** war and social upheaval: World War II European Theater -- Soviet Union

World War II: Country Trends--The Soviet Union (1939-45)

Figure 1.--This Soviet war poster might be dismissed as melodramatic propaganda until ones reads about NAZI conduct in the Occupied East and what they had in mind for the Soviet people once they win the War. Posters like this appeared in World War I, rather unfairly attacking the Germans. The NAZIs in the East lived up the charges. The Russian script reads, "Warrior of the Red Army, save (us)".

World War began with the invasion of Poland (September 1939). Soviet historians generally downplay the next 2 years because the Soviet Union was an ally of NAZI Germany and engaged in terrible aggressions and atrocities (1939-41). Russian historians would like to forget this black page of their country's history. The actions of the Soviet NKVD were comparable to those of the NAZI SS, but without the racial component. (But not without the ethnic component.) Most Russian historians would like for their country's World War II history to begin with the NAZI Barbarossa invasion (June 1941) and the valiant record of the Soviet resistance to the aggression of their NAZI ally (1941-45). The cataclysmic struggle on the Eastern Front was the most gigantic military struggle in the history of warfare. In large measure, the result of the campaign determined the outcome of the War. It is difficult to see how the Western Allies could have staged the D-Day invasion to liberate France if the NAZIs had succeed in destroying the Red Army on the Eastern Front. The resistance of the Soviet people to the NAZIs is one of the outstanding instances of heroism and valor in human history. It is no reflection on the character of the Soviet people that Stalin became virtually an ally of Hitler and launched a series of aggressions comparable to those of the NAZIs. Operation Barbarossa came as a complete shock to Stalin (June 22, 1941). The Wehrmacht achieved stunning successes. In the drive toward Moscow and Leningrad, the NAZIs committed the most heinous atrocities in modern times. Hitler had made it clear from the onset that the campaign would be a war of extinction. At the gates of Moscow, the Russian Winter, interference by Hitler, and the bravery of the Red Army broke the Wehrmacht. Slowly after Moscow and Stalingrad the the weight of Allied production, the resurgent Red Army, the strategic bombing campaign, and finally a second front with D-Day doomed the Wehrmacht.

Totalitarian Soviet State

The Russian Tsarist Empire was an absolutist, but not totalitarian state. There were other power centers such as the church, military, bureaucracy, nobility, and others. There were, however, no political opposition permitted. Political parties were banned. And because no legal opposition to the Tsarist regime was permitted, conspiratorial political organizations formed. The Bolsheviks led by Lenin proved the most effective. Democratic parties proved less effective. This made a importance difference after the Revolution replaced the Tsar ad for a brief interlude, political parries were able to freely operate (February 1917). Lenin and the Bolsheviks learned their lesson well. Lenin seized power with the slogans 'Bread, Land, Peace' and 'All Power to the Soviets'. After the Bolshevik Revolution all other political parties were banned (October 1917). The Bolshevik or Communist a Party was the only party allowed. The Bolsheviks used force and terror through the new Cheka (secret police). The Cheka replaced the Tsarist Okhrana with an even more terrible mandate. Lenin believed that the Cheka was not only necessary, but a positive force in developing the new Soviet state and man. Lenin was assassinated and died after a long convalescence (January 1924). He is believed to have sen Leon Trotsky, the father of the Red Army, as the most suitable replacement, but left no clear plan for the transition. The two had a similar vision of the future. Lenin and Trotsky did not shrink from terror, but were psychopaths seeing traitors and enemies behind every corner. Lenin did not trust Stalin, not only because of the political behavior he had witnessed, but because of personal reasons, including how Stalin had treated his wife. A struggle for power followed Lenin's death. Stalin as General Secretary of the Communist Party was able to consolidate his power by first establishing complete control over the Party and then the Soviet state. Many supported Stalin for career advancement, others saw him as offering security and direction for the future. The Communist Party promised future prosperity--a worker's paradise. Communist ideology was taught in the schools and widely accepted by the Soviet people. Stalin turned the Cheka into the NKVD--one of the most notorious secret police forces in history. The population were genuinely afraid of the NKVD, but the Party under Stalin's control convinced the Soviet people that the vigilance of the NKVD was necessary for their protection. The peasantry was an early target because most wanted to own their land. Stalin attacked the Kulaks (successful farmers) as part of the attack on the peasantry--especially the Ukrainian peasantry. Stalin's NKVD was then turned loose on those that had opposed his rise to power. But this was only a small number of people. Stalin unleashed the NKVD on the Soviet people. The NKVD saw traitors everywhere, government officials, Party leaders, and the military. Stalin's Great Terror was a terrible campaign, targeting Old Bolsheviks, Party leader, former supporters, the military leadership, and millions of ordinary citizens. All were consumed in The Great Terror. The NKVD like the NAZI SS built a state within a state. The Gulag became an huge network of labor camps where those arrested became a captive labor force, often used for huge projects in the north. Stalin succeeded in smashing all opposition to his leadership. But in doing so he weakened the Soviet state, especially the military at a critical point in history--the NAZI rise to power in Germany.

Joseph Stalin

Joseph Stalin is undeniably one of the most important figures of the 20th century. His impact on the development of the Soviet state and society and the international Communist movement was immense. He is also one of the most evil figures in world history and was directly and indirectly responsible for the deaths of millions in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, a death toll even exceeding that of Adolf Hitler. Even so, the Russian people are deeply conflicted about his legacy. Stalin in the 1930s devoted vast sums to expanding the Red Army. Even so the Soviets were unprepared for the NAZI invasion that came in 1941. One reason for that was the purges that gutted the Red Army officer corps. Soviet and Western intelligence services informed Stalin that the NAZI invasion was imminent, but Stalin dismissed the warnings.

Adolf Hitler

Hitler's thinking has been the subject of historical debate. The general consensus is that Hitler acted out of his pathological hatred of what he saw as 'Jewish-Bolshevism'. He saw the Soviet state as a Jewish entity. There was reason to fear the Soviet Union, but of course the Jewish conspiracy was a figment of Hitler's imagination. Here it is difficult to know if Hitler really rationally believed there was a Jewish conspiracy against Germany, or if he just used it to harden German attitudes toward the Jews. The most likely scenario is that Hitler knew that many important early Bolsheviki leaders were Jews. And once this opinion was formed he took it as a given. Subordinates were unlikely to question him on the issue. More common in the NAZI political structure is that subordinates competed by bringing schemes to Hitler using support for Hitler prejudices as a way of gaining favor. Some historians argue that the attack on the Soviet Union was motivated by a frustration with being able to force Britain out of the War. And that removing the Soviet Union which at the time was the only remaining potential ally for Britain in Europe. [Lukas] The fact that Hitler was thinking about invading the Soviet Union when he thought Britain was about to fall seems to refute that this was this thought process. Rather it seems Hitler was anxious to defeat or make peace with Britain so he could begin to execute his plans in the East.

Socialist Pacifism

The socialist movement which developed in the 19th century became anti-militaristic and strongly pacifist. This was in part an ideological and socialists argued that war was essentially governmental coercion of the working class. War was seen as the end result of the competition between capitalist dominated states and ultimately it was workers who would have to fight and die in wars which they had no real interests. Despite these strongly held attitudes. Socialist parties had become major forces in many European countries by the early 20th century. European workers and even Socialist parties, however, sided with their national governments as Europe descended into war (1914). French socialist leader Jean Jaurès's was assassinated just before war was declared (July 31, 1914). The Second International failed to effectively oppose World War I. The War in fact became seen as a great failure of the Socialist movement. The War was a huge shock to Europe. Many believed that war was a thing of the past. And World War I was a war that essentially destroyed an entire generation of Europe. Antiquated tactics and increasingly deadly weaponry resulted in battlefield deaths beyond comprehension. After the War there was a general revulsion against war which resulted in the growth of pacifist thought. This was especially pronounced within the Socialist movement, but was notable even in America without a strong Socialist party. There were exceptions to the rising pacifist thought. First the Italian Fascists began to promote the military after seizing power. And the Japanese military began to dominate the government. Pacifist thought was strong in Germany, but so were highly politicized paramilitary groups. This of course changed when Hitler and the NAZIs seized power (1933). Military combat became the highest embodiment of human behavior. The situation in the Soviet Union was more complicated. Stalin built the largest military establishment in the world and any talk of limiting military spending was prohibited. And as the Soviet aggressions early in World War II showed, Stalin was willing to use his military as brutally (if more cautiously) as Hitler to invade neighboring states. Yet the Soviet Union portrayed itself as the the leader of the world Socialist ad controlled Communist parties in most country. Thus ideologically it could not portray war and military service in the same way as the Fascists.


