За нас за вас и за десант и за спецназ! The Red Army was the single greatest contributor to the defeat of Nazi Germany sixty-four years ago, a truly evil empire based on slavery and oppression, and responsible for the genocide of millions of Slav civilians, Jews, Soviet POW’s and Roma by gas, bullets and starvation.
Yet ever since the first days of the Cold War, there has been a concerted campaign to whitewash the Wehrmacht of participation in war crimes and to rehabilitate the generals who participated in it as enthusiastically as Hitler and the upper echelons of the Nazi Party. This resulted in the promulgation of many poisonous myths about the Eastern Front that are only now being laid to rest. I already wrote about several of these myths in my Top 10 Russophobe Myths
MYTH I: Heroic Americans with their British sidekicks won World War Two, while the Russian campaign was a sideshow.
REALITY: Although Western Lend-Lease and strategic bombing was highly useful, the reality is that the vast majority of German soldiers and airmen fought and died on the Eastern Front throughout the war.
Rüdiger Overmans in Deutsche militärische Verluste im Zweiten Weltkrieg estimates that from the Polish campaign to the end of 1944, 75-80% of all German armed forces personnel died or went missing in action on the Eastern Front up to the end of 1944. According to Krivosheev’s research, throughout the war, the vast majority of German divisions were concentrated against the Soviet Union – in 1942, for instance, there were 240 fighting in the East and 15 in North Africa, in 1943 there were 257 in the East and up to 26 in Italy and even in 1944 there were more than 200 in the East compared to just 50 understrength and sub-par divisions in the West. From June 1941 to June 1944, 507 German (and 607 German and Allied) divisions and 77,000 fighters were destroyed in the East, compared to 176 divisions and 23,000 fighters in the West. The two pivotal battles, Stalingrad and El Alamein, differed in scale by a factor of about ten.
This is not to disparage the Western Allied soldiers who fought and died to free the world from Nazism. In particular, the seamen who enabled Lend-Lease, at high risk of lethal submarine attack, to transport indispensables like canned food, trucks and aviation fuel to Russia, possibly played a crucial role in preventing its collapse in 1941-42. And the bomber crews massively disrupted Germany’s war potential at the cost of horrid fatality ratios, significantly shortening the war (albeit it is currently fashionable to castigate them for killing 600,000 people who by and large had no problem with waging a war of extermination responsible for tens of millions of deaths on the Eastern Front).
MYTH II: The Russians just threw billions of soldiers without rifles in front of German machine guns.
REALITY: The vast majority of German soldiers were killed, taken POW or otherwise incapacitated on the Eastern front. The Soviet to Axis loss ratio was 1.3:1 and the USSR outproduced Germany in every weapons system throughout the war.
According to meticulous post-Soviet archival work (G. I. Krivosheev in Soviet Casualties and Combat Losses), the total number of men (and in the Soviet case, about 1mn women) who passed through the armed forces of the USSR was 34,476,700 and through Germany’s was 21,107,000. Of these, the “irrevocable losses” (the number of soldiers who were killed in military action, went MIA, became POWs and died of non-combat causes) was 11,285,057 for the USSR, 6,231,700 for Germany, 6,923,700 for Germany and its occupied territories, and 8,649,500 for all the Axis forces on the Eastern Front. Thus, the total ratio of Soviet to Nazi military losses was 1.3:1. Hardly the stuff of “Asiatic hordes” of Nazi and Russophobic imagination (that said, also contrary to popular opinion, Mongol armies were almost always a lot smaller than those of their enemies and they achieved victory through superior mobility and coordination, not numbers).
The problem is that during the Cold War, the historiography in the West was dominated by the memoirs of Tippelskirch, who wrote in the 1950’s citing constant Soviet/German forces ratios of 7:1 and losses ratio of 10:1. This has been carried over into the 1990’s (as with popular “historians” like Anthony Beevor), although it should be noted that more professional folks like Richard Overy are aware of the new research. Note also that cumulatively 28% and 57% of all Soviet losses were incurred in 1941 and 1942 (Krivosheev) respectively – the period when the Soviet army was still relatively disorganized and immobile, whereas for the Germans the balance was roughly the opposite with losses concentrated in 1944-45.
