Soviet T34 and troops in Stalingrad
Soviet T34s and troops assault at Stalingrad

The Soviet triumph over Nazi Germany

May 9th is Victory Day in the modern Russian Federation, celebrating the defeat of Nazi Germany and its Axis allies by the Soviet Union in 1945. It has far greater resonance and political importance in Russia than the often-overlooked “VE” (Victory in Europe) celebrations in Western Europe of the day before. Despite the horrors of destruction, occupation and death suffered in Western Europe, for the Soviet Union the Second World War had been its greatest existential threat: an estimated 27 million Russians, mainly civilians, died in the bitter struggle against the Axis invasion. I have previously written on the paranoia of the Soviet state and its willingness to sacrifice its own people to achieve its political ends; see, but I have sympathy with the view that the stoic and resilient peoples of the Soviet Union - which included both Russia and Ukraine - saved Europe and maybe further afield from Nazism. May 9 is usually Victory Day in Ukraine as well: this year it takes on a new resonance.

The war between the Axis and USSR defies statistics, even if one can encapsulate the magnitude of human suffering in mere numbers. On its own that war was the greatest and most bloody conflict humanity has ever engaged in, with millions of combatants engaged simultaneously, over thousands of kilometers of territory, and killing more people than any other war before or since. This was a “total war” of the ultimately destructive type envisioned by aristocratic Prussian general and military thinker Carl Von Clausewitz more than a century before. Such was the ideological (and ethnic) hatred between the sides that to become a prisoner of either was a near-guaranteed death sentence.

For the Soviet Union, and now particularly Russia, the defeat of Germany and the Axis was a nation-defining event, creating a myth around which political and national identify have gravitated ever since.

Molotov Cocktails and the Secret Pact

Germany and the Soviet Union had not started the War as enemies. They had entered a mutual non-aggression pact in August 1939, not much more than a week before the Nazi invasion of Poland and the declaration of war against Germany by the UK and France.

Photograph of the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact
Molotov signing the Pact, with von Ribbentrop (left) and Stalin (center) looking on

The pact became known as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, named after the foreign ministers of the Soviet Union and Germany who signed it, although Stalin attended in person. The Pact is made up of seven simple Articles addressing non-aggression between the parties for a 10 year period. However, below the main Articles is a secret addendum with an additional four articles that were not published at the time. The secret agreement divided Central and Eastern Europe in to “spheres of influence” between the two powers, giving control over Finland, Estonia and Latvia to the Soviet Union, some of Lithuania to Germany, an agreement to carve up Poland when it suited them and a confirmation by Germany that it had no political interest in “Southeastern Europe” and “Bessarabia”; what we would now think of as Moldova and Ukraine.

Left unfettered by risk of interference from each other, Germany invaded Poland from the West, shortly thereafter the USSR invaded Poland from the East and not many months later the USSR invaded Finland. Molotov said that the invasion of Finland in November 1939 was a humanitarian mission to provide food to the Finns. In another echo of events repeated in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Finns resisted more fiercely than their attackers expected and gave the invading Soviet armor a robust petrol bombing. With characteristically dark Scandinavian humor the Finns described those home-made explosives as Molotov Cocktails: an appropriate drink to serve back to the invading Soviets in recognition of their “humanitarian” efforts.

Warlords and Oil

With the Soviet Union pursuing its own agenda with Finland and Germany and the Axis Powers creating a German Empire and “lebensraum” for the ethnically pure in Europe, it was a very dark moment of uncertainty. By the fall of France in June 1940, the UK “stood alone” armed only with the Channel and Royal Airforce as its defense and the Victorian-style political backbone of its new Prime Minister Winston S Churchill.

In late 1940 Hitler and the Axis very much had the upper hand. German panzers had swept through Czechoslovakia, Poland, the Low Countries and France; Fascist Spain, exhausted after its dreadful civil war remained neutral, the Soviet Union was occupied with Finland and Poland and the US, although supplying the UK with finance and arms showed no immediate signs of joining the War. There aren’t many single decisions that can be said to have changed the course of world history, but Hitler’s decision to renege on the Molotov-Ribbentrop deal and invade the Soviet Union is certainly one of them. On 18 December 1940, Hitler issued Directive 21, ordering an assault on the USSR. The operation was named after a 12th Century Teutonic warlord Frederick “Barbarossa”. Anointed by the Pope - the last surviving official role of the long-since collapsed Western Roman Empire - in 1155 Barbarossa became the Holy Roman Emperor: a paragon of the warrior emperor that Hitler aspired to be and a symbol of the new German Empire cast in a romanticized (and entirely unrealistic) vision of the past.

