The Long Read: How WWII shaped modern Western relations with Russia

The Soviets were crucial to the Allied victory in WW2, but 70 years on there is a rift again, says Geoffrey Roberts

THE guns fell silent 70 years ago. But the western boycott of Moscow’s 70th anniversary Second World War victory parade shows that while the war is in the past, it has not passed quietly into history.

Prompted by the Ukrainian crisis, these divisions in contemporary Russian-Western relations can be traced back to the Second World War.

Throughout Europe, there is a debate about the war: it is an ideological struggle between those who celebrate the allied victory as a validation of anti-fascist unity and those who lament communist subjugation in the decades that followed.

At the war’s end, in 1945, it all seemed so much simpler. Fifty million people had perished, but Hitler and his Nazi regime had been resoundingly defeated.

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Germany had been occupied and leaders of the winning, allied nations had declared their commitment to peacetime collaboration.

The anti-fascist war had been fought successfully under the banner of democracy, so postwar Europe could be reconstructed as a continent of free and independent sovereign states.

Out of the ashes of war a united and peaceful Europe would arise.

Having suffered death and destruction on an unimaginable scale — 15% of its people killed, 30% of its national wealth wiped out — the Soviet Union was the main victor.

The Red Army, which incurred eight million fatalities in repulsing and destroying the German war machine, liberated Auschwitz and most of the other Nazi concentration camps.

And it was the Soviet assault on Berlin, in April, 1945, that prompted Hitler’s suicide and forced Germany’s surrender on May 9, 1945.

The Soviet Union was an authoritarian, communist state ruled by Joseph Stalin — a ruthless dictator condemned for being as bad as Hitler.

But in 1945 Stalin was as much a hero in the west as he was in the USSR. He was credited as the indispensable leader who had held the Soviet war effort together and led his country to the greatest military victory in history.

Stalin brooked no opposition to the Soviet system — at home or abroad — but during the war he had relaxed his iron grip and opened the USSR to western influences.

In the west, the anti-fascist struggle had pushed politics to the left, especially in Europe, where many communist parties were sharing power in broad-based, coalition governments.

Capitalism and communism seemed to be converging and coexisting, generating varying mixes of public and private economy.

The ideological contest between communism and capitalism would continue, but there would be peace and prosperity for all states and peoples.

Yet, within two years this optimistic vision of the future was destroyed by the outbreak of a dangerous ‘cold war’ between the Soviet Union and its erstwhile British and American allies.

By the end of the 1940s, Europe had split into competing political, ideological and military blocs, and the spectre of a new world war loomed, as the Soviet Union and the United States confronted each other across what Winston Churchill famously called the ‘iron curtain’.

On one side were the western liberal democracies and, on the other, tightly controlled communist regimes.

Post-war demobilisation of armed forces had been halted and the great powers were frenetically re-arming.

Adding to the conflict was American and Soviet competition to develop atomic weapons and the beginning of the nuclear arms race.

In 1950, these Cold War tensions spilled over into a proxy war between the US and the USSR, in Korea — a three-year conflict that claimed more than a million lives.

Decades later, when communism and the Soviet Union collapsed, in the 1990s, the west claimed victory in the Cold War. But this verdict continues to be contested by Russia’s President Vladimir Putin.

He says that but for the considerable sacrifices of the Soviet people, Hitler would have realised his demented ambition of global domination, exercised from the safety of a Nazi racist empire in Europe.

It was the Soviet Union that saved the world from Hitler. Stalin was a brutal dictator, but it was not he who launched an aggressive war that plunged the world into an orgy of destruction.

Hitler’s bid for world power began with the invasion of Poland in September, 1939.

The German-Polish war was ostensibly the result of territorial disputes between the two countries, but Hitler had much bigger goals in mind, which was why he allowed the invasion to go ahead, even though he knew Britain and France would support Poland and declare war on Germany.

It took the German army just three weeks to conquer Poland, a campaign aided by a Red Army invasion of the country from the east.

