The uses and abuses of history

Death toll, WW2

I meant to post about this last week, but it’s been a busy one. It always fascinates me how so much of what we learn in school about the Second World War is entirely devoted to how the US and Britain fought it. The battle of Stalingrad was an afterthought in the syllabus I was taught in school. Maybe its partly Hollywood’s fault, what ratio of war films portray the Western battles versus the Eastern ones? What films show the sheer loss to the Soviet Union?

The graph from the Economist this week clearly says it – the sacrifice of the Soviet Union was enormous. Many say that the Soviets were crap soldiers, and their generals were worse, not having issue with cannon fodder – or losing thousands of soldiers in major battles. But surely this is just the Western propaganda I was brought up with, always believeng the Soviets to be inferior – while in fact they are alot better than the West at alot of things. The figures are stark:

…fighting in the east accounted for over three-quarters of all German military casualties

Whenever I discuss this subject with people from former Soviet countries, they always say the same thing. If it was not for Russia we would all be speaking German now. And they go further, like him or loathe him, they believe were it not for the Iron man Stalin himself, I would be in the Hitler Youth now, eating a bratwurst.






7 responses to “The uses and abuses of history”

  1. Ciarán avatar

    Well said Gavin.

  2. Gavin Sheridan avatar
    Gavin Sheridan

    Hehe cheers!

  3. John avatar

    Interesting on that chart is that China’s not listed. This site indicates that China’s total loss was over 10m people.

  4. John avatar

    Deaths and losses are not the same as winning wars. I think it goes without saying that the USSR suffered almightily in World War II.

    However, winning wars is NOT about suffering a lot. It’s also about more than killing the enemy’s soldiers. Disrupting supply lines & communications, destroying means of production, undermining morale at home and on the front, etc. are all part of a winning strategy. This the US & British accomplished, but the USSR did not.

    This doesn’t mean the USSR’s contribution wasn’t essential. It was. However, I don’t think the USSR’s contribution was more telling than the US’s or Britain’s. For nearly two years Britain fought Germany single-handedly (although sporadically too). During this time Germany was bombing Britain with Russian materiel thanks to the Hitler-Stalin pact of 1939.

    The US fought thousands of miles from home on two distinct fronts, armed, clothed & fed all the ally armies, at least partially.

    It took all three to defeat Germany, Japn & Italy.

  5. WindsandBreezes avatar

    Can’t access the original article but have a number of comments.

    Gavin: not sure if it’s really fair to blame Hollywood for this 😉 – the question is – how many people in the Cold War era would actually have gone to see a film showing the Soviets in the same light as say, the Americans, or the British during WW2? I suspect not very many. I suspect any studio even considering the idea particularly during the McCarthy era might have found themselves out of business rather quickly.

    John: I’m not entirely sure I get what you’re driving at here. Are you suggesting that in fact, the USSR’s contribution was less telling than that of the UK or the USA? I wouldn’t agree, if that is the case. I’d venture to say that by winning at Stalingrad, the USSR did untold damage to the morale of German forces on both fronts and at home. The eastern front forced Hitler to spread his troops and materials and to a great extent, kept a fairly substantial number of them occupied and not feeding over to the western front.

    The point which Gavin is making, if I understand him correctly, is that the eastern front – along with the immense human cost to both sides – was so critical, that without it, the Allies would not have won – and that this point has not, historically, been sufficiently well recognised in the West. In short, we are well aware of how much we owe to the UK and the US but don’t appear to be aware of what we owe to the USSR. I don’t think that we are here to say that we owe more to the USSR than to the other Allies – but we could do with giving them some of the recognition which we have not, to date, given.


    Finally to close – during the course of a walk one day, I was looking around the gravestones on this small cemetery in a small tiny village in Germany near where I used to live…tend to be interested in seeing what’s the oldest headstone I can read. I can’t remember what it was on that occasion, but I can remember seeing two family headstones listing mother and father buried on such and such a date and remembering such and such a son, born on this date, never returned from the eastern front, or from Stalingrad. It wasn’t a very big cemetery – most cemeteries in Irish villages would be twice and three times the size. Somehow, I just can’t look at the numbers without the context of those gravestones.

  6. Peter Nolan avatar

    “…I would be in the Hitler Youth now, eating a bratwurst…”

    Well, failing that, there’s always Fine Gael!

  7. John avatar

    Winds, sorry for being unclear. My last sentence was supposed to be a summation of my view – it took all three (USSR, US & Britain) to win the war.

    What I was trying to say above that is that the “war deaths” category actually tells us nothing about winning or losing the war, but it does tell us about who suffered.

    I also think the impact of the Nonaggression Pact between Germany and the USSR is underplayed by Soviet apologists. Without that pact, it’s likely the USSR would have entered the war in 1939 when Poland was invaded.