World War 2 Stories for Sheffield

Who Won The War? 

Interesting article by the historian Norman Davies in the Sunday Times:


“History will be kind to me,” predicted Winston Churchill, “because I intend to write it.” And so it proved. Churchill’s The Second World War, which began to appear in 1948, largely set the agenda for all subsequent presentations of the war years, especially in western countries: Britain stands in the centre of the conflict and her survival paves the way for victory.

As Churchill has it, Britain’s enemies, the axis powers, provide the sole authors of aggression, of criminal conduct and of undefined “evil”. The tide turns at El Alamein. Britain’s principal allies, the US and the USSR, which Churchill brought together in the grand coalition, provide the twin sources of military muscle that hunt down the fascist beast.

In Europe the allies of east and west co-operate, overcome their differences and triumph. The spectacular landings of the western armies in Normandy match the huge “Russian” successes on the eastern front. The Reich is crushed. Freedom and democracy prevail and “Europe is liberated”.

Unfortunately, the truth is more complex. The Russians, for example, are clear that the Red Army played the dominant role in the defeat of the Reich, demoting the Anglo-American war effort to secondary or tertiary importance. What is more, like the Americans, they insist that the “real war” began in 1941, relegating the events of 1939-41 to a mere prelude. For their part the Americans are most conscious of the competing demands of the two theatres of action in Europe and in the Pacific. They also emphasise the importance of the US as “the arsenal of democracy”.

Any attempt to revise established views provokes resistance, although I must admit to being surprised at the vehement opposition I encountered when challenging the Churchillian version. Other historians, such as Richard Overy, Robert Conquest and Anne Applebaum, have been peeling away the layers of myth for the past four decades, but still many people are unwilling to judge events on their own merit for fear of being accused of supporting “the forces of evil”.

Others recoil with incredulity from the notion that our patriotic opinions about 1939-45 may constitute something less than the whole truth. Both the British and the American public have long been told that “we won the war” and D-Day, in particular, has been built up as the decisive moment. The American D-Day Museum has been adopted as the national tribute to the war and Steven Spielberg, the director of Saving Private Ryan and co-producer of Flags of Our Fathers, which is just about to open, seems to have made it a mission to perpetuate Churchill’s myth.

After talking at Cambridge recently about the preponderance of the eastern front and the scale of the Red Army’s triumph, I was accosted by an angry young British historian. “Don’t you realise that we were pinning down 56 German divisions in France alone,” he said. “Without that the Red Army would have been heavily defeated.” What is less acknowledged is that without the Red Army pulverising 150 divisions, the allies would never have landed.

The attack on the Third Reich was a joint effort. But it was not a joint effort of two equal parts. The lion’s share of victory in Europe can be awarded only to Stalin’s forces and it is a fantasy to believe that he was fighting for justice and democracy.

Separating the facts from the myths and the propaganda is not easy. One of the trickiest problems in establishing a credible narrative of the war arises from the misconception that the largest combatant state, the USSR, stayed neutral before the German attack of June 1941. Soviet accounts have always preferred to focus on the so-called Great Fatherland War, and carefully avoids close examination of Stalin’s political and military machinations in the preceding years.

Western commentators have usually followed this line, reluctant to publicise their embarrassment at Hitler’s initial partner becoming the ally of the democratic West.

In reality, in the first 22 months of fighting when the Wehrmacht attacked and occupied eight countries, the Red Army attacked and occupied five. These manifest aggressions make nonsense of any claims of neutrality or of defensive responses to the provocations of others. In November 1939, for example, Stalin’s unprovoked invasion of Finland resulted in a war that lasted for twice as long as any of Hitler’s early campaigns.

Similarly, the Soviet annexation of the Baltic states in 1940 was no mere “strengthening of the defences” or “readjustment of frontiers”. It was a brutal act of depredation that destroyed three sovereign European states, together with a quarter of their population. All these events were facilitated by the Nazi-Soviet pact, which gave Stalin the same licence for banditry in the Soviet sphere that Hitler was exploiting in the German.

Proportions, however, are crucial. Since 75%-80% of all German losses were inflicted on the eastern front it follows that the efforts of the western allies accounted for only 20%-25%. Furthermore, since the British Army deployed no more than 28 divisions as compared with the American army’s 99, the British contribution to victory must have been in the region of 5%-6%. Britons who imagine that “we won the war” need to think again.

The modest size of the American contingent also calls for reflection. The population of the US was more than twice that of Germany and not far short of the Soviet Union’s. The military potential of the US, as estimated in 1939 in terms of gross national product and industrial production, represented more than 40% of the world’s total. Yet these advantages were never translated into proportionate superiority on the battlefield. The 100 divisions that General George C Marshall and his staff set as their target for mobilisation were overshadowed 2.5:1 by German divisions and 3-4:1 by the Red Army’s divisions.

Of course, crude numbers do not explain everything. The western powers were strong in some departments, notably in naval and air forces, and less strong in others. American industrial output was one of the marvels of the war; and all members of the allied coalition, including the Soviet Union, benefited greatly from it.

Nonetheless, the Third Reich was not brought to its knees by bombers and blockades. Both the German military and the German civilian population proved remarkably resilient. Hitler’s continental fortress had to be reduced inch by inch by soldiers on the ground. And here the Red Army excelled.
So much may be reluctantly conceded by western analysts who can do their sums. Harder to accept is that Soviet military prowess went hand in hand with criminality. The Third Reich was largely defeated not by the forces of liberal democracy, but by the forces of another mass-murdering tyranny. The liberators of Auschwitz were servants of a regime that ran a much larger network of concentration camps of its own.

When Churchill was writing in the late 1940s, he knew perfectly well that Stalin was no angel. Yet the sheer scale and variety of Stalinist crimes was not known. The statistic of 27m Soviet “war losses”, which appeared in the 1960s, concealed the fact that many of them were not Russians and many were victims not of Hitler but of Stalin. It has taken the collapse of the Soviet Union and more than 60 years for this body of certainty to accumulate.

One can argue about the similarities and differences of the Holocaust and the Gulag and it is obviously a mistake to equate the two. On the other hand, it is also a mistake to pretend that Stalinist crimes can somehow be absolved because Stalin was a doughty champion of the anti-Nazi cause.

All of which makes the Churchillian model open to revision. Britain can no longer stand centre stage. The axis powers are joined on the criminal list by the Soviet Union, which also turns out to have been the principal victor. The western allies are not all-conquering heroes but did well to finish in the winners’ enclosure.

The Americans arrived too late and in too few numbers to play the dominant role. The forces of democracy played their part in the defeat of fascism, but were left controlling less than half the continent. In the greater part of Europe one totalitarian tyranny was replaced by another. More often than not, the rhetoric of “freedom” and “liberation” was misplaced.


Europe at War 1939-1945: No Simple Victory by Norman Davies is published by Macmillan, £25