. 247-248). It was a critical battle, insofar as it forced the Germans to redirect their attention away from Moscow and toward Leningrad and Ukraine. (Ibid)
In September, German forces largely succeeded in encircling Leningrad, today’s beautiful St. Petersburg (and my favorite city in the world). The siege would last for nearly 900 days. “German senior officers reckoned that in the first war winter – 1941-42 – ‘the city of Leningrad came close to extinction, one million civilians being starved or frozen to death. Even the Russian soldiers were inadequately fed and equipped and by the end of the winter half of them were dead’” (Bellamy, p. 381). Yet, even under the constant threat of German artillery bombardment, on 9 August 1942 the resilient Leningrad Philharmonic opened for a performance of Dmitry Shostakovich’s new Seventh Leningrad Symphony. Soldiers and sailors showed up in uniform, but, “everyone else was in their best suit or silk dress” (Ibid, p. 389). The performance was broadcast to inspired audiences across the Soviet Union and relayed by short-wave radio across Europe and the United States.
Ivan suffered terribly during the Battle of Kiev (7 July to 26 September 1941). More than 616,000 Soviet soldiers were killed or reported missing as the result of being trapped in an encirclement achieved by the Second and First Panzer Groups (Glantz & House, p. 293). On 7 October, at Viaz’ma, the Third and Fourth Panzer Groups encircled the Sixteenth, Nineteenth, Twentieth, Twenty-Fourth and part of the Thirty-Second Armies. (Bellamy, p. 273)
By October of 1941, Red Army defeats and retreats caused more than ninety million people to suffer Nazi occupation behind German lines. During that month “German radio and newspapers proclaimed the successful outcome of the war in the East, gloating that ‘the enemy is broken and will never rise again’” (Bellamy, p. 276) Caught up in the premature, but widespread, self-congratulations, on 9 October 1941, Hitler told Reich Press Chief Dr. Otto Dietrich that “the Soviet Union was stricken and would never rise again.” (David Stahel, The Battle for Moscow, Cambridge University Press, 2015, p. 21)
Less understood by the German enthusiasts then – or anybody else around the world, then or today — was the enormous toll that the Red Army was taking on the German war machine. For example, virtually nobody knew that, on 18 November 1941, the head of the Main Committee for tank production, Walter Rowland, visited Nazi Germany’s foremost Panzer Group leader, Heinz Guderian, to discuss German tank requirements at the front. Not only did Guderian extol the superiority of the Soviet T-34 tank and the heavy, virtually impenetrable, KV-1 tank, he also told Rowland that the numbers of Soviet tanks were increasing as the war continued. (Eventually, Lend-Lease tanks would make matters even worse for Germany.)
Rowland’s tour of the front shocked him. Upon returning home, he reported: “Our troops are too lightly dressed, in some cases wrapped in blankets. An assorted picture of frozen-up cars abandoned by the side of the road, with panje carts drawn by Russian ponies doing their best to provide inadequate supplies. The tanks could not be employed: if the motors and gearboxes still worked, the weapons failed due to freezing up.” (Stahel, p. 162) The Red Army had experienced similar freezing during its “Winter War” with Finland in 1939-40, but immediately commenced research to create better cold-resistant lubricants. Thus, in late 1941, it enjoyed distinct mobility and fire-power advantages over the Ostheer during sub-freezing weather.
In late November 1941 — approximately the same time that Colonel-General Fritz Fromm informed Franz Halder, the Chief of the Army General Staff, that the output of German arms production was declining — Rowland became convinced that Germany lacked the industrial and resource base to compete with the Soviet Union, let alone Great Britain and the United States. Thus, he went to Fritz Todt, the minister for armaments and munitions, and told him, “The war against Russia cannot be won!” When both Rowland and Todt confronted Hitler with the news, the Fuehrer asked: “How then should I end the war.” (Ibid, p. 163)
In his masterful new study, titled The Battle for Moscow, David Stahel suggests that, with the failure of his blitzkrieg strategy — due to indomitable Ivan and the vast expanses of the Soviet Union — Hitler may have switched to a “Friderician strategy,” which was based on the assumption that the alliance between the U.S., Great Britain and the Soviet Union would collapse. Obviously, he was in denial, but how else could he face up to the implications of a long war of attrition against a Red Army that “was growing in size, strength, and skill from month to month” (Stahel, p. 111) as well as the vastly superior economies of Great Britain and the United States?
Professor Stahel vividly and persuasively demonstrates that the Ostheer reached its “culminating point” in November 1941, before overextending itself in early December 1941 — just 41 kilometers outside Moscow. The offensive capacity of Field Marshal Fedor von Bock’s Army Group Center was completely exhausted by the pace of its advance, staggering losses in weapons and personnel, Red Army counterthrusts, overextended supply lines, too few supply trains and trucks, virtually no winter uniforms, too little fuel, shelter and food, the psychological and physical immobilization caused by the muck of the rasputitsa and the freezing cold that prevented rifles, guns, engines, locomotives and turrets from operating.
