Sacrifices Buried

Throughout the Second World War in the European theatre—from the invasion of Poland to Operation Barbarossa and the Fall of Berlin—the Allied Powers fought vigorously and sacrificed much to eradicate the evilest regime in the history of the world. Tens of millions died from the battlefields to the bombed cities and the concentration camps, both military and civilian alike. Perhaps no other country suffered more than the Soviet Union, the only country on Continental Europe to continue the fight despite being invaded. Although most histories delved into the Cold War, the reality was that the Soviet Union sacrificed the most out of any nation in the war. Its casualties were the highest, and its most valuable lands were destroyed by their harsh tactics to push the Third Reich from its soil. Yet since the end of the war and even to the present day the Soviet Union’s role in the Second World War is itself downplayed by the West, the United States in particular. Rather than highlighting the sacrifices that Soviet soldiers and civilians made at Leningrad, Stalingrad, and countless other titanic battles, the United States has instead highlighted its role as the saviors of Europe. Using contemporary information to show how the Soviet Union’s role in the war was downplayed and using other sources to tell the Second World War as it truly happened, it can be proven that the United States deliberately covered up its geopolitical enemy’s involvement in the war.

The end of the Second World War came on May 8, 1945. The Soviet Union and the Western Allies pierced through the heart of Germany over the previous month. The Rhine River was crossed by American and British troops, while the Red Army crossed the Oder River and seized Berlin after street-to-street fighting. Adolf Hitler was dead, and his Third Reich followed just a week later. Although rightfully American newspapers turned to the fight against Japan, newspaper articles were jubilant at the defeat of Germany. The New York Times described multiple events taking place that day, and views of the Soviet Union were largely positive. Vyacheslav Molotov—Josef Stalin’s Minister of Foreign Affairs—was visiting San Francisco and gave several press conferences. Although the newspapers were largely favorable to his presence on V-E Day, it was also laden with suspicion towards the Soviets. Reporters questioning him on the issue of Poland forced him to end the press conference, and although those were legitimate questions, it was clear that the positive relationship between the Western Allies and the Soviet Union was fraying just hours after the fighting in Europe ended.[1] The alliance still stood firm as the world celebrated, but already the American press was beginning to speak of the Soviet Union as an enemy. Their sacrifice at Stalingrad or Leningrad went unnoticed although the image of the “Big Three” Allies of the United States, British Empire, and Soviet Union remained strong. This chapter following the collapse of Germany was only the start of the degradation of the Soviet Union and planted the seeds of the erasure of Soviet sacrifice in the Second World War.

Although reports on the actual celebrations on V-E Day did not include Soviet sacrifice, the newspapers still did report continuing actions in Europe by Soviet troops. The Red Army forces continued their siege of Breslau, a major German city in Silesia, while Soviet bombers attacked the Danish island of Bornholm, which was still held by the German Navy.[2] Although reports on the actual day of victory in Europe did not show much in terms of Soviet sacrifice, in the days that followed American newspapers did show how the Soviets sacrificed. While reporting on celebrations in Moscow, The New York Times states that “…one must never forget that that almost every Soviet family had lost its kin—[and] succumbed to relaxed feelings of gratitude and pride.” Furthermore, the newspaper even depicts scenes such as the American, British, and Soviet flags flying together in Moscow and praises of President Harry Truman and recently deceased President Franklin D. Roosevelt.[3] These images would not be depicted in further V-E Day celebrations or anniversaries, and were the last vestiges of the wartime alliance that brought the two competing ideologies of capitalism and communism together against the common foe of Nazi Germany. The mention of how every Soviet family sacrificed someone to the war effort illustrates the fact that a significant portion of the population was wiped out by Hitler’s brutal aggression, and that American media recognized this fact. Although in the previous day the attention was to the Western Allies and their sacrifice, the later recognition of the Soviet struggle does show the cracks already present in the alliance on a societal level.