The Red Army marched into Poland as the protector of the Ukrainians, Belorussians and Jews living in Poland’s eastern territories.

In truth, Stalin had done a deal with Hitler, to keep the Soviet Union out of the greater European war and give him political and territorial concessions in Poland and the Baltic states.

Stalin would have preferred a triple alliance with Britain and France against Hitler, but the British and French were unwilling to make the necessary concessions to create a war-fighting coalition.

Neither were the Poles prepared to agree that the Red Army could enter Poland in the event of a German attack.

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Poland feared communism as much as Nazism and, instead, turned to Britain and France for protection against Hitler.

The rapidity of Poland’s collapse was surprising, but not shocking, given Germany’s relative size and power.

The British and French did as they had agreed and declared war, but remained on the defensive, unwilling to be drawn into a frontal battle, with Germany, whose outcome would be human casualties of First World War proportions.

A war of attrition with Germany would be fought, not in the trenches but by using air and naval power. Not until British and French land forces were fully mobilised and deployed would they risk an attack on Germany.

Hitler scuppered those Anglo-French plans with his stunningly effective invasion of Western Europe in May, 1940.

France surrendered after a six-week campaign, while Britain hurriedly withdrew its forces from the continent, at Dunkirk.

The new British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, gave defiant speeches about fighting on to the very end, but said that wars were not won by retreats, no matter how glorious.

Germany’s conquest of France made Hitler the master of Europe. Only embattled Britain and Stalin’s Russia stood in the way of German domination of the continent.

Hitler and Stalin contemplated long-term co-existence, but the mutual strategic threats and ideological differences between the two dictators were too great.

By autumn 1940, Stalin had spurned an alliance with Germany, while Hitler had decided to invade the Soviet Union.

The German invasion of the Soviet Union in June, 1941 was the decisive moment of the Second World War.

The success or failure of Operation Barbarossa — codename for the German invasion — would determine the outcome of the war. If Hitler could win in Russia, the British could be easily dealt with.

Indeed, Hitler calculated British resistance would collapse along with that of the Soviets. The German plan was to repeat their Blitzkrieg through Europe, this time on Soviet territory.

Hitler calculated it would take only a few months to destroy the Red Army, capture Moscow and Leningrad, and conquer Ukraine and southern Russia.

By the end of 1941, Hitler was indeed within a hair’s breadth of victory. Leningrad was besieged and the German Army Group Centre had advanced a thousand miles to within sight of the onion domes of Moscow’s Kremlin.

Millions of Soviet soldiers had been killed or captured, although in some German-occupied Soviet territories there was mass collaboration with the Nazis.

Stalin’s regime tottered, but it did not collapse.

The German army’s successes in Soviet Russia were predictable. Hitler’s troops were the battle-hardened warriors who had defeated the Poles and the French.

The force that invaded Russia was three-million strong and included Finns and Romanians, later joined by Italians, Hungarians, Spanish, Croatians, Slovaks and contingents from every country of Nazi-occupied Europe.

The surprise was not that Soviet defences cracked and the Red Army retreated, but that it did not collapse in the face of such damaging defeats and losses.

The turning point came in front of Moscow during the winter, in December, 1941, when the Red Army launched a massive counter-offensive to drive the German-led forces away from the Soviet capital.

Thus Operation Barbarossa failed and the Germans, instead, faced a long and difficult war of attrition on the eastern front.

This reversal also coincided with the United States’ entry into the war, as a consequence of the Japanese attack on the American fleet at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.

Commentators have often remarked that while Hitler’s biggest mistake was to invade the Soviet Union, his second biggest was to declare war on America, in support of his Japanese ally.

However, Hitler was still expecting Operation Barbarossa to succeed when he made that decision.

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He reckoned the US would be fully engaged by the war in Asia and he failed to anticipate the Americans adopting a Europe-first strategy to prioritise the defeat of Germany over that of Japan.

