Defeating fascism: The black, brown, and Red soldiers erased from history
A photograph from the Battle of Kohima, in northeast India, during World War II. | Public Domain

John Wayne won World War II. Everyone knows that—except for the millions of people around the globe who know or are related to one of the working-class men and women who perished in the conflict.

But Hollywood has painted a picture of what fighters in the war looked like, including what color and nationality they were. The fact is not all of the fighting against the Nazis and their Italian and Japanese allies was carried out by white people or fighters from capitalist countries—although, you would be hard-pressed to know that from the 80th anniversary of the D-Day landings held in France last week.

Last month, the organizers of the commemoration decided that President Vladimir Putin, or anyone else from Russia, would not be invited. Putin took part in the commemoration of the 60th D-Day anniversary in 2004 and again, 10 years later, for the 70th anniversary—but he was not invited to this one.

The USSR, of which Russia was a key part, lost around 27 million people in the fight against Nazi Germany. But even this until-recently-undisputed fact is now under challenge. In fact, the Red Army caused 80% of all WWII German military losses and themselves lost 30 times more people than Britain, France, and the U.S. combined.

The Red Army’s defeat of the Nazis at Stalingrad is cited by many experts as being the decisive turning point in World War II. Between 150,000 and 250,000 Germans are estimated to have died at the battle there.

For Nazis, Stalingrad was not the battle that exacted the highest death toll, but the psychological impact of the battle was immense and was decisive in winning the war. It occupied and depleted massive Nazi resources which paved the way for the eventual Allied victory.

Over half-a-million Soviet soldiers and civilians died in the Battle of Stalingrad, among them numerous civilians. But that clearly was not enough to be invited.

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky, on the other hand, was in attendance—as he always seems to be at pretty much anything. I now expect to see Zelensky at any event where a photo opportunity exists, but the fact that he is invited to a commemoration of an event about the defeat of the Nazis is particularly insulting given the number of neo-Nazis in his own forces and his applause in Canada last year for a veteran of a Waffen SS brigade that fought in Ukraine.

But the Russians are not the only ones that have been deliberately written out of history. The role of black people of African or Asian descent has continually been discarded.

It took many years of lobbying for the role of African-American combat medic Waverly Woodson, Jr., on Omaha Beach in the D-Day landings, to be recognized. Woodson came ashore and was wounded while hundreds of U.S. soldiers were killed by the relentless fire from the Nazis in the June 6, 1944, landings in Normandy, northern France.

He was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, which is the second-highest honor that can be bestowed on a member of the U.S. Army and is only awarded for extraordinary heroism.

Woodson was just 21 years old when his First Army unit, the 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion, took part in the D-Day landing. Woodson’s battalion, the only African-American combat unit on Omaha that day, was responsible for setting up high-flying inflatable balloons to prevent enemy planes from buzzing over the beach and attacking the Allied forces.

At a time when the U.S. military was still segregated by race, about 2,000 African-American troops are believed to have taken part in the D-Day invasion.

For more than 30 hours after landing, he treated 200 wounded men while under intense small arms and artillery fire before collapsing from his injuries and blood loss, according to accounts of his service. At the time, he was awarded the lesser Bronze Star.

Although 1.2 million African Americans served in the military during World War II, not one of them was among the original recipients of the Medal of Honor awarded in the conflict. The fight to win recognition for the contribution of men and women from the then British colonies has also been long and bitter.

More than 134,000 travelled from other colonies, including some 10,000 from the Caribbean, to help defeat the Nazis. Only when casualties began to mount during the war were black people enlisted to join the fighting or become part of the Merchant Navy.

But there was no suspension in the standing orders of racism. Caribbean men joining the Merchant Navy were paid around one-third of the wages that white sailors were paid.

Around 600 women from the Caribbean travelled to Britain during World War II to work in the Auxiliary Territorial Service. The role of these services was to provide administrative support to the armed forces, make deliveries and maintain military equipment.

Again, they were paid less than their white counterparts and, like black men, had to endure racism while the war raged against German Nazism.

Around two-and-a-half-million fighters came from India to support the war effort. About the same time as the D-Day landing, Indian, Gurkha, and African soldiers fought the historic but little talked about—at least in Britain or the U.S.—battles in Kohima, in northeast India.

Soviet soldiers at the Battle of Stalingrad. | TASS

These battles fought alongside British soldiers were among some of the toughest in the war and helped to turn the tide against the Japanese. Not for nothing did many of the troops who fought in battles in India and what is now Myanmar during the war call themselves “the Forgotten Army.”

I think they are probably wrong. I don’t think they were forgotten. I believe they were ignored because much of the fighting was carried out by black people. The Battle of Kohima and Imphal was the bloodiest of World War II in India, and it cost Japan many of its most elite fighters.

None of this seems to matter though to those that continue to hide the contribution made by people of African and Asian origin to the victory over the Nazis. We know the erasure of the role of the Red Army in World War II is being carried out for a different purpose.

The leaders of the Western powers can’t bring themselves to acknowledge the massive sacrifice of the Soviet people lest it demonstrate the skill and bravery of its soldiers and the refusal to be defeated by the seemingly invincible Nazis.

It is also part of the inexorable lurch towards a conflict with Russia as NATO ramps up the warmongering rhetoric that could lead to World War III and the catastrophic nuclear destruction of the planet.

Western powers seem far more willing to associate themselves with the neo-Nazis surrounding the leadership of Ukraine and to hobnob with the likes of fascist-inspired Italian leader Giorgia Meloni.

I wonder how fast they will move for a photo opportunity should the far-right Marine Le Pen win the National Assembly election later this month or the next French presidential vote.

They say that history is written by the winners. Well, it seems not all the winners count. This means we must all call out the continued drive to rewrite history.

Morning Star

As with all op-eds published in People’s World, this article reflects the views of its author.

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Roger McKenzie
Roger McKenzie

Roger McKenzie is the International Editor of Morning Star, Britain’s daily socialist newspaper. He is the author of the book "African Uhuru: The Fight for African Freedom in the Rise of the Global South" published by Manifesto Press.