On March 5, 1946, while visiting Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri, former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill addressed students in one of his most famous speeches. Less than a year had passed since the end of the Second World War, and as the rubble was cleared and nations began to rebuild, Churchill spoke of a promising future for Western Europe. He also gave a warning to the world, stating that “A shadow has fallen upon the scenes so lately lighted by the Allied victory. Nobody knows what Soviet Russia and its Communist international organization intends to do in the immediate future, or what are the limits, if any, to their expansive and proselytizing tendencies.”[4] This was the opening salvo of the Cold War between the United States-led West and the Soviet Union-led East. Although tensions existed prior to this speech, it marked the end of the alliance of convenience that led to these two disparate powers at last parting ways. This was best seen on the first anniversary of V-E Day on May 8, 1946, just two months after Churchill’s historic speech. In an article by The New York Times written the following day to commemorate the event, it has a solemn take on this commemoration of the end of fighting in Europe. The article completely ignores the Soviet contribution to the war and instead criticized the nation’s adversary for not understanding or reciprocating the United States’ cordial nature.[5] The already-crumbling American-Soviet relationship that held steady throughout the Second World War was now at an end, and it included the erasing of the Soviet’s role in the conflict.

Four years after the Second World War ended, the attitude towards the Soviet Union by the United States continued to worsen. The Cold War was now in full-swing, and just a short three years after Churchill’s speech, the world moved on from the wartime alliance that led to victory against a mutual enemy. Each year since the end of the fighting tensions rose between the East and West, and American memory of Soviet sacrifice during the Second World War dwindled. On May 8, 1949, the fourth anniversary of V-E Day took place. In those long four years, new events further drove apart the former Allies. In fact, just a short month prior to this anniversary the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was founded on April 4, 1949, that added tensions to the anniversary of the defeat of Hitler’s Germany. In an article published on the fourth anniversary of V-E Day by The New York Times, it quotes a Soviet source that their nation is “…not forgetting the danger of a new war being prepared by American imperialists.” In fact, much of this article which highlights most of the celebrations that day for V-E Day criticized the Soviet Union for attacking American military heroes and the establishment of NATO.[6] The refusal of American newspapers to cover the Soviet sacrifice on the Eastern Front was largely at an end, replaced instead by the vicious animosity that would be common up until the end of the Cold War. Rather than highlighting American heroics and ignoring Soviet sacrifices, newspapers and as a result the American public spends their time forgetting about the million-man battles in Stalingrad and Leningrad or the atrocities elsewhere, but instead focus on the hated menace that is the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc.

The fifth anniversary of V-E Day in May 1950 finally turned the tide against any possible sympathy or cooperation with the Soviet Union as the Cold War was in full effect. With the Korean War a few short months away and less than a year out from Mao Zedong’s People’s Republic of China taking power, it was clear that the wartime alliance between the United States and the Soviet Union ceased to exist. Instead, as President Truman underwent a nationwide speaking tour, he addressed a crowd on the anniversary of V-E Day in Lincoln, Nebraska. During this speech which highlighted local issues, The New York Times highlights that President Truman stated that “The struggle for peace in the ‘cold war’…is just as vital to this country’s future as the winning of World War II.”[7] The criticism towards the Soviet Union and ignorance of their sacrifice in the past vanished then, and instead outright hatred towards the country appeared. Truman placed victory in the Cold War as being akin to defeating Nazi Germany in the Second World War, a clear call to action to the American people and the West. Whereas Churchill’s speech four years prior was an international call to action against the then-rising threat of the Soviet Union, Truman’s address in Lincoln, Nebraska was a ringing alarm to the American people themselves. Just as any anniversary is used to remind the public of a past event, this one was used by the President at the time to rally public support against the Soviet Union. In his war against the isolationism and inward looking of any nation after a major war, Truman cast the nation’s former wartime ally as a mortal enemy of the nation on the same level as Nazi Germany. This distinction set the tone for United States-Soviet Union relations for the rest of the Cold War, propagating the myth that ultimate victory in the Second World War belonged to the West and the United States, seriously downgrading the Soviet Union’s actions in the conflict.

