What country could be considered the MVP in the war to defeat Nazi Germany? Despite the lessons you might take from Hollywood movies or from your history textbook, a reasonable argument could be made that the Soviet Union did more – in terms of damage to the enemy, as well as sacrifice of its own people and resources – than any other country in the victorious side of World War II, including the United States.
Let’s lay out a brief account of the Russian war against Hitler’s Germany, its place in Russian national identity, and then dig into the question of why this story isn’t better known in the United States.
This lesson was reported from:
Adapted in part from open sources.
A) Unlikely Allies
- Why did Nazi Germany and the USSR sign a treaty of non-aggression in spite of strong hatred and distrust between the two nations?
- What was Hitler’s plan for the East? How did this contribute to the overall brutality of the war once it came?
Throughout the 1930s the communist Soviet Union underwent massive industrialization and economic growth under the leadership of dictator Joseph Stalin. Stalin’s central tenet, “Socialism in one country,” meant that the USSR was not focused on spreading communism internationally, but instead on strengthening it in the one country where it already existed – his own. Stalin was famously distrustful of the outside world and expected further foreign wars because it was in the nature of imperialism, and because just after the Soviet Union was established, fourteen nations – all capitalist, all fearing the rise of communism – had sent troops to Russia in an attempt to destabilize the new communist government. Stalin’s effort to strengthen the USSR manifested itself as a series of nationwide centralized Five-Year Economic Plans from 1929 onward. It also resulted in rolling series of purges in which Stalin killed or imprisoned any Soviet citizens or officials that he perceived as rivals or as potentially disloyal.
Despite years of rhetoric against communism and the Slavic peoples of the USSR, in 1939 Hitler’s foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop signed a nonaggression pact with Stalin’s foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov.
The Treaty of Non-aggression between Germany and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics provided a written guarantee of non-belligerence by each country towards the other, and a declared commitment that neither government would ally itself to, or aid, an enemy of the other party. This Nazi–Soviet Pact was a marriage of strategic convenience between the two nations. In addition to stipulations of non-aggression, the treaty included a secret protocol that divided territories of Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Finland, and Romania, into German and Soviet “spheres of influence,” anticipating “territorial and political rearrangements” of these countries – coded language for a mutual military takeover and of these marginal countries at a near future date.
Confident that the USSR would not challenge his move to acquire Lebensraum in Eastern Europe, Hitler invaded Poland on September 1, 1939. Per treaty, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin followed suit, moving into eastern Poland soon after.
But the full realization of Hitler’s highly-racialized Lebensraum policy did not end with Poland and would soon bring Germany into conflict with Stalin’s USSR. Most of the indigenous populations of Eastern Europe – Polish, Ukrainian, Russian, and other Slavic nations considered racially inferior and non-Aryan – would be removed permanently, either through mass deportation to Siberia, death, or enslavement. The Nazi government aimed at repopulating these lands with Germanic colonists during World War II and thereafter, establishing the Greater Germanic Reich.
Hitler wrote, “The Slavs are born as a slavish mass, crying out for their master.” He continued, “I need the Ukraine, in order that no one is able to starve us again, like in the last war.”
All of this meant that the war with the USSR, when it came, was bound to be brutal, aimed not just at territorial conquest, as in France or Belgium, but at full extermination of the Russian people. Hitler compared this inevitable extermination to that carried out by the United States during the nineteenth century: “Our Mississippi must be the Volga…”
“Who,” asked Hitler, “remembers the Red Indians?”
Hitler wrote of the USSR, “It is inconceivable that a higher people should painfully exist on a soil too narrow for it, whilst amorphous masses, which contribute nothing to civilization, occupy infinite tracts of a soil that is one of the richest in the world.”
The war, when it came, would be a struggle for survival.
B) The Invasion
- How did the Soviet Union respond to the German surprise attack?
- Stalin is infamous for the violent execution and exile of political rivals, as well as the repression of the more than hundred ethnic and nationalist groups in the fifteen Soviet republics, yet when the Germans attacked, he was quite to call for a “Patriotic War … of the entire Soviet people.” How did talking about the German attack in terms of patriotism and unity help to create a Soviet nation where, arguably, one did not exist before? How did this way of thinking help Stalin change his image within the Soviet Union from butcher to hero?
Around 3:15 on the morning of June 22, 1941, Germany launched a sneak attack, bombing Russian positions and cities, and crossing into Soviet-occupied Poland.
