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How the Second World War was won

On the 80th anniversary of the Nazis’ attack on the Soviet Union, arguments still rage about the Eastern Front and the cost of supporting Stalin

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The 80th anniversary of Operation Barbarossa brings with it a new cycle of books, articles and films about Hitler’s epic invasion of the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941. After being consigned to the shadows in the West for much of the Cold War, the Eastern Front has attracted much more attention since the Gorbachev era – becoming, for some, the decisive theatre of the Second World War. This is certainly how it is now presented in Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

Yet national memories of this conflict, like any other, are highly selective. In Britain the Second World War has become fixated on “Our Finest Hour” in 1940. For Americans, victory in 1941-45 centres on the D-Day landings in June 1944 and the blood-soaked island-hopping battles across the Pacific such as Iwo Jima and Okinawa. In China, the Greater East Asian War starts in 1937 or even 1931, and is part of a longer struggle to resist Japanese imperialism and regain national unity after centuries of subservience to the West.    

These wars about the war of 1939-45 revolve around technology as much as geography. In a conflict waged on land, sea and in the air – one that opened new frontiers in nuclear weapons, guided missiles and signals intelligence – there are many candidates for “the winning weapon”. Equally contentious is the question of what the war was really about. Answers have varied according to time and place. The defeat of fascism? The victory of communism? The triumph of American capitalist democracy? The start of China’s road to world power? Perhaps the deepest problem is that all-embracing label “the Second World War”. Does it foster a spurious sense of global and ideological unity? And does it blind us to the political and moral complexities of those years – with which we still wrestle today?

During July 1945 – with Germany defeated and Japan on its last legs – staffers at Time magazine in New York prepared a cover story on the weapon that had won the war. Their special issue would be largely devoted to radar – Radio Detection and Ranging: transmitting a pulsating radio wave and using the echo to calculate the location, distance and speed of objects. In 1940 the Battle of Britain had been won with waves of more than one metre, using cumbersome “bedspring” antennae. After the Fall of France in 1940, the British shared with America (then still neutral) their pioneering research on microwave radar, which permitted reception by small mobile bowls instead of large antennae. From that, in a huge programme at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the Pentagon developed miniaturised systems for use in ships and planes, which were critical in the Battle of the Atlantic in 1943 and the air war over cloud-ridden Germany in 1944-45.

Yet this proved the cover story that never was. On 20 August 1945 Time published a highly condensed account of radar, plus the graphics originally intended for the cover, in a short essay relegated to page 78. In its place, the magazine featured “an event so much more enormous that, relative to it, the war itself shrank to minor significance”. Time called it simply “The Bomb”.

Radar veterans protested that the Bomb had only ended the war, whereas their programme had won it – attracting 50 per cent more investment along the way (some $3bn). In later years they could also point to its lasting importance, because this military technology would shape the civilian future in multiple ways, from microwave ovens to the transistor. But they protested in vain. The war had ended with an atomic bang not an electronic whimper. And everyone could see this: images of the mushroom clouds over Hiroshima and Nagasaki became iconic. When America’s ally-turned-adversary the Soviet Union also tested an atomic device in 1949, the postwar period became defined as the nuclear age. 

The Cold War shaped interpretations of the war itself. Winston Churchill’s half-dozen volumes of war memoirs published from 1948 to 1954 (following a similar six-pack about the Great War) ostensibly presented the view from 10 Downing Street, using memos and telegrams he had written. But because of his privileged access, he was able also to draw on thousands of captured Axis documents and confidential British and US papers from which his research assistants prepared detailed narratives of selected aspects of the war. British military and naval operations featured heavily – the Desert War, for instance, and the Battle of the Atlantic. But there were also chapters on US naval battles in the Pacific, especially Coral Sea and Midway, even though Churchill had virtually nothing to do with them.