Op BARBAROSSA was launched in June 1941 on a front more than two thousand kilometers long, stretching from the Baltic to the Black Sea. The Axis committed 3.5million troops to the offensive, hoping to destroy Soviet resistance quickly, and swiftly took territory across all its axes of attack. Within months Axis troops were within striking distance of Moscow and in the South advanced to Odessa, the Black Sea coast and Crimea, and besieged Kyiv. The lightening panzer tactics of the Germans allowed them to encircle 650,000 Soviet troops in Kyiv, all of whom were killed or captured. Despite early successes by the end of the year, with winter coming on, the Axis assault stalled along all parts of the front, and Soviet counter attacks pushed the Axis forces back.

In 1942 the Axis redoubled its efforts mounting more operations, including Op BLAU (Blue), particularly aiming to capture the industrial heartlands and oil fields of the South. Again the armies clashed in increasingly concentrated pockets; the most notorious being Stalingrad (now Volgograd), East of the Donbas in Ukraine, controlling the routes along the Volga river, including to the oil-rich Caspian Sea and strategically influential to the River Don leading down to the Sea of Azov. At Stalingrad in 1943 after months of bitter fighting nearly half of the remaining 600,000 exhausted and starving Axis troops - many of them Romanians - were surrounded by the army of Soviet General Zhukov and eventually surrendered. The Axis commander, the German General Friedrich Paulus who was trapped with his men in the kessel (literally “cauldron”, the word the Germans used for an encircled defense) had urged Hitler to let him surrender to Zhukov some time before, which was rebuffed: instead Hitler made Paulus a Field Marshal, knowing that no German Field Marshal had ever surrendered (suicide would have been frustrating but acceptable). Paulus surrendered anyway, and his captured army of more than 280,000 was marched away to gulags from which hardly any emerged alive (estimates vary but it could have been as little as a few hundreds).

By this stage the US had joined the War (late 1941), the Allies won victories in North Africa (1942; my grandfather commanded field hospitals in the desert from the invasion to the Allied victory) and were soon to launch an invasion of Italy. With Germany overcommitted and depleted of men and materiel, the momentum of the War shifted in the Allies favor. The invasion of the Soviet Union, and the inability to win quickly, ultimately proved to be the undoing of Hitler and the Nazis.

Lessons for Ukraine

Operation BARBAROSSA and the operations that followed it were a failure, for many of the same reasons Russia is failing in Ukraine.

  • Intelligence failures made Germany believe Russia was both weaker and less inclined to fight than it was; as Russia is finding with Ukraine, causing casualties and destroying towns does not demoralize the enemy, it may in fact provoke them to even greater acts of resistance,

  • Germany tried to deal a swift and decisive knockout blow against a huge country on multiple fronts, and had to adjust to new objectives, which caused it to get bogged down,

  • Axis supply lines were overstretched, as are Russia’s in Ukraine,

  • German equipment was not as good as German commanders believed it to be; like Russia, Germany underestimated the quality of their opponent’s weapons, notably the Soviet T34 tank, which was better armored and armed than panzers until later in the War: in a quirk of circumstances it is now clear that even upgraded Russian T74’s and T80’s are no match for modern man-portable antitank weapons such as MLAW,

  • Hitler sacked his best commanders, notably Heinz Guderian who’s Panzers had sliced France in half within weeks at the start of the War, and Erwin Rommel for failures made by Hitler’s poor judgement and information: it appears President Putin relies on an ever smaller group of close advisors and is vulnerable to the same mistakes.

By failing to succeed Germany created a national myth and powerful sense of identify and moral self-worth in the Soviet Union, which Russia has inherited. Russia’s actions in Ukraine invoke the memory of that myth - President Putin has described the Russian invasion is a special military operation to “de-Nazify” Ukraine. This conflict, with great and dangerous irony, will create a similar national myth for Ukraine.

Further Reading