Another example of the myth of America solely winning the war came fifty years after its end. The anniversary of V-E Day on May 8, 1995 saw United States President Bill Clinton addressing a crowd at Fort Myer in Arlington, Virginia. Throughout the speech, Clinton spoke of the actions and deeds of American servicemen that were a part of the so-called “Greatest Generation” and the heroics of that time. Unlike previous speeches by political leaders in the West, Clinton addressed the sacrifice the former Soviet Union made in ending the Second World War. He states that on V-E Day that in “…the sky over Moscow, gigantic white rays of light from huge projectors slashed the darkness of night…[but] their joy was dulled by the pain of their nation’s unique sacrifice, for one out of every eight Soviet citizens was killed in World War II, 27 million people. At almost every table in every home there was an empty place.”[8] Although Clinton addressed the Soviet Union’s sacrifice in the war in a way that was unusual for American political leadership, it was a sign that after the collapse of the United States’ longtime adversary that the enmity between the East and the West was disappearing. Despite this, the lion’s share of anecdotes and accolades in the speech went to the United States and United Kingdom. The myth was still propagated by the United States that they single-handedly won the war. President Clinton credited American supply trains with saving the Soviets from destruction.[9] Although the complete ignorance or watering down of the Soviet sacrifice during the Second World War ended, the myth of American supremacy in the war continued. The millions lost on the Eastern Front were recognized as victims of Adolf Hitler’s vicious war against the Soviet people, but the ultimate victory was still attributed to the United States.

The celebrations and remembrances for V-E Day on May 8, 2005, showed that the myth of American supremacy in the war returned in full force, especially with the omission of the Soviet sacrifice returning. The United States was once again embroiled in major wars, this time in Afghanistan and Iraq. President George W. Bush traveled to Margraten, the Netherlands, to address crowds at a ceremony for American soldiers killed in the area during the final months of the Second World War. Although his words were powerful when speaking about the deadly actions Nazi Germany took to pacify the Netherlands, Bush did not give credit to the Soviet Union for helping to win the war against the Germans. In fact, he neglected to mention little else outside of the American contribution to the war. The President stated that “…this military [Germany’s armed forces] would be brought down by a coalition of armies from our democratic Allies and freedom fighters from occupied lands and underground resistance leaders.”[10] In this speech Bush did not only ignore the Soviet contribution and sacrifice to the war, but also highlighted the impact the Western Allies had. Although the war between the Western Allies and the Axis was characterized as a war for freedom and justice, this distinction clearly leaves out the Soviet Union, who did not fight for those ideals and in fact violated them. This distinction was a part of the Cold War mentality between the Soviet Union and the United States, but it leaves out the sacrifice which a decade ago President Clinton was willing to mention on a similarly significant anniversary. George W. Bush’s speech in the Netherlands in 2005 continued the myth that America and to some extent the West won the war against the Third Reich, while the Soviet Union depended on the United States to survive or their contribution is little mentioned. In this case, the latter is true in Bush’s case, and while the 1990s and the end of the Cold War created an opportunity to end the myth, it continued into the twenty-first century.

The Second World War was itself a significant trial for the Soviet Union. Although a war between the two largest powers on Continental Europe was expected in the years preceding the conflict, the opening of hostilities was a complete surprise for the Soviet Union and its armed forces. Operation Barbarossa was the German invasion of the Soviet Union, and it was launched on June 22, 1941. In cities across the Soviet Union, German bombers devastated the Red Army while millions of Axis troops which outside of the Germans included the Italians, Romanians, Finns, and Hungarians joined in the sudden attack. Entire armies belonging to the Soviets were shattered within days, others surrounded in one of the largest surprise attacks in history.[11] Meanwhile, the country was in shock when the people heard news of the war being launched. Catherine Merridale explores the reaction of the Soviet people, indicative of a country going to war. Just as word of the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 sent many Americans into a patriotic fervor, although this was cut short by the natural skepticism towards the Soviet leadership at that time. Josef Stalin himself “…did not address [the people] until 3 July.”[12] Although there was some speculation on whether reports of extreme patriotism were true, the proof is evident in the recruitment numbers. Lines to sign up for the Red Army went out the door from recruiting centers, evidence of a great patriotic surge to fight against the invading Germans.[13] The reaction to Operation Barbarossa from within the Soviet Union was complicated, but it nonetheless created the patriotic fervor that was seen in nations like the United States or the United Kingdom after their involvement in the war began. As was common there, the long lines to sign up for the Red Army or to donate supplies to create tanks and to take part in propaganda campaigns was not an unusual site in Moscow, Leningrad, and other major cities.

