Soldiers of the Leningrad Front during the Siege of Leningrad
With the conflict in Ukraine escalating every day, May 9, Victory Day—the day to celebrate the defeat of Nazism—looms as a potential flash point. In a display of the Ukrainian right wing’s true allegiances, the coup government in Kiev has canceled the annual Victory Day parade in Kiev.
The muted celebration signals a turning point for a country that was ground zero for the Holocaust and other horrors of Nazism. Rather than celebrating May 9 as a major holiday, the rightist government has called for a day of prayer. Their supposed motivation is to avoid “provocations” on a holiday that celebrates Ukraine’s Soviet history. In other words, the new Ukrainian government fears the powerful memory of World War Two.
Why does the coup government fear the legacy of World War Two? What does it have to hide?
What the Ukrainian government has to fear is the lasting legacy of internationalism and sacrifice in the name of anti-fascism.
Heroic sacrifice unforgotten
The history of the Soviet Union’s involvement in World War Two is often obscured or down-played in the United States, thanks to decades of Cold War spin. Popular documentaries on the History Channel and in school textbooks essentially gloss over Soviet fighting, preferring instead to dwell on D-Day and air-raids, which occupied most of the United States’ time during the conflict. History begins with the September 1939 invasion of Poland, skips to Pearl Harbor, then to D-Day and finally to Hitler’s suicide and the fall of Nazi Germany.
This history is an embellishment which plays up the United States’ involvement which at the expense of telling the story of Soviet contributions to the fight against Nazi Germany.
Most military historians agree that it was the Soviet Union’s immense sacrifice and steadfast and determined fighting that won World War Two, known as the Great Patriotic War in the Soviet Union and most former Soviet Republics.
Despite taking massive casualties, the Soviet Union rallied in the early stages of an unexpected German-led invasion and heroically defended key cities after invading armies reached the gates of Moscow, Leningrad (now called St. Petersburg) and Stalingrad (now called Volgograd).
Nazi invasion largest in history
The Nazi invasion, codenamed Operation Barbarossa, threw 3.8 million troops into a vast front stretching across the border of the Soviet Union—across all of Europe—making it the largest invasion in history. The troops, who had been moved from recently-defeated France, were divided into three army groups (north, center and south) under the command of Hitler himself. Army Group North was tasked with capturing the key strategic city of Leningrad, which was the base of the Atlantic Soviet Fleet and a major industrial center. Army Group Center had orders to capture Moscow, which, while less strategically important than other cities—among them Leningrad—would have been a major blow to Soviet morale as the fall of the Soviet capitol city. Army Group South aimed to capture the Ukraine—the Soviet Union’s breadbasket akin to the Midwestern United States—and eventually reach oil-rich the Caucusus region.
The invasion was the first stage of Generalplan Ost, or Master Plan East, which was the Nazi plan to conquer and settle Eastern Europe as a “racially-pure” frontier for a vast Nazi empire. The strategy outlined in Generalplan Ost entailed the enslavement and eventual total elimination of most Slavic and other “undesirable” peoples: Jews, Roma, Latagalians, Czechs, Estonians, Ukrainians, Lithuanians, Poles and Belarusians. Since Russians did not live entirely within the planned border of the New Order frontier, the Nazis did not plan on their complete physical extermination, preferring instead to physically eliminate 50-60 percent of the Russian population and deport the remainder to Western Siberia.
In other words, the Nazi invasion posed a grave threat to all peoples living in the Soviet Union. It was not a struggle between Germans and Russians. It was a struggle of the diverse, multiethnic and multinational Soviet Red Army versus brutal fascist invaders intent on the complete annihilation of most people in Eastern Europe.
Seige of Leningrad
Army Group North’s siege of Leningrad is a perfect illustration of the true character of this grim struggle. The siege, lasting well over two years, claimed the lives of over 1 million civilians due to shelling, starvation, disease and cold after German and Finnish armies cut off all roads and railroads to the city, stopping all food, medicine and fuel bound for Leningrad. All told, the encirclement and Siege of Leningrad took over 4 million casualties, making it the most deadly siege in history.
The Siege of Leningrad is also a perfect illustration of the sacrifice and heroism of the peoples of the Soviet Union. To alleviate the starving of the citizens of Leningrad—trapped behind front lines after the city was encircled—the Soviets were forced to find new ways to keep up the popular resistance to Nazi aggression. Leningrad, which stands on a thin strip of land sandwiched between the Baltic Sea on one side and Lake Ladoga on the other, was only accessible by water. The Soviets responded to the encirclement by ferrying across ammunition, food and other supplies Lake Ladoga in warm months.
