By Sean Healy
On May 8, 1945, Marshal Georgi Zhukov, supreme commander of the Soviet armed forces; General William Tedder, Britain's air chief marshal; General Carl Spaatz, commander of the US strategic airforce; and General Jean de Lattre de Tassigny, commander-in-chief of the French army, gathered in Berlin to watch Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel sign Nazi Germany's act of unconditional surrender.
The Nazi surrender, followed four months later by the capitulation of its Japanese ally, brought to an end the bloodiest and most destructive war in human history. World War II took 50 million lives, five times as many as World War I. The material destruction was more than 11 times greater than in the 1914-18 war.
The 50th anniversary of VE Day has been celebrated across Europe. In London, a massive concert was held at Wembley featuring the star of the war years, Vera Lynn, as well as a ceremony at Buckingham Palace. In Moscow, presidents Boris Yeltsin and Bill Clinton were present at a military parade through Red Square. In Berlin and in Paris, and in many other places throughout Europe, similar events took place.
The anniversary of the defeat of Nazism has also been an occasion for commentators, historians and journalists to rewrite the history of the war, in particular to downplay the role that the Soviet Union played in that defeat. Robert Manne, editor of the right-wing Quadrant magazine, writing in the Melbourne Age, stated: "If emotions are numb on the fiftieth anniversary of V-E Day it is in part because we know that that half of Europe which was occupied by the Anglo-American armies was truly liberated, while that half which was occupied by the Red Army merely exchanged one nightmare for another".
Various journalists have described the Soviet war against the Nazis as barbaric or animalistic: "a primal exercise in conquest and retribution", Fred Bruning called the Soviet liberation of Berlin, again in the Age. One correspondent described it as a case of "one thug against another".
These comments closely match the positions put forward by leaders of the Anglo-American alliance in justification of their refusal to open up a second front to relieve the Soviet Union from 1941. Then vice-president and later to be US president Harry Truman argued, "If we see that Germany is winning we ought to help Russia and if Russia is winning we ought to help Germany and that way let them kill as many as possible".
The real story of World War II was quite different. In fact, the war was largely fought and won on Soviet soil. For most of the European war, British and US forces were engaged in a war over possession of colonies in North Africa.
The western allies invaded Normandy only in 1944, after three years of constant, heavy fighting on the eastern front and after it had become clear that the tide of the war had swung in favour of the Soviets. From then on, the military policy of the western allies was to ensure they would control as much of postwar Europe as possible. Far from liberation, as Robert Manne claims, more often than not the US and Britain brought with them repression and the reinstatement of Nazi collaborationist forces.
Eleven thousand Greeks died in Athens, for example, when Churchill sent troops there to regain control of Greece from communist-led partisans who had liberated the country. In Italy, the western allies deliberately halted their advance up the peninsula to allow the Nazis to launch offensive after offensive against the partisans. The final US conquest of Italy put back in place the same fascist mayors the partisans had kicked out.
Nor can the west take any of the credit for long-standing opposition to fascism. Winston Churchill, the "greatest leader of the anti-Nazi camp" according to Manne, had previously gone on record with pro-fascist sympathies: "made the trains run on time", was his famous comment on the impact of fascism in Italy. Much of the British establishment shared his view, seeing fascism as a weapon against communism and insurgent workers' movements.
In this country, Prime Minister Robert Menzies had sold iron for rearming to militarist Japan. Many of the big US corporations maintained cartel arrangements with German companies all the way through the war, and European and US capital helped finance Hitler's rise to power in the first place.
The turning point of the war was the defeat of the Nazis at Stalingrad in early 1943 — their first real defeat in the whole war. In that battle one and a half million Axis soldiers were killed or captured by the Soviets (the British victory at Alamein in North Africa killed or captured 80,000 German soldiers).
This battle, which lasted 200 days, was soon followed by the lifting of the siege of Leningrad. The siege, which began in August 1941, lasted 900 days; one third of the city died from hunger and disease.
That was followed by the Nazi defeat at Kursk bulge, the largest tank battle of the war, involving 1200 tanks, in which the Germans lost half a million men. And so it went — until the Soviets lost more than 300,000 in liberating Berlin.
The defeat of the Nazis was brought about only by immense sacrifices on the part of the Soviet working class, both the 70 million who lived in the occupied zone and those who either fought in regular units or worked rebuilding the Soviet Union's productive capacity. The Nazi conquest of large parts of Russia, as well as all of Byelorussia and the Ukraine, caused the loss of a quarter of all Soviet wheat production and 60% of industrial capacity. More than 1400 industrial plants were relocated east of the Urals to escape the Nazis.
The Soviet people lost 21.3 million killed, four times the German losses and 40 times those of Britain. The eastern front involved up to 73% of the German armed forces, destroyed four times as many German divisions as all other fronts combined and accounted for 73% of German casualties, 75% of its tanks and aircraft lost and 74% of its artillery. At one time in 1943, Churchill joked that the British were just "playing about" facing six German divisions, as compared to the 185 divisions the Red Army faced at the time.
This heroism was all the more remarkable given that it occurred in spite of the Stalin regime then in power in the Soviet Union. The Stalin-Hitler pact, signed immediately before Germany's invasion of Poland and after the final breakdown of Soviet mutual defence talks with Britain and France, served to lull the Soviet people (and people all around the world) into a false sense of security. In the two years before the June 1941 German invasion, the Stalin leadership of the Soviet Union failed to prepare in any real way for the inevitable attack. As just one example, the "Stalin line", a chain of defences along the border, was actually dismantled during this time.
Even worse, in the years leading up to the war, Stalin engaged in a wholesale purge of the officer corps of the Red Army. Five hundred and seventy-nine of 733 top commanders, including members of the high command, were arrested, imprisoned or executed, including its supreme commander Marshal Tukhachevsky. The German invasion found the Red Army in a state of virtual paralysis, a situation which took several years to overcome.
Stalin even ignored intelligence to hand of German plans to invade, from January 1941 onwards. The Soviets in fact knew Hitler's timetable for invasion a full two years beforehand. These plans were all dismissed by Stalin as a British plot. When Germany finally did invade, Stalin was so shocked he spent the next 10 days drunk in his dacha.
The invasion caught the Soviet Union completely unawares, destroying 800 aircraft on the ground. By September 4, Nazi troops were at the gates of Leningrad and by December 5 on the outskirts of Moscow.
In spite of this, the Soviet people were able to turn the tide almost single-handedly. It's knowledge of this fact, as well as of the crucial role of communists and socialists in the defeat of Nazi armies all through Europe, that on V-E Day so many commentators tried to undermine. For us, it's a time when we should remember that heroism and how different the world would be today if it weren't for that.