Treatment of these new recruits to the Red Army was poor. According to Merridale’s work, “There were no barracks, food, or transport, either. Most recruitment stations were set up in local schools. When the suitable applicants had been selected and their papers stamped, they were in the army.”[14] So disorganized was the Red Army that soldiers were expected to appear at their assigned locations, although transportation was not guaranteed. People with medical conditions were still allowed to fight, and the disorganization in the opening days of the invasion was serious enough that units could not even form. The flaws of the Soviet system were outlined during this period, and although the people of this country sacrificed much, it was clear that the nation was still under the heels of a totalitarian regime. Only Josef Stalin’s address to the Soviet people on July 3, 1941, finally brought a sense of calm to the country. The leadership of Stalin after weeks of silence immediately saw the increase in morale and a reorganization of the Red Army, and although it took two more years before the tides were turned on the Eastern Front, the initial chaos was for a time over.[15] The early days of the Great Patriotic War as the Eastern Front was known as within the Soviet Union displays one of the most chaotic periods of the Second World War as a whole. Outside of the panic in the Low Countries and France during the perilous weeks from May to June of 1940, the first weeks and months of the German invasion of the Soviet Union was just as stunning. In scale it was the largest land invasion in history, with dozens of cities and a large part of the Soviet countryside in ruins.

The rapid and stunning speed of Operation Barbarossa shocked the people of the Soviet Union. Panic and a morale crisis hit almost immediately as entire armies were wiped out by rapidly approaching German forces. These successive events led to the fall of wide swaths of Soviet territories. The Eastern Front was in such a dire situation that within a few months, the “…Baltic, Belorussia, and most of Ukraine were all in German hands by the end of August 1941. Kiev itself fell in the middle of September. By then, too, Leningrad had been cut off from its main sources of supply. The railway at Mga, the last transport route into the city, fell to the invaders in late August.”[16] Axis armies carved deep into the Soviet Union, surrounding masses of Red Army troops as they penetrated deeper into the countryside and closer to Moscow. Perhaps the most impressive feat by the Soviet government was the relocation of major industries to the Ural Mountains and Siberia. In addition to that the stunning defense of Moscow also saved the country from total collapse. The Red Army defended Moscow and the front lines as production stopped to move their factories to the east, running out of ammunition as soldiers with a second wind fought hard to defend their positions.[17] The real victory of the Second World War was at this moment, German forces at last being halted for the first time in the entire conflict. Ever since the invasion of France and the Low Countries in mid-1940, the resistance to German and Axis attacks across the world was largely ineffective. Now the German military was turned back not just by the weather, but the grit and determination of a desperate people facing death and devastation at a historic level.

The tide of the war changed in favor of the Soviet Union in early-1943, when a series of offensives were launched by the Red Army to engage the Germans. The Battle of Stalingrad, which was among the deadliest battles in the war, saw entire German armies surrounded and forced to retreat from their campaign to reach the oil fields in the Caucuses. As the Soviet forces continued to push German troops out of occupied land, the cities they liberated were “…depopulated husks of cities, nests of fear and hunger, crime and mutual suspicion. Apartment buildings had been mined or shelled, windows blown out, power and water systems wrecked. Uneven soil beneath the melting snow hinted at vast mass graves.”[18] Areas that were occupied by Germany and its allies were gutted of life, their residents forced to relocate as refugees or outright slaughtered. Just as the Germans hoped to depopulate the rest of Europe of undesirables, their mission continued in the occupied areas of the Soviet Union. The suffering of the Soviet people was unique, the war on the Eastern Front far deadlier than that on the Western Front or in Italy. Every possible town or city became a battlefield where civilian lives did not matter to the combatants so long as victory was accomplished. This brutal desire for victory and willingness to risk anything for even a small sliver of land recaptured led to the Soviet victory and the collapse of the Third Reich, costs be damned.

