Geoffrey Roberts is Emeritus Professor of History at UCC and a former member of the British Communist Party.
The guns fell silent three-quarters of a century ago and this year’s commemoration of the end of the Second World War in Europe has been overshadowed by the coronavirus crisis. But the sharp political struggle about the causes, course and consequences of the war continues unabated. On one side are those who celebrate the allied victory in 1945 as an important validation of anti-fascist unity while, on the other, are those who lament the communist subjugation of parts of Europe in the decades that followed.
The current round of polemics was kick-started by the European Parliament in September when it passed a resolution that blamed the outbreak of war on the Nazi-Soviet non-aggression treaty of August 1939. It also pointed to Nazi-Soviet collaboration after the outbreak of war. That compact lasted until Hitler attacked the USSR in June 1941. The Nazi and Soviet regimes were equally barbarous, claimed the resolution, and Hitler’s totalitarian rule was followed by Stalin’s when a number of countries occupied by the USSR at the end of the war were taken over by the communists.
Putin replied in December, pointing out that many states did business with the Nazis in the 1930s. He also highlighted the carve-up of Czechoslovakia at Munich in September 1938. That deal with Hitler – opposed by the Soviet Union – was signed by Britain and France. The Soviet Union stood ready to fight Hitler but it was Anglo-French appeasement of Nazi Germany that prevailed. In 1939 the Soviets tried again to form a grand anti-fascist alliance with Britain and France but the negotiations failed and Stalin turned to an agreement with Hitler that would keep the USSR out of the war.
While it is true that as a result of the Nazi-Soviet pact the Red Army did invade Poland in September 1939, the territories occupied by the Soviets were Western Belorussia and Western Ukraine – lands which the Poles had annexed during the Russo-Polish war of 1919-1920.
When the Second World War ended in 1945 its history seemed so much simpler. Fifty million people had perished but Hitler and his Nazi regime were resoundingly defeated. The anti-fascist war had been fought successfully under the banner of democracy so postwar Europe could be reconstructed as a continent of free and independent sovereign states.
Having suffered death and destruction on an almost unimaginable scale – 15% of its people killed, 30% of its national wealth wiped out — the Soviet Union was the main victor. The Red Army, which incurred 8 million fatalities in repulsing and destroying the German war machine, liberated Auschwitz and most of the other Nazi concentration camps. And it was the Soviet assault on Berlin in April 1945 that prompted Hitler’s suicide and forced Germany’s surrender on 9 May 1945.
The Soviet Union was an authoritarian communist state ruled by a de facto dictator, Joseph Stalin. But in 1945 Stalin was as much a hero in the west as he was in the USSR. He was credited as the indispensable leader who had held the Soviet war effort together and led his country to achieve the greatest military victory in history.
Stalin brooked no opposition to the Soviet system but during the war he relaxed his iron grip and opened the USSR to western influences. In the west the anti-fascist nature of the struggle had pushed politics to the left, especially in Europe, where after the war many communist parties shared power as members of broad-based coalition governments. Capitalism and communism seemed to be on a path of convergence and coexistence, generating varying mixes of public and private economy. The ideological contest between communism and capitalism would continue but there would be peace and prosperity for all states and peoples.
Within two years this optimistic vision of the future was destroyed by the outbreak of the cold war. By the end of the 1940s Europe split into competing political, ideological, and military blocs and the spectre of a new world war loomed as the Soviet Union and the United States confronted each other across what Churchill famously called the ‘iron curtain’.
Decades later, when communism and the Soviet Union collapsed in the 1990s, the west claimed victory in the cold war. But this simplistic verdict is contested by Putin who argues that but for the considerable sacrifices of the Soviet people, Hitler would have been able to realise his demented ambition of global domination exercised from the safety of a Nazi racist empire in Europe. It was the Soviet Union that saved the world from Hitler. Stalin was a brutal dictator but it was not he who launched an aggressive war that plunged the world into an orgy of destruction.
Hitler’s bid for world power began with the German invasion of Poland on 1 September 1939. It took the Wehrnacht just three weeks to conquer Poland. The rapidity of Poland’s collapse was surprising but not shocking given Germany’s size and power. The British and French declared war on Germany but remained on the defensive and planned to fight a war of attrition, as they had done during the First World War. Hitler scuppered those Anglo-French plans with his stunningly effective invasion of Western Europe in May 1940. France was forced to surrender after a six-week campaign while Britain hurriedly withdrew its forces from the continent at Dunkirk.
Germany’s conquest of France made Hitler the master of Europe. Only embattled Britain and Stalin’s communist Russia stood in the way of complete German domination of the continent.
The German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941 was the decisive moment of the Second World War. The success or failure of Operation Barbarossa would determine the outcome of the war. If Hitler could win in Russia, the British could be easily dealt with.