Worse, for Bock, on 7 December 1941 the Red Army unleashed a ferocious counteroffensive that doomed Operation Typhoon — the German plan to capture Moscow before the end of 1941. The counteroffensive was led by Lieutenant-General Konstantin Rokossovsky’s Sixteenth Army and, in three phases (beginning respectively on 6 December, 16 December and 16 January) Soviet forces succeeded in forcing the overextended and exhausted German forces to retreat some 150 to 300 kilometers from its most eastern advance.
Although military historian Chris Bellamy believes the Bitva pod Moskvoy (Battle before Moscow) “probably saved the country” and “smashed the Wehrmacht’s reputation for invincibility” (p. 350), Hitler feared far worse. He subsequently credited his order forbidding retreat with preventing the collapse of the Eastern Front. (See Hellbeck, p. 10)
Nevertheless, Ivan would suffer another serious setback at the Battle of Khar’kov in May 1942. “The Red Army had lost parts of four armies: 22 rifle divisions, 7 cavalry divisions and 15 tank brigades, 540 aircraft, 1,200 tanks and 2,000 guns. An estimated 240,000 were taken prisoner, and more than a quarter of a million lost altogether,” (Bellamy, p. 453).
The disaster at Khar’kov occurred just before the Ostheer began Operation Blau (Blue). In the last of its various iterations Operation Blau resulted in the order that tasked Army Group B, spearheaded by General Friedrich Paulus’s Sixth Army, to attack the strategically insignificant city of Stalingrad. Hitler was caught up in the symbolism of destroying the city named after Stalin.
Few battles in the history of warfare have been more ferociously fought than the Battle of Stalingrad. Weak attacks in late July and early August by Army Group B were followed by the Luftwaffe’s first major bombardment of the city on 23 August. By 10 September some 300,000 civilians had been evacuated.” (Bellamy, p. 515) By the middle of September Fritz and Ivan were battling one another house-to-house, if not room-to-room. The Germans called it the “rat war,” because avenging Ivan came at them from everywhere, seemingly out of the woodwork. 91 percent of the city was destroyed, but the Red Army had Army Group B where it wanted – in unfavorable urban terrain.
The battle turned into a disaster for the Germans when, in the middle of November, Soviet forces began Operation Uranus and pulled off “one of the greatest encirclements in history” (Ibid, p. 535), trapping “22 German divisions totaling 330,000 men, including the Sixth Army, Rumanian remnants, and one corps of the Fourth Panzer Army.” (Glantz & House, p. 134).
Germany was in a state of shock. After the encirclement, German newspapers ceased their reporting on the battle until January 1943. Nevertheless, “The German security police reported that people spoke of the last bullet, which they would save for themselves once ‘everything was over.’” In March 1943, SS Chief Heinrich Himmler visited the Treblinka death camp in eastern Poland and urgently instructed the camp authorities to exhume all the bodies of the 700,000 Jews who had been killed there and cremate the corpses” (Hellbeck, p. 2).
Hitler attempted to recover from the debacle at Stalingrad by directing a massive summer campaign against the salient surrounding Kursk. Commencing on 5 July 1943, it proved to be disastrous for the Ostheer, which lost some 70,000 men and 3000 tanks. According to Norman Davies, the author of No Simple Victory: World War II in Europe, 1939 – 1945 (Viking, 2006), “The significance of Kursk cannot be overrated. This was the decisive battle. The Wehrmacht’s prime strike force was destroyed so completely that a major offensive could never be launched again,” (pp. 111-112).
Note that this “decisive” battle took place nearly a year before the commencement of Operation Overlord and so-called “decisive” battle on D-Day. But, then, nothing great happens – at least, in the minds of most Americans (and British), unless they had a hand in it. They would be disabused of this error, however, were they to listen to the words of America’s foremost expert on the Eastern Front, David M. Glantz: “Left to their own devices, Stalin and his commanders might have taken 12 to 18 months longer to finish off the Wehrmacht: the ultimate result would probably have been the same, except that Soviet soldiers could have waded at France’s Atlantic beaches” (Glantz & House, p. 285).
Astoundingly, seventy years later the world knows shamefully little about Ivan’s heroics or sacrifices — and even less about Ivan and his fellow Ivans as genuine human beings. Worse, much of what they know is wrong.
In January 2006, Metropolitan Books published Catherine Merridale’s unprecedented research into the lives of Red Army soldiers, titled Ivan’s War: Life and Death in the Red Army, 1939-1945. [Note: A small amount of what follows below could be found in my review of Professor Merridale’s book, which was titled, “Myths and Realities of the Great Patriotic War.” It was published in Russia’s St. Petersburg Times on 12 May 2006. Unfortunately, the paper ceased operating in December 2014 and its website containing my article has disappeared.]
According to Professor Merridale the widespread ignorance about Ivan is the consequence of distortions, pervasive anti-Russian stereotypes in the West, and self-serving heroic myths propagated, first in Soviet Union, then in Russia.
