History is constantly informing the past. But unfortunately, it is often a short-hand version that conveys myths more than reality. In America for example, this revolves around World War II, for those supporting the use of force, or Vietnam for those that oppose it. In Russia, this war informs a deep strategic insecurity that often becomes an excuse for their aggression in Eastern Europe and against smaller NATO members.
77 years ago on June 22, one of the largest wars in terms of geography, people and material involved started when Nazi Germany invaded Soviet Russia. This has massive amounts of importance in Russian history. Even though they arguably defeated the Nazis in the key battles that won the war, such as Stalingrad, the Cold War animus with Communists and the often heavily biased work of Soviet historians has buried that effect. Given the date and its importance in Russian history, and often aggressive Russian behavior, it’s important to examine some of the myths about the conflict.
To start with, it’s not called the Eastern Front. This is a tradition in Western history that tends to both downgrade and borrow Russian contributions by making it seem like an adjunct to the Western front by Western powers. But Germany and Russia had long-standing conflicts so this is the Soviet German War. The Russians get credit for their large numbers but not for the superiority of their soldier. This is a myth perpetuated by German historians after the war. Similar to German rocket scientists, the competition with Russia made the memoirs of German generals very important. But the Germans weren’t complaining about large numbers early in the war when they were racking up large victories; it was only after the tide turned that they complained about the strategic situation they were placed in. A more sober assessment might claim that the Germans were making excuses for their inability to deliver the knockout blow.
Another myth is that the Russians complained that they faced Hitler alone for much of the war until 1944, claiming the allies dragged their feet. It’s true they didn’t mind seeing two hated ideologies and dictatorship fight it out, but they were committed to helping through Lend Lease aid and limited actions before D-Day in 1944. The allied second front couldn’t happen sooner due to operational failures witnessed by the disastrous raid on Dieppe in 1942 and lack of amphibious transports.
Hitler and Germany should receive a good deal of blame for the devastation of Russia. But Stalin enabled the war, maximized the casualties for his people, and then discounted vital American and Western aid. In 1939, Russia actively joined Germany in partitioning Poland. They stood by while Germany gobbled up Eastern Europe, the Balkans, and Romania. Russia captured the Baltic States and launched a disastrous attack on Finland during the winter of 1940. The army’s performance was so poor during this attack they essentially invited German invasion.
During their alliance between 1939 and 1941, Russia provided millions of tons of much needed grain, oil, and steel to the Germans, and literally fueled the German war machine for the first two years of the war. Stalin was so paranoid that he continued to send shipments up until the moment Hitler attacked. Stalin purged, killed and imprisoned many of his most competent generals in the years leading up to the war, and his security forces killed 5 million Russians over subversive activity. Russia and Germany were pariahs after World War I so they jointly cooperated as early as 1927, which allowed Germany to evade sanctions, conduct trade, and to remilitarize. Russia made valiant efforts during World War II, but they also contributed to the enormity of their task through their behavior from 1927-1941.
The great Soviet victories were enabled by the American Lend Lease program. This provided material assistance to allied countries that eventually included members from all around the globe. Contrary to popular belief inspired by mechanized Panzers, much of Germany’s supply corps was still using horse-drawn shipments. This slowed down much needed fuel, ammunition, and supplies for front line units. These delays gave the German enemies, including Russia, enough time to reorganize a defense in front of the German units and stop their penetrations. The Lend Lease goods mechanized Russian transportation, provided much needed trucks, jeeps, metals for railroad cars and rails, and vast quantities of food that let them continue the war effort after their massive and partially self-inflicted losses. This meant that when Russia achieved a breakthrough, unlike their German counterparts, they could move farther and faster. This collapsed the fronts in the Soviet German War and speaks to their strategic competence in what they called Deep Battle, not just superiority in numbers.
For an accessible introduction that covers these topics in more detail and provides sources, please see, When Titans Clashed: How the Red Army Stopped Hitler, by David Glantz and Johathan House.