WORLD WAR II AND THE SOVIET UNION

WORLD WAR II AND THE SOVIET UNION

World War II is known as the "Great Patriotic War" in Russia. Although Stalin tried to avert war with Germany by concluding the Nazi-Soviet Nonaggression Pact in 1939, in 1941 Germany invaded the Soviet Union. The Red Army stopped the Nazi offensive at the Battle of Stalingrad in 1943 and drove through Eastern Europe. Although ravaged by the war, the Soviet Union emerged from the conflict as an acknowledged great power. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

Although the Nazi invasion of 1941 drove far into the Russian interior to threaten Leningrad and Moscow, a new generation of officers gradually asserted themselves as the Germans were driven from Russian territory in 1943 and 1944 after the climactic Battle of Stalingrad. A crucial event in that turnaround was Stalin's removal of political officers having parallel command authority, allowing his top officers to exercise military judgment independent of ideological concerns. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

The meat of World War II was a war of attrition fought in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe that the Nazis eventually lost at great cost to the Russians. Massive mobilization emptied many villages. John Barry wrote in Newsweek: "the war against Nazi Germany was overwhelmingly fought and won by the Soviet Union. The British and American campaigns in Western Europe and North Africa were almost sideshows...The Soviets lost 10 million soldiers and at least as many civilians; by some estimates 15 million civilians died, mostly from starvation, forced labor and German reprisals."

As a wartime leader, Stalin was inept at first but improved with time. His cunning outweighed and his barbaric treatment of his own lieutenants. The security that Stalin bought with the German treaty was short-lived. Hitler repudiated the agreement in 1941, and Russian, Belorussian, and Ukrainian territory subsequently became the scene of fierce fighting and the eventual repulsion of a huge Nazi invasion force. Stalin was able to rally patriotic support for the war effort, and Soviet forces entered Berlin triumphantly in April 1945. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

The most important Russian military leader of World War II was Marshal Georgiy Zhukov, who was instrumental at four key points of Soviet resistance: the siege of Leningrad; the defense of Moscow, the first point at which the German advance was stopped; the Battle of Stalingrad (February 1943); and the Battle of Kursk (July 1943), in which the last strong German counteroffensive was defeated. Zhukov also commanded the final push against the German armies across Belorussia, Ukraine, and Poland. In April 1945, Zhukov led the Red Army's final assault on Berlin that ended what Russians called the Great Patriotic War. *

In World War II, many Americans looked upon the Soviet Union as their principal ally against Nazi Germany, sometimes even at the expense of Britain.

Loss of Life and Damage in the Soviet Union in World War II

The Soviet Union lost at least 26 million in World War II, Considerably more than any other country. Russian casualties were 60 times the number of American casualties. By contrast 300,000 died in the United States and 400,000 in the United Kingdom. An estimated 25 million people in the Soviet Union were left homeless, 20 million were wounded.

Some historian estimated that 40 million people died, or one forth of the population. More Russian died at Stalingrad than Americans and Britons died in the whole war. The loss of life also prevented and 18 million babies from being born. It took decades for the Soviet Union’s population to return to pre World War II levels.

Russians—and other ethnic groups in the Soviet Union too—made sacrifices for the homeland in World War II to a degree that people in the West can not appreciate. Russian children didn't have the opportunity to ask what dad in the war. They know he died. But there was more than heroic sacrifice involved. A case could be made that the populace was a human shield for the government. In Ukraine 750,000 men, aged 19 to 50, were given eight days of training and thrown into battle against the Germans.

Soviet commanders were willing sacrifice unprecedented numbers of soldiers. There were an estimated 8.6 million battle deaths in the Soviet army. Some think the true figure is14 million. An estimated 3.3 million Soviet prisoners of war were executed, worked to death or died of hunger and disease during World War II.

Estimates of the number of civilian deaths range from 7 million to 19 million. In Byelorussia every second family was wiped out. Millions of people were simply listed as missing. Their families have no idea what happened to them. Many corpses were never identified; they were simply pushed into tank traps or bomb craters and covered over.

The Soviet Union also lost 3,000 destroyed cities and towns, 17,000 annihilated villages, one third of its wealth, 427 plundered museums, 1,670 damaged or destroyed Russian Orthodox churches, 532 damaged or destroyed synagogues, 237 damaged or destroyed Catholic churches, 180 million stolen books and over a half million pieces of stolen art. Among the more than 3,000 precious monuments destroyed by the Nazis in World War II, were the cathedrals in Kiev, Chernigov and Vitebsk. One of the worst loses was the series of 12th century frescoes in the Old Church of the Savior in Novgorod. Entire cities were destroyed. Velikiye Luki was left with only 1,100 residents when the city was liberated in January 1943,

The Nazi also suffered. The Red Army inflicted 75 percent of Nazi Germany's casualties. So many Germans were killed on the eastern front that Hitler had to draft workers into the army and foreign workers, mainly from French and Russian prisoners, had to be brought in to run the factories.