Merridale notes that, in 1950, the U.S. Army borrowed racist descriptions provided by Nazi officers to create a pamphlet that described “the peculiarities of the Russian soldier.” Ivan was described as “semi-Asiatic,” “primitive and unassuming,” and “innately brave but morosely passive when in a group.” Ivan acts on “instinct,” and “is subject to moods which to a westerner are incomprehensible.”
But, if Western racism rendered Ivan less than human, the Soviet Union’s “hero myth” transformed Ivan into a sanitized hero almost totally devoid of the many human failings that have afflicted soldiers at war since the beginning of time. As Merridale interprets the myth, Ivan “is simple, healthy, strong and kind, far-sighted, selfless, and unafraid of death. He almost never dwells on the dark side of war. Indeed, his gaze is turned toward the future, a bright utopia for which he is prepared to sacrifice his life.”
Utilizing declassified secret police reports, the Red Army’s internal notes about its soldiers’ wartime morale, bundles of soldiers’ letters, diaries, her travels to battle sites and nearly two hundred interviews with surviving veterans (most of whom probably are no longer alive in 2015), Merridale uncovered significant new evidence that undermined the hero myth.
That’s not to say, of course, that Ivan performed no heroic deeds. For example, Merridale salutes the courage of the steadfast Ivans, who defended Stalingrad for months during late 1942.
She especially notes the fate of a marine called Pankaiko.
“As the doomed man prepared to lob a gasoline-filled bottle at a line of German tanks, a bullet ignited the fuel, turning him into a pillar of flame. But the marine was still alive, and somehow, with some last reserve of rage or maybe some grim reflex, he managed to reach for a second missile [and] run right up to the German tank, and smash the bottle against the grille of the engine hatch. A second later an enormous sheet of flame and smoke engulfed both the tank and the hero who had destroyed it.”
Such heroism in action also was reflected in heroism of determination. In November 1941, in a village outside of Moscow, the partisan heroine, Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya, was captured after attempting to set fire to a German-occupied house. Immediately before her hanging, she reportedly told her audience: “You can’t hang all 190 million of us.” (Stahel, p. 203) We’ve heard about such indomitable Russian determination before, such as when Clausewitz warned: “It is impossible to hold or conquer Russia.”
It’s hardly news that Ivan loved to drink samogon (moonshine), which also served as currency. He smoked cheap tobacco (makhorka) and cursed with imagination, “piling the profanities in stacks.” He sang while he marched, as well as at festivals and parades. He composed the short folk poems (chastushki) that peasants had been composing for generations. But, because the poems were often satiric, erotic or subversive, they were not mentioned in any of the official hero myths constructed by Soviet propagandists. The hero myths also failed to mention the battle stress and trauma that so many Ivans were shamed into repressing.
But Professor Merridale does her greatest damage to the hero myth when she substantiates her assertion that “whole areas of wartime life, including desertion, crime, cowardice, and rape, were banned from public scrutiny.” Without a doubt, the widespread use of “blocking detachments” substantiates Merridale’s allegation about desertion.
Moreover, it is impossible to dispute Merridale’s assertion that “tens of thousands of German women and girls undoubtedly suffered rape at the hands of Soviet troops; the figure may well have reached hundreds of thousands.” Yet, one needs to remember that, in their war of annihilation, the rape of Soviet women by German soldiers was not considered a crime by German authorities and that up to 10,000,000 Soviet women were raped by German soldiers. According to Wendy Jo Gertjejanssen, the author of a doctoral dissertation titled, Victims, Heroes, Survivors: Sexual Violence on the Eastern Front During World War II , “Both the Russians and the Germans have yet to accept responsibility for mass rape, and the Germans for their extensive system of sexual slavery.”
Recently, Professor Merridale’s study of Ivan has been challenged by Jochen Hellbeck in his new book, Stalingrad: The City that Defeated the Third Reich. Professor Hellbeck attempts to demonstrate that, contrary to Merridale’s assertions, the idea of heroism was not just in the mind of sanitizing Soviet propagandists, but was quite alive and prevalent in the belief system of many Ivans. He credits the “Communist party’s enormous effort to condition the troops” (p.19) for such heroism.
Based upon the transcripts of “215 eyewitness accounts: from generals, staff officers, troop commanders, simple foot soldiers, commissars, agitators, sailors of the Volga Military Flotilla, nurses, and a number of civilians – engineers, laborers, and a cook among them – who worked in the bombed-out city or were just struggling to survive there” (p. 4), Professor Hellbeck concludes: When the delegation of historians, led by Professor Isaak Mints from Moscow State University, arrived in Stalingrad in late December 1942 to document the views of the heroic defenders of Stalingrad “they encountered soldiers who had fully incorporated Soviet notions of heroism and cowardice and were conversant about the battle’s political and historical significance.” (p. 68)
That would suggest that Ivan’s need for revenge had been effectively redirected to meet the historic challenge at hand.
Given the extraordinary role played by the Soviet Union’s “greatest generation,” let us, on this Victory Day, take to heart the famous words written by poet Olga Berggolts:
“Let No One Forget, Let Nothing Be Forgotten”