The idea that there were two soldiers for every rifle in the Red Army, as portrayed in the ahistorical propaganda film Enemy at the Gates, is a complete figment of the Russophobic Western imagination. From 1939 to 1945, the USSR outproduced Germany in aircraft (by a factor of 1.3), tanks (1.7), machine guns (2.2), artillery (3.2) and mortars (5.5), so in fact if anything the Red Army was better equipped than the Wehrmacht (sources – Richard Overy, Why the Allies Won; Chris Chant, Small Arms).
MYTH III: Though the Wehrmacht fought with honor and dignity on the Eastern Front, the Russians killed all the German POW’s and raped and looted east Germany when they conquered it.
REALITY: The Great Patriotic War was an absolute war that was more brutal than anything seen in the West by orders of magnitude throughout its entire length. The hundreds of thousands German civilian and POW deaths at Soviet hands, though tragic, pale besides the up to 15-20mn Soviet civilian dead and the 60% mortality ratio of Soviet POW’s in German camps. Set against these numbers, the Red Army rapes in east Germany seem almost irrelevant.
One of the greatest crimes in Western Europe was the massacre of Oradour-sur-Glane, in which 642 civilians were murdered by a Waffen-SS battalion. But just one region in the East, Belarus, with 20% of France’s population, experienced the equivalent of more than 3,000 Oradours – some 2,230,000 people were killed in Belarus during the three years of German occupation, or a quarter of its population. At least 5,295 Belorussian settlements were destroyed by the Nazis and more than 600 villages like Khatyn were annihilated with their entire population under the cover of anti-partisan operations.
The Russian Academy of Science in 1995 reported civilian victims in the USSR at German hands, including Jews, totaled 13.7mn dead, 20% of the 68mn persons in the occupied USSR. This included 7.4mn victims of Nazi genocide and reprisals; 2.2mn deaths of persons deported to Germany for forced labor; and 4.1mn famine and disease deaths in occupied territory. There were an additional estimated 3.0 million famine deaths in the USSR not under German occupation.
This was all part of a Nazi scheme, Generalplan Ost, which called for the extermination of the Slavic intelligentsia and most of their urban populations, as well as the helotization or exile to Siberia of their peasants. Confirmed by internal documents and numerous quotes from high Nazi officials:
The war between Germany and Russia is not a war between two states or two armies, but between two ideologies–namely, the National Socialist and the Bolshevist ideology. The Red Army must be looked upon not as a soldier in the sense of the word applying to our western opponents, but as an ideological enemy. He must be regarded as the archenemy of National Socialism and must be treated accordingly. — General Hermann Reinecke
We must break away from the principle of soldierly comradeship. The communist has been and will be no comrade. We are dealing with a struggle of annihilation. — Adolf Hitler
Some 3.3mn Soviet POWs died in the Nazi custody out of 5.7mn (USHMM), the vast majority of them from July 1941 to January 1942 (i.e. when the Germans still thought they’d win quickly so no consequences for their own POW’s). This death rate of around 60% can be contrasted with the 8,300 out of 231,000 British and American prisoners who died (3.6%) in Nazi hands, or even the 580,548 out of 4,126,964 Axis servicemen who died as Soviet POW’s (Krivosheev), that is around 15%. (The question of how many German POW’s died in Western camps is hotly disputed. Though they ostensibly followed the Geneva conventions and cited numbers are typically low, of the roughly 1,000 U.S. combat veterans that historian Stephen Ambrose interviewed, roughly 1/3 told him they had seen U.S. troops kill German prisoners. The controversial historian James Bacque claims that Allied Supreme Commander Dwight Eisenhower deliberately caused the death of 790,000 German captives in internment camps through disease, starvation and cold from 1944 to 1949, and that 250,000 perished in French camps in similar conditions).
The Red Army gets bad press for its behavior during the final invasion of Prussia, in which they are frequently described as drunk looters and rapists. The consensus seems that although formal orders were against such activities, in practice most turned a blind eye to it. Yet while tragic, it is completely understandable and does not deserve the centrality placed on it by too many anti-Communist (or frequently plain Russophobic) pseudo-historians.
