The Guardian 4 May, 2005
Figures that tell the truth
One of the finest documentary films about WW2 is Garson Kanin’s 1945 American effort The True Glory, which told the story of US forces in Europe from D-Day to victory in the words of actual ordinary soldiers who took part.
Near the end of the film, the US and Soviet armies meet at the Elbe River. An American GI records how the Russians had a huge banner, "Greetings to the heroes’ army of the United States of America!"
Gobsmacked, the soldier comments: "I mean, we did pretty well, but I’d hate to think where we’d have been without them!"
The USA and Britain opened the Second Front in June 1944, after procrastinating for two and a half years. By that time huge defeats had been inflicted on the Nazi armies on the Eastern Front and the Red Army had almost reached the German border. It had become clear that the Soviet Union would have defeated the German Wehrmacht on its own. The leaders of the western powers were panic stricken at such a possibility.
With the onset of the Cold War — which was launched by Churchill and US President Truman — the western media has systematically both denied and belittled the contribution made by the Soviet Union to defeat the Nazis. Some commentators in the West see the defeat of the Nazis and the victory of the Soviet Red Army as a misfortune. Better Nazism than socialism!
But the figures of the military forces involved prove that the contribution of the Soviet Union in the defeat of fascism exceeded that of all other countries put together.
In the battle of Kursk alone, one of numerous major battles on the Eastern Front, the Red Army destroyed or captured 1500 German tanks, 3000 pieces of artillery and more than 3700 planes. Not to mention approximately 500,000 German troops killed or captured.
For it was on the Eastern Front that the bulk of Hitler’s military resources were deployed. In an exchange of telegrams in 1942 Churchill attempted to argue that the Allied campaign in North Africa was on a par with the Red Army’s titanic struggle on the Eastern Front.
Stalin’s terse reply pointed out that Hitler had ten times as many divisions in the USSR as he had in North Africa. There was no comparison.
On the Eastern Front both sides deployed between five and six million troops on a front that ran from the Barents Sea to the Black Sea. They routinely mounted assaults by a million or more men, backed by thousands of tanks, planes and guns.
In June 1944, when the western front was opened, the number of German divisions on the Russian front totalled 181 which was 55 percent of the total. One hundred and twenty divisions (36 percent) were tied down in German occupied territories and the remaining 26 divisions (8 percent) were engaged on all other fronts. When the US and British armies landed in France and started to advance German divisions were taken from the occupied territories — not from the Eastern Front. Twelve German divisions alone were pinned down in Yugoslavia where the People’s Liberation Army of Marshall Tito was fighting the Nazi occupation.
But the magnitude of the war in the east is only part of the picture. For German capitalism, this was a war of extermination, an ethnic cleansing on an unimaginable scale: the Slav "sub-men" and their Bolshevik contagion were to be obliterated, their lands appropriated for German colonists, their resources for German industry.
In a statement announcing the invasion of the Soviet Union, the German government explicitly declared that their aim was "to save the civilised world from the deadly peril of Bolshevism".
In fact, it was genocide, pure and simple. Hitler ordered that feeding the population of Moscow and Leningrad once those cities were captured was impractical, so they would be allowed to starve to death.
Towns and villages in the occupied parts of the country were methodically destroyed. Captured Soviet soldiers were treated as vermin, not POWs. Officers, Jews and Communists taken prisoner were shot out of hand or sent — not to POW camps like captured US or British personnel — but to the living death of concentration camps.
The figures tell the story: US casualties in WW2 were less than 300,000 killed and British losses were less than 500,000. These statistics represent a huge tragedy. However, the Soviet Union lost 27 million men, women and children (Soviet losses in WW2 exceeded, by several million, the total of military and civilian deaths of all countries in WW1).
Most capitalist leaders confidently expected the USSR to collapse under the blows of the disciplined, well-trained German army. The Bolshevik rabble would at last be swept away.
Our own Robert Menzies declared that the German armies would go through the Russians "like a knife through butter" and that they "would not last six weeks."
Others took a no less hostile but even more cynical approach: let both sides exhaust each other, leaving the US and Britain to walk in and pick up the pieces. Congressman Harry S Truman, later to be the President who dropped the Bomb on Hiroshima, was quite explicit about it.
Speaking just two days after the Nazis invaded the USSR, Truman said "the United States [should] help whatever side seems to be losing". Whenever one side gained the advantage the US should help the other. "Let them kill as many as possible ..."