By noon, the news of the invasion was broadcast to the population by Soviet Foreign Minister Molotov, calling upon the population’s sense of Russian patriotism rather than its devotion to communism: “… Without a declaration of war, German forces fell on our country, attacked our frontiers in many places… The Red Army and the whole nation will wage a victorious Patriotic War for our beloved country, for honor, for liberty … Our cause is just. The enemy will be beaten. Victory will be ours!”
Despite this rousing public face, historian Orlando Ferge writes that Stalin was badly shaken and that the Soviet Army was in poor condition to fight. “‘Everything’s lost,’ he was heard to say that day. ‘I give up. Lenin founded our state and we’ve fucked it up.’ Stalin must have realized that he was to blame for the disaster. Ignoring the intelligence reports of the German military build-up, he had failed to prepare for war, while his terror had seriously weakened the army. Over 80,000 Red Army officers were executed between 1937 and June 1941—including more than half the regiment commanders—so that inexperienced juniors had been thrust into positions of command.”
Within the first few days of the invasion, the Soviet High Command and Red Army were extensively reorganized so as to place them on the necessary war footing – but the damage was done, and the German blitzkrieg advanced deep into Soviet territory, with terrifying losses. Stalin did not address the nation about the German invasion until July 3, when he called for a “Patriotic War … of the entire Soviet people.”
Hitler proclaimed to his colleagues, “Before three months have passed, we shall witness a collapse of Russia, the like of which has never been seen in history.”
The opening stages of the war seemed to bear out his prophecy.
Over the course of the operation, about four million Axis personnel invaded the western Soviet Union along a 1,800 mile front, the largest invasion force in the history of warfare. The invasion opened up the Eastern Front of World War II, the largest theater of war during that conflict, and it witnessed titanic clashes of unprecedented violence and destruction for four years that resulted in the deaths of nearly 27 million Soviet people. More people died fighting on the Eastern Front than in any other fighting across the globe during World War II. Damage to both the economy and landscape was enormous for the Soviet Union as approximately 1,700 towns and 70,000 villages were razed to the ground.
As the Red Army withdrew, the Soviet Stavka (high command) turned its attention to evacuating as much of the western regions’ iron, steel, and arms industry as it could. Whole factories were dismantled and transported on flatcars away from the front line for reassembly in more remote areas of the Ural Mountains, Caucasus, Central Asia and southeastern Siberia, far beyond the reaches of the rapid German advance.
As historian Richard Overy writes, “It is a myth that the Soviet Union won the war because it had the endless spaces in the east from which to suck its manpower. In the east there was more space than people. The Soviet Union survived only by mobilizing two-thirds of its women to run the factories and farms, and by modernizing its armed forces so that it did not have to rely any longer on raw numbers of men, but could rely, like the American army, on mass-produced weapons… The evacuation saved the Soviet war effort […] from certain disaster.”
The distance insulated Soviet industry, and despite the catastrophic loss of life, ensured that the Russian military would be well-supplied even as German factories were devastated by American and British aerial bombing. Most civilians were left to make their own way east, with only industry-related workers evacuated with the equipment; some female 8,000 workers, evacuated east along with the equipment in order to operate the factories, lived nearby in holes carved out of the earth.
Much of the population was left behind to the mercy of the invading forces.
On the other hand, Stalin ordered the retreating Red Army to initiate a harsh scorched-earth policy to deny the Germans basic supplies as they advanced eastward toward the Soviet capital of Moscow. To carry out that order, destruction battalions were formed with the authority to summarily execute any suspicious person, including thousands of anti-Soviet prisoners who might otherwise collaborate with the occupying German army. The destruction battalions also burned down villages, schools, public buildings, and any other materials that might be useful to the enemy.
Correctly calculating that Hitler would direct efforts to capture Moscow, Stalin concentrated his forces to defend the city, including numerous divisions transferred from Soviet eastern sectors after he determined that Japan would not attempt an attack in those areas. Orlando Ferge summarizes the practical and symbolic importance of defending Moscow, pointing out, “If the Germans captured it, the whole country would be split in two; they would control the railway system, whose web of lines was centered on the capital; while the Soviet people would think the revolution had ended, so their willingness to go on fighting for it might well collapse.”
By December 1941, Hitler’s troops had advanced to within 16 miles of the Kremlin in Moscow. On December 5, the Soviets launched a counteroffensive, pushing German troops back about 50 miles from Moscow in what was the first major defeat of the Wehrmacht in the war.
