"... we must never forget ... the measureless services which Russia has rendered to the common cause, through long years of suffering, by tearing out the life of the German military monster. The terms in which Marshal Stalin recently, in conversation, has referred to our efforts in the West have been of such a generous and admiring character that I feel, in my turn, bound to point out that Russia is holding and beating far larger hostile forces than those which face the Allies in the West, and has through long years, at enormous loss, borne the brunt of the struggle on land. There is honour for all. It is a matter of rejoicing that we, for our part and in our turn, have struck resounding blows, and it is right that they should be recorded among the other feats of arms so loyally performed throughout the Grand Alliance."
Winston Churchill, 28 September 1944
Great Patriotic War
The Great Patriotic War of the Soviet Union of 1941-1945 is one of the most important subjects of Soviet historical science. Tens of thousands of books and articles are devoted to it published both in the central and the local publishing houses. During the years of the Great Patriotic War, many thousands of military men were awarded the title of Hero of the Soviet Union.
Each country has its own heroes and traitors. The feat and propaganda that tells about the feat is not always the same. Often it is still impossible to establish the exact circumstances of an event. Alexey Valerievich Isaev wrote : " if today we do not put a stop to these slanderous myths, if we do not defend our past and sacred memory of the Great Patriotic War, we will lose the last thing that unites us into one people and gives us a chance to break out of the historical impasse. Because those who are not able to protect their past do not deserve either a worthy present or a great future!"
Fascism grew across Europe beginning in the 1930s. The first battleground in which it was contested was Spain with the Spanish Civil War. It was a conflict that began in 1936, after the country's democratically elected left-wing Republican government came under attack from pro-Monarchist and reactionary forces led by General Franco. The conflict sparked the formation of the legendary International Brigades, comprising men and women from all over the world who traveled to Spain to join the struggle against fascism. They did so on the basis that if fascism managed to defeat the country's Republican government and take power, it would not end there given the expansionist ambitions of Hitler and Mussolini, which by then were already apparent. Both leaders committed considerable military forces to the conflict, using it as a testing ground for newly developed aircraft, weaponry, and tactics with those expansionist ambitions in mind.
In contrast the United States, Britain, and France adopted a policy of non-intervention, which was a betrayal of those fighting to maintain democracy within the Spanish Republic. Worse, in the context of the massive German and Italian that was being to Franco, non-intervention was tantamount to aiding and abetting the fascist cause. History records that the only country to come to the aid of Republican Spain was the Soviet Union, which sent men, aircraft, arms and military resources to the conflict in the attempt to deny European fascism a victory that would only give it the impetus to continue to advance thereafter.
On August 23, 1939 the USSR and Nazi Germany singed a Treaty of Non-aggression, also known as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Poland, the avowed "victim" of the Soviet-Germany non-aggression pact, had inked a non-aggression treaty with Nazi Germany on January 26, 1934. During the 1930s Poland played a spoiler's role. In 1934-1935, when the USSR sought a mutual assistance pact with France, Poland attempted to obstruct it. It was a far-right quasi-dictatorship, anti-Semitic and sympathetic to fascism. In 1934, as the USSR raised the alarm about Hitler, Poland signed a non-aggression pact in Berlin.
In the 1930s neither London nor Paris hastened to join the USSR's anti-German coalition. European conservative elites viewed Adolf Hitler a less "evil" than Soviet Russia. For the British and American establishment Nazism was seen as a driving force that could dismantle the USSR, thus far finishing what was started by World War I — complete dissolution of the former Russian Empire. in the early 1930s neither London, nor Washington considered Hitler's Third Reich as a "threat," facilitating the "Nazi economic miracle" and the industrial growth of the would-be military monster.
To Churchill, [Stanley] Baldwin [the UK's prime minister] would thus sum it up in July 1936: 'If there is any fighting in Europe to be done, I should like to see the Bolshies [Bolsheviks] and the Nazis doing it'.
Some argue that the Munich Agreement of September 29-30, 1938 was the actual date of the beginning of the Second World War, Director of the Center for Russian Studies at the Moscow University for Humanities and the Institute of System Strategic Analysis, historian and publicist Andrei Fursov underscores, citing Churchill's letter to Major Ewal von Kleist, a member of the German resistance group and emissary of the German General Staff, just before Hitler's seizure of Czechoslovakia:
"I am sure that the crossing of the Czechoslovak frontier by German armies or aircraft will bring about a renewal of world war… Such a war once started, would be fought out like the last [WWI] to the bitter end, and one must consider not what might happen in the first few months, but where we should all be at the end of the third or fourth year."
In his essay "Finest Hour Regime Change, 1938: Did Chamberlain 'Miss the Bus'?" British author Michael McMenamin narrated: "there is no historical doubt that the German resistance repeatedly warned the British of Hitler's intention to invade Czechoslovakia in September 1938… In response, however, the Chamberlain government took every diplomatic step it could… to undermine Hitler's opposition."
Soviet industry, hard hit by the purges, was unable to produce the weaponry needed to equip the massive new Soviet force structure. While a new generation of confident and capable commanders emerged during the campaigns of 1941, 1942, and 1943, the spirit of the offensive was carried to the extreme, often with disastrous consequences. The usual pattern was that of the grasp exceeding the reach, of expectations surpassing realities; and the result was more often than not defeat or costly limited victory.
This pattern occurred during the commitment of the fledgling mechanized corps in the border battles of 1941, in the counterattacks around Moscow in the winter of 1941-42, at Kharkov in May 1942, at Voronezh in June 1942, and in the campaigns of December 1942 to March 1943, when the Soviets sought to convert the major victory at Stalingrad into a total German rout. The reverses the Soviets suffered in the winter of 1942 and the spring of 1943 at the Chir River, at Tatsinskaya, and at Kharkov occurred at least within the context of a battlefront that was inexorably moving westward.
The spirit of the offensive, born in the period of Marshal Mikhail N. Tukhachevsky and reflected in the field regulations and doctrinal debates of the 1930s, pervaded Soviet military thought throughout the war years. Ironically, that spirit dominated even when Soviet military fortunes were at their lowest ebb. This fixation on the offensive and preoccupation with the conduct of deep operations inhibited development of sound defensive theory and reinforced Soviet unwillingness to go on the defensive. Thus, when the Germans overwhelmed the Soviets in 1941, the Soviets responded by trying to apply the offensive principles of the 1930s. One problem was that the military purges of the late 1930s deprived the Soviet Army of the leadership necessary to implement doctrine artfully and thus to stem the German tide. In general, the survivors of these purges could not imaginatively adapt Tukhachevsky's theories to the reality of a surprise attack employing massed armor and bold maneuver. In the anxious aftermath of the purges, a natural hesitancy to suggest innovation also inhibited Soviet commanders in their adjustment to the deadly, quick-developing German threat.
It was in early 1943 when the Soviets applied a degree of restraint to their offensive operations, thereby allowing those operations to reap a major harvest. The decision to draw the Germans into the costly and disastrous attack at Kursk in July 1943 attested to the increased maturity of Soviet military art. At Kursk, Soviet use of a sophisticated defense as a prelude to a powerful counteroffensive yielded rich results. The Soviet offensives of July and August 1943 at Orel and Belgorod-Kharkov marked a turning point in Soviet offensive operations. The two counteroffensives occurred after an extremely short prepar'ltion period. The Orel offensive took place while the German assault at Kursk was developing to a climax. The Belgorod-Kharkov offensive occurred three weeks after the German offensive tide broke against the Soviet defenses.
In addition, Soviet industry, also hard hit by the purges, was unable to produce the weaponry needed to equip the massive new Soviet force structure. German military success in 1941-2 depended on stunning and paralyzing the Soviet militaryeconomic machine with a colossal blow. Soviet resilience stemmed partly from the reactions and initiatives of Soviet leaders from above, partly from those of Soviet people at a lower, less discernible level. At the highest level the Soviet militaryeconomic machine was only partially and momentarily stunned. The Kremlin’s first clearsighted responses to the economic emergency can be found in the campaign for industrial evacuation.
The role of the British, American, and other Western allied forces in defeating the Nazis notwithstanding, the role of the Red Army on the Eastern Front, where 80 percent of all combat during the war took place, was central to the war's outcome. Indeed without the epic resistance of the Soviet Union to the Nazi war machine, fascism might have prevailed in Europe, with all the ensuing cataclysmic consequences.
It is hard to overestimate the importance and significance of the monuments, dioramas and panoramas devoted to the Great Patriotic War and to the great feat of the Soviet people in the patriotic indoctrination of the youth and the men of the Soviet Army and Navy.
In 1946, reacting to Winston Churchill’s Fulton speech that marked the start of the Cold War, Joseph Stalin mentioned the Great Patriotic War (how Russians refer to the war with Nazi Germany) and stated that “as a result of the German invasion, the Soviet Union irrevocably lost… around 7 million people.” That was the first ever official Soviet stance on war casualties. Stalin had knowledge of the other statistical data: 15 million casualties. This number was contained in a report delivered to him in early 1946, by the commission led by The State Planning Committee’s president Nikolai Voznesensky. Stalin was eager to hide the real scale of losses from both the Soviet citizens and the world – in order not to show the USSR as a state weakened by the war. In 1965, Nikita Khrushchev, who succeeded Stalin as USSR’s leader, mentioned a higher number: 20 million. Essentially, this is the number that became the official evaluation for the rest of the Soviet era – Leonid Brezhnev adhered to it too, but added “more than” to the 20 million casualties. After the dissolution of the USSR, the estimate grew again. According to the latest statements that Russian authorities officially acknowledge, overall losses (both among soldiers and civilians) amounted to 26,6 million people. That’s the official evaluation of the losses today (in 2019) – at least, it’s the number Russian state officials mention on Victory day, commemorations and so on. Around 12 million soldiers were killed in the battlefield, captured (not having returned) or gone missing. The rest (approximately 14,6 million people) were civilians who died in the occupation zones, were forcefully moved to Germany (and did not come back) or lost their lives to starvation, illnesses and so on. In his 2015 article, Viktor Zemskov suggested that the estimation of war casualties (11,5 – 12 million) is correct, but the number of civilian losses due to war factors includes too many people: “Such statistics include the increased mortality in the Soviet home front because of malnutrition, overburdening work and so on… I disagree with such an approach.” According to Zemskov, it is too hard to distinguish between deaths caused by war and natural reasons in this case – so to be more precise, historians should have only included in the number of civilian deaths caused by war, i.e. those killed directly by Germans, by bombardments, those who died during the Siege of Leningrad – that amounts to 4,5 million victims. Combined with actual war casualties, that gives us 16 million people.
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