Consider what the typical Red Army soldier experienced before getting to Berlin: years of brutal fighting with a very high risk of death and almost certain to be wounded one time or another; hearing the stories of murdered Soviet POW’s; the sight of thousands of burned villages and massacred women, children and old men in Western Russia, Belarus, Ukraine and Poland; the death camps of Auschwitz and Treblinka; and finally, the (seemingly) decadent luxury of the conditions in which German citizens themselves lived (who, let us not forget, democratically elected Hitler and who with just a few honorable exceptions like the White Rose passively or even enthusiastically accepted Nazism).
This was, in the words of German leaders themselves, a war of extermination. Set against German atrocities in the East, or even the frequently brutal postwar ethnic cleansing of millions of Germans from countries like Poland and Czechoslovakia, it is at best wrong-headed and at worse racialist in the Nazi style to give such centrality to the rape of Berlin.
One more myth. Many accounts allege that the Soviets sent all their returned POW’s to the Gulag, if they didn’t shoot them for treason. Actually, according to Krivosheev, 233,400 were found guilty of collaborating with the enemy and sent to Gulag camps out of 1,836,562 Soviet soldiers that returned from captivity.
MYTH IV: The mainstream Western narrative on the Eastern Front during the Second World War was formed by academic historians and is fundamentally fair and objective.
REALITY: The exigencies of the Cold War, coupled with traditional US anti-Communism, meant that many Americans sympathized with the German narrative of the war. In particular, the Wehrmacht officers talked, networked and wrote about how the German military was not complicit in Nazi war crimes so as to cement West Germany (not to mention their own careers) into the Western alliance on equal terms. The complexities and compromises of military involvement in genocide in the East was whitewashed into a kitschy image of the German soldier as a patriot braving the odds to defend family and Heimat from the Bolshevik hordes. The US military and politicians were just fine with this, because they faced an ideological struggle and possible land war with the Soviet Union. Though there is serious and reasonably objective Western academic work on the Eastern Front, popular culture is still dominated by German memoirs and a-historical romanticizers.
I’ve long been skeptical about the way Russians were portrayed in accounts of WW2. Although some (generally recent) work is sympathetic and appreciative of the combat capabilities of the Red Army (e.g. Chris Bellamy), most stress the German side of the conflict. The latter typically distinguish themselves by traits like: admiration for the supposed brilliant of German generals like von Manstein and Guderian, who’d have won if not for Hitler’s interference; constant reference to the supposed vast numerical superiority and callous disregard for casualties of the Soviets; emphasize “Russian” war crimes (offensives, etc, are however “Soviet”), while attributing all German crimes to “Nazis”, usually focusing on groups like the Einsatzgruppen and SS and avoiding discussing Wehrmacht complicity, etc.
Thankfully, two authors, Ronald Smelser and Edward J. Davies, recently wrote a book, The Myth of the Eastern Front: The Nazi-Soviet War in Popular Culture, which finally collates and authoritatively confirms these strong suspicions about the objectiveness of Western popular historiography on the subject into an accessible, well-argued narrative. Most of what follows is drawn directly from the book, in chronological order.
1) Deep Ambivalence. Before WW2, many Americans had deeply ambivalent attitudes towards the Soviet Union. Though bloggers generally consider the Russophile-Russophobe dichotomy in contemporary terms, this division was as stark and relevant in the 1930′s – John Scott in Behind the Urals (BTW, though considered by some a Soviet apologist, it is in fact fairly objective and certainly not a pro-Soviet propaganda tract by any stretch of the imagination) writes, “In talking with people in France and America I was impressed by the interest in the Soviet Union and the widespread misinformation about Russia and all things Russian. Everyone I met was opinionated [aren't we all lol!]. The Communists and their sympathizers held Russia up as a panacea…Other people were steeped in Eugene Lyons’ stories and would not concede the possibility that Russia had produced anything during recent years except chaos, suffering and disorder. They dismissed the industrial and material successes of the Russians with an angry wave of the hand. Any economist or businessman should have been able to see that the tripling of pig-iron production within a decade was a serious achievement, and would necessarily have far-reaching effects on the balance of economic and therefore military power in Europe”. So basically there was (much like today?) a hardcore Communist / Russophile fringe, a sizable anti-Communist bloc and a majority that were mostly apathetic but overall disapproving.
