Wednesday, May 02, 2007

# Posted 8:10 AM by Patrick Porter  

TIME, BLOOD AND MONEY: Should Stalin and the Soviet people get most of the laurels for victory in World War Two? Benjamin Schwarz thinks so, in a review article in this month's Atlantic.

Not only were the Soviets instrumental in defeating Hitler. Also, he argues, collective memory in the Anglo-American world should turn its gaze from D Day and the Blitz and towards what was truly decisive, the German-Soviet struggle.

Not only will this challenge our heroic narrative of liberal democracies overthrowing fascism, but it introduces an irony which Schwarz accuses Americans of lacking. Quoting Geoffrey Roberts,

to win the greatest military victory in history was a triumph beyond compare...Stalin saved the world for democracy.

Schwarz has a point about the sheer scale of human sacrifice suffered by the Soviets, as well as the scale of casualties it inflicted on Nazi Germany. Schwarz points to a figure, a whopping 88% of the Nazi dead were killed in the lethal eastern front.

But much more needs to be said.

In the backlash against the narrative of America's moral triumph in the war, its a little glib to talk about the marginality of America's involvement.

The war wasn't just determined in combat, despite the extremes it reached.

Practically speaking, the Soviet war effort simply could not have functioned as it did without massive financial and material aid from the US. American industrial power, funding and resources underpinned the extraordinary efforts of Soviet population.

If its irony that Schwarz wants more of in the writing of history, then the irony of the powerful alliance between totalitarian Stalinism and American capitalism might deserve more attention.

It was an industrial war and a war in which the theatres of operation were strongly linked.

Consider the strategic bombing of Germany which America took part in. The benefits and value continues to be debated, but it certainly worked to fix the Luftwaffe over Germany, drawing German anti-aircraft guns, artillery pieces and aircraft from other fronts, which helped to give Soviets air supremacy in their theatre.

Also, it can be a 'straw man' argument. Many American commentators don't claim simply that the US defeated Nazi Germany. Instead, it is argued that America was instrumental in defeating the Axis powers as a whole.

It was also a war against Japan and Italy. Which also reached terrifying climaxes of violence. (I gather that some Germans fighting in Italy even applied to be deployed back to the eastern front, although I need to confirm this). The expansionism of Imperial Japan led to such atrocities and crimes against humanity that it has been termed the 'Asian holocaust.'

I'm also not sure how accurate it is that Americans routinely claim to have won the war single-handedly. At least at a high official level, speeches of American Presidents at D-Day ceremonies consisently credit the Soviet Union's sacrifices. To be sure, popular culture and cinema in Holywood probably privilege American agency in the victory. But historians and Presidents have not always followed this temptation.

And the struggle against Japan also aided Stalin's struggle against Hitler. Without the US in the war, Japanese divisions could have have returned to the Soviet East and threatened Stalin with a two-front war. Without a submarine conflict between German U-boats and American merchant ships, the Soviet Union might have been cut off from the world.

When it comes to the political meaning of the war, isn't it 'too neat' to commemorate Stalin, without qualification, as a liberator and saviour of modern democracy?

Stalin collaborated with Nazi Germany and was a virtual ally for the first two years of the war. He invaded Poland and attempted to conquer Finland, while Hitler rampaged over western Europe. Also, I would be reluctant to tell eastern Europeans that Stalin made their world safe for democracy.

The onslaught of Stalinist domination which followed his successes after 1941 is one reason the Allied offensive at Normandy became so important. Not only did its value lie in liberating countries from Nazism, but it prevented the possible creation of more brutal Soviet satellites in France, Low Countries, Italy, western Germany.

So if its a little too 'neat' to credit the USA for being the central hero in defeating Hitler, its equally misleading to represent the whole affair mainly as Uncle Joe's triumph.

The whole debate is indeed soured and distorted by the attempt to isolate one actor above all the others as the hero. It was more of a complex interaction of different fronts, different political systems and different military, political, economic and industrial efforts.

Stalin himself recognised this, when he summarised what the Allies contributed:
Britain the time, America the money, and Russia the blood.
(15) opinions -- Add your opinion

I think your summary is a very good one. The historiography on this issue has gone back and forward and will no doubt continue to do so. The impression I get is that the tendency to praise the Soviets for operational excellence is currently somewhat on the wane in favour of a more favourable assessment of the Americans. At its best this is good stuff (Doubler, Mansoor etc). At its worst I tend to see it as symptomatic of a more general triumphalism.

I think it is fair to say that the changes in historiography have often been tied to broader external factors, such as the growing interest in manoeuvre warfare theory (or Soviet operational art) within the professional armed forces, a tendency among the Left to play down Western achievements in favour of those of the Soviet Union or, as noted, a general surge in national confidence on the part of the USA, which has sometimes resulted in the historical record being shoehorned to match.

Basically I think you're absolutely right to note that none of the key legs of the alliance could have been kicked away without the whole collapsing. Below that level of analysis, it's a bit more freewheeling and I think we'll see the debate go on and on and on.

I think one of the tendencies in dealing with this sort of topic is for one or more analysts to note a factor of the conflict (say, the Soviet or US contributions) which they consider - legitimately - to have been somewhat underrated or ill-understood and for them to then attempt to redress the balance. Unfortunately, what may have initially been a legitimate revision can, if successful, tend to snowball and to go beyond setting the record straight to the point where the pudding becomes somewhat over-egged. I think this was probably the case with some of the positive reassessment of Soviet performance and contribution, where a legitimate move to redress the balance with regard to noting the importance of the eastern front and to understanding the dynamics of Soviet operations as something other than a giant human steamroller has in some quarters tended to morph into the notion that WW2 was basically just a giant self-contained conflict between the Soviets and the Nazis, with the USA and the British Empire flitting about on the sidelines.
Hey Anthony,

great comments! I absolutely agree that these shifts in historiography have also been tied to external political trends.

