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June 8, 2014
David Warsh, Proprietor


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Normandy and Stalingrad

“We don’t recall the Red Army took part in D-Day,” grumbled the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal, at the news that Vladimir Putin had been invited to D-Day celebrations in France last week, even as he was shut out of the G7 meetings in Brussels.

Seventy years after the landings at Normandy the editors apparently didn’t remember, either, that D-Day never would have happened the way it did if Soviets hadn’t already defeated the German armies in the East.

In the standard US account, World War II began at Pearl Harbor, climaxed at D-Day, and ended with the explosion of atom bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

What that leaves out is the Battle of Stalingrad. With blitzkrieg invasions beginning on September 1, 1939, German armies quickly conquered Poland and France. The Battle of Britain, fought entirely in the air in the summer of 1940, brought westward expansion to a halt. So in June 1941, the Nazis turned on their erstwhile Soviet allies, after having conquered much of the Balkans.

The Wehrmacht pushed deep into the Ukraine with Operation Barbarossa, but was driven back in December 1941 from the outskirts Moscow.  The next summer, Hitler ordered the drive to the south renewed. Without the Black Sea oil fields around Baku he feared he might be forced to seek peace on whatever terms he could get (though he had the Rumanian wells).

The Soviet army dug in in around the industrial city on the Volga River. The German army overplayed its hand and, in January 1943, was decisively defeated, with horrendous casualties. Stalingrad was viewed by all sides as the turning point in the European war.

The battle ‘tore the guts out of the Nazi war machine,” said Winston Churchill. That summer, the Soviet’s finally seized the offensive after blunting the German offensive in the Battle of Kursk. By the end of 1944, German military deaths on the Eastern front were 2.7 million by one estimate, compared to 340,000 in the Western Front,

A great deal of work by many hands has gone into straightening out the narrative of the war, none more energetic than Antony Beevor’s.   But no book can overcome the memory of the US home front narrative.  Americans continue to give short shrift to developments on the war’s Eastern Front.

At the end of World War II, Soviet armies occupied the eastern half of Europe, from the Baltic to the Adriatic. Josef Stalin was triumphant. The stated objective of the USSR was to complete the revolutions of 1848.  As Tony Judt wrote in Postwar: A History of Europe since 1945 , Communists were unable to win power in their occupied territories through the ballot box. Covert pressure, terror and repression became the order of the day. For the next forty-five years, the USSR, until it dissolved in 1991, remained a highly unattractive global power.

But there is no disguising the fact that US treatment of its former adversary since 1992 has been cavalier. Few Russians now defend the pell-mell privatization of their country’s vast natural resources and productive apparatus which occurred under Boris Yeltsin, operating with US advice. Seeking to expand the NATO alliance to Ukraine and Georgia on Russia’s southern flank has sparked still greater resentment.

The result has been nationalism and rising truculence on both sides. The demonization of Putin by the Western mainstream press has reached worrisome levels in the US.  The current unrest in Ukraine, troublesome though it is, is no reason for The Wall Street Journal to start writing the USSR out of the history of World War II.

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6 Comments

  1. Nathan Neel wrote:

    Excellent!!!

    Monday, June 9, 2014 at 2:00 am | Permalink

  2. Anon wrote:

    Yes, the WSJ op-ed and “the standard US account” are historically ignorant. The Battle of Stalingrad was clearly the key turning point in the European phase of the war (though you fail to note that the Red Army’s fighting against the Wermacht benefited by, among other things, the USSR not declaring war on Japan until after atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima & Nagasaki). Whether post-USSR treatment of Russia by the US/NATO has been “cavalier” is another matter. The loss of an empire is a sobering event. But a Carthaginian Peace was not stuffed down Russia’s throat, and NATO in the post-Soviet period has never represented a substantive offensive threat to Russia.

    Putin’s participation in the D-Day ceremonies was a mockery of the West’s resolve in response to his anschluss in Crimea and bloody troublemaking in other parts of Ukraine. This is so regardless of the WSJ op-ed page’s historical ignorance.

    Monday, June 9, 2014 at 5:01 am | Permalink

  3. Dale wrote:

    I’ve seen historians say that the Western Front was basically a side-show. Oddly, one reason the word didn’t get to the West about the enormous efforts on the Eastern Front was Stalin’s paranoia, which prevented the Soviet military archives from being mined by historians.

    I guess I’m not surprised that the WSJ’s editorial page would overlook all that. (The news division wouldn’t, but this isn’t their story.)

    Monday, June 9, 2014 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

  4. Dryly 41 wrote:

    I agree with what Anon wrote above and would like to supplement it. The general point of this post is correct. Most of the fighting and dying took place on the eastern front, and, most Americans don’t know that.

    Still, this post ignores the circumstance of how Hitler and Stalin became allies before they became “erstwhile Soviet allies”. Hitler and Stalin entered into an agreement whereby they divided Poland, and, Hitler ceded the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania, and, Estonia to Stalin. This was the Schlieffen plan to protect his eastern front while he conquered western Europe. This proved not too wise on the part of Stalin for which the Russian people suffered greatly.

    No one should she a tear for Stalin as he was one of the three genuine monsters of the 20th century.

    As far as how Russia was treated after the collapse of the Soviet Union you must remember, this was the period of the march away from the “strict supervision” of finance imposed by FDR, which gave the U.S. the longest period of financial stability, and back to the laissez faire of Harding, Coolidge, Hoover, and, Mellon. So why should not Russia have the same.

    With respect to Putin, Russia, today, does not have freedom of speech, assembly, press, nor, does it have an independent judiciary and the rule of law. Russia does not adhere to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. And, that’s what Putin wants for Ukraine.

    Monday, June 9, 2014 at 2:38 pm | Permalink

  5. zoniedude wrote:

    D’oh, the WSJ is a Murdoch paper.

    Tuesday, June 10, 2014 at 12:53 am | Permalink

  6. Martin R wrote:

    The Germans were first (January 1942) stopped at Moscow well before the Battle of Stalingrad started. The center attack — Moscow — had more troops than either the north or southern attacks, but not enough. From sometime around November 1941 the German fate was sealed. The geography, the population size and production of the improved T-34 tank made it just a matter of time.

    Yes, the Western Front was a side show, but it was one that the Soviet Union could never have done. Still given all events of WW II, a Russian representative, even leader, was not really out of place at Normandy.

    Friday, June 13, 2014 at 10:10 pm | Permalink

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