The picture is iconic and revealing. Sometimes pictures are the best history. They are the best primary sources.
The image of Meliton Kantaria and Mikhail Yegorov raising the flag of the Soviet Union atop the Reichstag building, on May 2, 1945 is a priceless, expression of victory over one of the most evil and destructive enemies any nation has ever faced: Hitler’s Nazi army.
The suffering of the Soviet people at the hands of Hitler’s army is difficult to exaggerate.
The official death toll as reported by the Soviet government puts the loss of lives at 26.6 million Soviet citizens. That is 26,600,000. Of that number 8,668,400 were Soviet soldiers.
Pause and consider that for a moment. The vast majority of the Soviet dead were not soldiers. That means they were untrained, unarmed helpless civilians. Roughly thirty percent of the losses were trained warriors, while seventy percent of the killed were untrained civilians. Men, women and children who were not legitimate targets, who often ought anyway to save their nation. Many had no choice; under Stalin no one really could say no.
The total population of the Soviet Union at the time of World War Two was estimated to be 196 million. The impact of the war reduced the population by nearly fifteen percent. The suffering was only beginning, unfortunately, as Stalin’s killing would continue for years after the war.
The picture of the Soviet flag rising above Berlin was a symbol that the fighting, the suffering and the dying were over. The enemy had been vanquished. The sacrifice was worth the victory. The nation had been saved and another day of life was possible.
This terrible toll is often overlooked by American historians and the American populace. I have seen on many occasions, students in my classes wearing a shirt that proudly proclaims, “America! Back to Back World War Champs!” The children can be forgiven for not knowing any better, of course. I try to help them by explaining how such a ridiculous claim should not be made, if one hopes to be taken seriously. Otherwise, such a shirt, such a claim, screams out, “I’m so proud that I don’t even know my country’s own history!”
It is not hard to see that the Soviet Union defeated the Nazis, and the United States was along for the ride. The efforts by the soldiers of the United States were noble, and deserve respect. The war was a terrible adventure for all the Allies, no doubt. But when it comes to claiming who defeated Hitler, a simple analysis of the numbers reveals the folly of any claim that sees a nation other than the Soviet Union as the primary victor.
The Soviets, as stated above, lost 26 million souls fighting and turning the tide against the best thatt Hitler had to throw at them.
The United States and England, by contrast, lost far fewer, and fought against the second line of troops; those not directed toward the Eastern Front in Russia. Indeed the troops manning the bunkers in France on D-Day were often the remnants of Nazi armies from across Europe who had been removed form the East because they were less capable or simply too weak to fight on.
This easier enemy meant that the United States and her British hosts had an easier foe than the civilians in Russia.
The United States lost brave and noble men and women fighting in World War Two. The United States lost a significantly smaller number in World War Two.
The United States lost 407,000 soldiers in World War Two. In terms of the national population the loss represented 0.39 percent of the total.
The Soviets lost 26 million, nearly fifteen percent of the population. The Soviets turned back the Nazis alone at Stalingrad. The Soviets ultimately took Berlin. The Soviets even took Hitler’s body back to Moscow.
It is follow to believe that the United States defeat the Nazis. This is a folly that is repeated in countless World War Two movies, however. It plays well to American audiences to save Private Ryan, and forget about the Soviets.
It is also important to note that the Allies could have helped save the Soviets from the suffering at Stalingrad and may have turned the tide against the Nazi menace sooner, but the U.S. and her allies did not want to land an invasion in the Black Sea, opting instead to land in France.
Furthermore, to add to this ignorance of history, it must be noted that for the celebration of the 75th anniversary of the defeat of the Nazi’s the United States and England did not participate in the festivities in Russia, choosing instead to ignore the sacrifice of the Soviet People and renew the Cold War animus that defined much of the fighting, and betrayal, during the Second World War.
The reasons for the opting out may be significant, but the legacy of history is also evident here. The animus that Russia and the United States share goes back to before World War Two, and has been unaddressed over time.
Each side may have legitimate reasons for the animosity, but the effect is serious and dangerous. Maybe with a little compassion toward each from the other, the tensions can be seen in a better light and without the threats and hostility that have plagued the relationship for the last one hundred years.
History has cycles. History had loops. It rhymes and repeats. But it doesn’t need to. We have a choice in how history can guide us. We can see the lost lives in the Soviet victory over the Nazis as legitimate and worthy of honor. We can choose to celebrate our commonalities and not attack our differences. History can help us in seeing what is best and worst about each opportunity.
I hope, as a historian, that maybe we can see that Russia needs compassion before it will stop attacking the West. Healing begins with understanding.