Russia's World War II Experience Needs To Be Better Understood

I’m not sure what prompted me to consider this subject on my commute this morning, but it probably has to do with my reflecting on Memorial Day just passed. That and the fact that crude oil continues to trade around $100/bbl and the implications for energy prices going forward–for the consumer and the countries who supply them. One of those countries is Russia which produces 12% of the world’s oil. As one whose company sometimes does business with Russian firms, I’ve found it helpful to understand their mind-set as I do any foreign customer whose worldview originates from a different vantage point than my own. And one thing I have learned is that the Russian historical narrative of World War II is far different than ours. I must say that when it comes to what they once referred to as “The Great Patriotic War” their memories are more accurate in my view.

It has been an article of faith among many Americans, young and old, that the United States “won” World War II. And clearly our contribution in men and materiel was indispensable to the Allied victory…especially in the Pacific of course. But because of Cold War tensions immediately following the end of the conflict, Americans were never really given an accurate portrayal of how the victory in Europe against Nazi Germany went down. This is by no means a shot at our brave veterans who fought and suffered and left behind their heroic comrades in the deserts of Africa, the mountains of Italy, the fields of France, the canals of Holland, or the snows of the Ardennes. But the simple fact is that eight out of ten Wehrmacht personnel were killed by the Red Army. And the Russians in turn suffered an astounding 23 million dead in just four years repelling the German invaders who launched what would result in, by far, the largest and bloodiest land battles in human history. That is just under 14% of their total population. Every family in that country was impacted by the war in some way. It is the equivalent of us suffering an unexpected invasion by a massive army hell bent on our annihilation and being forced to fight in a war in which almost 42 million Americans lose their lives. When you consider the national trauma we felt at the murder of 3,000 of our fellow citizens on 9/11, the psychological impact of our absorbing such a blow as did Russia in the 1940s would be unimaginable.

The costliest battle the US fought in the war, the Battle of the Bulge, resulted in 90,000 American casualties (19,000 KIA) in fighting throughout the winter of 1944-45. This is a noble and ghastly sacrifice no doubt. However, in just the first twenty days of “Operation Barbarossa,” the German code-word for the 3.9 million man, 3,600 tank, 2,900 aircraft blitzkrieg across 600 miles of the Russian frontier launched on June 22, 1941, the Red Army suffered over two million killed…that is 100,000 deaths every day for just the first three weeks of the war.

The ferocity and cold blooded brutality of the Ostheer (Germany’s Eastern Front army) attack on Russia was unlike anything our armed forces would ever face on a mass scale, save perhaps the American experience against the vicious Japanese onslaught in the Philippines. The general order passed down just prior to the invasion by the German High Command Chief of Staff, General Halder, echoing the words of Hitler at a pre-invasion meeting of some 200 senior officers, best sums up the tone of the war in the East. “We must forget the concept of comradeship between soldiers…This is a war of annihilation. The war will be very different than that in the West. In the East, harshness today means lenience in the future. Commanders must make the sacrifice of overcoming their personal scruples.” [My emphasis added].

By 1945 when their soldiers stood upon a conquered pile of smoking rubble and corpses that was once the Nazi capital of Berlin – the taking of which would cost the Russians yet another 300,000 lives – the Soviet Union could count their dead at over fifty-five times those of their US allies. In that time the Red Army had pushed the Ostheer back 1,300 miles from the Volga River and engaged and destroyed over 600 German divisions as compared to 175 on the Western Front…formations that Hitler could not commit to repel the Western Allies in Normandy. One wonders how the war in Europe would have played out had the Soviet-German Non-aggression Pact remained in place. But with two of the world’s most brutal and megalomaniacal dictators with two of the world’s most powerful armies facing each other, the war in the East was a fait accompli–which though a catastrophe for both nations, was a blessing to the American, British, and Canadian troops who landed against a much weaker opponent on D-Day than would have otherwise been the case.

It is an old axiom that the war in Europe was won with British brains, American brawn, and Russian blood. A lot of Russian blood. The names of Smolensk, Minks, Kiev, Leningrad, Stalingrad, Kursk, Sevastopol. and a thousand other lesser known locales are written in the blood of their people. This very real history to them is what drove what we in the U.S. often viewed during the Cold War as manic Soviet paranoia. Unfortunately it was Stalin’s cynical excuse for drawing his iron curtain around the satellite states of the Warsaw Pact to provide a buffer should any nation cast its coveting eyes towards Russia again.

By no means am I excusing communist barbarism and have written many times about my unwavering conviction that communism was the single worst evil of the 20th Century. Indeed Josef Stalin needs to be remembered in our schools and universities for what he was: the greatest mass murderer in human history. But one can both put Soviet communism in its proper place while at the same time honor the very real heroism and sacrifice of the millions of Russians who fought not for the Georgian butcher, but to repel the brutal invaders from their motherland. To deny this history is to place one at a disadvantage when dealing with those with whom we must share this world. Especially in this age of globalization and ever growing energy inter-dependence.

As is the case throughout the Allied world, the Russian veterans of the war are dying off at an accelerated rate. Still, the scars left by that conflict remain and indeed are much deeper to that nation than we can possibly fathom. Given the immensity of their suffering and their over-weighted responsibility for crushing Hitler and his legions at the cost of tens of millions of their own citizens, it is understandable that the Russians may still be wary of certain segments of the West that brought them so much misery in the past.


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