The glaring gap in his memoirs was the Eastern Front. Churchill wrote vividly about his meetings with Stalin, but the trials and triumphs of the Red Army in 1941-43, from Moscow to Kursk, were mostly noises off. It was only after prodding from his agent, Emery Reves, that Stalingrad got a mention, and then on just four pages in two separate chapters a hundred pages apart. Churchill summed up the epic on the Volga in words written in August 1950 (as Soviet-backed North Korean forces rampaged across the South): “This crushing defeat to the German arms ended Hitler’s prodigious effort to conquer Russia by force of arms, and destroy communism by an equally odious form of totalitarian tyranny.” So much for “our gallant Soviet ally”.

[see also: How Winston Churchill’s “Iron Curtain” speech has been misunderstood]

Churchill’s memoirs shaped the view from the West. A few informed contemporary accounts of Russia’s war appeared in English, for instance by the journalist Alexander Werth, but they attracted nothing like the attention given to Britain’s world-famous war leader. British movies in the 1950s, featuring matinee idols such as Richard Todd and Jack Hawkins, picked out isolated moments from Britain’s war, such as the Dam Busters Raid in 1943. Recycled on television ever since, these films have become central to British war memory. Meanwhile, US generals from Dwight Eisenhower down wrote their achievements, and America’s war, into history. And in 1962, Darryl F Zanuck’s three-hour film epic The Longest Day – featuring British and American all-stars headed by John Wayne, Henry Fonda and Peter Lawford – etched 6 June 1944 into the postwar imagination, and also helped consecrate the “special relationship”.

The overall impression of “all quiet on the Eastern Front” was partly the Soviets’ fault. Stalin had drawn a veil over the war, to avoid an inquest on his own follies, such as failing to anticipate the German attack in June 1941. The overall Soviet death toll was officially fixed at 7.5 million – large enough to be sobering but not so high as to prompt difficult questions – and in 1947 Stalin removed Victory Day (9 May) from the list of national holidays. The few movies made about the war mostly featured himself.

After Stalin’s death in 1953, however, Nikita Khrushchev raised the official death toll to 20 million and credited victory not to a great leader but to “the magnificent and heroic deeds” of the Soviet people. Under Khrushchev’s successor Leonid Brezhnev, the 20th anniversary of victory in 1945 spawned a new cult of the “Great Patriotic War”, with museums opening in “Hero Cities” such as Moscow, Leningrad and Volgograd (Stalingrad). For a regime struggling to maintain legitimacy, the story of a party and people united in a titanic struggle that destroyed the Third Reich became the Soviet Union’s unifying master narrative.

As the USSR opened up about the war, it also was also opening up to the West in the era of détente. The effect was evident in the landmark British television series of 1973-74, The World at War, which blended vivid archive footage and compelling interviews. Made at a time when the superpower leaders had negotiated major agreements on Berlin, Germany and nuclear weapons, the series took the Eastern Front seriously. Three of its 26 hour-long episodes were devoted entirely to Russia’s war in 1941-43. Although 1944-45 was treated more patchily, no one who watched those early episodes could have doubted the scale of the fighting and the enormity of the suffering. Narrated with Laurence Olivier’s sonorous tones, Russia’s war was elevated to an epic human tragedy.

All but one of the episodes of The World at War was shown to the British audience with a single commercial break in the middle. The exception was episode 20, about the Nazi project of Jewish extermination, which was screened without interruption. That special reverence and the episode’s title – “Genocide” – indicate the unique place that the Holocaust was assuming in war memory in the US and western Europe.

That had not been the case in 1945, when the concentration camps were liberated. Images from Bergen-Belsen and Buchenwald shocked British and American audiences but, rather than foregrounding the Jewish tragedy, they were seen as evidence of indiscriminate Nazi bestiality – proving that this had been “the good war”, to use the phrase later popularised by the American author Studs Terkel. It was not until the 1960s, with the trials of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem in 1961 and of lower-level functionaries in Frankfurt in 1963-65 that the singularity of Endlösung – the Nazis’ intended “Final Solution” to the “Jewish Problem” – was taken as axiomatic.