The Battle of Britain in many ways changed the course of the War. An invasion of Britain was impossible without air superiority. Hitler, fearing a cross-Channel invasion, decided that the only way to force the British to seek terms was to destroy the Soviet Union. He began shifting the Wehrmacht eastward to face the enemy that he had longed to fight from the onset--Soviet Russia. Stalin beginning May 1937 began a drastic purge targeting all potential political opponents. The Army because of its potential power was a priority target. Stalin's purge decimated the officer corps and greatly impaired the morale and efficiency of the Red Army. So confident was Hitler of success in the Battle of Britain that on July 21, 1940 he told his top military commanders in great secrecy that he planned to invade the Soviet Union, perhaps motivated by Stalin's annexation of the three Baltic Republics on that day. He ordered General Enrich Marcks the next day to prepare the attack plan. World War I had shown the Germans that they lacked the resources for a long drawn out campaign. The Royal Navy's command of the seas allowed them to import resources from America and its overseas Dominions. The NAZI conquest of Western resources had provided Hitler with substantial new resources and industrial capacity, but it was only in the East (Russia) that Germany could obtain the resources to fight a protracted war. Economic factors were also involved. Not only were the resources of the East needed by the German war machine, but it was extremely costly to maintain Germany's immense army. After the fall of France and the expulsion of Britain from the Continent, this army had sat largely idle. An army of this size was a huge drag on the economy of the Reich. Mussolini attacked Greece October 28, 1940 through Albania. Although often omitted in studies of the World War II, this was to prove perhaps the greatest blunder of the War by the AXIS. Mussolini's 1940 invasion of Greece had two serious consequences. First it complicated the time table for Barbarossa. Second it resulted in tying down substantial AXIS forces in the Balkans, estimates run as high as 1 million men, that could have been employed in Barbarossa. The nature of the War changed decisively in the second half of 1941. The Germans invaded Russia in June 1941, launching the most sweeping military campaign in history.

Munich (October 1938)

The Munich Agreement appears to have had a great impact on Stalin's thinking. Until Munich, Stalin may have joined the Allies to fight Hitler. Munich appears to have convinced Stalin that the Allies could not be depended on and were scheming to have the Soviet Union and NAZI Germany fight a war while they looked on. As a result, Stalin was receptive to German diplomatic feelers. There is no way of knowing this as Stalin later systematically attempted to destroy all records of his dealings with the NAZIs. Most historians, however, are convinced that Munich had a pivotal role in Stalin's thinking.

NAZI-Soviet Non-Aggression Treaty (August 1939)

NAZI Foreign Minister Ribbentrop and newly appointed Soviet Commissar for Foreign Affairs Molotov on August 23, 1939, signed the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact. At the time of the signing, British and French delegations were in Moscow trying to reach an understanding with Stalin. The Soviet leader He was convinced, however, that they were trying to draw him into a war with Hitler. The two countries which until that time had been bitter foes, pledged not attack each other. Any problems developing between the two countries were to be dealt with amicably. It was to last for 10 years. The Pact shocked the world and the purpose was immediately apparent. It meant that Germany could attack Poland without fear of Soviet intervention. Thus after defeating Poland, Germany did not have to fear a full-scale European war on two fronts. What was not known at the time was that there was a secret protocol to the pact which in effect divided Eastern Europe between the two countries. This protocol was discovered after the end of the World War II in 1945. The Soviets continued to deny this protocol until 1989. The NAZIs 8 days after signing the Pact invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, launching World War II. Britain and France declared war September 3. Poland's fate was sealed on September 17, when the Soviets invaded Poland from the east. Although the Soviet's did not enter the War against Britain and France, the Soviets were virtual NAZI allies as they provided large quantities of strategic materials, especially oil. Communist parties in Britain and France opposed the war effort. The Communist Party in America opposed President Roosevelt's efforts to expand defense spending and assist Britain and France.

Soviet Aggressions (1939-40)

Although it is the NAZI aggressions that are most commonly addressed in World War II histories, the Soviet Union compiled nearly as long a list of aggressions as the NAZIs. Operating within secret protocols to the Non-aggression Pact, Hitler and Stalin were in fact close partners in the waging of aggressive war. The Great Patriotic War fought against the NAZIs after the 1941 German invasion came to be an icon in Soviet history. Left unsaid was the fact that Hitler and Stalin were partners in the virtual partition of Europe. After Poland, the first target was Finland, but Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Romania were also targets. The Soviet invasion of Finland had significant repercussions. The Allies for a time considered actively aiding Finland, but the German offensives in the West soon made that impossible. The poor performance of the Red Army in Finland was a factor in Hitler's decision to attack the Soviet Union before Britain had been defeated.

Great Patriotic War (1941-45)

Hitler launched the most immense military campaign in human history with the invasion of the Soviet Union--Operation Barbarossa (June 1941). It is estimated that on the eve of battle, 6.25 million men faced each other in the East. The Soviets were surprised and devastated. Stalin ignored warnings from the British who as a result of Ultra had details on the German preparations. Stalin was convinced that they were trying to draw him into the War and until the actual attack could not believe that Hitler would attack him. The attack was an enormous tactical success. The Red Air Force was virtually destroyed. Soviets cities fell and whole Soviet armies were engulfed in sweeping pincer movements spearheaded by German panzers. Many military analysts question whether the Soviets could resist the NAZI blitzkrieg. The Soviets did hold, in part because Germany's Axis ally Japan struck America rather than the Soviets. This allowed the Soviets to bring Siberian troops west to spearhead a devastating surprise Winter offensive before Moscow (December 1941). The German Army Group Center suffered devastating losses from which they never fully recovered. As a result, the German offensive in 1942 was restricted to the south. It was an effort to fully seize the Ukraine as well as the Caucasian oil fields. Again the NAZIs gained great success and were on the verge of seizing Stalingrad when a second surprise Winter offensive destroyed the Wehrmacht's Germany's most powerful formation--the Sixth Army. Germany's final great Eastern offensive came in 1943. This time the Wehrmacht was capable of striking in only a small section of the front--the Kursk salient. The battle was the largest tank engagement in history and destroyed the Wehrmacht as an offensive force. The Soviets seized the initiative with Operation Bagration which shattered Army Group Center (June-July 1944). This was the most devastating German defeat of the War. It essentially destroyed NAZI Germany's defensive capacity, opening the way to western Poland and the Reich itself.

The Occupied East

The NAZI program for Lebensraum in the east was not just to acquire territory. The plans for that territory was monstrous beyond belief. The plan was to evacuate Poles and Russians from these territories. Some would remain to serve as slave laborers. Millions would be expelled/deported with the understanding that large numbers would die or be killed in the process. The goal was to make the east German. Here Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler had the responsibility for pursuing this effort. He appears to have assigned his deputy Reinhard Heydrich appears to have coordinated this effort and essentially he SS's entire eastern operations. Heydrich ordered the Sicherheitsdienst (SD) (SS Security Service) in 1941 to begin the necessary planning. The Reichs-Sicherheitsdienst (RSHA) (Reich Security Head Office). There were differences of opinion within the SS and between the SS and Alfred Rosenberg's Ostministerium (Ministry for the Occupied East) over how to claim the East. There was agreement that large numbers of Slavs had to be removed to Siberia. There were differences as to the extent to which forcible evictions should take place.