2) War and Friendship. The exigencies of war against a common enemy, Nazi Germany, necessitated a rehabilitation of the Soviet Union in American eyes. In contrast to the “dirty, ignorant, brutalized peasants of Nazi mythology” and traditional stereotypes of Russians as “mechanically inept and stupid”, Americans began to emphasize the scale of industrial modernization in the Soviet Union, their growing religiosity (helped by Stalin’s rehabilitation of the Church) and their focus on family – according to Life Magazine, Russians now “look like Americans, dress like Americans and think like Americans”. The Red Army was lauded for its growing technical and operational competence, with its soldiers portrayed as decent, ordinary folks defending their families and Motherland from Nazi depredations, who did not want to die but were not afraid to do so if called upon. Americans built “bridges” to ordinary Soviet workers such as writing letters to people in similar occupations and organizing humanitarian relief efforts to supply food and consumer durables to needy Russians. As the war drew to a close, even the American population, which suffered relatively few war casualties and whose homeland remained untouched, thirsted for vengeance. Tentative plans (Morgenthau Plan) were drawn up for the coercive deindustrialization of Germany and its fragmentation into several demilitarized states – according to the aforementioned James Bacque, parts of this plan were actually carried out after 1945 though gradually eased in the late 1940′s as the US realized it needed a strong German ally during the Cold War.
3) Inversion of History during the Cold War. Aided by traditional American ambivalence towards Bolshevism and Slavs in general, memories of Russian friendship froze over under the emerging Cold War, to be “replaced by a pro-German version, one that stressed Russian atrocities, German heroism, and even a superhuman sacrifice to defend Western culture from the Eastern hordes”. From the 1950′s Americans became very receptive to the German view of the conflict (as constructed by the German officers who wanted to rehabilitate the Wehrmacht from complicity in war crimes so as to set the new Bundeswehr and the Western alliance in general on firmer footing), viewing the German soldier as a simple patriot in a Romantic “lost cause” defense of family, Church and Fatherland from red tyranny. Though the prospect of a land war with Russia is long gone, this romantization continues unabated, little affected by academic research from the 1970′s which questioned the myth of the “clean Wehrmacht” and the opening up of Russian archives and personal accounts in the 1990′s.
However, as covered above much of this narrative was simply false. As early as November 1942 the USSR assembled the Extraordinary State Commission to examine German war crimes, with early trials held in Kharkov and Krasnodar. The complicity of the German generals in atrocities emerged in the postwar Nuremberg Trials, in which military men Keitel and Jodl were hanged for planning aggressive war and participating in crimes against humanity, incriminated by their signatures on things like the Commissar Order (immediate execution of all captured Communist military commissars), the Jurisdictional Order (suspending traditional military laws on proper conduct of troops in the Eastern Front), the Hostage Order (allowing for the killing of 50-100 hostages for every German soldier killed by Soviet partisans), the Night and Fog Order (allowing for disappearance of undesirable elements in the occupied territories) and the Commando Order (immediate execution of captured commandos behind German lines).
According to Rode, major-general of the Waffen-SS, “the military commanders…were thoroughly cognizant of the missions and operational methods of these units. They approved of these missions and operational methods because, apparently, they never opposed them”, and admitted that it was clear to him that “anti-partisan warfare gradually became an excuse for the systematic annihilation of Jewry and Slavism”. To the US prosecutor Rapp, who was conducting trials of German military personnel, a key concern was the “prevention of legends” about the non-complicity of the German military in war crimes, lest they again retain their reputation, as after WW1, as “gracious, old, highly educated fine gentlemen”. Ironically, this is exactly what happened in the 1950′s.