Hitler calculated it would take only a few months to destroy the Red Army, capture Moscow and Leningrad and conquer Ukraine and southern Russia. By the end of 1941 Leningrad was besieged and the Germans had advanced a thousand miles to within sight of the onion domes of Moscow’s Kremlin. Millions of Soviet soldiers had been killed. But while Stalin’s regime tottered it did not collapse. The Soviet socialist system proved to be more resilient than many had imagined.
The turning point came in front of Moscow in December 1941 when the Red Army successfully launched a massive counter-offensive. Operation Barbarossa had failed and the Germans now faced a long and difficult war of attrition on their Eastern Front.
The Nazi invasion of the USSR was no ordinary military campaign. It was an ideological and political crusade to destroy Jewish-Bolshevik communism, to enslave or destroy the Soviet people and to use Russia’s vast lands for German resettlement and as a dumping ground for Europe’s Jews. What we now call the Holocaust – the massacre of European Jewry – began on the Eastern Front with the Nazi execution in 1941-1942 of a million Soviet Jews.
When Hitler attacked the USSR, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill declared his solidarity with the Soviet Union, as did US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Allied aid began to flow to the USSR. Confronted by this grand alliance of Britain, the Soviet Union and the United States, Hitler needed to beat or incapacitate Soviet forces before the enormous supporting resources of that coalition could fully be brought to bear.
In summer 1942 the Germans launched a southern campaign to capture the Soviet oil fields at Baku. It was Hitler’s war for oil that triggered the battle of Stalingrad – the most prolonged and dramatic encounter of the Soviet-German war. By August 1942 the city was under siege. By October it was mostly in German hands. But in November the Soviets counterattacked and surrounded the German armies in Stalingrad. After three months encirclement and starvation the Germans were forced to surrender. A quarter of a million German troops perished at Stalingrad, while another 300,000 were captured. The armies of Hitler’s allies – Hungary, Italy and Romania – that guarded the German flanks at Stalingrad were crushed, too.
As Churchill said at the time, it was the Red Army that tore the guts out of the Nazi war machine. The Red Army destroyed 600 enemy divisions. Three million German soldiers lost their lives on the Eastern Front. Among the Axis losses were 48,000 tanks, 167.000 artillery pieces and 77,000 aircraft. Soviets losses included the destruction by the Germans of 70,000 cities, towns and villages, together with 98,000 collective farms. In the battle for Stalingrad alone the Red Army suffered more casualties than the British and Americans did during the whole war. In besieged Leningrad 600,000 civilians died of starvation.
The Second World War was primarily a Soviet-German war and it was the great battles at Moscow and Stalingrad that determined its outcome. At the same time it was a global conflict fought across Asia and Africa as well as in the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian oceans. After the Soviet Union the greatest loss of life was suffered by China, as millions lost their lives in a war with Japan that began in 1937. A million Japanese were killed by American bombing raids alone, including atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945.
The Second World War was a military contest on a far bigger scale than the First World War but the great majority of its victims were civilians, not soldiers.
Although the Second World War was a geopolitical and ideological contest between Hitler’s Axis coalition and the Soviet-Western grand alliance, it was also a series of local civil wars and inter-ethnic struggles that persisted for many years after 1945. At war’s end, Europe was overwhelmed by a wave of vengeance and retribution, mostly directed at the defeated Germans and their collaborators.
The Second World War was not an imperialist war, as some Marxists still maintain. It was a people’s anti-fascist war. It was fought to defend the rights and freedoms the labour movement had sought for a century of more. The anti-democratic, authoritarian trend in world politics that had begun with the Great Depression was reversed. While some states in Central and Eastern Europe succumbed to authoritarian communist rule, that was far better than Fascist and Nazi occupation. Though part of a tightly controlled Soviet-Communist bloc, they retained their national identities and collectively abjured war in favour of peace.
International relations were revolutionised by the decline of the European great imperial powers and the decolonisation of their empires as the United States and the Soviet Union rose to global dominance. The Nazi project to eliminate the Jews was incomplete and many survivors of the attempted genocide migrated to Palestine and became the bedrock of an Israeli state at the centre of the continuing crisis in the Middle East. In Asia, Japan’s defeat facilitated the rise of the Chinese communist party which took power in1949 and embarked on a programme of modernisation that paved the way for China to become the economic superpower it is today. The communist tide in Western Europe had ebbed by the late 1940s but the swing to the left encouraged the adoption of social democratic models of capitalism with welfare systems and interventionist governments.
Perhaps the greatest existential legacy of the Second World War was the development of nuclear weapons. Without the imperative of the anti-Nazi war it is unlikely the atomic bomb would have been developed so quickly, if at all. Without the paranoia of the cold war there would have been no nuclear arms race and consensus international control over use of nuclear energy could have been a more realistic possibility. Yet without the existential threat nuclear weapons posed to all humanity, the cold war could have escalated into a third world war with even more devastating consequences than the conflict that ended 75 years ago.