Soviet Regions

Much of the World War II Eastern Front was fought out in two regions, Belarus and the Ukraine. Other areas included the Crimea. southern Russia, and the Caucuses. There was also heavy fighting in the Baltics, but mostly when the Soviets retook the Baltics (1944). Here we are talking about independent countries occupied by the Soviet Union and annexed (1940) rather than Soviet regions. All three Baltic Republics were re annexed by the Soviet Union after the War. Notably only the western regions of the Russian heartland were occupied by the Germans. The fighting took up a different character in each of these various regions. There was considerable anti-Soviet sentiment in all of these regions. It was the Russian heartland that as in the Civil war became the Soviet bulwark. The Germans as a result of Barbarossa penetrated into the Russian heartland (September-November 1941). They were, however, driven back by the Red Army Winter offensive before Moscow (December 1941). Thus while the Wehrmacht penetrated deep into the Soviet Union, for the most part the fighting in the east took place in the non-Russian areas west of the Russian heartland. Anti-Soviet feeling was strongest in the Baltics. The same was true of the Ukraine. NAZI barbarity managed to turn the population against them and into the hands of the Soviets. NAZI race policy managed to turn potential allies against them. People in these areas had to chose between two blood thirty totalitarian powers. Those who joined the NAZIs were pursued as war criminals after the War. The Soviets, however, committed many war crimes themselves. It was a major factor in the outcome of the War in the East.

The Holocaust

One of Hitler's major goals in the invasion of the Soviet Union was the murder of Russian Jews. Preparations were laid for murdering Jews as part of the invasion. The NAZIs in 1939 had not yet worked out what was to be done with the Jews. As a result, while there were many killings, most were rounded up and confined into ghettos. The success of the Wehrmacht in 1939-40 had convinced Hitler and other NAZIs that they could begin the mass slaughter of Jews. There was no written document, but Hitler some time in late 1940 or early 1941 must have ordered Himmler to prepare for mass killings with the invasion of the Soviet Union. The NAZI genocide had not yet been perfected and large scale gas chambers were not yet operating at Auschwitz and other Polish concentration camps. The SS created four Einsatzgruppen to accompany the Wehrmacht and kill Jews in large numbers. Full details are not available, but we know from the similarities in many of the killing actions that the Einsatzgruppen were well trained and procedures developed for maximum efficiency. Heydrich was in overall command of these killing machines and he was known for his meticulous planning.


The Resistance was especially important in the Soviet Union where guerrilla groups disrupted German supply lines. The Soviets created the largest and most important Resistance effort. This was possibly primarily because of the genocidal NAZI policies in the East. Ironically, the Soviet Union was the one country that the NAZIs invaded where they could have developed considerable popular support. The early successes of the Germans staggered the Red Army and Soviet society as a whole. Red Army soldiers surrendered in staggering numbers. Only slowly did anti-NAZI partisan units begin to form. Many of the partisans units were formed from men left behind as the Red Army retreated east. Later the Soviets dropped men and supplies to reinforce the partisan units. Other partisan units were formed by civilians. They Soviet partisans were an important part of the Great Patriotic War. Partisans killed thousands of German soldiers, but the major contribution was in disrupting Wehrmacht supply lines. Not only did this make supplying front line troops difficult, but it forced the Wehrmacht to deploy an important part of its combat strength in rear areas to secure supply lines. This was especially important in 1941-43. As the tide turned on the Eastern Front, the importance of the partisans declined as the Red Army became an effective fighting force. The partisans even in the later phases of the War was still significant and were a continuing drain on the Wehrmacht as it retreated west.

NAZI-Soviet Peace Feelers (1942-43)

There were Soviet and NAZI peace feelers. Historians debate as to how serious these feelers were, in part because Stalin to suppress all evidence after the War. Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union more details have become available, although there is considerable debate among historians about the circumstances. Some of the revelations if accurate are startling. One Russian author citing declassified Soviet intelligence files reports that Stalin after the Wehrmacht had stabilized the Eastern Front personally authorized the offer of a separate peace to Adolf Hitler (February 1942). Stalin reportedly proposed that the Soviets and NAZIs cooperate against the United States and the United Kingdom. A Soviet document dated February 19, 1942 reveals that Stalin offered Hitler a ceasefire on the Eastern Front and to joint the NAZIs in joint military operations against the Western Allies "to restructure the world" by the end of 1943 under the pretext of accusing "world Jewry of war-mongering." Another document dated February 27, 1942, provides a report on high-level discussions between Soviet and NAZI officials. Vsevolod Merkulov, a Soviet security official reported on his meeting with SS Gen. Karl Wolf, in Mtsensk, Belarusia, at the time occupied by the Germans. Merkulov reported that Wolf discussed German demands that Stalin must "solve the Jewish question" in the Soviet Union before Germany would agree to an alliance against the Allies. Wolf also discussed concessions that the NAZIS were prepared to make, including territorial concessions. There was even a curious offer to change the color of the swastika on the NAZI flag from black to red. Merkulov described the world-wide view of the NAZIs, including a demand that the Soviets acquiesce to German control over Latin America, the Arab world and North Africa as well as Japanese control over China. This was reportedly unacceptable to the Soviets. [Karpov] U.S. intelligence was aware of some of these contacts [Mastny, p. 1378.]

The T-34 Tank

Many assessments of World War II focus on the German Panzers. The NAZIs assumed that the Soviet Union was a backward country incapable of producing the same high quality as Aryan supermen. The appearance of the T-34 tank on the battlefield in late 1941 was a shock to the Wehrmacht Panzer commanders as it was in fact superior to the German Panzers. The T-34 tank in fact is considered by many to be the finest tank of the War. The T-34 was the perfect balance of mobility (wide tracks, excellent speed), firepower (76mm or 85mm cannon) and armor protection (low profile and innovative sloped armor). The T-34 tank was also relatively inexpensive to build and easily maintained. This was in sharp contrast to the much more complicated German tanks. Unbeknown to the Germans, even as the Wehrmacht was driving into the Soviet Union during the Summer of 1941, T-34 tanks were rolling out of production lines in far greater numbers than German tanks. Soviet tactics in using the T-34 were at first poorly conceived, but gradually improved as the War continued.


Soviet World War II weaponry contrasted sharply with that of the Germans on the all important Eastern Front. The differences boiled down to technology and philosophy. Germany was an extremely advanced industrial and technological powerhouse. They had the technical capability to build advanced, often meaning complex weaponry. The German focus was on performance such as rate of fire and narrow tolerances and clearances. Much less attention was given to maintenance requirements and ability to operate in field conditions. No matter how beautifully crafted a weapon is, if it jams or does not operate when it gets a little dirty or will not operate in the cold, it is not an effective weapon. The Soviet Union was much less technically advanced. As a result, Soviet weapons were often much more basic. Soviet weapons often looked crude in contrast to the finely crafted German weapons which Hitler insisted be built. The Soviet philosophy was to build simple, easy to maintain weapons that functioned under field conditions. This meant that Soviet weaponry continued to function even during winter weather and in muddy or other adverse conditions. Crude looking weapons did not upset Stalin. They also had the advantage that they could be built in huge numbers and at low cost. This put the Germans at a disadvantage. Their smaller industrial plant, especially working on complex weapons, could produce only a fraction of the weaponry produced by the Soviets and Allies. The Soviet T-34 probably saved the Soviet Union, arriving on the battle field at a crucial point of the War and shocked the Germans when their shells bounced off the sloping armor. The T-34 had a fine cannon, but the motor and drive train were what only an b called primitive. The crew had to use a hammer to change gear. Another nasty surprise to the Germans was the Katyusha multiple rocket launchers (Катю́ша) It was a type of rocket artillery. These multiple rocket launchers delivered a devastating salvo to a target more quickly than conventional artillery, but with less accuracy. The Luftwaffe largely destroyed the Red Air Force at the onset of Barbarossa. Gradually the Red Air Force was reconstituted and the Ilyushin IL-2 Shturmovik developed a reputation as a tank killer on the Eastern Front. Generally Soviet weapons were not noted for high technology, but their ruggedness and low maintenance requirements giving them the ability to function under battlefield conditions. On the battlefield, low-tech was often an advantage because it was less affected by mud and dirt and easier to service. High tech German weapons were more difficult to service and maintain.