This became a feature of political discourse and public education in West Germany, especially after 1969, when the Social Democrats ended two decades of conservative Christian Democrat hegemony. And in countries occupied by the Nazis and run by their clients, the extent of collaboration in implementing Endlösung was gradually exposed. In France, revelations about Les Années Sombres continued to divide society well into the 1980s – also fuelled by headline-grabbing trials such as that of Klaus Barbie, the “Butcher of Lyon”, in 1987. 

By the 1980s a “good war” narrative was firmly established in Britain and America – each country focusing selectively on cherished moments of its own story. The magnitude of Soviet Russia’s struggle was now acknowledged, yet without incorporating it into an account of how the war was won. But the demise of the USSR in 1991 introduced new perspectives, not only on the Cold War but also on the world war from whose bloody entrails it had emerged.

In the 1990s, America’s mood was triumphalist. The idea that “bipolarity” had now been replaced by “unipolarity” strengthened the belief that 1941-45 had been the platform for an “American Century”. In 1998, the television anchorman Tom Brokaw helped immortalise the GIs as the men who won the war in his book The Greatest Generation. But in the early 1990s there was also a large-scale opening up of Soviet archives. This increased Western awareness of the Eastern Front, for instance through Antony Beevor’s bestsellers Stalingrad (1998) and Berlin: The Downfall (2002) and Richard Overy’s film series and book Russia’s War (1997). Overy’s preface stated: “Few would now contest the view that the Soviet war effort was the most important factor, though not the only one, in the defeat of Germany”.

But, he added, the debate had “now shifted to how the Soviet Union won that victory,” and here there was “no consensus”. The revelations from Soviet archives were double-edged. The heroism and fortitude of millions of Soviet citizens became clearer, but also the crimes perpetrated by many of them on behalf of Stalin’s regime. Discipline was maintained by orders to shoot troops who deserted or surrendered and to strip their families of state benefits. “Blocking units” armed with machine guns were formed to mow down those who retreated. Then there was the Katyn Massacre. The culpability of Stalin and his entourage for the mass shooting of some 20,000 Polish officers and intellectuals was confirmed by publication of the execution order dated 5 March 1940, signed by the Soviet leadership. This finally disposed of Stalin’s vehement claims in 1943 that the Nazis were responsible – an assertion not publicly challenged by Churchill and Roosevelt during the wartime alliance with the USSR, even though neither had any doubt of the truth. This diplomatic silence was maintained by the Foreign Office right through the Cold War, until being embarrassed in 1989, during Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost, when the Russians admitted Soviet guilt. 

[see also: The German history wars]

Equally unsettling were the historical counter-narratives from the former Soviet empire, liberated by the revolutions of 1989 across eastern Europe. Because the Soviets had frozen or distorted historical research and teaching, 1989 made it possible to study properly not only the Cold War but events back to the First World War. (Just imagine, in the 1990s, that we in Britain had suddenly been able to discuss, freely and with open archives, our past since the days of Lloyd George, with millions of deaths uncovered.)

After 1917, Finland, Poland and the Baltic states fought bloody wars for independence from Russia. Then, during the Second World War, these states were spoils in the Nazi-Soviet battle for regional domination. Hitlerite occupation, though bestial in nature, lasted only a few years; Soviet repression spanned nearly half a century. And in the “memory wars” that have raged across the region since the 1990s, the dominant narrative about the war treated Stalinist Russia as a predator that was comparable, or worse, than Hitler’s Germany.