C) The Siege of Leningrad and the Battle of Stalingrad
The capture of the Soviet city of Leningrad was one of the primary strategic goals in the German invasion, motivated by Leningrad‘s symbolic status as the former capital of Russia, its military importance as a main base of the Soviet Baltic Fleet, and its industrial strength, housing numerous arms factories. By 1939 the city was responsible for 11% of all Soviet industrial output.
The 872 days (two and a half years) of siege caused extreme famine in the Leningrad region through disruption of utilities, water, energy and food supplies. This resulted in the deaths of up to 1,500,000 soldiers and civilians and the evacuation of 1,400,000 more, mainly women and children, many of whom died during evacuation due to starvation and bombardment. Economic destruction and human losses in Leningrad on both sides exceeded those of the Battle of Stalingrad, the Battle of Moscow, or the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The siege of Leningrad is the most lethal siege in world history, and some historians speak of the siege operations in terms of genocide, as a “racially-motivated starvation policy” – part of the German war of extermination against populations of the Soviet Union generally, in which the Luftwaffe was ordered to intentionally target civilian food supplies, power plants, and water treatment facilities.
Civilians in the city suffered from extreme starvation, especially in the winter of 1941–42. From November 1941 to February 1942 the only food available to the citizen was 125 grams of bread per day, of which 50–60% consisted of sawdust and other inedible admixtures. In conditions of extreme temperatures, down to −30 °C (−22 °F), and city transport being out of service, even a distance of a few kilometers to a food distributing kiosk created an insurmountable obstacle for many citizens. Deaths peaked in January–February 1942 at 100,000 per month, mostly from starvation. People often died on the streets, and citizens soon became accustomed to the sight of death.
The tide of the war did not change on D-Day in 1944, the US-British assault on Germany from the West, which Stalin had urged for years. In fact, it changed on the Eastern Front, in 1943, where 8 in 10 German soldiers who died during World War II met their end, and where the German army was finally turned, forced into a nearly two-year stuttering retreat back to Berlin. Stalin commanded his troops, “Not one step back,” and assigned special units to round up and execute any who disobeyed. It is hard to say whether men fought more from a sense of patriotic duty or terror at the consequences of failure. Hitler gave similar orders to his army, firing several generals in part because they counseled him otherwise. 1943 would vindicate one of these men.
The key, decisive moments came during the Battle of Stalingrad and the Battle of Kursk, two monstrously large battles involving thousands of tanks and millions of men – two of the largest battles ever fought in all of history.
Historian Richard Overy writes of this period in his seminal study Why the Allies Won, “The stubbornness of Soviet resistance astonished German commanders; the ferocity of the confrontation led to barbarisms on both sides…. The Soviet will to win, which emerged painfully from the wreckage of Soviet fortunes before Stalingrad, was not a mere abstraction but a spur to efforts that both sides, Soviet and German, would have thought impossible a year before. The Soviet people were the instrument of their own redemption from the depths of war.”
D) The Fall of Berlin
- The Germans were violent and brutal, committing some of the worst atrocities in human history in the form of the Holocaust, which was largely carried out on the Eastern Front. The Soviets were brutal, too, accepting large casualty rates in order to win and committing violence against German civilians out of revenge. Does one act of violence excuse another? Is it ok to say, “They started it, we are simply responding in kind?”
The Soviet push back against the Germans was long, costly, and brutal. At the Battle of Stalingrad and the Battle of Kursk, in particular, the Soviets managed to turn the tide of the war. Over the course of three long years, the Germans were forced to make a slow, bloody retreat back to their own country. “If they want a war of extermination they shall have it,” Stalin proclaimed from Red Square. “Our task now will be destroy every German, to the very last man. Death to the German invaders!”
As the tide of the war turned, hundreds of thousands of German soldiers fell into Soviet custody as prisoners of war. On one occasion in 1944, tens of thousands of captured German soldiers were paraded in defeat through the streets of Moscow. Disinfectant trucks sprayed the streets in their wake, a propaganda message to the Russian people – the Germans seek to destroy you, but it is they who are the filthy vermin. They became slave labor for the Soviet war effort or were executed outright, they starved alongside the Soviet people. Tens of thousands of these men remained as prisoners for nearly a decade after the end of the war, and tens of thousands more disappeared into oblivion.