Lend Lease

Some in Congress questioned extending Lend Lease aid to the Communists. Roosevelt felt it was critical that America aid the Soviets as they in 1941 had 380 divisions resisting the NAZIs in 1941 at a time that the United States was just beginning to train a much smaller force. Hopkins as Lend Lease director worked tirelessly to balance the competing demands of the U.S. military with those of Britain and the Soviets. The Soviets proved difficult to deal with. While anxious for American equipment and supplies, the Soviets were not interested in American advisers to show them how to use and maintain American equipment. [McJimsey, pp. 190-192.]


America and Britain had difficulties had difficulties obtaining information on the situation on the Eastern Front. Information on the military situation was important in assessing Soviet requests for Lend Lease assistance. It was also needed in assessing the possibility that Stalin might sign a separate peace with Hitler. The Soviets at first refused to provide detailed information on to allow Allied observers access to the front. Eventually the Soviets opened up somewhat, but information was still limited. After the War we learned that Washington had a secret source in Berlin--ironically Japanese Ambassador Oshima Hiroshi. Hiroshi was a trusted confident of Hitler, Ribbentrop, and other high-ranking NAZI officials. They provided him detailed reports on the Eastern Front which he dutifully reported to Tokyo. Because the Americans cracked the Japanese diplomatic code, the reports were immediately available to American officials through the Magic intelligence operation. [Boyd]


The intelligence operations in the West have been reported on in some detail, especially the Ultra code breaking operation. We also know a great deal about the incredibly unsuccessful NAZI operations on the Eastern Front. This operation was conducted beginning in 1942 by Reinhard Galen who the the American employed after the War. Much less, however, is known about the very successful Soviet operations. This has been obscured by the surprise achieved by the NAZIs in the opening phase of Barbarossa. This was, however, not a failure of Soviet intelligence. Soviet agents as well as the Allies gave Stalin ample warning. He simply refused to believe that Hitler would attack him. Subsequently each of the major Soviet offenses (Moscow 1941, Stalingrad 1942, and Bagration 1944) achieved almost total surprise with devastating results. Some have speculated that the success of the Soviet intelligence operation was such that there must have been a very high-placed traitor in the German high command or security services. Soviet sources have never identified this individual if he existed. Another unanswered question is the extent and success of Soviet code breaking operations.

Home Front

We do not know a great deal about the Soviet home front yet. The most significant aspect of the home front was Soviet war production. The Soviets were able to maintain and even expand war production despite the huge area conquered by the Wehrmacht during Operation Barbarossa. The NAZIs did not fully understand this. What the NAZIs failed to appreciate was that much of the areas conquered were the non-Russian areas of the western Soviet Union (the Baltics, eastern Poland, Belorussia, and the Ukraine). Enormous damage occurred n the occupied areas and the three great cities (Leningrad, Moscow, and Stalingrad) targeted by the NAZIs. Other areas of Russia were largely undamaged by the War. The Luftwaffe did not have a long-range fleet of heavy bombers with which to conduct a strategic bombing campaign. Children continued to attend schools, although all supplies including teachers were in short supply. We have little information on the rationing system. Nor are we sure how Russia survived without the Ukrainian bread basket. America provided substantial food supplies, but this was primarily used for the military. One huge problem encountered was large numbers of displaced children. This problem was especially severe in the occupied areas and had to be addressed when they were liberated.

Soviet Economy

The Soviet Union because it was such a closed society is difficult to compare with other countries, but assessments suggest that it had a total national output roughly comparable to Germany (about $15 billion). The Soviet Union was, however, much less economically developed than Western Europe. And Soviet enterprises were extremely inefficient as we saw after the dissolution of the Soviet Union decades later. Because of the larger population, per capita income was only a fraction of European levels and living standards even lower because of the inefficiencies in the economy. Soviet statistics show continued economic expansion during the Depression years of the 1930s. We are unsure just how to interpret these statistics. As a result of Stalin's policies, beginning with the First Five Year Plan (1928), the Soviet Union had significantly expanded heavy industry, but seriously weakened its agricultural base. American companies had helped expand Soviet production of cars and trucks, important in preparing for a mechanized war. And the Soviet Union even before the NAZIs seized power in Germany had concentrated on military production. An extremely large share of national income was being directed to the military, meaning that the country had the largest army in the world and heavily armed with modern weapons. Unlike the Germans, the Soviets had vast deposits of natural resources, especially oil. Obtaining raw materials, unlike the situation in Germany, was not a major factor in Stalin's decision to ally himself and his country with Hitler and the NAZIs to launch World War II (1939). Stalin's calculation was based on power politics and ideology. The Soviet Union on paper was better prepared for war than most countries. But Stalin's purge of the Red Army had seriously weakened the country's military. And various strategic and domestic policies made the country dangerously vulnerable. In addition, while heavily armed, many Soviet weapons, especially tanks and aircraft, were obsolete, but kept in service. The Soviet Union after the German invasion (June 1941) suffered enormous losses in men and material. Some 4.5 million men were killed or captured. The Soviets managed to move important war industries east of the Urals beyond the range of Luftwaffe bombers. It took time, however, to being the industries back on line. They began forming large numbers of new divisions. There were enormous shortages, especially in 1942 as the war plants moved east were not yet back on line. While poorly trained at first, they managed to stop the vaunted Wehrmacht in its tracks--albeit deep in the country. Food proved a critical matter as the Germans occupied much of the riches farm land and major grain producing regions of the country. As the Soviets began to resume production, the United States began to deliver important Lend Lease shipments. The Soviet Union after Britain were the largest recipients of Lend Lease aid. As with Britain, Lend Lease was just a fraction of overall Soviet output, but it nit only plugged in major deficiencies in the the Soviet war economy, but assisted the Soviets in increasing their production.

Soviet War Production

Stalin had built an industrial base capable of producing war material on an immense level. The Germans were not aware of the full Soviet potential, neither the quantity or the quality of Soviet production. The Soviets managed to pack up and move whole factories east, where they could not be reached by the Luftwaffe's tactical bombers. Production at many of these factories were not back to full production until 1943. Even so the output of these Soviet factories alone exceeded German production. Thus when British and American production were added, it is clear to what extent Barbarossa had changed the strategic balance. And it was not just in quantitative terms. Soviet war production was rationalized. Production of obsolete weapons was terminated and that of more effective weapons like the T-34 tank expanded. Soviet artillery was of a high standard. While the Red Air Force was devastated at the onset of Barbarossa because of obsolete planes, new planes like the Yak fighters (Yak 1, 7, and 9s) and the IL-2 Stormovek were high quality planes that in capable hands could and did take on the Luftwaffe. These planes were also produced in enormous numbers. More than 37,000 Yaks were produced by the Russians, more than any other fighter in the War. As the Allied air assault on Germany intensified in 1943 and the Luftwaffe had too pull back to defend German cities, the Germans also began loosing their advantage in the air that they had during Barbarossa.

