The USSR and World War II


Author: Aleksandr Nekrich

When talking about the Soviet Union during World War II, one has to clearly distinguish two main periods. The first period is from 1 September 1939 until 22 June 1941 – that is, from the German invasion of Poland – and the second the German invasion of the Soviet Union. Soviet policy was completely different during these two historical periods.

On 23 August 1939, practically on the eve of the war, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union signed a non-aggression pact. As for the subsequent Treaty ‘of Friendship and Boundary’, signed in Moscow on 28 September 1939, the non-aggression pact contained secret articles, which even now – 40 years after the victory over Nazism – they are kept from the Soviet people. From Hitler’s perspective, the agreement with the USSR was useful: he could not start a war in Europe without the certainty that he would have to fight only on one front, against the Western European powers.

Stalin and Hitler came to the agreement to divide Eastern Europe and parts of South-Eastern Europe. The agreement accommodated the interests of both sides. It foresaw, in particular, the partition of Poland, and the Soviet Union’s annexation of the Baltic states.

Nazi Germany’s pact with the Soviet Union provided the opportunity to start World War II. A week after signing the pact, Germany invaded Poland. And on 17 September the Red Army invaded Poland from the east, in that tragic moment when the Polish army was heroically resisting German occupiers. Poland was defeated, and the winners – the German and Soviet armies – celebrated their victory with a joint parade in Brest.

This was only the beginning of the Soviet-German military, political and economic cooperation, which continued until June 1941. Afterwards the Soviet Union itself became a victim of German aggression, and was forced to defend itself by forming an alliance with the Western democracies.

Molotov, who in those years was leading the Soviet government, openly boasted at a session of the Supreme Soviet of 31 October 1939: “One swift blow to Poland by the German army, and then by the Red Army, was enough for nothing to be left of this ugly offspring of the Versailles Treaty …”

Military cooperation during those years also involved the Soviet Union providing Germany with a naval base on the Murmansk coast; German submarines stopped there for refuelling and repairs, to then continue the war at sea against Great Britain. The Soviet Union supplied Germany with weather reports, which were indispensable for air offensives on the cities of Great Britain. The Soviet ice-breakers “Stalin” and “Kaganovich” led a German warship through the Arctic to the Pacific Ocean. This ship then fought the British merchant navy ships that were transporting food and weapons from the United States to Great Britain.

Overall, the Soviet Union provided Nazi Germany with food, fuel and strategic materials. In addition, it purchased goods for Germany from neutral countries; these goods were transported though Soviet territory and then taken to Germany.

One could cite many facts as evidence of the cooperation between the Soviet Union and Germany. But I limit myself to reminding the reader of Stalin’s words in reply to a telegram of the German Minister of Foreign Affairs von Ribbentrop (later hanged after the Nuremberg trial): “I thank you, Mr. Minister, for your congratulations. The friendship of the peoples of Germany and the Soviet Union, sealed with blood, has all the elements to be long-lasting and solid”. And in Moscow at the same time, people commented sarcastically: “It is true that friendship with the Germans was sealed the blood – that which is flowing out of Poland”.

Therefore, when speaking about “the initial part of World War II”, we must acknowledge that the Soviet Union entered into what was nearly a military-political alliance with Hitler, facilitating his conduct of the war against the West. The situation was rescued by Great Britain, which refused to surrender and continued to fight, despite its heavy losses.

But later the Soviet army and the peoples of the USSR defeated Hitler’s troops that had invaded the Soviet Union. From June 1941 until the capture of Berlin and Germany’s surrender in 1945, the peoples of the Soviet Union led an uncompromising war against the German occupiers and accepted the greatest burden of the war.

Soviet soldiers demonstrated their loyalty to the motherland and their readiness to sacrifice their lives in order to win the war. The civilian population supplied the army with weapons and equipment, despite the fact that they had to live and work in extremely difficult conditions. The army and the people showed authentic heroism. Yet the price of victory was extremely high.

There was no family in the Soviet Union that did not lose relatives during the war. Twenty million people were killed – a terrible figure, especially when compared with the losses of the German army, which, despite the fact that it was the aggressor, lost in total 7 million people. Great Britain lost 510,000 people, and the United States 295,000. The Soviet Union lost 10 to 11% of its population. It should be noted that only Poland incurred losses as high as 20% of its population.

But now, 40 years later, when strong emotions have subsided, we must ask the question: why did the Soviet population suffer such an enormous loss of life? In my opinion, there were two main reasons. The German occupation was extremely brutal, the Nazis acted to exterminate people – first of all, the entire Jewish population of the occupied regions. But to this we must add the brutality of the Soviet system itself, and the crimes committed by the Soviet regime against its own people.

It is well-known that in the pre-war period the peasantry was destroyed and that collectivisation was imposed by force; people know about the policy of purges and the systematic extermination of prisoners in gulags. Just before the war the total number of victims of the regime already amounted to many millions. During Stalin’s purges a large part of the officers’ corps was eliminated; according to estimates, approximately 30,000 officers were killed in the period 1937-1939. Among them were three of the five marshals of the Soviet Union, all the commanders of the armies and corps, and about three-quarters of the commanders of divisions. This inevitably led to the fact that, at the beginning of the war, the Soviet military leadership was completely unprepared to fulfil its tasks.

Some researchers believe that in the pre-war years between 15 and 20 million people were killed in the Soviet Union – and these are modest estimates. It shows that the Soviet leadership never valued human life, and did not consider it something to be treasured. The main losses were incurred in the first seven months of the war and in the summer of 1942, when millions of soldiers were taken prisoner, and millions killed. The responsibility for this tragic beginning of the war lies with the Soviet leadership and personally with Stalin.

Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill in Teheran, 29 January 1942.
Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill in Teheran, 29 January 1942.

One of Stalin’s most fatal mistakes was the creation of a common border with Germany, which became a serious problem after Poland’s defeat: as a result of it the Soviet Union was completely without defence at the front for a stretch of five thousand kilometers. In addition, in the initial phases of the war countless errors were made when issuing orders to the troops fighting the German army. These mistakes, the lack of preparation in offensives, and all kinds of miscalculations cost millions of lives.

Of course, the Soviet Union never provided any explanation about the casualties suffered by the country, never even tried publicly to analyze their reasons and to establish how many people died as a consequence of specific circumstances. The “glorious past” was only exploited to preserve the myth according to which Soviet society consists in an alliance between the Party and the people, whose interests coincide in all spheres of life. The Party and its propaganda is using in every possible way the 40th anniversary of the Allies’ victory over Nazi Germany in order to revive the ever diminishing spirit of “Soviet patriotism”.

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