Hitler’s decision also meant that German U-boats in the Atlantic were able to conduct unrestricted submarine warfare, attacking American shipping and the US escorts protecting British convoys.

German subs wreaked havoc along the eastern seaboard of the United States.

Radicalisation of the Nazis’ anti-Semitism came with Hitler’s drang nach osten (drive to the east).

The invasion of Russia was no ordinary military campaign. It was an ideological and political crusade to destroy Jewish-Bolshevik communism, to enslave or destroy the Soviet people, and to use Russia’s vast lands for German resettlement and as a dumping ground for Europe’s Jews, many of whom had been confined in ghettos in Poland.

Fanatical anti-communism and rabid anti-Semitism, combined with the quest for Lebensraum (living space) in the east, were at the heart of Hitler’s Nazi creed and lent a barbaric edge to the German military campaign.

The invading German armies were supported by Einsatzgruppen — special action teams of the SS — whose task it was to root out and destroy any opposition to Nazi occupation.

The SS had previously operated in Poland, hunting down and killing thousands of Polish nationalists. In Russia, the primary targets were Jews and communists.

The SS killings were, at first, selective, but soon escalated into the mass murder of Jewish communities. By the end of 1941, the Germans were in the middle of a killing spree on the eastern front that claimed the lives of a million Soviet Jews.

Operation Barbarossa had become a war against the Jews. Hitler’s decision to declare war on the United States correlated with the radicalisation and spread of what became known as the Holocaust — the Nazi project to exterminate European Jewry.

In January, 1939, Hitler had threatened that if the Jews started another world war it would result in their destruction. By December, 1941, Hitler’s anti-Semitic rhetoric was the reality.

When Hitler attacked Russia, Churchill declared his solidarity with the Soviet Union, as did US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Confronted by this grand alliance of Britain, the Soviet Union and the United States, Hitler needed to beat or incapacitate Soviet forces before the enormous supporting resources of that coalition could fully be brought to bear.

Yet the German army was incapable of mounting another campaign like Operation Barbarossa, which had operated across a very broad front.

The German-led offensive suffered a million casualties in 1941-1942, so the attackers had now to concentrate their remaining forces on a single strategic operation.

Hitler mounted a southern campaign, to push German forces forward to capture the Soviet oil fields in Baku, on the other side of the Caucasus mountains.

Success would cripple the Soviet war economy, as well as secure essential fuel supplies for the Germans.

His war for oil in the summer of 1942 triggered the battle of Stalingrad — the most prolonged and dramatic encounter of the Soviet-German war. The ‘city of Stalin’ was an important psychological and political target for the Germans.

Strategically, capturing Stalingrad on the way to Baku would enable the Germans to block oil supplies moving up the Volga river to northern Russia.

The seized city would also be the bulwark of a defensive line to protect the German advance to Baku from Soviet counter-attack.

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As in 1941, the German campaign achieved tremendous initial success. By August, 1942, Stalingrad was under siege.

By October, most of the city was in German hands. Hitler claimed victory, but, in November, the Soviets counter-attacked and surrounded the German armies in Stalingrad.

After three months of encirclement and starvation, the Germans were forced to surrender. A quarter of a million German troops perished at Stalingrad, while another 300,000 were captured.

The armies of Hitler’s allies — Hungary, Italy and Romania — that guarded the German flanks at Stalingrad were crushed, too.

Defeat at Stalingrad was the beginning of the end for the Nazi regime and its Axis allies.

Further losses followed.

At Kursk, in the summer of 1943, the last reserves of Hitler’s panzer power were destroyed in gigantic tank battles with the Red Army.

In 1943-1944, the Red Army waged a prolonged campaign to liberate Ukraine from German occupation. A million Soviet soldiers died recapturing Kharkov, Kiev, Donetsk, Odessa, Sebastopol and other cities.

Among the Soviets’ opponents were Ukrainian nationalists who had sided with the Nazis during the war.

In the summer of 1944, the Red Army launched Operation Bagration — a campaign to liberate Belorussia that propelled Soviet forces into Poland and through to the German border.

As Churchill said at the time, it was the Red Army that tore the guts out of the Nazi war machine. Seventy years later, the bald statistics of the Soviet-German war remain astonishing.

The Red Army destroyed 600 enemy divisions. Three million German soldiers died. Among the Axis, losses were 48,000 tanks, 167.000 artillery pieces and 77,000 aircraft.

The Germans destroyed 70,000 cities, towns and villages, together with 98,000 collective farms. In the battle for Stalingrad, the Red Army suffered more casualties than the British and Americans did during the whole war.

In besieged Leningrad, 600,000 civilians died of starvation.

The Second World War was primarily a Soviet-German war and it was the great battles at Moscow, Stalingrad and Kursk that determined its outcome. At the same time, it was a global conflict fought across Asia and Africa, as well as in the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian oceans.

After the Soviet Union, the greatest loss of life was suffered by China, as millions died in a war with Japan that had begun in 1937. A million Japanese were killed by American bombing raids alone, including atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August, 1945.

The Second World War was a military contest on a far greater scale than the First World War, but the great majority of its victims were civilians, not soldiers.

The Soviet Union’s western allies were far from inactive while titanic battles raged on the eastern front. In war, Churchill and Roosevelt could be as ruthless as Stalin.

Anglo-American air raids on military and industrial targets in Germany killed 600,000 civilians.

In 1942, allied troops invaded North Africa and drove the Germans and Italians out of Egypt, Libya and Tunisia. Italian dictator, Benito Mussolini, was deposed when the allies invaded Sicily in July, 1943.

German troops occupied Italy and there began a long and arduous allied campaign on the Italian mainland.

In June, 1944, an armada of 7,000 ships invaded German-occupied France. Stalin hailed the operation as a brilliant success for his western allies: “The history of warfare knows no similar undertaking in the breadth of its conception, in its gigantic dimensions and mastery of its performance.”

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By August, Paris had been liberated and allied forces were poised to invade Germany from the west.

Meanwhile, in the Far East, the Americans were engaged with the Japanese in savage battles, as they assaulted Japan’s island strongholds in the Pacific and recaptured territories in South East Asia.

A costly invasion of mainland Japan was only averted by Japan’s surrender after the dual shock of the atomic bomb attacks and a massive Soviet assault on Japanese forces in Manchuria in August, 1945.

The most important western contribution to the common war effort was provision of supplies for the Soviet Union sent by Britain, the United States, Canada, Australia and other allied states.

The USSR’s western allies supplied about 10% of Soviet wartime economic needs, including 360,000 trucks, 43,000 jeeps, 2,000 locomotives and 11,000 railroad cars. Food shipments fed about a third of the Soviet population during the war.

Most of this aid did not arrive until after the battle of Stalingrad, but it greatly facilitated the Soviet strategic offensive of 1943-1945.

Without this western aid, the Soviet Union might have been able to win the war alone, but the additional cost would have been astronomical and the USSR’s postwar recovery long-delayed.

Then came the Cold War. Soviet-Western collaboration against Hitler was overlooked rather than celebrated. During the war, the Soviets had been sincere in praise of their western allies.

Now, the Soviets downplayed the west’s aid, while the west greatly exaggerated the importance of the Soviet military contribution to Hitler’s defeat.

That the Soviet Union played the predominant role in winning the war remains a strong belief in contemporary Russia. But it is balanced by recognition that the USSR did not win the war on its own, but as a member of a grand, anti-fascist alliance.

Although the Second World War was a geopolitical and ideological contest between Hitler’s Axis coalition and the Soviet-Western grand alliance, it was also a series of local civil wars and inter-ethnic struggles that persisted for many years after 1945.

At war’s end, Europe was overwhelmed by a wave of vengeance and retribution, mostly directed at the defeated Germans and their collaborators.