German Industrial Effort

Germany was a major industrial country, but not the world's dominant or even largest industrial power. Thus German industrial allocations had to be carefully calculated if they were to win the War. Fortunately for mankind, they were not. And this was especially true of the war in the East with the Soviet Union--the Ostkrieg. The Ostkrieg was certainly the decisive engagemnent of World War II. Whoever prevailed there was going to win the War. The Allied Strategic Bombing Campaign did far more than damage German war industry, it forced the NAZIs to devote the majority of Gernany's potent, but limited industrial power on the war in the West instead of where it was most needed--the Ostheer. Contrary to popular conceptions, the German economy was not effectively harnessed for war. Civilian consumption was not drastically curtailed as was the case in Britain. Women were not further mobilized for war work, especially married women. Industrial production was not totally directed at the War effort. Only when the War began to go against Germany and Albert Speer was appointed Armaments Minister (1942) did German industry begin to take needed steps to maximize production and reach some of its potential. [Speer] The Germans, as a result, despite the bombing were able to expand war production. This was the case through 1943. Only in late 1944 and the full force of the strategic bombing force was released from D-Day support did the German economy begin to collapse under the weight of Allied bombing. Some have used this to charge that the Allied bombing campaign was ineffective and a misallocation of resources. This is not the case. Without the bombing, the Germans could have substantially increased war production in 1942 and 43. Some time ago I notice a comment in an important book on World War II. The author states that the German war economy was oriented to the war in the West, and not the Ostkrieg. [Weinberg] That rather surprised us at the time, but we have since come to conclusion that he was absolutely correct. It took a huge industrial effort to support operatiins in the West (the West Wall the Air War, the Battle of the Atlantic, the Atlantic Wall, the V-Weapons, etc.). In contrast the Ostheer was mostly unmotorized infantry using horse-drawn carts. We are always amazed that when authors describe the Ostkrieg, they almost always phrase the importance in terms of manpower (German deployment and casualties), never in terms of industrial power. Manopower is important, but as any military historian knows, it is only one factir in warfare, and not alwaysd themost important. Our contention is that the War in the West forced Hitler to send the Ostheer into the Soviet Union largely on foot and once there without the industrial support needed for the decisive engagement of the War.

Red Army Expansion

The Germans not only failed to accurately access the Soviet capability to move war industry plants and restore production, they also failed to understand how quickly the Red Army could mobilize and equip new units. Red Army losses in Barbarossa were massive, both in men killed and even more so in POWs taken. The losses were so massive that the Wehrmacht had by the time they approached Moscow (November 1941) narrowed the man power disparity with the Red Army. Long lines of shattered POWs winding their way west to makeshift camps, convinced the Wehrmacht at all levels that they had broken the Red Army. The numbers astonished OKW. They assumed that the Red Army had been bled dry. The Soviet Offensive before Moscow in turn shattered the Wehrmacht (December 1941). It helped restore the numerical superiority of the Red Army. The Soviets could afford massive losses, the Germans could not. Not only did the Wehrmacht inaccurately assess the strength of the Red Army at the start of the War, they badly assessed the speed with which the Soviets could form and equip new units. A factor here was that although the Germans occupied a huge area of the western Soviet Union, much of it was the non-Russian areas acquired in 1939 from the Poles and the Baltic Republics or in the south the Ukraine. The Soviets still had most of the Russian heartland from which new units could be recruited and this was a larger population than the German population. (There had Hitler not raged a racial war of extinction, the Germans could have had access to a substantial population in the occupied areas of the East that was anti-Russian and anti-Bolshevik which would have significantly narrowed the population imbalance.) Not only did the Soviets have a large population base to mobilize, but the Red Army was very proficient in rapidly forming new units. During the rest of the war in the East, the Germans were constantly surprised with the appearance of new units. And beginning in 1942, the numerical disparity between the Wehrmacht and Red Army steadily moved in the favor of the Soviets.

Medical System

One topic comminly ignored in World War II histories is the health care system. And in no country was the health care systenm more imprtant than the Soviet Union. This was the case for two reasons. First, was the scale of the Ostkrieg. There were more men Soviet soldiers killed and injured than in any other country. (China may have had more men, but in most cases thery were not well armed and trained.) Amd medical care was not just a humanitarian matter, saving lives and returning as many as possible to combat was a matter of military nercesity. Contrary to popular opinion, even the Soviet Union did not have exhautable manpower reserves. The Soviet military medical system made huge improvemrnts in survivability and recovery during the War. Second, the country's civilian industrial work force produciung the implements of war by 1942 were starving. This was because Stalin's Collectivization of agriculture (early-1930s)included the murder of the kulaks (the country's best farmers) which significantly reduced harvests. The food situatipn was significantly worsened as a result of Barbarossa with the Geramsn seizing must of the most productive agricultural land of the Soviet Union. The Soviets had to severely ration food. Front line troops, workers in the arms industry, and young children got the largest allocatioins, but even they were hardly well fed. And the rert of the population bordered on starvation. There were significant health consequences to the food shortage and the Soviet health care system did not do much to aleviate them in the civilian population, but American Lend Lease food shioments did allowing some improvements (1944).

Air War in the East

Most historical accounts of the air war available in the West seal with the Luftwaffe campaigns in the West and the subsequent Allied strategic bombing campaign. The air war on the Eastern Front is much less studied. This is somewhat surprising as Germany and the Soviet Union when the War began had the two mist powerful air forces. The Luftwaffe essentially destroyed the Red Air Force during the first few days of Barbarossa. As a result the Red Air Force was not a factor during Barbarossa. The Red Army during the Barbarossa had to fight with virtually no air cover. This gradually changed and by 1943 the Red Air Force was again an important factor in the War. Several factors were involved here. The Soviets did have a substantial aeronautics industry and the Soviet war plants that had been moved east by 1943 had reached full production. America through Lend Lease was delivering planes to the Soviets. The Allied strategic bombing campaign forced not only forced the Luftwaffe to withdraw assets from the Eastern Front to defend German cities. In addition the bombing disrupted German production as well as caused substantial losses in German fighters. Many accounts of the air war do not give sufficient attention to the impact on the Luftwaffe of engaging the Allied bombers even before long-range fighter cover became available.

Soviet Naval Operations

The Soviet Union in the inter-War era carried out a massive military expansion, building the world's largest army and air force. Relatively little attention was given to building a substantial modern navy. This is understandable given the fact that the Soviet Union was not a major maritime power and that the principal military threats came from neighboring land powers. The Russian Imperial Navy was renamed the "Workers' and Peasants' Red Fleet" (Рабоче-Крестьянский Красный флот, Raboche-Krest'yansky Krasny Flot--RKKF). The major vessels were inherited from the Imperial fleet including a few obsolescent battleships. The Soviet Navy was so weak that the Soviet Union was not even to attend the Washington Naval Conference (1921) in which the major naval powers negotiated limits on naval construction. The Soviet Navy participated in the Winter War (1939-40) by shelling Finnish coastal forts. The pre-War fleet played a minor role in the war. Much of the Soviet fleet was deployed in the Baltic Sea. When the NAZIs invaded (June 1941), the Wehrmacht rapidly moved east and seized almost all of the Baltic ports. Soviet ships had to withdraw to Leningrad and Kronstadt where they were immobilized by Finnish and German minefields. Thus immobilized, the Soviets ships were mauled by Luftwaffe attacks. This situation did not change until the Finns withdrew from the War (July 1944) and the Red Army began to take Baltic ports. Soviet Naval forces in the Black Sea played a role in the defense of Sevastopol and in the subsequent Soviet liberation of the Crimea. The most important Soviet naval operations were conducted with destroyers and other craft provided by the United States and used for escorting convoys carrying Lend Lease supplies to the Soviet Union.