Many Americans found it hard to rationalize German atrocities. The original US GI’s who liberated Western Europe were replaced by new soldiers who hadn’t fought Germans, loved the German hospitality, generally held them blameless and even accused their superiors of anti-German propaganda. This fed into deep-seated American attitudes, which were common to much of the West, of anti-semitism, antislavism, and cultural prejudices against the East in general. Germans with their Church, families and similar material culture looked more wholesome than the Russians, who were perceived to be arrogant and crude unlike the newly subservient Germans. The Germans reinforced these perceptions with stories of Russians as cruel, bestial sexual predators. Policies on interacting with German civilians were gradually loosened in the US, whereas in the Soviet occupied zone they were tightened from 1947 when Red Army soldiers in East Germany were confined to their barracks.
With the Cold War heating up, first with the Berlin airlift and then with the Korean War, the Americans realized they needed the Germans as friends instead of as prostrate slaves or even clients. Similarly, the former Wehrmacht officers wanted to rescue their careers, continue the good struggle against Bolshevism to preserve Western civilization, and to salvage the reputation of the German officers corp. Under American auspices they started re-writing history with three main goals – 1) establish a “lost cause” myth of the German military as honorable, apolitical and supremely competent, serving Fatherland not Führer, 2) advise the Western Alliance on how to win a land war with the USSR and 3) dehumanize Russians in the interests of Cold War solidarity.
This process can be illustrated in the life story of Franz Halder, a German general who became chief of the Operational History (German) Section, a project that collated some 2,500 lengthy manuscripts from 700 former Wehrmacht officers that were tightly edited to fit the three goals above. In his 1949 work Hitler als Feldherr, Halder made the following points: a) he didn’t support war against the USSR, b) didn’t lay plans for an attack on the USSR before Hitler ordered him to, c) was concerned about a pre-emptive Soviet strike, d) was unaware of the racial nature of the war as envisaged by Hitler, e) didn’t participate in POW or civilian genocide and f) was skeptical about Hitler’s assumptions of easy, early victory. Yet his personal war diaries tell a somewhat different tale.
a) The German military had been thinking of expansion and continental hegemony since at least the middle of the First World War. See the “Great Plan” of 1924-25 which called for Teutonic hegemony in Europe, albeit it had not yet been based on explicitly racialist terms. It was resurrected after the Sudetenland crisis of 1938.
b) After the defeat of France in May 1940, Hitler was considering large-scale demobilization, but Halder wanted a war with the USSR and had his staff draft “Operation Otto”, a precursor to Barbarossa, on his own initiative in June 1940.
c) In February 1941, Halder felt a Soviet attack was “completely improbable”.
d) Under a heading in his diary tellingly entitled “Colonial tasks”, he wrote, “We must forget the concept of comradeship between soldiers. A Comrade is no friend before or after the battle. This is a war of extermination. If we do not grasp this, we shall still beat the enemy, but 30 years later we shall against have to fight the Communist foe…This war will be very different from the war in the West. In the east, harshness today means lenience in the future. Commanders must make the sacrifice of overcoming their moral scruples.” In the margin, he added, “embody in the ObdH (Army High Command) order”.
e) The reality of the war in the East became clear after the invasion of Poland, when the SS and Security Police started annihilating the Polish intelligentsia. Though many German officers expressed reservations, non were forthcoming from Halder or von Brauschitsch. Later, he actually negotiated responsibilities for maintaining order in the front and rear with Einsatzgruppen commanders, and knew of and was completely indifferent to Soviet POW deaths. His own staff drafted the aforementioned Commissar Order and Jurisdictional Order – in effect, the German military high command translated the views of leading Nazis into policy. Though some officers like Hassell objected, the vast majority went along with the generals.
f) Halder more than shared Hitler’s optimism, considering the Germans would need just 80-100 divisions against an estimated 50-75 Soviet. (Ultimately, 152 German divisions were unleashed in Barbarossa against what were actually more than 300 Soviet divisions). Since progress was initially smooth, he constantly revised the timescale of victory down – “not even Hitler was as confident as his generals”.
