HIS 242
World War II
Remarks by Professor Evans

Leningrad Obelisk World War II Monument Opened in 1985

Obelisk commemorating the fortieth anniversary of the victory in World War Two, erected in 1985 in Rebellion Square (Decembrists Square), architects A. I. Alymov and B. M. Ivanov. The monument is in the form of a three-sided bayonet, cut from a single granite monolith, with a gilt star at the top.

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The Soviet Union suffered enormously in World War II. Not counting the physical destruction of the country--cities like Kyiv, Minsk and Smolensk were occupied by the Germans for a long period of time; Leningrad (St. Petersburg was under siege for almost three years; Stalingrad (Volgograd) was the site of the most important battle on the Eastern front; much of Ukraine, Belarus, the Baltic states and western Russia were controlled by the Germans with villages wiped away, etc--for years, the standard figure given for Soviet losses was twenty million dead (not wounded or missing, just dead). American losses in World War II do not even compare. In recent years, the reality of that figure has increased to now closer to 27-30 million, and I have heard figures cited as high as fifty million. That is close to being incomprehensible.

Here are some websites with further casualty figures:

We just don't know, and I'm not sure another million added to the figures really changes anything.

The war in Europe began on 1 September 1939 with the German Invasion of Poland. The final straw that had made war inevitable was the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact (The Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact) and the accompanying secret additional protocol signed on 23 August 1939 between the Soviet Union and Germany--Stalin had always claimed that the capitalist countries of Western Europe were pushing Germany into a war in the east against the Soviet Union as evidenced by their failure to do anything to stop Hitler's rise to power through the 1930s (not as though Russia had done anything either with Stalin primarily preoccupied with killing Russians in the Great Terror). Stalin then rationalized the signing of a friendship pact with Hitler in 1939 to prevent Russia being the target of a German invasion, but take a look at the secret additional protocol accompanying the treaty which called for yet another partition of Poland (plus the Soviet occupation of Estonia, Latvia and part of Lithuania), this time between Hitler and Stalin.

It is a question of pure conjecture, but one can only wonder what would have been the outcome if the Red Army had fought with the Poles against the German army instead of waiting to carve up Poland, but that was not Stalin's intent.

By 28 September 1939 the first campaign of the war was over. Despite the heroic effort put forth by the overwhelmed Polish forces, Poland no longer existed; the country was divided between German and Russian occupying forces. A new Soviet-German Treaty regarding the new border and continuing friendship was signed, confirming the division of Poland. Now Stalin's real intention vis-a-vis Poland quickly became clear. See my remarks on the Katyn Forest Massacre.

For almost two years, Russians and Germans were at peace. Then on 22 June 1941, Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union, an attack which caught Stalin by complete surprise (hard to believe, but true). The first year of the war was especially disastrous for the Soviet Union.

In the south, the Germans encircled almost the entire Soviet Southwestern Front army group between mid-August and mid-September with over 650,000 Russian troops captured. Kyiv was also the scene of the first real taste of what Hitler and the SS had in store for the Jews of Russia. See my remarks on Babi Yar.

In the north, the city of Leningrad was reached and then encircled by the Germans leading to a siege that lasted from 8 September 1941 to 18 January 1944 with millions of lives lost. (Read Harrison Salisbury, The 900 Days: The Siege of Leningrad (1969)).

As a sad postscript, Stalin had the leaders of the city executed on various pretexts after the war — they had, through their bravery and courageous defense, earned the respect of the citizens, which the dictator resented and feared, and became too independent in their actions.

Dmitry Shostakovich wrote the Seventh Leningrad Symphony and said "it's not about Leningrad under siege, it's about the Leningrad that Stalin destroyed and that Hitler nearly finished off". (quote)

In the center, in early August 1941, the Germans captured the city of Smolensk (another catastrophe for the Red Army), and then reached the distant outskirts of Moscow by early October, but the German advance quickly slowed because of the autumn rains which turned the roads into muddy quagmires. Then, once November arrived, everything froze. The German troops lacked winter clothing, and the equipment had not been prepared for the freezing conditions of a Russian winter. Still, by 27 November, the Germans had finally advanced to a suburban Moscow train station a little over 25 km from the Kremlin, but that was as close as they got. On 5 December, the Soviet army launched a massive counter-attack against the German army using troops that had been withdrawn from duty in Siberia. The Russian offensive lasted until 7 January 1942 and pushed the Germans back from Moscow.

Despite all the disasters of the first year of the war, and the equally disastrous campaigns (for the Russians) of most of 1942, late that year the tide of the war turned with the battle for Stalingrad. If you get the chance, you should watch the episode on Stalingrad from the World at War Series.

In 1944, Gen. Charles de Gaulle visited Stalingrad and walked past the still-uncleared wreckage [of the battle]. Later, at a reception in Moscow, a correspondent asked him his impressions of the scene. "Ah, Stalingrad, c'est tout de même un peuple formidable, un très grand peuple," the Free French leader said. This correspondent agreed. "Ah, oui, les Russes..." de Gaulle interrupted impatiently. "Mais non, je ne parle pas des Russes, je parle des Allemands. Tout de même, avoir poussé jusqua là." ("That they should have come so far.") (William Craig, Enemy at the Gates, 1973, p. xv)

I have remembered that quote for a lot of years now as kind of symbolic of the tragedy that World War II was for Russia.

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Some recommended books

Some recommended websites