Role of the Western Allies

While western historians recognize the huge contribution of the Red Army on the Eastern Front, we found a tendency in Russia today to disparage the contribution of the Western Allies. We do not see that tendency in the West, but it is pronounced in Russia. This began even during the War. Stalin at Tehran complained that the Western Allies were relying on the Red army to fight the Wehrmacht and not doing enough in the West. Churchill of course could have said that Stalin not only allowed Britain to fight alone, but all the time was supplying the Germans vast quantities of critical raw material to support the NAZI war economy. Often lost in this discussion is the totality of the Western contribution. And it is not just the Russians who do not understand or not recognize it. We find that the Western historical treatment has been so even handed that even many in the West do not understand the considerable contribution of the Western Allies. So we think that it is important to detail what the Western Allies did to defeat the NAZIs and to assist the Soviet Union. It should be stressed that some of this did not directly result in German casualties, but did significantly reduce the ability of NAZI Germany to wage war and/or improve the ability of the Soviets to wage war. A good example would be American Lend Lease food shipments to the Soviet Union. This did not kill a single German, but significantly supported the fighting capability of the Red Army and improve the food situation for civilians who were for a time only being fed at near starvation levels.

Ethnic-National Groups

The Soviet Union at the time of the NAZI invasion had succeeded in regaining almost all of the old Tsarist empire. The primary exceptions were Finland and NAZI-occupied Poland. The core of the country was the Russian-Slavic heartland, but the Tsarist/Soviet empire was the last great European empire. It contained millions of peoples who were not Russians and had their own aspirations for statehood or at least autonomy. Two decades of Communism had created an even greater desire for independence as a result of the Soviet atheism campaign and the suppression of the various nationalities. The collectivization campaign and the Soviet orchestrated famine in the Ukraine created even further resentment. Some of the anti-Soviet feeling was of historic origins. Some of it was relatively recent such as the NKVD operations in the Baltic republics after they were annexed to the Soviet Union (1940). This was part of a series of aggressions made possible by the NAZI-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact. As a result, many of these peoples had mixed loyalties. Many remained loyal to the Soviet Union. Other saw the Germans as potential liberators. Few of these people who decided to make common cause with the Germans understood the nature of the NAZI state or the biological genocide that Hitler envisioned for the Slavs. Nor did the Non-Slavs understood where they stood in the NAZI race system or the consequences if the Germans had won the War. Some of the peoples most affected were the Baltic peoples, Chechans, Cossacks, Tartars, Ukrainians, and Volga Germans. Before, during, and after the War these people suffered terrible reprisals. The full story may never be known because of lack of historical access to Soviet archives.

War Corespondents

Perhaps the most noted Soviet war correspondent was Vasily Grossman, a corespondent for the Red Army newspaper Red Star--Krasnaya Zvezda. He was frustrated during the War when editors distorted his submissions by cutting pieces and adding hackneyed propaganda lines. Grossman was with the Red Army from the initial NAZI Attack to the end of the War. No other Soviet correspondent so vividly describe the actual tribulations of average Red army soldier. He understood all to well the bravery and sacrifices of these men. He writes, "Who can read what is going on in the souls of these men, advancing to replace those lying around in the snow." Tragically when the Red Army his Ukrainian village in 1944 he found his mother had been killed by NAZI Einsatzgruppen in a mass execution during 1941. His war-time note books are an important document of the Great Patriotic War. Although not allowed to be published, he describes in his note book the horrific behavior of Red Army soldiers as they neared the Reich, especially the raping of girls and women, and not just the Germans. Apparently any female would do, including liberated Soviet slave workers. [Beevor and Vinogravoda] This is still very controversial in Russia today. After the War, Grossman was watched by the NKVD/KGB. They told him that his war novel Life and Fate would never see the light of day in 200 years.


The Soviet Union signed the NAZI-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact (August 1939) and a result began the War as a NAZI ally. After invading Poland with the NAZIs and launching World War II (September 1939), the Soviets invaded Finland (November 1939) seized control of the Baltic states (Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia), and annexed areas of Romania. The Soviets created large numbers of refugees in Finland and Romania. The situation was different in the Baltics and Poland. Here the refugees had few places where they could free. The NKVD began executing people and deporting families to Central Asia and Siberia. These people can be classified as refugees. These actions set large scale population movements in motion. Only Finland resisted the Soviets (November 1939). The NKVD arrested, shot, and deported large numbers of people in these countries and moved in Russians to Russify the new areas. The refugee problem changed dramatically when NAZI Germany invaded the Soviet Union (June 1941). No longer was in the Red Army and NKVD creating refugee in neighboring countries, it was Soviet citizens turned into refugees. The War which Stalin along with Hitler launched, turned into a catastrophe for the Soviet people. The German invasion of the Soviet Union set even larger numbers of people in motion as Russians surged east to escape the invading Germans. Soviet citizens would become the single greatest population displaced by the War that their own government launched. This is, however, a poorly reported aspect of World War II. Some of these people were aided by the Soviet Government as part of the effort to move arms plants east and set them up beyond the Urals. Most of the population was left to fend for themselves with orders to resist the Germans. As part of the German occupation, the NAZIs seized large numbers of Soviet citizens for war work in the Reich. The Generalplan Ost called fr the raising of Soviet industrial cities. The Wehrmacht did not proceed with Generalplan Ost. Rather they attempted to use the industrial and agricultural plant that the Soviets did not destroy. Much of the population of the cities were turned into refugees. Unless people were working for the Germans, they did not get ration booklets. Thus much of the city population melted away into the countryside. The NKVD in the area not occupied by the Germans were ordered to deport large numbers of people in suspect groups (Germans, Chechans, Crimean Tartars, and others). After the War, large numbers of Soviets had to get home from the former Reich. Stalin was suspicious of these people as well as POWs held by the Germans. Many wound up in the Gulag. The Soviet refugee problem did not end with the NAZI surrender. Stalin was suspicious of anyone who spent time in the West, including Soviet citizens seized for slave labor and POWs.


Soviet children were affected in countless ways by the War. And this included the children in both the occupied and unoccupied areas of the country. Just how to define Soviet children is a little complicated. The Soviet Union in the first year of the war while still a NAZI ally has seized large areas in the West, including parts of Finland Poland, and Romania as well as all of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Thus the children in the countries have to be considered. The children most affected were Jews in occupied countries targeted by the German Einsatzgruppen and Wehrmacht. Unbeknownst at the time was the much larger NAZI killing plans--Generalplan Ost. Other children in the unoccupied area suffered because their parents were targeted by the NKVD because of ethnicity and/or social class. Many children were killed or wounded as a result of the widespread fighting. Bombing was less a factor in the East, in part because the Red Air Force was largely destroyed in the first week of Barbarossa and the Luftwaffe had less of an impact because of the sheer size of the country and then had to be largely withdrawn to defend German cities from the Allied strategic bombing campaign. Food was a problem in both the occupied and unoccupied sections. In the German occupied areas the NAZI Hunger Plan went into affect. The Wehrmacht found it impossible to immediately implement the plan in full force, but obtaining food was a serious problem in the German occupied areas. The food situation was also serious in the unoccupied areas. Stalin had seriously damaged Soviet agriculture before the war. After Barbarossa, the Germans occupied much of the prime agricultural land of the country, including all of the Ukraine. This significantly reduced the food supply for the rest of the war. Special rations were authorized for young children, but this dispensation ended at age 12 years. Another interesting topic is children's art.

War Damage

War damage in the Soviet Union and areas seized by the Soviets was almost unimaginable. Substantial areas of the Soviet Union, especially the western Soviet Union was devastated by the War--turned into depopulated wastelands. Much of the destruction was in the non-Russian areas of the western Soviet Union. This included the areas annexed in 1939-40 (eastern Poland, southeastern Finland, the Baltics, and northwestern Romania) as well as Belorussia and the Ukraine. There were three major reasons for the destruction: war damage and then the Soviet scorched earth policy as the Red Army was driven back early in the War (1941-42) and the NAZI scorched earth policy (1943-45) as the Wehrmacht retreated west back to Reich. The result was not only immense loss of like but a virtually unfathomable destruction of homes, farms, factories, and public buildings.