You can tell you’re damning yourself when you give off such a strong impression of mendacious duplicity that you almost portray Hitler in a good light. And funnily enough the Führer presumably shared this impression – he bribed his generals by secretly doubling their salaries, conditional on their loyalty and obedience. Though a mitigating factor is that Halder was arrested for suspected involvement in the July 1944 bomb plot against Hitler, it should be noted his accommodations and provisions were quite OK (certainly far from death camp rations) and it was only in January 1945 that he was formally dismissed from the military. One gets the idea that the opportunist was simply hedging his bets, for by that time the war was already obviously lost. According to Smelser / Davies, “Franz Halder embodies better than any other high German officer the dramatic difference between myth and reality as it emerged after World War Two, particularly with regard to the war in the east”.
Though under suspicion of being a war criminal, he was officially released from Western Allied custody in 1947. He ingratiated himself with the US Army and was made chief of Operational History (German) Section in summer 1948 – the aforementioned project to rewrite history by rehabilitating the Wehrmacht and cementing Germany into the Western alliance (not to mention rescuing the careers of former Wehrmacht officers). In October 1948 he was tried by a German denazification court and was cleared. The prosecution then got hold of his incriminating war diaries and demanded a retrial, but by then the Americans had taken him under their wings, claiming him as indispensable. The court was forced to throw out all further charges in 1950.
As director of this project, he solicited and vetted some 2,500 manuscripts from 700 former Wehrmacht officers, by now a mix of serving Bunderwehr officers, celebrity veterans and suspected war criminals. Many of them transliterated Nazi mythology on Russians for an American audience – Halder himself wrote, “frequent insensate cruelty is found coupled with attachment, fidelity and good nature under proper [presumably Germanic?] handling”; many were worse, citing the supposed bestial, cruel, morose, instinctual and primitive nature of the Red Army soldier (though they lauded him for bravery). The more important part of the project however was teaching how to win, or at least not lose, a land war to the Soviet Union. German officers criticized American plans to mount a line defense on the Rhine, instead stressing the “mobile defense” concept developed by von Manstein in 1943-44. They also pointed to the importance of military education, training and officer independence to their military successes.
Given such valuable information and propaganda material, the Americans gave the former Wehrmacht officers leeway to further their careers and whitewash their war records. Einsenhower flip-flopped from writing things such as “the German is a beast” to his wife in 1944, to apologizing to Wehrmacht officers for defamation, claiming by the early 1950′s that “I do not believe the German soldier as such has lost his honor”. General Matthew Ridgeway urged pardons for war crimes committed on the Eastern Front (only!), with the curious justification that he had issued the same orders in Korea for which the German generals were rotting in jail for. And although the Red Scare was passing away by the mid-1950′s, by this time the myth of the “lost cause” – patriot Germans fighting for family and Heimat against the Bolshevik hordes – was fast becoming entrenched.
German officers networked with Americans. German generals, gracious, old, highly educated fine gentlemen like Guderian and von Manstein (both of whom knew of Hitler’s plans for the Soviet peoples), published self-serving memoirs. From the 1970′s, they would be further supplemented by popular accounts of the Eastern Front from ordinary German soldiers, showing their human side. Reenactments became popular, in which enthusiasts combined a painstaking attention to historical detail like uniforms and ranks with a plain painful minimal attention to placing their heros in the larger historical context of Wehrmacht complicity in Nazi crimes.
Though academic historians from the 1970′s increasingly challenged this narrative, the popular culture was unaffected, having long since been taken hostage by images of Stuka dive-bombers and Tiger tanks and the writings of the German generals. It took until the last ten years or so, with the popularization of this more academic work, as well as the opening of the Soviet archives and accounts from the Russian side, to add greater perspective. Yet as the myths above prove, there is still lots of work to do – not least, fully exposing the distorted historiography of the Great Patriotic War to the general public.
To close this with an idea – there are many, many Russian accounts and memoirs of the war, but too many of them remain untranslated into English. This is unacceptable and we should look into ways to change this state of affairs. Suggestions?
R. Overmans. Deutsche militärische Verluste im Zweiten Weltkrieg
G. I. Krivosheev. Soviet Casualties and Combat Losses
R. Smelser & E.J. Davies. The Myth of the Eastern Front: The Nazi-Soviet War in American Popular Culture.