They were subject to ethnic cleansing on a scale comparable to the Nazis’ eradication of European Jewry, except the goal was deportation, not genocide.

Even so, hundreds of thousands died as millions of ethnic Germans were forcibly resettled in Germany.

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When the Red Army liberated Poland and the Ukraine from Nazi occupation, in 1944-1945, they discovered an ongoing and vicious civil war between Ukrainian and Polish nationalists.

The Soviet solution was to authorise population transfers between Poland and the Ukraine that resulted in the forced resettlement of a million Poles and half a million Ukrainians.

Meanwhile, the inter-ethnic war continued, as did nationalist insurgencies against communist rule in Poland, Ukraine and the Baltic states. Tens of thousands were killed in conflicts that raged until the early 1950s.

This was the background to Nikita Khrushchev’s decision to transfer Crimea from Russia to Ukraine in 1954, even though the majority of the inhabitants were Russians. It was a signal that the civil war along the USSR’s western borderlands was over and that Russian-Ukrainian unity was indissoluble.

In the multinational state of Yugoslavia, ethnic segregation and population transfers were not an option. During the war, many Croats had collaborated with the Nazis, while Serbs had supported Tito’s communist partisans.

At the end of the war, the partisans took their revenge and killed 70,000 collaborationist troops and civilians. Tito’s idealistic solution was an ethnically diverse, but united, Yugoslavia. However, the seeds of the bitter civil war that erupted in the 1990s had been sown.

In Greece, too, the Communists had led the struggle against fascist occupation and their partisan army controlled most of the country by 1945. Their nationalist competitors were backed by the British and when the partisans resisted attempts to disarm them, there began a civil war that lasted until 1949 and ended in the rout of the communists.

While most of the postwar savagery took place in Eastern Europe, Western Europe was not immune from the violence.

When the British and Americans invaded Germany, they stood aside and allowed former prisoners and slave labourers to take revenge on their German captors. In Italy and France, communist partisans summarily executed thousands of fascist collaborators.

Across Western Europe, women in occupied countries who had relationships with German soldiers were publicly humiliated, and had their heads shaved.

However, within a few short years and with American aid, Europe recovered from the war and was at peace, albeit in conditions of an intense cold war. Eastern Europe became part of an authoritarian Soviet bloc, but the brutality and repression of communism seemed far preferable to genocidal Nazi domination or postwar chaos.

Today, we can see that the legacies of the Second World War are many and varied.

Ultimately, democracy prevailed across Europe, and in Russia, too.

International relations were revolutionised by the decline of the European imperial powers and the decolonisation of their adjuncts, as the United States and the Soviet Union rose to global dominance.

The Nazi project to eliminate the Jews was incomplete and many survivors of the attempted genocide migrated to Palestine and became the bedrock of an Israeli state that is at the centre of the continuing crisis in the Middle East.

In Asia, Japan’s defeat facilitated the rise of the Chinese communist party, which took power in1949 and embarked on a programme of modernisation that paved the way for China to become the economic superpower it is today.

The communist tide in Western Europe had ebbed by the late 1940s, but the swing to the left encouraged the adoption of social democratic models of capitalism with welfare systems and interventionist governments.

The determination to avoid war is at the heart of the EU’s peace project, notwithstanding the challenges of the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s and conflict over Ukraine today.

Ironically, perhaps the greatest legacy of the Second World War was the development of nuclear weapons. Without the imperative of the anti-Nazi war, it is unlikely the atomic bomb would have been developed so quickly, if at all.

Without the paranoia of the Cold War, there would have been no nuclear arms race and consensus about international control over use of nuclear energy could have been a more realistic possibility.

Yet without the existential threat that nuclear weapons pose to humanity, the Cold War could have escalated into a third world war, with even more devastating consequences than the conflict that ended 70 years ago.

Geoffrey Roberts is professor of history at UCC and a contributor to The Oxford Illustrated History of World War II, recently published by Oxford University Press and edited by Richard Overy.

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