As an example, take the Bronze Soldier of Tallinn. This two-metre-high statue of an infantryman in Red Army uniform was erected in the centre of Estonia’s capital by the Soviet authorities to commemorate the “liberators of Tallinn” in 1944. But, after Estonia was liberated from the “liberators” in 1991, the Bronze Soldier became a site of controversy – vilified by nationalists but regarded as a talisman by the Russian minority. Eventually, following riots in April 2007, the statue was moved to a military cemetery on the edge of the city. Instead, a Victory column was raised in Tallinn’s Freedom Square in 2009, to honour the 4,000 Estonian dead in the War of Independence against Russian rule of 1918-20. This finally realised a project started in the 1930s but suppressed during the Soviet years. Here was but one of many “statue wars” across the Baltic States, long before Edward Colston was pushed into Bristol Harbour last year.

Such stories were of scant interest in the West, but in 2010 the American historian Timothy Snyder attracted global attention with Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin – about the 14 million civilians who were starved, shot and gassed in Poland, Ukraine and the Baltics between 1933 and 1945. Snyder did not assert direct moral equivalence between the two regimes, and he noted that about two-thirds of the deaths were caused by Nazi Germany. But by bringing Hitler and Stalin together in one book as mass murderers, by reminding anglophone readers of the famine Stalin inflicted on Ukrainians in 1933 and by that simple, chilling title, Bloodlands, Snyder put eastern Europe’s killing fields on the West’s mental map.

Any hint of equivalence, however, ran up against the growing insistence in the European Union that Holocaust memory was a crucial element of “being European” in the post-Cold War era. The Jewish genocide represented an absolute evil against which to define tolerance and diversity as hallmark values of modern Western democracy. During the 1990s the EU encouraged member states to adopt the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, 27 January, as Holocaust Memorial Day. In 1993 the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC was opened. It was followed by similar museums or memorials across America and Europe – in the case of Berlin, right next to the Brandenburg Gate. And so, the Holocaust came to be regarded in the West as “unique with reference to the past and universal for the future”, to quote the sociologists Daniel Levy and Natan Sznaider: in other words, “the Holocaust past is something that happened predominantly to the Jews, while the Holocaust future might happen to anyone”.

Many in eastern Europe, however, pushed back. The 2008 Prague Declaration on European Conscience and Communism, called for “recognition that many crimes committed in the name of communism should be assessed as crimes against humanity serving as a warning for future generations, in the same way Nazi crimes were assessed by the Nuremberg Tribunal”. Documenting communist atrocities and remembering their victims became a prime concern in eastern Europe, which Holocaust memorialisation was not allowed to overshadow. As the Polish writer Maria Janion said when her country joined the EU: “To Europe, yes, but with our dead.” Given such an immense fracture between east and west, there could be no “common European memory” of the Second World War, or indeed of the First.

The Bloodlands are also central to Sean McMeekin’s new work Stalin’s War, whose dedication reads “For the Victims”. Across 800 pages, based on extensive multinational archival research, he dissects Soviet policy in pungent prose. His aim is to contest the way that, in anglophone writing, “the global conflict of 1939-1945 has always been Hitler’s war” – centring on the Führer as “the villain who gives the struggle meaning”. Yet, even in eastern Europe – let alone across Asia, where the Third Reich was not a belligerent, “German aggression left behind much less of a trace than the Stalinist variety”, which bequeathed legacies lasting for decades in China, North Korea and Vietnam. McMeekin admits that “it has always been a stretch to lump together all the wars on the globe between the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in September 1931 and Japan’s final capitulation in September 1945”, and “even more of a stretch to blame them all on one man”. But, he continues, “if we do wish to find a common thread, it would make far more sense to choose someone who was alive and in power during the whole thing”. His title, Stalin’s War, is meant to be global. 

It is unlikely that all of McMeekin’s readers will buy his sweeping interpretation. He inclines to the view, widespread among conservative Americans in 1941, that it would have been better to let Hitler and Stalin fight it out, pondering whether the outcome “could have been all that much worse than what did happen”. He is particularly caustic about giving the Soviets Lend-Lease aid without conditions, accusing Churchill of “going all out to arm Stalin” in 1941 “at the expense of Britain’s own desperate wartime needs”, calling this an “impulsive decision as selfless as it was strategically foolish”. And he makes good use of detailed research by military historians showing that the impact of Allied tanks and planes was more significant on the Eastern Front than Soviet historians have acknowledged, concluding with customary brio that, “it is an imperishable historical fact that Anglo-American capitalism helped win the battle of Stalingrad”.