German Collapse (May 1945)

The Germans already reeling from Soviet offenses collapsed less than a year after D-Day in May 1945. General Karl Weidling, the commander leading the defense of Berlin, finally surrendered (May 2). The new Führer attempted to move as much of the Wehrmacht west and to surrender to the Western Allies. Eisenhower made in clear that the surrender would have to be to both the Western Allies and the Soviets. Kietel signed the final act of Capitulation (May 8). Eisenhower refused to meet with the German officers. Only after they had signed the surrender documents did he appear to ask them if they fully understood the document. He refused to shake hands. As the Allied armies moved through Poland and Germany, the horrendous crimes of the NAZI party were revealed to an incredulous world.

Red Army Victory: Analysis

We constantly see internet posts from those benefiting from the perspective of history, claiming with absolute certainty that the Wehrmacht could have never defeated the Red Army -- it was simply beyond their capacity. The eventual total collapse of the Wehrmacht lends strength to this view, but in fact the Germans came very close to winning the War in 1941. Stalin's personal train was at the station ready to depart Moscow. It is simply absurd to say that an army that had reached Moscow in only 5 months and destroyed whole Soviet armies in the process had no chance of defeating the Soviet Union. The Germans inflicted more casualties on the Red Army than any army has suffered in all of history and in only 5 months. It was certainly not the view that military experts held at the time, including both the Allies and the Germans. The Germans thought that they had won the War. Allied commanders thought the Red Army would collapse under the German assault. And there was good reason for this view. Since launching the War, Hitler's armies had surged east, north, west, and south sweeping aside all opposition with only light casualties. In one campaign after another, the Germans smashed all opposition, including the highly regarded and well armed French Army. The only failure was the Battle of Britain where the Channel had stopped the Panzers. The British did not only evacuate at Dunkirk, but on five other occasions. The Red Army in contrast had endured Stalin's bloody purges, decimating its professional leadership core. And it performed very badly in both Poland and Finland. But to the surprise of many the Red Army nor only held before Moscow, but staged a massive Winter Offensive that inflicted the first serious casualties on the Germans. So the question arises, just how did the Red Army defeat the vaunted German Wehrmacht. The defeated German Generals after the War wrote memoirs and they offered explanations that were remarkably consistent, basically blaming: 1) Hitler, 2) weather, and 3) Soviet hordes. They avoiding any personal responsibility. Soviet sources point out that it was no secret that it gets cold in Russia during the War and the temperature was the same for the German and Soviet soldiers as well as the obligatory paeans to glorify Comrade Stalin's leadership. The Soviets were especially intent on minimizing the Western contribution to their victory. Western historians have primarily bought the German view, in part because of the Cold War. Many German generals wrote memoirs (Halder, Manstrein, Palus, ect.) wrote memoirs. Many were rehabilitated and played important roles in the new German Army. The Soviets closed their archives to Western historians. All to many Western historians have generally accepted the German view as well as the Soviet (and now Russian) assertion that the Western Allies played only a minor role in the defeat of the Germans.

Return Home

Soviet soldiers returning home had a very different experience than the American soldiers after the War. The Soviets held a massive victory celebration in Red Square (May 9, 1945). Marshal Zhukov rode a white horse. Reportedly Stalin wanted to ride the horse, but was afraid of being thrown off. Slowly trainloads of Soviet soldiers brought the men home. The men returned to desolated towns and villages. In many cases their families were not there to greet them. All to frequently they returned to desolated homes and there was no indication of what had happened to their families. Most of the Soviet POWs held by the NAZIs died in atrocious conditions. The German collapse, however, did not mean liberation. Stalin considered POWs as traitors for surrendering to the Germans. Thus they were committed to the Gulag. The same fate awaited many of the slave laborers that the Germans had deported to the Reich to work in war industries.

Political Controversy

The Soviet Union played the major role in the defeat of NAZI Germany. The great bulk of the Wehrmacht was deployed in the Eastern Front and most of the casualties sustained by the Germans were sustained in the East. German casualties totaled in the East totaled about 10 million men including 3.5 million deaths. This was achieved at enormous costs. About 30 million Soviets citizens died in the War, accounts vary as does the definition of Soviet citizens. Most sources agree that about 15 percent of the Soviet population perished. The bravery and sacrifice of the Soviet people bleed the Wehrmacht to such an extent that the Western Allies were able to renter the Continent with the D-Day invasion (June 1944). Without the enormous casualties sustained by the Germans in the East, the D-Day invasion would have been impossible. The conduct of the war in the East and its importance importance is not well studied in the West. This is in part the result of the greater interest in the Western campaigns, but also because the Soviets and now the Russians restrict access to primary sources. There are of course Soviet accounts, but these books do not normally meet the standards of Western historiography. As a result the Russian people today look at the Great Patriotic War in almost religious terms. Any criticism of the Soviet war effort is highly controversial and normally resented by the great majority of the Russian public. Despite the great achievement in destroying NAZI Germany, Soviet actions in the War were in fact only exceeded in barbarity by the NAZIs. Stalin was in fact a virtual NAZI ally in the early phase of the War. Stalin launched a serious of aggressions against neighboring states. Once in control of the areas invaded, large numbers of people were arrested, killed, and deported. He delivered large quantities of strategic materials to support the German war effort. After the German invasion the NKVD brutally treated Russian soldiers with large-scale arrests and executions. There were further mass arrests and deportations of ethnic groups. The Soviets allowed the Germans to destroy the Polish Home Army in Warsaw. The Red Army engaged in mass rape in Berlin and other German cities. Russian POWs who survived the horrendous NAZI camps were consigned to the Gulag. None of this is widely known or discussed in modern Russia.


Modern Europe owes the Soviet people a great debt of gratitude for their central role in the defeat of the NAZI tyranny. The plans that the NAZIs had for the peoples of the occupied East defy the imagination of modern readers. The Red Army saved the Slavic and Asian people of the Soviet Union from a genocide of even greater proportions than that carried out against the Jews. It was on the Eastern Front that the German Wehrmacht was bled dry. This was achievement at an enormous cost by the Soviet people. The defeat of NAZI Germany is in fact the great achievement of the Soviet Union and continues to be one of the most important celebrations in modern Russia. Yet the Soviet victory is not celebrated with the same enthusiasm by many of Russia's neighbors. Many Russians fail to understand why their European neighbors do not share their enthusiasm and are not duly appreciative for the enormity of the Soviet sacrifice. The view in Eastern Europe is more nuanced. The Eastern Europeans are more aware of the degree of collusion between Stalin and Hitler which not only made the war possible, but divided Eastern Europe into colonial subjects. For these countries liberation from the NAZIs meant the imposition of Stalinist rule. This is something that the peoples of the Baltics and Eastern Europe are familiar with. The issue marred the grand celebration President Putin planned for ceremonies in the May 2005 Moscow honoring the 60th anniversary of the Soviet and Allied victory over the NAZI tyranny. What Putin and many Russians have not come to terms with is the fact that the Soviet Union imposed another tyrannical regime over Eastern Europe. While Soviet actions did not have the racial genocide component of the NAZIs, it did have an ethnic component. Soviet rule was a terrible ordeal for not only many Soviet people, but also the people of Eastern Europe.