Stalin and World War II

Although Stalin tried to avert war with Germany by concluding the Nazi-Soviet Nonaggression Pact in 1939, in 1941 Germany invaded the Soviet Union. The Red Army stopped the Nazi offensive at the Battle of Stalingrad in 1943 and drove through Eastern Europe to Berlin before Germany surrendered in 1945. Although ravaged by the war, the Soviet Union emerged from the conflict as an acknowledged great power. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

As a wartime leader, Stalin was inept at first but improved with time. His cunning outweighed and his barbaric treatment of his own lieutenants. Perhaps his greatest contribution was motivating Soviet citizens into making heroic sacrifices. Stalin said: “Our cause is just. Victory will be Ours.”

Amazingly, even though Stalin had purged the army, sent million to the gulags and killed millions more through forces collectivization, he was able to call on soldiers to make incredible sacrifices in the name of Russian nationalism. Soldiers wrote on the tanks: FOR THE FATHERLAND AND STALIN. However, many Russians and members of other ethnic groups and nationalities sided with the Nazis. Propaganda is one reason why the Russians call World War II the Great Patriotic War.

Russians on the Eastern Front

Even though the Americans grabbed the glory, at least in their own newspapers and media, the war, many argue, was won by the Russians on the Eastern Front. Germany lost over 3 millions soldiers in the east. By the time the Normandy invasion began the German forces on the western front was made up largely of teenagers and old men. The best German soldiers died in Russia.

The Soviet Red Army faced 157 Nazi divisions compared to 60 divisions faced by British and American armies in the west. Russians lost 10 million soldiers, and perhaps as many as 15 million civilians. In contrast the U.S. lost only 408,000 troops in the wars in Europe and the Pacific and Britain lost 244,000 soldiers and 60,000 civilians.

The great Soviet victories in places like Krivoi Rog, Uman, Vitebsk, Kovel and Bendery, and the great Soviet commanders, Konev, Chuikov and the great Marshall Georgi Zhukov, have largely been forgotten.

Two Front War

After the unsuccessful attack on Britain and the successful campaigns in Yugoslavia and Greece, Hitler wheeled his army around to attack Russian violating the non-aggression pact Hitler and Stalin agreed to. Elie Weisel wrote, Hitler "wanted to swallow up Russia, Poland, Ukraine and the Baltic Republics to augment Lebensraum: Germany's vital space."

This move meant that Germany was fighting a two front war with a western front in western Europe and an eastern front in Russia. A lot has been made about Hitler fighting a two front war, a move that historians say cost him victory because it forced him to spread his manpower and supplies to thinly and this weakened his army and made it vulnerable to counter-attacks.

Napoleon also fought a two front war—with Russia and Spain—and historians argue the move led to his demise. But the Napoleonic Wars and World War II were different. Napoleon expended a large force in Spain to fight Spanish guerrillas supported by Wellington's British forces, while Hitler had little fear of attack from Britain (the American weren't in the war yet and D-Day wasn't to come until three years later, long after Hitler expected to annihilate Russia). [Source: "History of Warfare" by John Keegan, Vintage Books]

Historians believe that the Germans attacked the Soviet Union when they did because they were worried that Russia would only get stronger in the future and the early 1940s presented the best opportunity to defeat her. Churchill did all he could to encourage Russia to enter the warm thus forcing Germany "to a scale of effort it could not attain."

Stalin Propaganda and Nazi Failure to Tap Anti-Stalin Sentiments

In gaining the victory, the Soviet government had to rely on the support of the people. To increase popular enthusiasm for the war, Stalin reshaped his domestic policies to heighten patriotic spirit. Nationalistic slogans replaced much of the communist rhetoric in official pronouncements and the mass media. Active persecution of religion ceased, and in 1943 Stalin allowed the Russian Orthodox Church to name a patriarch after the office had stood vacant for nearly two decades. [Source: Library of Congress *]

In the countryside, authorities permitted greater freedom on the collective farms. Harsh German rule in the occupied territories also aided the Soviet cause. Nazi administrators of conquered Soviet territories made little attempt to exploit the population's dissatisfaction with Soviet political and economic policies. Instead, the Nazis preserved the collective farm system, systematically carried out genocidal policies against Jews, and deported others (mainly Ukrainians) to work in Germany. Given these circumstances, the great majority of the Soviet people chose to fight and work on their country's behalf, thus ensuring the regime's survival. *

A woman told Time, "what I remember most about the war is the movies. There were dozens of World War II movies, but they were so blatantly propagandistic. All the Nazis were portrayed as idiots, and the Soviets as great heroes. We had a phrase, kono nemetskoe, which is slang for a show so ridiculous you cannot believe it."

Russian Spies and Traitors

Richard Sorge, a German who became a Communist and moved to Russia after World War I, established spy networks in Germany, China and Japan. Posing as a Nazi party member and journalist in Tokyo, he penetrated the Japanese high command and informed Stalin of the date that Hitler would invade the Soviet Union (Stalin ignored him and was caught unprepared with catastrophic results).

Sorge also learned the date for the Pearl Harbor attack and informed his Communist bosses that Japan had no plans to invade the Soviet Union. As result 250,000 Soviet soldiers stationed near Japan in Siberia were transferred to the Western front to fight against the Nazis, a move that helped change the course of the war. The Japanese eventually found out that Sorge was a spy, and had him killed.

