As a child growing up in the periphery of the “Free world”, I learned to imagine World War II as a clash between the evil forces of Nazi Germany and the Americans, the liberators of old Europe.
Like many young folks, I grew up watching Combat!, the American TV series. I can still hear in my head the German soldiers crying “Amerikaner!” in desperation every time they bumped into the heroic troops of Sergeant "Chip" Saunders, who would invariably annihilate them.
Later on I suffered together with Private Ryan while he was being rescued in Steven Spielberg’s extraordinary film. As I learned by watching American TV, Americans also tend to imagine that they saved the world from the Nazi menace. As Moe proudly tells a Briton in a 1995 episode of The Simpsons, “You know, we saved your ass in World War II!”.
As far as I know, that is not an uncommon phrase in the US. According to this imagination, in World War II the Americans rescued not only poor Ryan, but also European (and probably world) freedom.
The missing part in all these recollections is of course the Russians. I have no childhood images of their role in WWII, but I later learned that they also played a part and that they actually claim that it was them who saved Europe from the Nazis.
When I visited Berlin two years ago I went to the magnificent Soviet War Memorial on Treptower Park. A gigantic statue there shows a Soviet soldier rescuing a child while destroying a swastika. Smaller monuments also celebrate the role of communist partisans who resisted the German invasion in other countries. While I was observing the statue, a group of American tourists was being briefed by a local guide, who emphasized the propaganda function of the memorial, aimed at exalting communism and the historical role of Stalin and the Soviet Union.
Granted: all countries have their own politics of commemoration. Treptower Park Memorial is undoubtedly a piece of propaganda, as the German guide explained. But the same can be said of Hollywood’s productions. As a recent Wikileaks revelation exposed, just like in the good old times of the Cold War, the US government is still recruiting entertainment corporations to help in propaganda wars against its enemies, including Russia.
Yet, the effectiveness of each propaganda endeavors has not been the same. On the eve of the 70th anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany, the Russian side of the story is almost inaudible out of Russia. The American propaganda has to a great extent shaped the social memory of WWII worldwide.
A good example of this is the shifts in historical memory in France, the territory that was actually liberated as a direct consequence of the American military intervention. In 1945, immediately after the end of the war, a poll was conducted among French people. One of the main questions was “Which country do you think played the most important role in the defeat of Germany?” 57% of the interviewees responded that it was the Soviet Union, 20% chose the US and 12% the UK. The same poll was conducted again in 1994. Interestingly enough, only 26% chose the Soviet Union this time, while 49% responded it was the US. The poll was repeated in 2004. By then the reversal was even more noticeable, with only 20% choosing the Soviet Union and 58% the US (the perception of the British role did not change much).
By contrasting memory with historical facts, it is not difficult to conclude that the French people of 1945 were closer to the truth than recent respondents.
Despite Hollywood imagination, there is little doubt that the Soviet Union played the most important role in the defeat of the Nazis. The core of WWII was the Eastern front. Hitler mobilized incomparably more soldiers, weapons and equipment against the Soviet Union than were used in the Western Front. When he set to invade Russia in June 1941 Germany deployed over 3 million soldiers; to this number we should add many more provided by the Finns, Rumanians, Croatians, Hungarians, Italians and Spaniards.
After Goebbels proclaimed “total war” in 1943, more forces were added to the initial endowment. Vast portions of the Soviet Union were invaded and major cities –included Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg) and Stalingrad (now Volgograd)– were besieged.
The Soviet Union resisted, fought back and eventually won the war, at a gigantic human and material cost. 34.5 million men and women were mobilized. The number of Soviet deaths in WWII has been much debated, but current academic consensus suggests that it was between 25 and 27 million (half of which were military deaths).
By comparison, the US contribution to the defeat of Germany was small. Although Americans engaged in combats with the Germans in Africa and in the periphery of Europe before, the most relevant battles only came in the second phase of the Western front, after the invasion of Normandy in June 1944.
In that famous episode, the combined Allied forces deployed 175,000 men, half of which were American. In the whole of World War II the American forces accumulated 407,316 servicemen dead, including those who died fighting in the Pacific War and with all non-German combatants (including civilian deaths, the total number would be around 420,000). Great Britain lost a similar number, while German wartime deaths are estimated in five to seven million.
As British historian Roger Bartlett concluded, “with all credit to British and American achievements, it is clear that Nazism was defeated in the Soviet Union”.
There is little chance that the 70th anniversary of the Nazi defeat will offer the opportunity for a non-ideological revisiting of the past. In recent commemorations in Europe, Russia has been deliberately excluded, like never before. Earlier this year Poland celebrated the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz by the Red Army. Russia’s President, Vladimir Putin, was not invited, under the absurd claim that it was Ukrainian soldiers (and not Russians) who actually liberated the Jews of that concentration camp.
Likewise, Obama and several European heads of State have organized a boycott against Russia’s official parade of Victory Day, which will be held this May 9 in Moscow. The boycott, they say, comes because of Russia’s annexation of Crimea. This would perhaps be a valid reason, if it was not for the fact that no boycotts are in order when the US bombs other countries or force changes of their governments, or when US allies –like Israel– occupy other nation’s lands by military force.
So let us profit from this opportunity to remember history beyond propaganda. If there was such a thing as a “Free world” in 1945, it was to a great extent thanks to the armies of a communist country and to the irregular forces of anti-fascist partisans in France, Italy and other nations, a good deal of which were also communists. Our grateful memory of those who died fighting fascism should include all of them.