This wisdom from George Santayana first communicated in 1905 (and slightly modified by Churchill in a speech to the House of Commons in 1948) remains true today. The decaying foundation of American foreign policy rests in part on a distorted understanding of Russia’s role in the Second World War and an exaggerated credit for what America did in that conflict. If you watch the great Hollywood movies about WW II in Europe (The Longest Day, Patton, A Bridge Too Far, The Bridge at Remagan, Saving Private Ryan, etc) you come away with the message that the United States beat the Nazis into submission and the war on the Eastern front was just a sideshow.
Documentaries made in the west paint that war as the United States and United Kingdom saving the Russians. A common theme is that Stalin was begging for the western allies to open a front in Europe to take the heat off of Russian forces. And it was the western Allies who uncovered the horrors of the Holocaust. Hollywood loves a story where the villain is well defined and the heroes can surmount seemingly impossible obstacles.
I believe that the failure of the west to understand and appreciate what Russia (then the Soviet Union) accomplished in World War II is at the root of its failure to understand what Russia is doing today in the Ukraine.
Let me give you some numbers:
OPERATION BARBAROSSA–When Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa in June 1941 (i.e. the invasion of the Soviet Union), 3.8 million German soldiers initially overwhelmed the Soviet Army, which counted 2.6 to 2.9 million frontline personnel. Soviet casualties from that German blow were enormous:
- 566,852 killed in action
- 235,339 died from non-combat causes
- 1,336,147 sick or wounded via combat and non-combat causes
- 2,335,482 missing in action or captured
- c. 500,000 Soviet reservists captured while still mobilizing
CASE BLUE–Was the offensive of the German Army Group South to capture the oil fields in Azerbaijan. Along the way the Germans decided to attack Stalingrad. The German Army, which included allies from Romania, Italy and Hungary, numbered 1,570,287. The Russian Army fielded 1,715,000 with another 1,000,000 in reserve. When the dust settled, the Germans suffered 200,000 casualties. A paltry sum considering the 1,200,000 Soviet casualties. But the Soviets held Stalingrad and forced the surrender of the German Army trapped in that city.
By 1944, the Soviets had regrouped and deployed armies totaling 6 million soldiers. Western allies fielded 4 million in Europe. The Soviets fought a German army that numbered 2 million while the western allies faced off against 1 million Germans.
I am not suggesting the Soviets did all of this on their own. The early provisions of tanks and trucks from the United States helped Russia stem the tsunami of Operation Barbarossa. The Brits also made a major contribution in breaking the Enigma code and provided critical intelligence to Stalin (though Stalin failed to act on some of this intelligence).
The story of the defeat of the Nazis is really a tale of the success of a strained partnership between the west and the Soviets. What the people of the west did not appreciate or acknowledge was the critical role the Soviets played in defeating the cream of the the German military. If that force had been free to operate in western Europe, Germany most certainly would have prevailed in spite of Hitler’s meddling with the German military.
It was the Soviets who first uncovered physical evidence of the Holocaust when they captured the Majdanek concentration camp in 1944. The United States and United Kingdom dismissed the Soviet report as propaganda. And the Soviets liberated the still intact death factory at Auschwitz/Birkenau in January 1945.
The fixation of the United States and the United Kingdom on the evils of Stalin (and he was evil) colored the post-War dealings with the Soviets and the successor regime of Russia.
The United States lost 472,000 dead in the European, North Africa and Pacific theaters in World War II. The Russians lost more than 8 million soldiers and an estimated 19 million civilian deaths. The staggering losses Russia suffered in World War II are still remembered and honored to this day. The same cannot be said of the people of the United States and the United Kingdom. Sure, a few remember, but when you consider that people 80 years of age today were being born as World War II was ramping up, the memory of that period of horror is fading. I estimate that 95% of the Americans under the age of 50 are incapable of explaining who fought in World War II and who did what to whom.
Which brings me to the current war in Ukraine. Notwithstanding western propaganda that Vladimir Putin is intent on reconstituting the Soviet Union, Putin has not forgotten the lessons that Russian learned the hard way in World War II. Joe Stalin cut a devilish deal with Hitler in 1939 to carve up Poland and lived to see Hitler betray him.
During the past 30 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union, many Russian leaders harbored the belief that they could trust the United States and Europe and put the sad legacy of the Soviet Union in the dustbin of history. But that hope is now in tatters. Instead of halting the expansion of NATO, the west has continued to enlist new members, including nations that sit on Russia’s western border. The German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 included military personnel form Italy, Hungary, Romania, Slovakia and Croatia. Two of those countries–Italy and Romania–are again aligning themselves with what the Russians perceive as a hostile threat.
Making matters worse has been the growth of the influence of neo-Nazis in the Ukraine. A retired Swiss Army officer, Jacques Baud, who served extended tours with NATO has written a brilliant treatise explaining the roots of this new war (read here). One of his most salient points concerns the failure of the Ukraine military to conquer the Donbas in 2014. Baud writes:
So, to compensate for the lack of soldiers, the Ukrainian government resorted to paramilitary militias. They are essentially composed of foreign mercenaries, often extreme right-wing militants. In 2020, they constituted about 40 percent of the Ukrainian forces and numbered about 102,000 men, according to Reuters. They were armed, financed and trained by the United States, Great Britain, Canada and France. There were more than 19 nationalities—including Swiss.
Western countries have thus clearly created and supported Ukrainian far-right militias. In October 2021, the Jerusalem Post sounded the alarm by denouncing the Centuria project. These militias had been operating in the Donbass since 2014, with Western support. Even if one can argue about the term “Nazi,” the fact remains that these militias are violent, convey a nauseating ideology and are virulently anti-Semitic. Their anti-Semitism is more cultural than political, which is why the term “Nazi” is not really appropriate. Their hatred of the Jew stems from the great famines of the 1920s and 1930s in the Ukraine, resulting from Stalin’s confiscation of crops to finance the modernization of the Red Army. This genocide—known in the Ukraine as the Holodomor—was perpetrated by the NKVD (the forerunner of the KGB), whose upper echelons of leadership were mainly composed of Jews. This is why, today, Ukrainian extremists are asking Israel to apologize for the crimes of communism, as the Jerusalem Post notes. This is a far cry from Vladimir Putin’s “rewriting of history.”
These militias, originating from the far-right groups that animated the Euromaidan revolution in 2014, are composed of fanatical and brutal individuals. The best known of these is the Azov Regiment, whose emblem is reminiscent of the 2nd SS Das Reich Panzer Division, which is revered in the Ukraine for liberating Kharkov from the Soviets in 1943, before carrying out the 1944 Oradour-sur-Glane massacre in France.
If the United States and NATO persist in demonizing all things and everyone Russian they are ignoring Russia’s history of fending off foreign invaders. I am not a professional historian, but I know this–Napoleon thought he could take Moscow and failed; Hitler believed he could crush the Slavic untermensch and was crushed. I fear the western leaders are once again indulging the fantasy that they can force the collapse, not only of Vladimir Putin, but all of Russia. I suggest it is time to remember history or, as Santayana warned, we are condemning ourselves to repeat a nightmare.