I detected, for example, that some reaction against the triumphalist American version was fed by a reaction against both Cold War and post Cold War rhetoric about America as world saviour.

In particular, there would be the anxiety that this rhetoric of American heroism and world war two was being abused to justify unilateralism and belligerence by Washington in the present.

I haven't looked much into this, but it may be that the film 'Saving Private Ryan' also triggered this reaction in some quarters, where revisionists tried to revive the heroic role of the Soviet Union and play down America's.

Also, some commentators like Schwarz genuinely seem to have forgotten that Nazi Germany was part of an Axis of powers. The most powerful one, to be sure, but nevertheless this is a very Euro/Russo-centric perspective.

Either that, or he and others wrongly assume that the different theatres in the war were hermetically-sealed conflicts with little impact or dependence on one another.

Less talked about is that the USSR wouldn't have survived without a Western Allied victory in the First World War. Russia lost, but the allies didn't.

On WW2, I'd say that communists one positive contribution to the world was building a Russian state that wouldn't collapse after the terrible losses of 1941. Russia cracked in 1917 from far less punishment.
If the US was not in the war, would the USSR have beaten the Germans?

If the USSR was not in the war, would the US have beaten the Germans?
bob from ohio asks two very
important questions ...

"If the US was not in the war,
would the USSR have beaten the

Not a chance. Without American
trucks or airplane engines they

"If the USSR was not in the war,
would the US have beaten the

A small number of 20Kt Atomic bombs
exploding over Germany would have
been sufficent. Very much within
the reach of B-29s deployed from
UK bases.

It true that the Soviets did the
majority of the dying during WWII.
Mainly because of the horrible
generalship of it's Comissar controlled officer corps.

It must really upset the rest of the world that not only can we
defeat anyone we care to in 2007,
that the same held true back in
1947. If you don't think so,
look to see the percentage of GDP
Roosevelt/Truman deployed in WWII
to the military as opposed to the
tiny percentage we spend now.
Well. That killed that discussion.
If facing the most troops was the key thing, clearly the Chinese won the Pacific War, because they faced far more Japanese divisions than anyone else.

If it was defeating the most Japanese army divisions which was crucial, clearly it was the British Empire which won the Pacific War, because the British forces in Burma (plus the Australians in New Guinea) faced and defeated more divisions than the Americans.

Somehow, those who want to argue for "the Soviets did it" in the European theatre never quite use the same logic about the Pacific War.

Striking trivia: more German and Italian trops surrendered in Tunisia (275,000) to the Anglo-Americans than in Stalingrad (91,000) though the total German casualties (850,000) were much higher in Stalingrad.
Patrick, I think you underestimate the degree to which Americans tend to take credit for the entire victory. That belief underlies a recent line of complaint about war in Iraq - why are we still fighting 4 years on, when 'we' beat the Germans in 3 1/2?
(And that complaint comes from Democrats, who are by definition more knowledgeable about and sensitive to the concerns of the wider world, just ask them.)
Bgates, are you capable of saying anything without a snarky arrogance? - Peter from oxford
Peter, it's less than a week since your school proposed to make itself the moral arbiter of whether my country should exist - “This House regrets the founding of The United States of America.” Do you think you're in a particularly good position to complain about snarky arrogance?
bgates, that was the union, not oxford. It is made up of very obnoxious students. They too are snarky and arrogant.
Peter, what was arrogant about my comment?
And the struggle against Japan also aided Stalin's struggle against Hitler. Without the US in the war, Japanese divisions could have have returned to the Soviet East and threatened Stalin with a two-front war.

I think that's unlikely -- the divisions would probably have been plowed back into the fight against the various Chinese armies, and possibly pushing through Burma to strike at the heart of the British Raj, or an invasion of Australia. The Japanese Kwantung Army was trounced in their one early foray against Russia (Nomonhan, 1939), and I don't think they took any military action against the USSR after that point. Nor do I think there's much likelihood that they would have tried. At least not until they had pacified the Chinese interior and secured the rest of the Greater East-Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere.
Couple of points:
Russia had some of its better armies sitting in the Far East just in case Japan decided to attack Russia again. These where the same troops that where redeployed west just in time stop the German summer offensive of 1942. These troops where re-deployed as soon as Japan attacked America.

Without these troops it's very unlikely that Russia would have been able to start pushing Germany back and the war would have ended either as a German victory or as a stalemate.

The other thing to understand is that Russia lost 20 million men during this war. It's extremely unlikely they would have had the man power to destroy a Germany that was not being attacked and bombed by other nations. A stalemate is very likely with Germany having the upper hand in the post war period.
A few observations, in no particular order. Neo Cool's account is wrong--the Siberian troops didn't stop the German summer offensive of 1942, they were used to launch the Dec 1941 counterattack west of Moscow.

It's also misleading to say that the Russians lost 20 million troops. The -Soviets- lost the troops, of whom barely over a half were "Russian" Russian IIRC. (FWIW, the devastation of the European areas of the USSR fell most heavily on the smaller republics such as the Ukraine, Belorussia, the Baltic States, etc.)

Finally (and I'm not accusing Neo cool of this), the whole notion of the "Russian" sacrifice and victory has been used since 1942 to justify any domestic or foreign initiative, action, or reaction that the Communist regime desired. It functioned--and in some places still functions--to put a halt to criticism of or opposition to the Reds.

And just to add a broad gauge irony to the whole miserable existance fo the USSR, it was born with the aid of German militarists, and based itself on the bizarre ideas of Germans who were personally pretty Russophobic.

If there's a Marxist afterlife, Marx and Engels must be chuckling about the misery their ideas brought to the Russians.
Post a Comment