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It was the Soviet and Chinese sacrifice that made victory possible
We must not forget how World War II was won. WW II victory was a victory of the united anti-fascim front including the Soviet and Chinese. |
Richard Overy: It was the Soviet and Chinese sacrifice that made victory possible
Saturday May 7, 2005
Imagine for a moment that around half the population of Great Britain - men, women and children - died in the second world war. What kind of extraordinary trauma would this represent? How would "victory" in 1945 now be viewed, or even celebrated? Yet 27 million is the estimate of Soviet deaths by the end of the war. Actual British losses represented around 0.6% of the population; American losses were smaller, around 0.3%. But Soviet losses, from war, starvation and repression, represented about 14% of the pre-war population.
These losses were the brutal product of German invasion in 1941 and the Soviet determination to resist that aggression and expel the Germans from their territory. The scarcely credible level of sacrifice exposes just how vast and savage the war on the eastern front was. It was here that the great majority of German casualties occurred. It was here that the war was won or lost, for if the Red Army had not succeeded against all the odds in halting the Germans in 1941 and then inflicting the first major defeats at Stalingrad and Kursk in 1943, it is difficult to see how the western democracies, Britain and the US, could have expelled Germany from its new empire.
By 1945 the material strength of the allies was, of course, overwhelming. The critical point came in the middle years of the war, with the Soviet Union teetering before Stalingrad, Rommel poised to take Egypt, the battle of the Atlantic not yet won and American rearmament in its early stages. Victory was not automatic. Soviet resistance meant the difference. Uncertainly, sometimes incompetently, the Soviet armed forces learned the lessons imposed on them by Germany's panzer armies in 1941. A hasty, improvised set of reforms and an economy geared almost exclusively to armaments turned the feeble efforts of 1941 into the vast setpiece battles from the summer of 1943, every one of which the Soviet side won.
German forces were defeated not by the sheer numbers (by 1943 millions of Soviet soldiers were dead or captive and the Red Army was desperate for men), but by the inventive tactics and sturdy technology of their enemy. If this had not been the case, Hitler's armies would have gone on winning, and a huge German-dominated economic empire in Eurasia would have confronted the western allies with a strategic nightmare.
Of course, it is now argued in the west that Soviet victory left a sour taste. Rather than the liberation brought by the western powers, Soviet liberation ushered in the trappings of the Stalinist state. The cold war after 1945 made it difficult to integrate the Soviet contribution into the collective western memory of the war, while it also allowed the Soviet Union to write the contribution of its allies out of the script.
In reality they needed each other. Soviet efforts required the flow of resources under the "Lend Lease" programme. Weapons were few, and the Soviets regarded them as second-rate. But the supply of raw materials, food and communications equipment was essential. It allowed Soviet industry to concentrate on weapons to fight back with. Without Lend Lease the rail system and food supply might well have folded up as they had in the first world war.
The sour taste has become more marked with the fall of communism 15 years ago. The opening up of Soviet archives has shown a system that for some critics makes it almost indistinguishable from the totalitarian enemy it was fighting. This makes it more difficult to embrace the Soviet contribution to victory. The ordinary Soviet people were not only numberless victims of war, but they failed to achieve any political reform as a result of their triumph. Yet it is their exceptional sacrifice that we should remember as we look back over 60 years. And in the end the peoples of eastern Europe were unquestionably better off under the new communist regimes than under German imperial domination. German plans by the middle of the war foresaw the deliberate starvation of at least 35 million people in the east as "useless eaters", and the genocidal destruction of the Jewish and gypsy populations. The eastern peoples were described in German documents as the "helots" of the new empire. This grotesque imperial fantasy was won or lost on the eastern front, and who can regret its defeat?
The Soviet Union is not the only state to be written out of the victory story in the west. The Chinese people also lost an estimated 20 million as a result of Japanese aggression. Just as the Soviet armed forces held down the Germans, so the less effective but numerous Chinese armed forces kept the Japanese bogged down in Asia. This is a record that is still almost unknown in the west, yet if Japan had achieved quick victory in China, large resources would have been released for an assault on the rear of the Soviet Union, or a larger military presence in the Pacific. In this case, too, western allied casualties would have been much greater without the stubborn resistance of their Asian ally.
In the end, the western freedom to plan and execute a global strategy depended on the ability of the Soviet and Chinese forces to hold the main enemies at bay while western air forces bombed the Axis motherlands flat. When victory is celebrated tomorrow, it is important that we pause to remember the almost 50 million Soviets and Chinese who perished to contain the imperial aggression of Germany and Japan.
Nor should we forget, when condemning Soviet repression in eastern Europe that allied airforces bombed German and Japanese cities up to the very end of the war, inflicting the deaths of more than 600,000 civilians and opening the nuclear age. After 1945 Britain and France re-imposed undemocratic imperial rule in Africa and south-east Asia. None of the victors has anything to feel smug about. The pursuit of victory made all the allies do things they might never have imagined themselves doing.
One question that almost certainly will not be asked as the world indulges in what is probably the last great bout of victory nostalgia is why those states that viewed themselves as the bearers of progress and the modern age descended between 1914 and 1945 into a hideous orgy of war, civil conflict, repression and genocide. Mercifully, 1945 marked a real break with that 30-year crisis, but the nagging issues remain. If they could do it then, what are the restraints that prevent the developed world from once again plunging into the madness of mass war and state violence? Perhaps 1945 is a lesson learned, but those restraints need to be well understood. Next time the millions of dead may not be for our allies alone to bear.
世界反法西斯战争的中国战场 -- The world anti-facist war -- China battlefield: