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Soviet sacrifice and criminality are the unspoken truths of World War II.

As a prelude to various talks on the Second World War, I often present the audience with four or five simple questions: Can you name the five biggest battles of the war in Europe? Can you name the largest concentration camp that was operating in Europe in the years 1939–45? Can you name the European nationality (or ethnic group) which lost the largest number of civilians during the war? Can you name the vessel that was sunk with record loss of life in the war’s largest maritime disaster?

These have usually been followed by a deathly silence and then by a hubbub of guesses and queries. Quelling the hubbub, I offer the audience an opinion: “Until we have established the correct answer to basic factual matters, we are not properly equipped to pass judgment on the wider issues.”

Over sixty years have passed since the end of the Second World War, and most people would assume that the broad outlines of that terrible conflict had been established long since. Innumerable books have been published on the subject. Thousands of films have been screened, portraying every aspect of military events and civilian ordeals. Countless memoirs of participants great and small have been collected. Hundreds of major monuments and scores of museums have been created to keep the memory of the war alive. One might think that there is nothing new to add.

At least one is tempted to think that way until one starts to examine what actually is said and what is not said—and what is known by most people and what is not. Hardly anyone today knows that the Soviets fought the five greatest land battles of the European war (Moscow, Stalingrad, Leningrad, Kiev, and Operation Bagration) and operated the largest concentration camp (Dalstroy, in northeastern Siberia, where three million died); that the Ukrainians suffered the largest loss of civilian life of any nationality (five to eight million); and that a German transport sunk by a Soviet submarine was the war’s greatest maritime disaster (eight thousand civilian refugees drowned).

Every nation that participated in the war has its own version of events. Britons and Americans, Germans and Italians, French and Dutch, Russians and Poles, Jews and many others all accentuate the experiences of their own people. Wittingly or unwittingly, they all diminish the diversity of experience and obstruct an overall view. So much, given human nature, is inevitable.

It is equally inevitable that the complexity of the Second World War should have produced a mass of myths and legends. These myths form a necessary strand of the story. Rather than banishing them, it is the historian’s job to examine them, to explain their origins, and then to demonstrate the difference between events and the perception of events. No narrative is ever going to win universal approval, however homogenized. Yet precautions can be taken against the grosser forms of inaccuracy. One principle is that like must be compared with like; proportions must be observed. For example, El Alamein and Stalingrad were both Allied victories which contributed to the turning of the tide in the dark days of 1942–43. Yet the two cannot be fully equated. One knocked out six Axis divisions in a peripheral theater; the other knocked out twenty Axis divisions in the central sector of the main front.

By the same token, moral judgments cannot be based on the illusion that mass murder by the enemy was proof of despicable evil while mass murder by one’s own side was merely an unfortunate blemish. The Katyn massacres were not the biggest atrocity by any means, but they act as a litmus test of historical honesty. Twenty thousand Polish POWs disappeared in Russia in 1940. Apart from forty-five hundred corpses uncovered by the Germans in the Katyn Forest, near Smolensk, in 1943, most of the missing men had never been found. There was no absolute proof, but the probability was high that the remaining fifteen thousand were lying in other mass graves and that their deaths had been ordered by Stalin, not Hitler. For once, Goebbels could have been telling the truth. Finally in 1990, on the eve of the fiftieth anniversary, President Mikhail Gorbachev came clean and admitted that the massacres at Katyn and at two other sites had been the work of Soviet security forces. President Boris Yeltsin later produced a document bearing Stalin’s signature and recording the execution order dated March 5, 1940.

Yet for decades British officialdom had refused to comment, unless to point a finger at the Nazis. British officers were forbidden to participate in Katyn memorial ceremonies. Plans for a monument in London were quashed. And the British public showed no signs of interest in recognizing either a major crime or a reprehensible cover-up. The stance seemed to be, what did the Eastern Front have to do with us?

Such are the ingrained prejudices of not only most members of the British and American public but most historians as well.

These two core issues—proportionality and criminality— prick the predominant complacency. The former is rarely explored by Western apologists. The latter is carefully avoided by Soviet apologists. Together they provide the key to what really happened.

The problem of proportionality is easy to define and less easy to resolve. In history writing, it revolves around the requirement that the largest space and the greatest emphasis be given to the biggest and most decisive events. Everyone would agree that an outline history of the Second World War which devoted the greater part of its comment to Luxembourg would be distinctly odd. This is not because Luxembourg’s wartime story is uninteresting or irrelevant, but because Luxembourg’s fate was decided by battles fought and decisions taken elsewhere.

How then should the historian decide where the emphasis should lie? One way, if the aim were simply to flatter the British or the American market, would be to put the emphasis on British or American affairs. This sort of approach would dismiss the Battle of Kursk in five lines while spending fifty pages on the D-Day landings. Another way would be to draw up a checklist of the main battles, decisive campaigns, and key policies of the war and then allot space and emphasis accordingly.