The impact on the Soviet soldier during the Second World War was also significant. Whereas the end of the war often brought soldiers in the West home within months of the end of hostilities, the Red Army and their soldiers suffered from a year’s long separation from loved ones. In one instance, Merridale discussed Vitaly Taranichev’s family, which included his wife Natalya Taranicheva and the couple’s two children. They were transplants from Kiev who moved to Ashkhabad in Turkestan, one of the constituent republics of the Soviet Union. For Taranichev, letters from his home were rare. In some instances, months passed before word from home arrived in the form of mail, which often led to fears of death or a family breaking apart from the long absence. In many cases, soldiers would not return until several years passed since the end of the war.[19] Although most families in any nation suffers throughout times of war either from relationships suffering or families missing those fighting the war, the struggle of Soviet families was great. In addition to the deaths of Soviet men and women on the front lines, many women on the homefront were forced to adjust to the absence of their men, like how women in the United States had to adjust to the new wartime situation. The Taranichev family like most others during this war suffered from distance with their loved ones which lasted for over half a decade. The impact of the war on the families left behind was great, with millions of children fatherless for the duration or rendered permanently orphaned by German actions.

Further proof of the Soviet Union’s extreme sacrifice in the Second World War can be found in a basic map of the conflict. From June 22, 1941 to September 3, 1943, the Soviet Union was the only major Allied country to fight on Continental Europe. Even then, it was not until Operation Overlord and D-Day on June 6, 1944, that a second front was opened in Europe. For much of the war, it was the Soviet Union that fought in Europe, alone and risking defeat. In the official War Department maps of the European campaigns, the Soviet Union captured the lion’s share of territory from the Axis. In a series of operations from 1943 to 1945, the Soviets not only reversed the tides of war on their own territory, but pushed themselves into German territory itself, in the end they took Berlin, which led to Adolf Hitler’s suicide on April 30, 1945, and the end of the war in Europe just a few days later.[20] Although this should not discount the Western Allies and their sacrifice in the war, it is clear that the Soviets and the Red Army pushed the most, and lost the most. Their capture of German territory was a significant gain compared to that of the Western Allies, whose campaigns through Italy, France, the Low Countries, and Germany were the only major battlefronts on Continental Europe during the Second World War. Millions of Soviet dead was the sacrifice given for this territory, one which built the myth around Western and American involvement in the war was ignored.

The final battle of the Second World War in Europe was fought not just by former citizens of the Soviet Union, but it was also fought after V-E Day with little notice around the world. After the German invasion of June 1941, many Soviet citizens from areas such as the Baltic countries, Ukraine, the Caucuses, and Central Asia fought in uniform for the Red Army in one of the lesser-known aspects of the war. Among those peoples who fought at those early battles and through the end of the war were Georgians, a people whose connection to Moscow was having been the birthplace of Josef Stalin. Just as many armies were wiped out by invading German forces during those early months in 1941, many were captured or surrendered. Many Georgians were after capture “…given a dismal choice. They could accept prisoner of war status with a future promising hunger, abuse, and possible death, or they could enlist in the Wehrmacht. The choice of some 30,000 Georgians to don the German uniform was understandable, but it made them traitors.”[21] Although these men were no longer wearing the uniforms of the Red Army, they were still a part of the Soviet war experience simply because of that choice they had, which was to collaborate or die. There were collaborators from almost every occupied nation during the war, but many of these Georgians had the distinction of fighting against their former German comrades in the last weeks of the war and even after the conflict officially ended. On April 6, 1945, these Georgian troops turned against the Germans on a small island Dutch called Texel off the Netherlands. For over a month, the Georgians and Germans fought over control of the island until May 20, 1945, when Canadian forces enforcing the end of the war brought the fighting to an end.[22] This final battle in Europe was one which received little attention but proved that even the ethnic groups that were under the boots of the Russian-dominated Soviet Union still took a significant and symbolic part in the end of the war.