The Great Patriotic War is an extremely sensitive issue in Russia for several reasons. The men and women who fought the war against the NAZIs are revered in Russia today and rightly so. Among older Russians it is probably the cost of the War in terms of casualties and destruction. The Soviet people suffered unimaginable suffering during the War and made great sacrifices. Few families were unscarred by the War. As a result, any criticism of the Soviet is suspect and among many an outrage. With younger people is is more of a nationalistic matter. They were brought up in the Soviet era to unquestionably applaud Soviet conduct. The Russian people have since the fall of the Soviet Union learned about the crimes of Stalin and the mismanagement of subsequent leaders. Along with the much declined power of the Russian state, Russians have learned that their country for the entire Soviet era had little to be proud about. Rather the Soviet era is a depressing litany of crimes, abuses and mismanagement. The simple fact is that Stalin killed more Russians and other Soviet citizens than Hitler and the NAZIs. He also was responsible for terrible crimes in Eastern Europe. Even Soviet conduct in World War II is highly questionable, although this had not been widely discussed in Russia, especially in the schools because of the sensitivity of the issue in Russia, While President Putin claims that the dissolution of the Soviet Union was the greatest ego-political catastrophe of the 20th century, in fact the principal positive achievement of the 20th century was the defeat of NAZI Germany and even this is tarnished by Stalin's partnership with Hitler in launching the War.

Lingering Question

There is one rarely discussed question concerning the Great Patriotic War. Did Stalin's rule weaken the Soviet Union or was his regime critical in the defeat of the NAZIs. Here the answer is unclear. Some authors point to the rapid expansion of heavy industry during the Stalinist era. While this is true. It is also true that industrial expansion under the Tsar was also going forward at a rapid rate. And it was proceeding in a more rational manner than under the Soviets. (Note today that there are almost no Soviet factories able to sell products other then arms abroad.) Some have argued that collectivization played a role in resisting the NAZIs. This we are not sure about, but we do know that collectivization substantially reduced agricultural output which weakened the Soviet Union economically. Certainly Stalinist policies such as the famine in the Ukraine engineered by Stalin created opposition to the Soviet state. This opposition was not, however, effectively exploited by the NAZIs who with their racial mindset were intent upon genocide. Stalin surely gave great priority to building an army a huge army. We doubt if a democratic regime would have made a comparable effort. On the other hand, Stalin purges of the Red Army seriously weakened the professional competence of the command structure. Stalin while shaken in the first few days of Barbarossa soon seized command of the war effort. While his military strategy in many instances proved costly, his tyrannical rule did hold the Soviet people committed to victory regardless of the cost. We wonder if any democratic regime could have done the same. Certainly the French were not prepared to pay the same price as they did in World War I. We wonder if the British would have continued to resist if the Channel had not stopped the Wehrmacht. We doubt seriously if America would have been prepared to accept the same casualties as experienced by the Soviet people.


It is difficult for Western Europeans to fully appreciate the catastrophic experienced by the people of Eastern Europe. especially the Soviets, Poland, and Yugoslavia. Here the Soviet Union was different because the war was largely conducted in the extreme west of the country including areas that the Soviets had annexed during the War (the Baltics, Poland, and Romania). The War as a result was largely fought outside of the Russian heartland. The Wehrmacht had penetrated into the Russian heartland in the final phase of Barbarossa (October-November 1941), but much of this was recovered in the Red Army Winter Offensive before Moscow (December 1941). The Soviets also managed to move a substantial part of their industry east beyond the Urals which was not captured and destroyed by the invading Germans. Even so the damage to the Soviet Union and the loss of life was nothing short of horrific. Some one in eight of Soviet citizens perished in the conflict. Something like one third of the economy was destroyed, but this was in the far west and included the non-Russian areas that the Soviet Union annexed during and after the War. The country was awash with displaced people and families that were torn apart. A harvest failure and the damage done by he Germans in the Ukraine resulted in a regional famine, but the famine of 1946 killed a fraction of the numbers that died of hunger during the famine resulting from the Civil War (1919-23) or the famine Stalin inflicted on the Ukraine (1931-32). As the Soviets received American food aid through UNRRA. Soviet sources claim to have restored income levels to pre-War levels as early as 1948. We are not sure that this was the case. And the Soviets reported very high levels of economic expansion during the 1950s and 60s. Soviet economists began to claim that they would overtake the West. Agriculture continued to be weak point in the Soviet economy. Stalin refused to participate in the American Marshall Plan and would not allow the Soviet puppet government to participate as well. Instead they were required to participate in the Molotov Plan. The Soviets had some advantages, virtually inexhaustible reserves of raw materials and the ability to extract reparation from their occupation sector in Germany. And while the economy grew, Soviet workers lagged far behind workers in the West. Problems included massive military spending, the inherent inefficiencies of Communism and central planning,

Individual Accounts

There is a substantial body of literature published in the Soviet Union about World War II, including individual accounts. This is similar to other European countries. These include both fictional and non-fiction accounts. The Soviet literature is different from similar accounts published in Western Europe. Publishing houses in the Soviet Union were owned an operated by the Communist controlled Soviet Government. The Government controlled who published these accounts as well as the text that was published. The Government would not have allowed anything to be published that was critical of the Soviet Union or the Soviet war effort. This does not mean that these accounts are not interesting descriptions of the War or that they describe real people. It does mean that they have to be used with some caution if used as valid historical documents. Most of these books have not been translated into English and other foreign languages. Thus this literature is generally unknown in the West. Hopefully our Russian readers will provide some details about these individual accounts. We are especially interested in accounts describing childhood experiences. And we notice Soviet reports of child heroes like Young Defender of Moscow Yuri Ulianin and Senior Medical Attendant Yekaterina Rumyantseva. One of our Russian readers tells us that Maria Prilezhayeva's book Masha Strogova's Youth about the fate of a young school teacher during World War II. Here she talks with one of the boys from her class (6th form), he's 12 years old. Boys in his class teased him going to school in short pants and called him 'a second former'.

Collecting War Material

NAZI Germany and the Soviet Union fought the largest and most horrific military campaign in human history. Much of the fighting during 1941-44 took place in Russia or the Ukraine. Human losses probably exceeded 20 million people, both as a result of actual fighting and genocidal NAZI policies as well as actual killing operations. Huge quantities of military ordinance were expended during this campaign. Great quantities lies buried in Russia, Belorussia, and the Ukraine. A teacher in Moscow tells us that a popular activity in Moscow is to collect World War II weapons and ordinance. He explains that they go to places around here where major battles were fought and there are numerous places around Russia where the decisive battle of World War II was fought. One boy came into class today dragging a sack full of World War II weapons. shell cases, and spent bullets. At least I hope they were spent. Other items included a revolver and some sort of what looked to me was a Lugger-type pistol. One boy insisted, however, "Sir they are Russian weapons." Some looked lethal to me. The boys hunt the weapons with their fathers. Some may also buy from shops. The bullets have had a hole drilled in the side to make them safe. They use the old guns to play army. The boy with the sack said, "Sir its history!" and of course he has a point.


Beevor, Anthony. The Fall of Berlin 1945.

Beevor, Antony and Luba Vinogravoda. A Writer at War: Vassily Grossman with the Red Army, 1941-1945 (Pantheon, 2006), 378p. This is an important document. There are passages from Grossman's notebooks (without the distortions of the Red Star editors along with interperative material written by Beevor.

Boyd, Carl. Hitler's Japanese Confidant: General Oshima Hiroshi and Magic Intelligence (University of Kansas: Lawrence, 1993), 271p.

Davies, Norman. Rising '44: The Battle for Warsaw (Viking, 2004). Davies is critical of The allies, President Roosevelt in particular for allowing Stalin to swollow up Poland. Like other authors making similar charges, Davies does not explain just what could have been done to have prevented it.

Domarus, Max. Hitler Reden und Proklamationen 1932-45 Vo. 1-2 (Neustadt a.d. Aisch: Velagsdruckerei Schmidt, 1962-63).

Karpov, Vladimir. Generalissimo (2002).

McJimsey, George. Harry Hopkins: Ally of the Poor and Defender of Democrracy (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987), 474p.

Mastny, V. "Soviet war aims at the Moscow and Teheran conferences," Journal of Modern History (1975).


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Created: February 2, 2004
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Last updated: 2:17 PM 4/30/2021