When World War II ended, most Americans realized the enormous contribution that the Soviet Union had made to the victory over fascism. In the two years before the D-Day invasion (June 6, 1944), they had read about huge battles on the Soviet “eastern” front where the outcome of the war was decided. After D-Day, they had followed the progress of both Soviet and Anglo-U.S. forces, understanding that each army’s advance strengthened the other and helped seal Hitler’s doom.
The Cold War changed all that. As Arthur Vandenberg, Republican chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, advised President Harry Truman in 1947, in order to get Congress to pass the Truman Doctrine, committing the country to fight against revolutionary movements and Soviet influence everywhere in the world, as if they were one and the same, Truman would “have to scare the hell out of the American people.” The U.S. ruling class did exactly that through anti-communism – asserting that all Communists were spies and saboteurs for the Soviets, who were out to conquer the world. Over the next 44 years, the U.S. spent trillions to fight the Cold War. U.S. military and covert interventions throughout the world cost millions of lives.
The Cold War also led U.S. scholars to downplay the Soviet contribution to the war, while the Soviets greatly underestimated their devastation so as to appear less weak to the U.S. and its allies.
Today, a group of military historians are trying to set the record straight. Even for a history teacher like myself, some of the new findings are surprising.
Although it has long been accepted that the Soviet Union suffered 20-25 million deaths in the war – nearly half of all World War II deaths – new figures put the Soviet losses at closer to 50 million, and show that important parts of the war were unreported.
Given this new documentation, it becomes even more remarkable that the Soviets prevailed against the war of extermination that the Nazi Wehrmacht and their Axis allies launched against them. That their victory was the most important factor in saving the world from fascist hegemony becomes more indisputable.
Many U.S. and European historians used self-serving German army documents to portray the Soviets as victorious solely because of their large armies and the Russian winter. This fitted in nicely with anti-communist views of the Soviet Union as a nation of backward people, incapable of initiative, led by tyrants. New research clearly shows Soviet generals outmaneuvering the Nazis in many important campaigns, and Soviet weaponry and military production eventually outperforming the Nazis. Weather factors hurt and helped both sides.
New research shows the connection between the fascist genocide against the Jewish people of Europe and the fascist war against the Soviet people (see Christopher Browning, “Origins of the Final Solution”). Hitler’s war aimed at exterminating all Jewish people and all Communists, and enslaving the Slavic nationalities. In the Hitler fascists’ twisted worldview, this would complete the mission of the medieval Teutonic knights, who participated in the Crusades and a Holy War against the Slavic peoples.
Using such ideas, German fascism carried through Europe an imperialist policy of military conquest of raw materials, productive forces and labor pools, treating European lives with the same contempt that European imperialist powers had shown the peoples of Africa and Asia.
The new research also highlights the importance of the campaign – led by Communist Party activists – for the U.S. to launch a second, western front. Millions of Jews and many more non-Jews might have survived had the second front been launched a year or more earlier. The research strengthens the view that the second front was postponed to bleed the Soviets, in order to reduce their postwar power. Millions of Jews and non-Jews, as I see it, perished because of these decisions.
Finally, the new research should help us appreciate more the Soviet achievement in making possible the victory over fascism, and the enormous loss to all anti-imperialist struggles that the destruction of the Soviet Union means today. The socialist character of the Soviet Union made it possible for its people to work collectively in the face of terrible hardships, to win against the most powerful and brutal military machine in history, just as socialism has enabled the Cuban people to survive decades of imperialist encirclement. The struggles against imperialism, racism and anti-Semitism and for working-class power and socialism are inseparable.
Norman Markowitz is a history professor at Rutgers University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.