Nikolai Vezhove is one of Russia's most notorious traitors. He lead a group of troops that fought on the side of the Nazis.

Russian Women Pilots

Women fought in World War II and participated in the war effort in a number of ways. One woman commanders of a tank unit led her soldiers into battle with a blood-curdling war whoop.

Squadrons on Russian women flew combat missions. II. Piloting vintage bi-planes with wood and fabric wings, these heroic "Night Witches," flew more than 30,000 combat sorties between 1942 and 1945 and the majority of them were killed. The most famous pilot, 20-year-old Lilya Lityak, single-handedly shot down 12 Nazi aircraft before she disappeared over German territory in 1943. [Book: Soviet Airwomen in World War II by Anne Noggle, Texas A&M University Press, 1994]

The 69-members of the all-female 46th Guards Bombers flew the oldest and slowest planes (a 1927 design) in the Soviet Air Force. The planes had no radio, the control sticks were so heavy navigators helped the pilot pull them on during take offs and chalk marks on the wings served as bomb sights. When hit by tracer bullets they caught fire like "sheets of paper."

Pilots and navigators, many of whom were civilian navigators when the war started, had no parachutes and no radar. The slept only two or three hours a night in -42°F temperatures in trenches next to their planes and carried ammonia on flights to revive wounded and unconscious pilots. "We hated the German fascists so much that we didn't care which aircraft we were to fly; we would have even flown a broom to be able to fire at them.”

The Night Witches flew in canvas and wood planes without parachutes so they could carry extra bombs and preferred a crash landing suicide to being taken alive. A wire cable jury-rigged to wings was used to release the bombs. Sometimes they flew 10 to 12 missions a night.

Russian Slave Workers and Soviet Factories

In September 1942, when the battle for Stalingrad began, the Soviets had lost over half their steel capacity and 40 percent of the machine-tool industry. A shortage of vehicles forced the army to bring 3.5 million horses into service.

By January 1942, four fifths of the Soviet war industrial plant had been moved eastward by rail to the Urals, Central Asia and Siberia, beyond the reach of the Nazi invasion. It was the largest relocation of industry ever undertaken. Novosibirsk, the largest city in Siberia, came into its own during World War II when the Soviet government located many weapons factories there so they were out of harm's way. Much of the labor was supplied by women and prisoners.

Russian were also supply a large portion of the labor in Germany. By early 1943, five million slave laborers—many of them captured Russian, Belorussian or Ukrainian soldiers and civilians— were toiling in Germany. After the loss at Stalingrad. Hitler ordered his manpower boosters to kidnap 10,000 Russian civilians a week to keep the factories humming. Few of them lived longer than 18 months. Many Russians who feared being kidnapped by the Germans joined the Russian army.

Lend-Lease and Supply Russia

The war with Germany also brought about a temporary alliance with the two greatest powers in the "imperialist camp," namely Britain and the United States. Despite deep-seated mistrust between the Western democracies and the Soviet state, the demands of war made cooperation critical. The Soviet Union benefited from shipments of weaponry and equipment from the Western allies; during the course of the war, the United States alone furnished supplies worth more than US$11 billion. At the same time, by engaging considerable German resources, the Soviet Union gave the United States and Britain time to prepare to invade German-occupied Western Europe. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

The Russians were helped immensely by the arrival of supplies from North American as part of the Lend-Lease Act (passed in March 1941). By the end of 1942, Russia had received 2,600 first-line planes, 3,200 tanks and 81,000 other vehicles from the U.S.

During the entire war the U.S. shipped 395,883 trucks and 2.7 million tons of gasoline to the U.S.S.R. Without these supplies the Russian army would not have driven from Stalingrad to Berlin nearly as quickly as it did, which ironically probably would have kept them from claiming East Europe after the war. [Source: "History of Warfare" by John Keegan, Vintage Books]

The United States sent Lend-Lease supplies to both the Soviet Union and Britain but often the Soviets got more supplies because they were viewed by the American as a more vital ally against the Nazis than Britain. In their fight against the Nazis, Russians flew American planes and drove in American jeeps.

Lend-lease convoys left Britain for the Arctic Ocean Russian ports of Murmansk and Arkhangelsk(access to Russia's Baltic and Black Sea ports were controlled by Germany and its quasi-allies Turkey). The Arctic ships were routed west of Iceland towards the Spitsbergen (islands northwest of Norway). When the convoys were driven east and south by winter ice they were vulnerable to attack from German planes, ships and submarines based in Norway. Murmansk was leveled by German bombers in World War II when the port was a receiving area for lend-lease supplies. The waters around Murmansk were crawling with German U-boats that sent many supply ships and their crew to an icy grave.

Relations between the Soviet Union and the U.S. and Britain began to sour, however, when the war turned in the Allies' favor. The postponement of the European invasion to June 1944 became a source of irritation to Stalin, whose country meanwhile bore the brunt of the struggle against Germany. Then, as Soviet armies pushed into Eastern Europe, the question of the postwar order increased the friction within the coalition.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2016

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