Sunday Times (UK) | 01May2005 | Norman Davies

Russia, the missing link in Britain's VE Day mythology

The story of 'how we won the war' has failed to give credit to the colossal -- and costly -- effort in the Soviet East to bring down Hitler, writes leading historian Norman Davies

The celebrations to mark the 60th anniversary of the end of the second world war are likely to be the most verbose, the least reflective and the last. In Moscow, politicians will be lining up to extract their pound of kudos from the main victory celebrations on offer.

The host, President Putin, will say Soviet forces played the prime role in defeating Nazi Germany. This will be one of the few tenable claims to be made. The British and the Americans will talk as usual about "the common struggle against evil" and "the triumph of freedom, justice and democracy". But nobody is going to present a reasonably accurate account of what actually happened.

First, when the British talk of "how we won the war", they forget that the "we" of then is no longer the "we" of now. In 1939-45, Britain was still the centre of a worldwide empire: Canadians, Australians, New Zealanders, South Africans and Indians made huge sacrifices for us. And there were also the allies -- France in 1939-40, Poland throughout the war, the USSR and the US from 1941. The war was not a simple forerunner of the 1966 World Cup final between England and West Germany.

Similar care has to be taken defining the other side. For Britain, the enemy of 1939-45 was above all "the Germans". Yet by 1939 the Third Reich had expanded into Austria and Bohemia and one-third of the panzers that launched the blitzkrieg against France had been built at the Skoda works.

The Axis powers included fascist Italy and imperial Japan and in the years Britain was under most threat, they were supported by the Soviet Union. At the height of its power in 1942-3, the Reich controlled the human and economic resources of the greater part of Europe: 2m French prisoners, and more than 10m forced labourers from the east toiled on German farms and in German factories.

The Waffen SS raised dozens of volunteer divisions from almost every occupied country, even a skeleton Legion of St George from British prisoners.

But the Soviet Union was the largest combatant state of all. It was widely called "Russia" but Russia during the war was only one of 15 Soviet republics, and formed only about 55% of the population. And it was ruled by a Georgian tyrant who entered the war against the Reich only when attacked himself.

An elementary knowledge of Soviet geography, therefore, is essential. In September 1939, when Hitler and Stalin joined forces to destroy Poland, the eastern half of Poland was annexed by the USSR and renamed Western Byelorussia and Western Ukraine. All inhabitants -- Poles, Jews, Byelorussians and Ukrainians -- were turned into involuntary Soviet citizens, and supplied an enormous cohort of Soviet casualties.

In June 1941, at the start of Operation Barbarossa, it was not Russia that the Wehrmacht invaded, but Soviet-occupied Poland. The German armies overran the Baltic states, Byelorussia, and Ukraine, but only the fringes of Russia. They approached the outskirts of Moscow, Leningrad and Stalingrad but never secured a main Russian city. As a result, by far the heaviest civilian casualties were incurred in the western, non-Russian borders.

These are not territories over which President Putting presides today but westerners rarely notice such niceties. For western attitudes to the second world war crystallised in the immediate post-war years and have never budged. They were moulded by the accounts of western commentators such as Winston Churchill, which concentrated on western aspects of the war. The political framework was provided by the popular ideology of anti-fascism. And the moral arguments were supplied by the Nuremberg tribunal, whose shortcomings attracted little attention.

So the horrific realities of the war in eastern Europe remained half-hidden for years. The world heard the first official hints about Stalin's misdeeds from Khrushchev's "Secret Speech" in 1956. But the extraordinary scale of wartime mortality in the USSR -- now estimated at 27m -- did not begin to emerge until the first post-war Soviet census in 1959. It was the 1960s before Solzhenitsyn revealed the true nature of the Gulag, the philosopher Hannah Arendt provoked the debate on totalitarianism, and Robert Conquest published pioneering studies in The Great Terror and The Nation Killers.

The collapse of communism in the 1990s had to precede President Gorbachev's admission of Soviet guilt in the Katyn massacre or ethnic cleansing in Volhynia and Galicia. Antony Beevor's superb studies of Stalingrad and Berlin in 1945, which described such things as the Red Army's brutal contempt for its own men and systematic gang rapes of German women, were treated as revelatory when published in the past 10 years.

What seems to have happened is that western opinion was only gradually informed about the war in eastern Europe over 40 to 50 years, and that the drip-feeding was insufficient to inspire radical adjustments to the overall conceptual framework. It was significant that we learnt about Stalin after his death and in the context of the cold war when we no longer identified with the Soviet Union as a common partner.

But the western public at large was too emotionally attached to the existing scenario of the second world war to indulge in major rethinking. The western democracies never actually fought the USSR and Stalin could never compete in the popular mind with Hitler as "the evil enemy".

For example, the Jewish Holocaust was barely discussed for two decades after the war but made enormous inroads into western consciousness from the 1960s exactly because it fitted so snugly into the existing scheme. It has rightly become an emblematic episode of inhumanity but it also confirms our preference for one, supremely evil enemy. In some countries, Holocaust denial is a criminal offence yet Gulag denial is not even on the agenda. The British War Crimes Act applies exclusively to crimes committed "by Germans or on German-occupied territory". And the European parliament, when recently asked to grant a minute's silence in honour of 22,000 allied officers shot by the NKVD (the communist secret police), refused.

And all historians would agree that the Third Reich was defeated by the effective co-operation of East and West. Yet nobody shows much enthusiasm to quantify relative contributions or anything more precise than "Soviet forces inflicted more German losses than the western armies combined". German sources, however, are more forthcoming. They state unequivocally that 75-80% of Germany's losses were incurred on the eastern front. The implication is that all other contributions added up to a maximum of 20-25%. Of this, the Americans might claim 15%, and the British 10%.

Western apologists argue that the Soviet Union received enormous logistical supplies from the West, that the Red Army was helped by the western bombing offensive and the war at sea, and that other aspects, from industrial production to intelligence, should not be overlooked. Yet the fact remains: fighting is the essential activity in war. And as an adversary the Red Army greatly excelled all its western counterparts. Suffice it to say that in one single operation in 1944, when demolishing the Army Group Mitte in Byelorussia, Marshal Rokossovsky destroyed a collection of Wehrmacht divisions equivalent to the entire German deployment on the western front. In fact the D-Day landings would be the sole operation fought by western armies that might scrape into the war's top 10 battles.

Not surprisingly, both military and civilian casualties in eastern Europe reached a similar titanic scale. Here one must beware of the notoriously false slogan of "20m Russian war dead". The accepted figure is 27m not 20m, it refers to "Soviet citizens" not to Russians, and includes millions of victims killed by the Stalinist regime during and after the war. Even so, the levels were staggering. The Red Army lost up to 13m, and still managed to prevail.

On the civilian side, one only needs to look at the map of the German occupation to see where the remaining 14m came from: about 2m would have been Jews -- a recognised Soviet nationality -- caught in the Nazi trap during the advance of Operation Barbarossa in 1941. Byelorussia (now Belarus) lost 25% of its inhabitants, though Poland and the Baltic states were close behind. Ukraine probably suffered, alongside Russia, the largest total loss, possibly more than 8m while the Russian city of Leningrad (now St Petersburg) lost almost 1m citizens during the siege of 1941-4.

All these figures are tentative because Soviet officials never published any authoritative breakdown. In any case, they had no reliable statistics. The catastrophes of the 1930s and 1940s were so colossal that no accurate records could be kept and all figures derive from deductions, projections and informed guesswork years later.

In Ukraine, for example, the post-war census could identify a vast demographic black hole of missing people but not the hole's many causes.

It could not differentiate between the unborn progeny of millions of victims of the pre-war terror famine and collectivisation, the millions of military deaths, the millions killed either by Hitler or Stalin, and the millions of deportees who might or might not have perished in the Reich or within the USSR. Historians can be fairly sure of the general categories but not of the precise sums.

On the ideological front, westerners are accustomed to thinking of the second world war as a two-sided conflict, of good fighting evil. The Soviets had a similar dialectical view. They were the authors of the concept of anti-fascism, which caught on in the West, encouraging the illusion that all opponents of fascism were inspired by similar values. In reality, Soviet communism was as hostile to western democracy as it was to fascism. Hence, despite the rhetoric, the Grand Alliance of 1941-5 can be seen as only a fleeting marriage of convenience. There should have been no surprise, once fascism was eliminated, that the western world moved into the cold war.

Stalinist practices, however, undermine the entire moral framework within which the allied cause is perceived. It is not possible to maintain that the allies were fighting for untrammelled good if the largest of their members was habitually given to mass murder. Before 1941, enough was known about Stalin's concentration camps, purges, show trials and state terror that western leaders had no excuse for ignorance. Yet such was the desperate need for Soviet military assistance that all western suspicions were suspended. Indeed a fairytale vision was created of "Dear Old Uncle Joe" and his "alternative forms of democracy".

During the war, there were thousands in London and Washington who had witnessed Stalin's camps and murders. But they were effectively silenced by war censorship, and sometimes by military discipline. Officers caught discussing what they had heard about Stalin's crimes were threatened with courts martial. Even Churchill, who had been a strident anti-Bolshevik and who admitted to "supping with the devil", warmed to the blandishments of success.

When victory finally came, very few were willing to count the political and moral cost. At the Nuremberg trials, three categories of criminal conduct were established: crimes against peace (i.e., wars of aggression); war crimes and crimes against humanity. By any reckoning, Stalin's regime deserved to stand trial on all counts. It had been expelled from the League of Nations for crimes against peace. While defeating the Wehrmacht, its forces had perpetrated numberless atrocities. And in pursuing policies of mass murder, mass deportation, repressions and ethnic cleansing the Soviet state had manifestly entered the realm of crimes against humanity.

Yet in the victory euphoria, they need not have feared a public reprimand, let alone a formal accusation. When German defence lawyers at Nuremberg protested on this score, they were cut short by the chairman, Sir Geoffrey Lawrence. "We are here to judge major war criminals," he reminded the court, "not to try the prosecuting powers."

Meanwhile, the notion of a general "liberation" of Europe was false. The liberation was genuine enough when the allies entered Rome, Paris or Brussels; and it was dramatically evident when allied soldiers rescued the survivors of Belsen, Buchenwald or Auschwitz. But in eastern Europe, Soviet forces imposed a new tyranny as soon as the Nazi tyranny was crushed. Buchenwald was emptied of one set of inmates, then used for another.

At the very time that Auschwitz was being liberated in January 1945, other camps like Majdanek were filling up with members of the resistance movement (our allies) whom the NKVD regarded as enemies. Wartime heroes, flown into continental Europe by SOE and the RAF, were cast into Soviet dungeons.

Democrats were arrested, shot or put on trial. Vast tides of innocents, including all Soviet prisoners of war who had survived German imprisonment, all so-called "repatriants" handed over by western forces, and most of the slave workers returning home from Germany were shot or shipped off to the Gulag. Puppet dictatorships were introduced by force into country after country.

So historians have a problem. Somehow they must find a way of describing a complicated war in which the combined forces of western democracy and Stalinist tyranny triumphed over the Axis. They must give pride of place to the role which the Soviet Union played in the military defeat of Germany, just as the US shouldered the main burden of the war against Japan.

At the same time they must emphasize that Stalin's triumph had nothing to do with freedom or justice, and that by western standards the overall outcome was only partly satisfactory. It is a tall order. To date, nobody has succeeded.

Norman Davies is the author of Europe: A History (Pimlico)

[W.Z. This article by Norman Davies is particularly relevant to the denaturalization and deportation process, which is the main subject of the articles posted on this website. The constant references to "Nazi war criminals" and the victimization of people of Jewish origin -- while at the same time ignoring war crimes perpetrated by the Bolshevik regime or the Western Allies -- serves to highlight the evils of the German regime and minimize the evils of the Bolshevik and Western regimes.

Thus Jewish victimization is emphasized, whereas the suffering of others during WWII is suppressed from public consciousness. The Communist and Western elites are, of course, delighted with this state of affairs. Similarly, the general public is not particularly interested to learn that some of their relatives were involved in WWII atrocities and war crimes.

It is my contention, that failure to recognize Western crimes, such as the firebombing of Dresden and Tokyo and nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; ethnic cleansing of Germans, Ukrainians and others during and after WWII; forced repatriation of refugees to the tender mercies of Stalin; etc. has had a very negative effect on the evolution of North American societies.]