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Issue #1580      February 6, 2013

Culture & Life

Remembering a titanic struggle

Ask any American to name the turning point in WW2 and he will probably say the D-Day landings in Normandy. That is partly because Americans are taught to think of the USA’s contribution to the virtual exclusion of everybody else. In fact, I suspect most Americans would be hard pressed to name any of the other main combatants.

And since Australia these days takes its lead in all things from the powerful and mighty USA, if you asked Australian kids who fought whom in WW2, I suspect the answer would be as ill-informed as those from any group of Yanks.

It was not always thus, of course. During the War, everybody knew that the really big show was happening in Russia. Even American documentaries acknowledged this with awe. In Garson Kanin’s excellent feature-length doco The True Glory, which follows the war on the Western Front from D-Day to the Elbe, and was made just as the War ended, US soldiers are shown meeting the Soviet army on the banks of the Elbe and being gobsmacked as the Russians unfold a huge banner “Greetings to the Heroes’ Army of the USA”. As one US soldier says: “I mean, we did pretty well, but I hate to think where we’d have been without them!”

But that was then. Nowadays, I suspect a poll of American students would probably have most of them putting the USSR on the side of the Nazis, that is if they realised the Soviet Union was even in the War.

After all, how would they find out? Very few films are made in the US – or indeed in any capitalist country – about this most titanic of struggles. The American TV documentary series The Unknown War, which was adapted with the help of Burt Lancaster from the Soviet TV series The Great Patriotic War, had only a couple of episodes screened in prime time before it was shunted into a late-night slot for insomniacs only. Subsequent attempts to obtain it have been met with the advice that it no longer exists (at least in English).

The BBC series The World At War, with commentary by Laurence Olivier, devoted only one episode to the Russian Front, and gave at least as much coverage to side shows like Burma or North Africa.

The Russians are understandably pissed off by this cavalier dismissal of “the war on the Eastern Front”. Western commentators don’t ignore the Russian theatre, but they practice a kind of deceitful “equivalence”, saying in effect “We fought Hitler here, and you fought him there.”

But they were not equivalent. Anything but, in fact. Really it is a case of “We fought a tiny fraction of Hitler’s forces here, and you fought 20 times that number there, and there, and there.”

The Battle of Kursk, for example, involved over four million officers and men. In the course of the battles fought in the summer and autumn of 1943, Hitler’s losses in his land forces fighting on the Soviet-German front totalled 1,413,000 officers and men. As military historian Boris Solovyov says: “The aggressors never recovered from this blow.”

It is worth quoting Solovyov on another aspect of the Second World War: “The armed forces of the USA and Great Britain conducted operations in areas far removed from the vital centres of Germany and Japan. They held down negligible forces of the fascist bloc. Anglo-American forces won their most impressive gains in the Mediterranean theatre of operations. The leaders of the fascist bloc were unable to reinforce their troops operating there because the bulk of their forces was pinned down on the Soviet-German front, the main front of the Second World War.

“It was precisely here that the fascist bloc suffered its heaviest losses in the course of fierce battles whose giant jaws devoured its manpower and materiel.”

Solovyov points out another interesting fact: the Germans had more divisions fighting the Soviet partisans than they did opposing the Anglo-US regular army forces that invaded Italy.

It is fashionable in Western circles to belittle the Soviet effort in WW2. References to the Battle of Kursk, for example (the definite turning point of the war) is met with dismissive comments like “Hitler telegraphed his punches”, so that Western military “experts” can avoid admitting that the Soviet generals were in fact talented. (A lingering reflection of the Cold War mentality.)

Stalin summed it up: “If the Battle of Stalingrad presaged the decline of the German Fascist army, the Battle of Kursk brought it to the brink of disaster.” And yet, how many young people in the West have even heard of it?

American losses in WW2 are measured in the tens of thousands. Soviet losses are measured in the millions (26 million, in fact). And that is just the people who perished. There are countless millions more who suffered – during and long after – from the enormous, almost unimaginable destruction that accompanied those deaths.

When the War began, the USSR was just beginning to reap the benefits of the first two Five Year Plans. The third barely had time to get under way when it had to be converted to war production and a life and death struggle. Faced with the Nazi horror that was coming towards them, the Soviet Union had no choice but to turn their economy to war.

However, war does not make money for a socialist economy. It is production that does not flow on to the rest of society. It is nothing but a burden. Even under capitalism it benefits only a handful of companies, siphoning capital and resources into the hands of a relatively tiny group whose lust for profits is never satisfied.

And as Solovyov points out, it leads to death and destruction on a titanic, horrifying scale.  

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