During winter months, on the other hand, the Soviets faced the more serious problem of getting supplies across the lake as it froze, making it impassable for boats. They responded by establishing the “Road of Life,” a convoy train where trucks would drive across the frozen Lake Ladoga. Drivers would inch across the surface of the lake’s icy surface with one foot literally out the doors of their trucks, ready to jump out if their trucks fell through the ice into the 700-foot deep frozen lake. These convoys would leave in the dead of night within range of German artillery, carrying supplies in and evacuating civilians and injured defenders on their way out.
The Road of Life helped keep the defenders supplied and the people of Leningrad fed through the Siege, which lasted from September of 1941 to January of 1944.
Sacrifices like these were common, showing the steadfast resolve of the people of the Soviet Union to defend themselves and their country. Soviet resistances in Odessa, Ukraine, Crimea and elsewhere saw fierce fighting as the Red Army fought to the bitter end time and time again to stop the onslaught of invading Nazi armies. Even when those armies lost, partisan brigades sprung up during the first days of the invasion to carry on the fight behind enemy lines.
By the end of the war, the fighting claimed the lives of 27 million Soviets, 15 million of whom were civilians who died from atrocities at the hands of the Nazi occupiers.
Soviet fighting defeats fascism
The Soviet Union did most of the heavy lifting during the Second World War. The initial invasion of 1941 stalled at the gates of Moscow and Leningrad, but the steadfast defenses there led to major victories, notably at the Battle of Moscow.
There, the Red Army successfully defended the Soviet capitol, dealing a major blow to the morale of Nazi armies, who assumed the war would be won within weeks of the invasion (Hitler famously predicted that “We have only to kick in the door and the whole rotten structure [the Soviet Union] will come crashing down.”). Repelling the invaders at Moscow was only the beginning. It would take four more years of brutal fighting to push back the Nazi armies.
The five-month Battle of Stalingrad in the winter of 1942-1943 would ultimately be the turning point for the Great Patriotic War, paving the way for the major victory in the Battle of Kursk, the largest tank battle in history. More importantly, it marked the end of the Nazi advance and the beginning of the Soviet advance into Nazi-occupied Eastern and Central Europe.
Successful initiatives like Operation Bagration, where the Nazis were driven out of Belorussia and eastern Poland in just a month in the summer of 1944, and the liberation of Ukraine, also in 1944 created momentum which allowed the Red Army to crash deep into the heartland of Nazi Germany, reaching Berlin in April of 1945.
Along the way, they liberated the notorious death camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau and other concentration camps where the Nazis had put into effect the early stages of Generalplan Ost in attempt to realize their New Order.
These great victories spelled the ultimate global triumph over fascism: after the Soviets’ arrival in Berlin, hundreds of thousands of Soviet troops were moved to the Soviet-Manchurian border, where they swept into Japanese-occupied China on August 9, 1945. This proved decisive in forcing Japan’s surrender, since Manchuria held many of Japan’s factories after they had been moved to avoid US bombing raids. Manchuria also was the base for a significant part of Japanese heavy industry, where vital supplies of coal, steel, electricity and more than half of Japan’s synthetic fuel were produced. The Soviet liberation of Manchuria proved catastrophic for Japan and was decisive in forcing the Japanese Empire’s surrender.
The grave danger of global fascism threatened people around the world. Thanks to the sacrifices by many nations of the Soviet Union, that danger was crushed, but at the cost of millions of lives heroically sacrificed in defense of socialism. It would take decades for the Soviet Union to recover from the intense devastation wrought by the invasion: roads and railways lay twisted and destroyed after four years of intense fighting; the millions of lives lost left countless families missing loved ones and the Soviet economy desperately short of labor power; the waste laid to farmland and equipment and to factories left the Soviet economy so badly damaged that it spent nearly a decade after the war’s end rebuilding Central and Eastern Europe.
Because of these sacrifices, though, the Holocaust was cut short and Nazi designs in Eastern and Central Europe were aborted. Hitler could not turn back westward to attempt again to invade England or invade Africa and the Middle East in earnest.
As a result of these defeats, Nazi Germany faced chronic resource shortages—especially of much-needed oil—because the Red Army halted the German advance into the Caucusus.
After the defeat at Stalingrad, Nazi Germany had to devote most of its military and economic resources to fighting off the advancing Red Army despite these resource shortages. Consequently, the Nazi war effort was already in dire straits by the time of D-Day in June, 1944.
People around the world owe a great deal to the tremendous heroism of the Soviet war effort. Victory Day is a day of pride and remembrance of the great sacrifices made both for the defeat of fascism and the construction of socialism. People around the world should continue to unite to honor this legacy.
Writer: Mike Wang
Date: May 9, 2014.