On April 20, 1945, Hitler’s birthday, the 1st Belorussian Front led by Marshal Georgy Zhukov, advancing from the east and north, started shelling Berlin’s city center, while Marshal Ivan Konev‘s 1st Ukrainian Front broke through Army Group Centre and advanced towards the southern suburbs of Berlin.
A Soviet war correspondent gave his own vivid account from the front lines of Berlin:
On the walls of the houses we saw Goebbels‘ appeals, hurriedly scrawled in white paint: ‘Every German will defend his capital. We shall stop the Red hordes at the walls of our Berlin.’ Just try and stop them!
Steel pillboxes, barricades, mines, traps, suicide squads with grenades clutched in their hands—all are swept aside before the tidal wave.
Drizzling rain began to fall. Near Bisdorf I saw batteries preparing to open fire.
‘What are the targets?’ I asked the battery commander.
‘Center of Berlin, Spree bridges, and the northern and Stettin railway stations,’ he answered.
Then came the tremendous words of command: ‘Open fire on the capital of Fascist Germany.’
I noted the time. It was exactly 8:30 a.m. on 22 April. Ninety-six shells fell in the center of Berlin in the course of a few minutes.
The garrison of troops defending Berlin consisted of several depleted and disorganized Wehrmacht and Waffen-SS divisions, along with poorly trained Volkssturm and Hitler Youth members. Over the course of the next week, the Red Army gradually took the entire city.
Before the battle was over, Hitler and several of his followers killed themselves. The city’s garrison surrendered on May 2, but fighting continued to the north-west, west, and south-west of the city until the end of the war in Europe on May 8, 1945 (May 9 in the Soviet Union) as some German units fought westward so that they could surrender to the Western Allies rather than to the Soviets, who might seek revenge for the atrocities and brutality of the Eastern Front.
During, and in the days immediately following the assault, vengeful Soviet troops engaged in mass rape, pillage, and murder. Oleg Budnitskii, historian at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow, told a BBC Radio program that Red Army soldiers were astounded when they reached Germany. “For the first time in their lives, eight million Soviet people came abroad, the Soviet Union was a closed country. All they knew about foreign countries was there was unemployment, starvation and exploitation. And when they came to Europe they saw something very different from Stalinist Russia… especially Germany. They were really furious, they could not understand why being so rich, Germans came to Russia.”
Despite Soviet efforts to supply food and rebuild the city, starvation remained a problem. In June 1945, one month after the surrender, the average Berliner was getting only 64 percent of a 1,240-calorie daily ration. Across the city over a million people were without homes.
E) Where is all of this in your textbook?
- After World War II, why would many in the United States wish to downplay the role of the Soviet Union in defeating Nazi Germany?
- How might Americans view the world differently if their version of World War II were rewritten to better reflect Soviet contributions and sacrifices? In your opinion, would this change be for the better, or for the worse?
The battles on the Eastern Front constituted the largest military confrontation in history. They were characterized by unprecedented ferocity, wholesale destruction, mass deportations, and immense loss of life due to combat, starvation, exposure, disease, and massacres. The Eastern Front, as the site of nearly all extermination camps, death marches, ghettos, and the majority of pogroms, was central to the Holocaust. Of the estimated 70 million deaths attributed to World War II, over 30 million, many of them civilian, occurred on the Eastern Front. The Eastern Front was decisive in determining the outcome of the European portion of World War II, eventually serving as the main reason for the defeat of Nazi Germany. It resulted more directly than any single American or British action in the destruction of the Third Reich.
“In fact,” writes historian Mark Weber, “Hitler’s Germany was defeated, first and foremost, by the Soviet Union. Some 70-80 percent of German combat forces were destroyed by the Soviet military on the Eastern front. The D-Day landing in France by American and British forces, which is often portrayed in the United States as a critically important military blow against Nazi Germany, was launched in June 1944 — that is, less than a year before the end of the war in Europe, and months after the great Soviet military victories at Stalingrad and Kursk, which were decisive in Germany’s defeat.”
And yet, most of the events recounted here remain largely unknown outside of academic historians and World War II enthusiasts. Why are these events underplayed in Hollywood films and in your history textbook in favor of events like D-Day and Iwo Jima? Certainly, battles in which the armed forces of United States played a direct role capture the imagination of Americans in an immediate, more personal way.
But one other likely explanation lies in the way in which the post-war world took shape.
