After German Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel signed the articles of surrender on May 9th, 1945, “Soviet officers shook hands with their allies from the west.” World War II was officially over, and a festive spirit descended upon the victors. “Vodka and champagne flowed, freely, and buoyed by the joyous atmosphere, [Soviet Marshal] Zhukov even performed a Russian folk dance on the parquet floor of the officers’ mess.”
Passages like those abound in Volker Ullrich’s most recent book Eight Days in May: The Final Collapse of the Third Reich (Liveright). Between the covers of this absorbing and sometimes revolting book, the reader is immersed in the tragic hours when the grandees of the Nazi horde maneuver to cling to power under the leadership of Admiral Karl Dönitz, while trying to save as many German soldiers as possible from the advancing Russian soldiers who are – legitimately, one could say – thirsty for “revenge and retribution”.
I’m always happy when The Journal of Slavic Military Studies releases a new issue. Since 80% of the Wehrmacht losses occurred on the Eastern Front, I’ve always thought it is primordial to be interested in that vital aspect of World War 2.
The current issue of the JSMS features a very interesting article by Valerii Nikolaevich Zamulin about the difficulties related to the supply services before the battle of Kursk.
Since the soldier of the Red Army was the one who carried the burden of fighting the Germans, it is astonishing to read about those: “[…] tens of thousands of men each day who were under the stress of moral danger were unable to receive the most basic needs – a clean uniform and a decent meal.”
We can also refer to those commanders who “[…] bullied and mistreated subordinates, who were daily shoveling dozens of cubic meters of earth, erecting defensive lines, while being half-starved, unwashed for several weeks, and drenched in sweat in winter tunics and trousers.”
Wasn’t it Napoleon who declared that: “An army marches on its stomach”? Under those circumstances, the soldiers of the Red Army had a tall order.
General Nikolai Vatutin – commander-in-chief of the Voronezh front – had to find a solution to this situation and to other challenges, like lack of transport and replacement issues, encountered by the Red Army in that sector before the battle.
Against all odds, Vatutin succeeded.
Along with his subordinates, “[…] they managed to organize the system of rear services on an acceptable level”, they “[…] expanded the infrastructure of the territory where the Voronezh Front’s armies deployed and practically from scratch managed to create a logistics system that supplied the troops with everything necessary” and they ensured that “[…] all of the rifle divisions and the artillery and tank unites were not simply replenished but essentially brought back to table strength […].”
Under heavy duress, the Red Army soldier was therefore given the tools to fight with gallantry against his enemies.
Zamulin’s article is truly fascinating and deserves to be read by any student of the Eastern Front and the Red Army.
Permit me to come back on the subject of Victory Day celebrations and Russian (Soviet) veterans. I’m coming back on it because this is a neglected aspect of World War II history.
When I watched those Jewish-Israeli Soviet veterans marching in Israel last week-end, I started looking for some books or articles on this subject. After all, this blog is not called “Books and Bayonets” for nothing.
And I found an excellent article by historian Kiril Feferman about the “’The Jews’ War’: Attitudes of Soviet Jewish Soldiers and Officers Toward USSR in 1940-41” in The Journal of Slavic Military Studies(vol.27, no 4, 2014), which is edited by none other than military historian David M. Glantz.
This article covers the attitudes and motivations of Jewish soldiers who fought under the hammer and the sickle banner during WW2. Before the Nazi invasion of June 22, 1941, “[…] a minority of the Jewish military men held indifferent or even hostile attitudes toward the Bolshevik regime.” But that was to change.
The German attack against the USSR “[…] promptly transformed all Jewish soldiers and officers into the staunchest anti-Nazi force and hence, probably one of the most reliable groups in the Red Army. This occurred even before the knowledge of the Holocaust became widespread.”
What motivated them to act in such a way? A combination of the desire to be fully recognized as citizens of the Soviet Union, of avenging the persecution of the Jewish people by Nazis or even the fact that they simply had no alternative because they knew what would happen if they fell into the hands of the Nazis.
All in all and based on the works of other academics, Feferman observes that “[…] the Jewish contribution to the Soviet victory over Germany was not lower but probably even exceeded in relative terms that of other Soviet peoples.”
It is unfortunate, in the context of the Western discourse, that the essential contribution of the Red Army to the victory of 1945 is overlooked or undermined. It is also a fact that the Jewish soldiers contribution on the battlefield is a neglected area of collective memory.
