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Victory in the East

By Mac McCall

May 8th marked the 76th anniversary of V-E Day, commemorating the end of World War II in Europe. The day passed with little fanfare compared to last year’s 75th anniversary. The cataclysm of World War II drifts further into the past, as those who remember continue to dwindle into twilight. Memories fade, and myth takes the wheel.

The myth which shapes our perception of World War II in Europe is one of American military triumph. Our senses are inundated by hundreds of onscreen depictions of the war such as “Saving Private Ryan,” “Band of Brothers”, and “Call of Duty,” all of which emphasize American valor, sacrifice, and ultimately victory. Our educational curriculums generally reinforce the visceral impressions left by these media. The average American could therefore be forgiven for thinking, as some 55% do, that the United States did the most to defeat Germany. 

Unfortunately, this popular understanding of World War II is so far detached from reality as to be almost unrecognizable. The American military contribution to Nazi Germany’s defeat was significant, but far from decisive. World War II in Europe fundamentally revolved around the Nazi concept of “Lebensraum,” or “living space.” Hitler sought to expand to secure territory and resources, particularly food, for the German population. He always intended this expansion to occur at the expense of the “Untermenschen” (subhumans) to the east of Germany – primarily the peoples of the Soviet Union.

Hitler’s June 1941 invasion of the USSR, Operation Barbarossa, constituted the largest invasion force ever fielded, entailing some 3 million soldiers. The assault was not merely a military operation designed to secure territory but a war of annihilation. To satisfy Hitler’s dreams of Lebensraum, the lands to the East were to be largely depopulated of their indigenous inhabitants in preparation for German settlement. Einsatzgruppen shadowed the initial armored spearheads, shooting and gassing millions of civilians. These initial massacres were followed by concerted policies of extermination through slave labor and starvation.

The Soviet people met this genocidal German onslaught with ferocity, tapping vast manpower reserves in a merciless war for survival. The fighting became the largest military confrontation in human history, a civilizational clash played out on a front stretching over a thousand miles from ice-locked Kronstadt to the wheat fields of Ukraine and the oil wells of the Caucasus. At any given time, the vast majority of German troops were deployed on the Eastern front. For example, the vaunted North African campaign, which holds such significance in American and British mythology, never involved more than 9 German divisions even at its peak in 1943. At the same time, more than 190 were fighting against the USSR. The western theaters simply do not stack up in scale, savagery, or significance to the continental conflagration in the east.

It was the Soviets who ripped the proverbial guts out of the Nazi war machine. Of every 5 German soldiers killed during the war, 4 of them died on the Eastern Front. The belated western landings at Normandy in June 1944 merely accelerated a process which by then had become inevitable. The fate of the world was decided on the streets of Leningrad, where a million Soviet civilians starved to death rather than surrender to Hitler. It was decided on the blood-soaked banks of the Volga, where Soviet soldiers fought like demons in a superhuman effort to stem the Nazi advance. It was decided in the thunderous clash of steel on the plains of Kursk, where thousands of German and Soviet tanks collided in a mechanized battle for the ages.

The Soviets paid a price for victory, sustaining 95% of the casualties suffered by the entire alliance against Nazi Germany. Modern estimates center around 27 million civilian and military dead, compared to 405,000 for the U.S. Entire towns and villages were submerged into the roving clash of titans, caught between two mechanized armies practicing total war, never to emerge again. When Eisenhower visited the USSR after the war’s conclusion, he did not see a single building standing between the Polish border and Moscow.

This year, dwindling numbers of Soviet veterans will gather across the former USSR to commemorate their victory over a genocidal attempt to wipe them from history. For a Georgian friend of mine, Maya Geladze, this inherited memory of World War II is still very real. She fondly reminisces on her mother, who told stories of receiving jewelry and money which American workers would hide in boxes of supplies destined for the Soviet Union. Because of this kindness, Maya’s mother would never speak ill of the American people despite the decades of mistrust that followed, in memory of a time when they fought fascism together. Let us always remember the fallen at Omaha Beach and Bastogne. But also remember and thank the conscripts from Russia, Armenia, and Kazakhstan with names like Avetisyan, Komekbaev, and Sinitsyn.