As things stand, this approach is rather rare. For, in reality, the Soviet war effort was so overwhelming that impartial historians of the future are unlikely to rate the British and American contribution to the European theater as much more than a sound supporting role. The proportions were not fifty-fifty, or anything like it, as many imply when talking of the final onslaught on Nazi Germany from east and west. Sooner or later people will have to adjust to the fact that the Soviet role was enormous, and the Western role respectable but modest.

Western commentators who accept the fact of Soviet predominance in the land war sometimes try to counterbalance it by stressing Western predominance in the air and at sea. This argument would carry greater weight if the strategic air offensive had achieved more decisive results and if Germany had been more vulnerable to naval operations. As it was, the Reich held out successfully against bombardment and blockade. And it was only finished off by the land assault to which the Red Army made by far the most effective contribution.

Other commentators argue that the Red Army’s success was dependent on Western aid and that the Western Allies, if necessary, could have achieved victory on their own. As one historian has written in this vein:

“It is not true to say that the Soviet Union won the war. Without her allies, the Soviet Union would have faced the full force of German air power, and would have been short of munitions and weapons—in 1943 Lend-Lease provision to the USSR was equivalent to one-fifth of total Soviet production. The Soviet Union could not have held out without Western help. The Western Allies, by contrast, could have won the war without the Soviet Union. The cost of doing so would have been terribly high, but sooner or later bombing would have ground Germany down and America would eventually have mobilized a vast army. If all else failed, America would presumably have settled matters by dropping an atom bomb on Berlin.”

Such a scenario has so many false assumptions one hardly knows where to start. The critical years for the Soviet Union did not start in 1943, when Lend-Lease was coming on full steam, but in 1941–42, when Western aid was marginal. At that time the Red Army did face the brunt of German air power; it did not run short of weapons or munitions, which of necessity were mainly home produced; in spite of everything, it did hold out.

What is more, much of the early Lend-Lease aid was unusable. British tanks were not what the Red Army needed, and British Army greatcoats (like German greatcoats) were totally unsuited to the Russian winter. The Soviets had already gained the upper hand on their own account before Western aid began to reach them in quantity.

As for the notion that the Western Allies could have won without the Soviet Union, it totally ignores the realities. If the Red Army had been knocked out, the Germans would not have stood idly by as the United States built up its strength and prepared to drop an atomic bomb on them. The German armed forces would have been immediately turned in their entirety on Great Britain; the outcome of the Battle of the Atlantic could have been reversed; the Western Allies would probably have lost the base for their bombing offensive; the “vast”American army (which didn’t exist) would have had no safe landing place; and a European counterpart of Enola Gay would have had nowhere to take off.

The key reason why the Western input was significantly smaller than generally supposed centers on timing, in particular the lateness of American engagement. The Allied cause had been brought to the brink of collapse in the summer of 1940, and it had no hope of recovery in the West until the United States was fully engaged. Yet American involvement took time to organize. It did not begin until January 1942, and it could not reach peak efficiency instantaneously. Hence, in the months when the Americans were still girding their loins, the Soviets were already racing toward a position of near-total dominance.

One need look no further than the second week of July 1943. At that point in the war, the very first American soldiers to set foot in continental Europe were being deposited on a distant beach in southern Sicily. At the same time, on the Eastern Front, the Red Army was breaking the Wehrmacht’s back to such an extent that the German war machine would never regain its offensive capacity.

What is more, the American military buildup was far from complete by the time that the war in Europe ended. One forgets that the starting point had been extraordinarily low. In 1939 the establishment of the U.S. Army was even smaller than that of Poland. Thereafter, no one could seriously doubt that American military capacity would catch up rapidly. American industry, science, trade, and finance were providing the U.S. government with resources that no other combatant country could match.

Yet the time scale was crucial. Despite titanic progress, America did not surge into an unassailable lead. In the last months of European fighting before May 1945, the United States did not possess either an atomic weapon or superiority in conventional arms. It had not yet moved into the nuclear league, where from July 1945 to 1949 it would be the sole player, and it possessed barely a hundred battle-ready divisions, compared with German and Soviet troop levels that were two or three times higher. America could not possibly have won in Europe single-handedly. Indeed, with the Japanese war still moving slowly, America desperately needed Soviet assistance both in Europe and in the Far East. As things were, the Soviet Union, not the United States, fought the final phase of the war as the strongest power in Europe. The Red Army scored the most crushing victories over Nazi Germany, culminating in the Battle for Berlin. And it was Soviet communism, not liberal democracy, that made the most striking advances.

People forget. They are influenced by later developments. They tend to imagine that the United States was all-powerful from the start. And they are easily led to believe that the failure to challenge Stalin earlier or more energetically in the aftermath of the war must be put down to purely personal or political factors. Such was not the case. American forces had not gained parity with the USSR by May 1945, and their actions were duly constrained. As Generals George C. Marshall and Dwight D. Eisenhower were only too well aware, they could not possibly have risked a serious confrontation with the Red Army.