It would be an act of legitimate and deserved gratefulness not to restrict this remembrance to a couple of days in May or in the few pages of an excellent academic journal.
With the risk of sounding repetitive, I feel it is important to stress the contribution of the USSR to WW2. With the Western countries’ voluntary amnesia when the time comes to commemorate and express gratitude for the sacrifices endured by the Soviet people, I strongly believe certain truths need to be reminded, often. I came upon these very interesting graphics yesterday on Twitter, which led me to the following blog. Even though they are in French, the images speak for themselves.
Without the Red Army, winning World War II would have been just impossible. True, Winston Churchill provided with the moral courage to carry on during the darkest hours of the conflict, notably at the very beginning and the United States provided essential material through the lend-lease agreements. But, when you look at these two very eloquent graphics, you cannot fail – if you are intellectually honest – to realize that the Soviet boots were essential to win the war on the ground.
I use the word sad, but I should write shameful. You can’t rewrite history with the blood of those who fell and the sweat of those who fought.
Today, I wish I was in Moscow, most probably on Tverskaya street, to watch the impressive parade that is now unfolding to mark the 70th anniversary of the victory over the Nazi hordes – a victory made possible by the huge sacrifices consented by the Soviet people and the Red Army.
But since I’m not there, I’m watching victory parades of the past. Understandably, I’m more interested in the one that was organized in 1945. So it’s a pleasure for me to share these images with you!
For those of you who might have a bit more time on a Saturday, the second video (below) is much longer but no less interesting. As for the first one, the most powerful moment comes at 10 minutes when the Nazi flags and banners are laid down on the ground. Nobody could have marched on that day anywhere in Europe, if millions of Soviet and Allied soldiers had not fallen or poured their hearts into battle.
There is a sad tendency, these days, to rewrite history for political purposes.
In a recent book, French historian Philippe Richardot writes in his introduction: “The deciding factor of World War II is what occurred on the Eastern front” (my translation). And there is ample academic evidence to support this statement.
Alas, because of the current geopolitical context, in which many world leaders are opposed to Russian President Vladimir Putin, it is hard for many to resist the temptation to equate this situation with the intention of rewriting history.
Fortunately, there are people who are holding these revisionists to account.
“Most of the Holocaust survivors were saved by the Red Army. And they are live witnesses up until now. So it never happened in Israel anything like in Europe, nothing undermining the Russian part in the Second World War.
There are 39 memorials commemorating those who were responsible for this great victory, 39 memorials for the soldiers of the Red Army primarily. You don’t have anything like this in any other parts of the world. So today together with the Holocaust there is a memory of the great victory in Israel combined together.”
Scoring easy political points on the back of a leader you dislike is one thing, distorting history and betraying the memory of those who fell to ensure victory of barbarism and Nazism is another one. And it is unacceptable.
The Red Army deserves credit for the 1945 victory and we should never shy away from being grateful.
According to a very interesting story published in the Jerusalem Post today, almost half of the Israelis polled are in favor of making May 9th, which is the day when Soviet Victory over Nazism is commemorated in Russia, a national holiday in Israel, too. Even more interesting is the fact that Yad Vashem (the Memorial and Museum to the memory of the victims of the Holocaust in Jerusalem) evaluates that no less than 1,5 million Jews took arms and fought barbarism during World War II. Here’s the eloquent example reported by the JPost:
“Anatoli Shapiro, for example, a Red Army officer who commanded the division that liberated Auschwitz, was the first man to open the gates and inform its prisoners ‘the Red army has come to liberate you.’ His story reflects most of all the essence of the Jewish fighters, fighters who didn’t just ask to bring freedom to Europe, but fighters who fought to save their brothers and sisters.”
There is ample academic research (you could fill a few bookshelves of books about that subject) supporting the fact that, without the USSR, it is doubtful that the Allies would have crushed Hitler’s hordes. It is no less significant to recognize the service of Jewish soldiers who were part of the Red army. On May 9th, we not only salute the Soviet (Russians, Ukrainians and others) men and women who made tremendous sacrifices, the ultimate one in the case of several millions, but also these Jewish and Israeli people who also carry that involvement as a badge of honor. A national holiday is not an exaggerated way to say: Thank you!