From the Soviet perspective, two invasions by Germany (World War I and World War II) and the loss of almost 30 million people during the Great Patriotic War was all that a nation could be expected to bear. Stalin wanted what any leader would want for his country – stability and security. For Stalin, this, in part, meant a weak, de-industrialized Germany.
From this perspective, America’s secretive development and use of the atomic bomb, its aggressive implementation of economic aid through the Marshall Plan and under the Truman Doctrine; its attempts to reunify the German sectors so soon after the end of the war; its persistence in the Berlin Airlift; its formation of the NATO alliance, its first such binding military alliance outside of peace time in its entire history; its electoral manipulations in Korea; and its increased military spending as a result of 1950’s NSC-68 all sent a very clear message – America under the leadership of Harry Truman and successive US presidents was on the offensive, ready to expand its political and economic influence to the doorstep of the Soviet Union.
Whatever the root cause, the United States commenced a fifty year Cold War with the Soviet Union, in which the US’s one-time ally against Nazi Germany became its primary global rival. From the nuclear arms race to the space race, and in proxy wars from Asia to the Americas, the US and the USSR were in heated competition for political, military, and economic dominance of the world.
At times during this period, it was unfashionable – and sometimes downright dangerous – in the United States to be seen as sympathetic or friendly to the Soviet Union. One this bitter rivalry was the history of World War II, the first drafts of which were written during the Cold War. After all, if the Soviets represented the ultimate “Evil Empire” in the words of US president Ronald Reagan, then how could they have played such an indispensable role in winning World War II – the Good War, to preserve democracy, as the Americans told it?
And so it stands today. Russia and the United States, like any two nations, often have very different goals on the world stage – but for four long years in the 1940s, the Soviet Union sacrificed more as a bulwark against Nazi Germany than many Americans now care to remember.
- This is only a partial account of the Soviets’ Great Patriotic War against Germany. Choose one of the following topics to research. Write an additional 3-5 paragraph section that could be used to supplement this page and post it in the comments section below. Or, create a 2-3 minute video documentary on your chosen subject and post it to YouTube.
- Imagine that, in an effort to set the historical record straight, there is a push to create a memorial in Washington, DC to the Soviet war effort. Break into teams and hold a classroom competition to design a memorial that symbolically communicates the Soviet contributions and experience during World War II. Provide a written brief statement explaining your proposal, then vote on which memorial best tells the Russian story.
- How different are we really? Research Russia’s annual Victory Day and Immortal Regiment commemorations. Prepare a paper or a video essay comparing and contrasting these events with similar ones in the United States or your own country. Speculate on why such displays of nationalism continue and are encouraged even long after a war is over.
- For Americans, it is easy to judge the violence and brutality of the Nazis or the Soviets, arguing that the United States was different and did not lower itself to such base forms of terror. Consider, however, the nearly forgotten firebombings of Japanese and German civilians, or the better remembered but still controversial use of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, with reference to his part in planning these bombings with General Curtis LeMay, has said, “LeMay said, “If we’d lost the war, we’d all have been prosecuted as war criminals.” And I think he’s right. He, and I’d say I, were behaving as war criminals. LeMay recognized that what he was doing would be thought immoral if his side had lost. But what makes it immoral if you lose and not immoral if you win?” Hold a debate in your classroom centered around the central question – should these acts be considered war crimes?
- Visit iremember.ru, which contains the memories of ordinary Russians who survived the Great Patriotic War. Choose one story and create a piece of art, an illustration, or a comic strip that communicates that person’s experience to others.
The Untold History of the United States by Peter Kuznick.
Why the Allies Won by Richard Overy.
Revolutionary Russia, 1891-1991: A History by Orlando Figes.
THIS LESSON WAS MADE POSSIBLE THROUGH GENEROUS SUPPORT AND COOPERATION FROM ROSSOTRUDNICHESTVO.
You can actually visit parts of the world featured in this lesson:
- A Guided Tour of Moscow is a curated photo essay for use in middle and high school social studies classrooms. The essay offers a brief, completely non-comprehensive overview of Russian history and culture circa 2017 and is meant to present these topics in an unconventional way – that is, as if the student were travelling through, wandering, and exploring Moscow on their own. Explore Red Square and Gorky Park, commute through the Moscow Metro, and participate in the 2017 Victory Day celebrations commemorating the end of World War II.
- Live From Moscow, 2018: