World War II: The Decisive Role of the Russian People in defeating Nazi Germany
The British Historian’s Battle of Kursk, or the Nazism that Came from the West
Certain noteworthy tendencies keep surfacing in the British and US historical studies of WWII during the last several years. Until recently, the US and British scholars focused mainly on the events related to the Western Front (the Battle of El Alamein, the Normandy Invasion, the Ardennes Offensive, etc.). There was a reason behind their emphasizing the significance of the operations carried out by the Western allies – this approach created the false impression among the general public that Germany was defeated by the US and Great Britain (in some cases, schoolchildren in Great Britain and the US were actually found to believe that Russia had been Germany’s ally in WWII).
This, shall we say, interpretation of history became canonical in the West from the very beginning of the Cold War, from the time when, adhering to a kind of a “class approach”, W. Churchill denigrated the crucial contribution of the Red Army to the victory over fascist Germany in his memoirs.
Later, the Western historical thinking was largely influenced by the writings of former fascist officers who were employed to process the Nazi military archives, and by numerous memoirs left by the Wehrmacht generals. As a rule, the authors of this kind tended to justify themselves and the German army on the whole, presenting it as a purely professional entirety separate from Hitler or any ideology. The reminiscences of Hitler’s dogs of war also reflected a lot of their caste arrogance and hurt pride, which further distorted the picture of the recent past. On the other hand, the memoirs of the Soviet military and political leadership typically failed to serve as a scholar and ideological “counterbalance” opposing the flow of literature written by former Hitlerites. The war-time recollections published in the USSR were subject to an ideological censorship so severe that oftentimes they lost any value as sources of historical knowledge.
The first attempts to assess in a more realistic way the respective roles of the Eastern and Western Fronts were made in the West nearly 30 years after the end of WWII. John Erickson, a British historian, was among the first to move in this direction – in his books “The Road to Stalingrad” (1975) and “The Road to Berlin” (1983), he demonstrated the magnitude of the actual contribution of the Eastern Front to the rout of fascist Germany. Next, David M. Glantz, a US military historian, wrote several books about the war on the Russian front. In 1989-2006, he published 16 works including “When Titans Clashed: How the Red Army Stopped Hitler”.
Hundreds of works by British and US scholars focused on various particular aspects of the operations on the Eastern Front such as the treatment of the prisoners of war, the war-time ethnic purges, the role of the NKVD (the Soviet secret service), the economy and the food supplies, etc. Those publications were not meant for mass audience. Therefore, for decades the perceptions of mass readers in Great Britain and the US were shaped primarily by the memoirs left by W. Churchill and other Western statesmen, who presented the Western Front as the main theatre of WWII. This traditional assessment started to erode only during the recent years. In this respect, “Europe at War 1939-1945: No Simple Victory” by Norman Davies, a British historian, had played a special role.
Norman Davies is a popular author in Great Britain and the US, and justly so. He became famous after the publication of “The Isles. A history” (1999), an extensive and captivating treatise on the British past. His “Europe. A History” (1996) and “Europe at War 1939-1945: No Simple Victory” (2006) were no less successful. In the latter book, Davies clearly, and with the emotionality untypical of a British scholar, condemns the pathological narcissism of the US. He finds especially harsh words for those US authors who continue stupidly to convince their countrymen that it was the US who stopped fascism and ultimately defeated Hitler.
According to Norman Davies, fighting went on between 400 German and Soviet divisions on the Eastern Front for four years. The front itself spanned 1,600 km. In the meantime, the fighting on the Western Front involved 15-20 divisions at most. The German army suffered 88% of its casualties on the Eastern Front. It was the Soviet troops who broke the will and the capacity of the German army to carry out massive front offensives in 1943. The Battle of Kursk – that is the name historians must remember! Norman Davies writes that the key role of the Soviet army in WWII will be so obvious to future historians that they will merely credit the US and Great Britain with providing a vitally important support.
Nevertheless, discussing the crucial contribution of the Red Army to the triumph over fascism, N. Davies fails to avoid the invariable ideological cliché concerning the “clash of the two totalitarianisms”: in his view, the most bestial regime in the history of Europe was crushed not by democracies, but by another bestial regime. In other words, a tyrant got defeated by a tyrant.
Recognizing the decisive contribution of the Soviet Union to the victory in WWII, N. Davies ignores entirely the fact that German Nazism, which historical Russia, then in its USSR incarnation, crushed in 1941-1945, was an extremely aggressive and inhuman product of the Western civilization. At the same time, N. Davies acknowledges the personal role of Stalin in the victory of Russians. Geoffrey Roberts, another historian, concurs with this view. In his “Stalin’s Wars. From World War to Cold War, 1939-1953”, he writes that rising from the ashes after so many mistakes and leading the country to the greatest victory was an incomparable triumph, and that the world was saved for democracies by Stalin.
The truth is that the world was saved by the Russian people, not by Stalin’s genius. Stalin admitted this in 1945 – in his toast “to the Russian people” during a reception for the Red Army commanders in the Kremlin. For Russians, this war will always be Great and Patriotic, as well as holy, since for our people it was a deadly fight against the absolute evil – the Nazism that came from the West.