The sacrifices made by the men and women who served and fought in the Red Army and for the Soviet Union was clear. Millions died in battle against the forces of the Third Reich, while millions more were killed in one of the greatest slaughters in history. These sacrifices were ignored immediately following the end of the war, V-E Day on May 8, 1945, where newspaper articles immediately began to discount the Soviet sacrifices and American newspapers highlighting their nation’s involvement in the war. The myth that America saved the world during the Second World War while casting the Soviet Union as a villain was emblematic of growing tensions in the buildup to the Cold War. The press took a significant part in proliferating the myth, while world leaders and politicians helped to keep it intact. Using primary sources which show how the myth was created and spread, and further using academic research to disprove the myth itself, it was clear that Soviet Union’s role in the Second World War was as significant if not more compared to the United States’ involvement. From the initial German invasion on June 1941 with the early battles on the frontiers of the Soviet Union, to the end of the war in May 1945 with fighting taking place across Germany and as far west as Texel in the Netherlands, the soldiers of the Red Army completed one of the greatest tasks for any nation to ever complete. They brought a nation from the brink of collapse to being able to earn one of the most stunning military victories in history. The myth that was created around America’s involvement in the war has simply denigrated the sacrifice made by the Red Army and the people of the Soviet Union, and falsely expanded the United States’ own importance in checking the rise of Nazi Germany, whose end came from fighting off Soviet forces on the Eastern Front.

[1] “Molotoff Charms at Press Meetings: Of the Three He Has Held in San Francisco, Each One Has Pleased the Reporters More,” The New York Times, May 9, 1945.

[2] “Soviet Siege Army Captures Breslau: 40,000 Germans Surrender After 80-Day Struggle—Moravia Fight Bitter,” The New York Times, May 8, 1945.

[3] C.L. Sulzberger, “Moscow Goes Wild Over Joyful News: Thousands Mill in Red Square as Holiday is Declared—U.S. Shares Tribute,” The New York Times, May 10, 1945.

[4] Winston Churchill, “The Sinews of Peace” (speech, Fulton, Missouri, March 5, 1946,) Churchill, http://www.winstonchurchill.org.

[5] “Solemnity Marks V-E’s Anniversary: Commemorating the First Anniversary of V-E Day Here,” The New York Times, May 9, 1946.

[6] “V-E Day Marked Lightly Abroad: Bradley and Doolittle Assailed in Soviet Editorials on 4th Anniversary of Event,” The New York Times, May 9, 1949.

[7] Anthony Leviero “President Places Peace Fight on Par With War Victory,” The New York Times, May 9, 1950.

[8] William J. Clinton, “Remarks of the 50th Anniversary of V-E Day in Arlington, Virginia” (speech, Arlington, Virginia, May 8, 1995,) The American Presidency Project, http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu.

[9] Ibid.

[10] George W. Bush, “Remarks at the Netherlands American Cemetery and Memorial in Margraten, the Netherlands” (speech, Margraten, the Netherlands, May 8, 2005,) The American Presidency Project, http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu.

[11] Catherine Merridale, Ivan’s War: Life and Death in the Red Army, 1939-1945 (New York: Picador Books, 2007,) 88-92.

[12] Merridale, 95.

[13] Merridale, 97.

[14] Merridale, 99.

[15] Merridale, 101-104.

[16] Merridale, 120.

[17] Merridale, 121-122.

[18] Merridale, 189.

[19] Merridale, 241-245.

[20] Atlas of the World Battle Fronts in Semimonthly Phases to August 15, 1945: A Supplement to the Biennial Report of the Chief of Staff of the United States Army to the Secretary of War (Washington: War Department, 1945).

[21] Larry Hannant “Europe’s Last Battle: The Carnage at Texel Has Been Largely Forgotten History Matters,” History Today, July 2015.

[22] Ibid.

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