However, the size of Stalin’s war looks much smaller in the pages of How the War was Won by Phillips Payson O’Brien – published in 2015, and unjustly neglected. He opens strikingly: “There were no decisive battles in World War II.” (So much for Stalingrad, Kursk and indeed Alamein.) Losses in these “great” battles amounted to a “minuscule” percentage of Nazi munitions production. For Germany and Japan, Britain and America (though not the USSR), “at least two-thirds of annual construction during the war went to air and sea weapons”. Air and sea constitute what O’Brien calls a “super-battlefield”, spanning thousands of miles and dwarfing the land war. It was here, he argues, that the struggle was won, because “the only way to ‘win’ a war is to stop your enemy from moving”. This, he adds, was largely accomplished before the battlefields, in three crucial phases: pre-production, production and deployment.

As a classic example of pre-production, he singles out the US air and submarine campaign in the Pacific which prevented Japan from exploiting its massive gain in resources in 1941-42, particularly oil from the Dutch East Indies. Aerial bombing of German and Japanese transport networks, especially rail, also had a devastating effect on the flow of raw materials to factories in 1944-45.

Additionally, the raids affected production itself, through damage to key plants and also by geographical dispersal of factories – even underground. In the case of Japan, US air barons abandoned any pretence of precision bombing, targeting whole cities. The firebombing of Tokyo caused around 100,000 deaths, more than the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. And vast amounts of equipment, supplies and personnel were eliminated by Allied air attacks during their attempted deployment to German and Japanese fronts. By late 1944, states O’Brien, these losses had become “catastrophic”, virtually denying Axis forces the ability to move.

O’Brien’s trenchant revisionism has been taken seriously, even by specialists on the Soviet war effort. But as one of them, Mark Harrison, has noted, How the War was Won is in danger of wrongly writing the Eastern Front out of the story. “Movement and territory go hand in hand… the means of battle had to be produced somewhere.”  Territory was what Germany and Japan were fighting to gain. The Allies already had it in abundance: the Americans through their vast domain from the Atlantic to the Pacific, so secure that there were only six deaths from enemy action on the continental US during the whole war; the British thanks to a global seaborne empire whose links were strained but never severed and also, crucially, because Britain itself did not capitulate in 1940. Once its supply line from Roosevelt’s “Arsenal of Democracy” was secure against U-boats, by late 1943, Britain became the indispensable base for American power (air, sea and land) to target Hitler’s Reich. Without “Churchill’s Island”, the US would probably have opted for “Fortress America” isolationism. 

To recognise the territorial imperative also casts a different light on what McMeekin describes as “Anglo-American generosity and naiveté” in supplying the USSR. Soviet survival in 1941-42 gave Churchill and Roosevelt vital time and security to build up their production and deploy this to key points in the global war. And the embattled Stalin maximised his own resource assets, terrain and especially manpower which, as a brutal dictator, he could expend with obscene profligacy all the way to Berlin.

None of that, of course, negates McMeekin’s questions about whether Allied aid could have had more strings attached, or why Roosevelt and Churchill placed such faith in Stalin. But there is also a deeper truth here. Power, like nature, abhors a vacuum. The fall of one great state usually creates space for another to rise. A Sovietised eastern Europe was, in part, the price of how Allied victory was won. This remains one of the troubling moral questions about the “Good War”. 

David Reynolds, with Vladimir Pechatnov, is the author of “The Kremlin Letters: Stalin’s Wartime Correspondence with Churchill and Roosevelt” (Yale)

David Reynolds’s books include In Command of History: Churchill Fighting and Writing the Second World War (Penguin)

This article appears in the 23 June 2021 issue of the New Statesman, How Brexit changed us