Evaluations of criminality are equally central to any account of the Second World War. It was unusually prevalent, even if the full extent did not become apparent until many years afterward, when historians could make an informed assessment of the overall picture. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the long list of conjectures and estimates about the crimes of the Stalinist era finally could be documented. And only in the last decade or so could the Soviet record be properly compared with the better-known Nazi record. Winston Churchill, for example, writing in the late 1940s, simply did not possess the hard information which later became available. “History will be kind to me,” he said, “because I intend to write it.”

Even so, the main obstacle to an impartial exposé of wartime criminality does not lie exclusively in the poor flow of information. It has a psychological dimension, compounded by the reluctance of Western historians to stain the reputation of the Allied coalition. The psychological term for such reluctance is denial. Consciously or subconsciously, many Westerners continue to deny that the hard facts of massive Soviet criminality require them to modify their assessment of the war. The widespread characterization of the conflict as “the Good War,” therefore, is particularly dubious. Good does not seem to be quite the right adjective when one bears in mind the unprecedented killing and suffering of innocents that took place on all sides.

To some extent it reflects the notion of a noble crusade (though one which was only partly successful), as well as the theological concept of a just war (which requires one to identify the just and the unjust). And it would seem to be inspired by a peculiarly parochial Anglo-Saxon perspective that has been strengthened in recent decades, and which in some respects does not match historical reality. It is used, in fact, as the necessary complement to the ultimate evil of the Holocaust. And yet, as is often pointed out, the Western Allies did not go to war to rescue the Jews, and when the first reports of the Final Solution leaked out, the Western response was little short of lamentable. Certainly in American eyes the principal action was thought for much of the war to be unfolding in the Pacific, not in Europe. Wartime attitudes are mirrored by the fact that the United States interned its Japanese American but not its German American citizens.

All in all, therefore, the story line about the forces of democracy “fighting the good fight” and “winning the war” must be viewed with a strong dose of skepticism. Stalin’s assessment may have been nearer the mark: “England provided the time, America provided the money, and Russia provided the blood.”

England, meaning the British Empire, passed much of the war in a state of convalescence. But Churchill’s defiance in 1940–41 preserved the springboard for subsequent Allied resurgence.

America, meaning the United States, entered the war too late to take the leading part in Europe. Its role as “the arsenal of democracy” was no less significant than the contribution of its armed forces.

Russia, meaning the Soviet Union, was called on to make incomparable sacrifices, and it deserves the largest laurels for the defeat of Nazi Germany. Even so—and this is the central paradox—Stalin, the chief victor, was also a mass murderer and a bloody tyrant in his own right. He had nothing in common with the normal concept of “the Good” or of “the Good War.”

Moreover, from a purely soldierly point of view, caution must be expressed concerning the notion that the free citizens of democratic states supply the best fighting material. In 1939–45, the lion’s share of the fighting was undertaken by the forces of two totalitarian states, and the soldiers who came out on top belonged to the slave-driven cohorts of a ruthless dictatorship. When the armies of democracy clashed with the Nazi legions in Italy or Western Europe, the former did not perform particularly well. It is arguable that technology and tactical air power, rather than top-class soldiery, enabled the British and the Americans to compete on equal terms.

In the 1950s, asked about the effects of the French Revolution, the Chinese foreign minister Zhou Enlai is reported to have replied,“It’s too early to say.” His words are generally taken as a famous bon mot of no great seriousness. Yet they should make one think. The time span between Zhou Enlai’s education in France in the 1920s and Robespierre’s Reign of Terror in the 1790s was exactly 130 years. Hence, since the sixty-fifth anniversary of 1939 has already passed, the world has waited for over half the same span of time without establishing a firm framework of the Second World War.

Current affairs appear to move at breakneck speed, while history moves at a snail’s pace. If one were to be asked, therefore, what stage historians have reached on their road to a final judgment about the war, one would be tempted to echo Churchill’s words after the Battle of El Alamein: “It is not even the beginning of the end, but it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”

Hence, despite the arrival of the twenty-first century, many thinking people are still trying to grapple with the aftermath of this war. A leading British cardiologist with a flair for poetry expressed the problem perfectly:

My patient lay in the hospital bed
Unshaven, smelling of urine,
And bitten by lice,
Of no fixed abode,
Living on the street,
And unemployed,
Without family or friends.
In his Slavic accent
He declared
“I fought at Monte Cassino.”
And my junior doctors in their ignorance
Remained unmoved by man or by history.
And I turned to them
With my hand on the shoulder
Of my patient,
To address them on the greatness
Of the Second Polish Corps
And of the infinite value
Of all human beings.


Excerpt from No Simple Victory by Norman Davies (Viking, September 2007).

Originally published in the October 2007 issue of World War II Magazine. To subscribe, click here.