This conclusion is inescapable for anyone who has heard Putin’s speech at Victory Day parade on 9 May.
I did so only the other day, belatedly, and Schopenhauer’s definition of genius instantly crossed my mind. “Talent,” he wrote, “hits a target no one else can hit; genius hits a target no one else can see.”
Vlad, that Thucydides in the Kremlin, did just that by providing an insight that has so far escaped, well, everyone else. The Soviet Union, he said, won the Second World War all on its own.
These are his exact words: “At the most difficult moments in the war, during decisive battles that determined the result of the struggle against fascism, our people stood alone – alone on the toilsome, heroic and sacrificial path to victory.”
Though the history of that war is still taught in Russia along the lines of Stalinist propaganda, there Vlad hit a target even Stalin couldn’t see. Talking to Roosevelt and Churchill at Yalta, the generalissimo graciously acknowledged that without help from the Allies the Soviet Union would have lost.
Our genius reminds me of the late 70s, when I acted as interpreter and tour guide to the visiting Soviet hockey team in Houston. On a coach tour of the city, I pointed out a cenotaph to the Americans fallen in the war.
“Which war was that?” asked the burly forward, Popov by name if memory serves. “WWII,” I clarified. “Did Americans actually fight in that one?” asked Popov, testifying to the unrivalled success of Soviet education.
One would expect our Thucydides in the Kremlin to be better informed, what with his university education and distinguished service in the KGB. I suspect that he does know the facts, but, as his idol Stalin explained, “If facts are stubborn things, then so much the worse for facts.” America’s second president, John Adams, thereby stood corrected.
Stalinist historiography generally ignores any Allied involvement in the war before 6 June, 1944, D-Day. Since even Vlad wouldn’t ignore the subsequent action, he must define as “the most difficult moments of the war” the events between 22 June, 1941, when Germany attacked the USSR, and D-Day, when the Allies supposedly began to offer some feeble support to the Red Army’s “toilsome, heroic and sacrificial” efforts.
The reality was rather different. It wasn’t the Soviet Union that stood alone in that war, but first Poland and, from the fall of France to 22 June, 1941, Britain.
Poland stood alone against two allies, Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia. The former attacked her on 1 September, 1939; the latter stabbed the Poles in the back on the 17th.
Britain and France didn’t cover themselves with glory in the ensuing ‘Phoney War’. But there was nothing phoney about the fall of France and the subsequent Battle of Britain.
Another piece of Russian propaganda is mocking the French who didn’t put up any fight and meekly surrendered after just 40 days. That is contrasted with the heroic efforts of the Soviet people who rose as one… well, you know the drill.
For those of us who don’t mind stubborn facts, it’s instructive to compare those shameful 40 days to the first 40 days of the Hitler-Stalin clash.
The theatre of operations in the former was about one-fifth the size of the latter. The frontline in Flanders and northern France was about 300 km long; in Russia, it was close to 2,000 km.
Nevertheless, the Luftwaffe engaged more warplanes against France than it did in Barbarossa, and suffered much greater casualties (by about a third). In fact, on the first day of their attack on France, 10 May, 1940, the Germans lost more planes than on any other day of the whole WWII. The Wehrmacht’s losses in men and materiel were slightly higher than in Russia as well.
Yet in France those 40 days are treated as a national shame. In Russia, the first 40 days of the war are held up as the first step on that “toilsome, heroic and sacrificial path”.
In the Battle of Britain, which Putin implied never took place, the Nazis lost more than 1,700 planes – which is 1,700 that could have flown against the Soviets but didn’t. Throughout the war, the Nazis kept at least as many planes, especially fighters, on their Western front as in Russia, and considerably more from the end of 1943 onwards.
Such deployment is understandable in view of the massive bombing raids by the RAF Bomber Command and, later, also the US Air Force. Almost three megatonnes (!) of high explosives were dropped on Germany, bombing her flat. Considering that the Hiroshima bomb yielded less than 20 kilotonnes, the Allies’ bombers spoke to Germany in the language of the nuclear age.
It’s not only Germany’s cities that were obliterated, with 80 per cent of all houses destroyed, but also most of her industry that otherwise could have treated the Soviets to a few nasty surprises, including conceivably atomic bombs.
Also, Germany’s entire naval war was fought against the Allies, with the Soviets taking no part. That sapped German resources more than is generally recognised.
Germany’s submarine production alone used up more raw materials than her tank manufacturing. In its absence, Soviet soldiers could have enjoyed the sight of twice as many Tigers and Panthers in, for example, the Battle of Kursk.
At the same time, the Soviets were receiving mountains of supplies, mostly from America, but also from Britain. The dollar value of America’s Lend-Lease supplies to Russia was $28 billion (real money in those days) – and, unlike such supplies to Britain, those were gifts, not loans.
It wasn’t just indirect help either. From 7 December, 1941, the Allies fought in the Pacific, keeping Japan from attacking Russia from the east. They also fought the Germans in Africa from 10 June, 1940, and, from 9 September, 1943, in Italy. That gives the lie to the Soviet – and now Russian – propaganda that the Allies only landed in Europe on D-Day. The last time I looked, Italy was still in Europe.
Another overworked line is that D-Day happened after the Soviets had effectively won the war, with the Yanks greedily devouring the chestnuts Stalin had pulled out of the fire. In fact, at D-Day the frontline on Russia’s west was twice as close to Moscow than to Berlin. The war hadn’t been won – and possibly wouldn’t have been won without the Allies even at that point.
The contributions of the USSR and the Allies to victory were about equal, and conceivably neither side would have won on its own. It’s true that the Soviet Union suffered greater casualties than all the other warring parties combined, but not because she stood alone.
Actually, the Soviets executed 158,000 of their own soldiers following tribunal verdicts – and possibly twice as many without even that travesty of justice. But even such horrendous numbers are but a drop in the ocean.
The Soviets lost some 12 to 15 million lives in the Red Army (and perhaps as many civilian ones) because of the barbaric methods of fighting favoured by Stalin, the gross incompetence of Soviet officers and generals in the initial stages of the war, and the eagerness of Soviet soldiers to desert, surrender and even join the enemy. More than 6.5 million left the Red Army for such reasons during the war, over four million of them in the first months.
Saving soldiers’ lives simply didn’t enter into the consideration of the Soviets. And why would it? When Churchill expressed his condolences on the awful losses suffered by the Soviets, Stalin just shrugged: “We lost more during the Collectivisation”.
Since then the war has been sacralised in Russia, what with any other achievements not exactly thick on the ground. At the moment, the volume of the bugles whining and drums rattling is higher than ever – and Putin’s speech added quite a few decibels.
The US and Ukrainian intelligence believe that the 97,000 Russian troops amassed on the border with the Ukraine will invade late in January or early in February. War psychosis needs to be whipped up in preparation, and that’s about the only thing Russia’s government is good at (actually, they are real experts at money laundering too, but that’s off the subject).
Putin’s lies are part of that programme, although even many Western historians teach, or rather preach, the same fallacies of the Second World War. Stalin lives on not only in his portraits, now ubiquitous in Russia, but also in history books – many of them Western.