Two celebrations, two wars
On May 9th Russia celebrates the victorious end of the Great Patriotic War (GPW). In the West these impressive Moscow festivities are seen as the Russian version of celebrating the end of the Second World War (WWII). But Western nations commemorate the end of WWII in Europe on May 8th. Are they celebrating the same event? Perhaps not. These two springtime celebrations differ by much more than just one day. They actually concern two different wars. On closer inspection the Great Patriotic War (GPW) is poles apart from the Second World War (WWII).
The Second World War (WWII), act I
The Second World War started with the attack on Poland in September 1939, by two totalitarian allies, Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia. The Nazis attacked from the West. Shortly after, the Soviets invaded from the east, exactly as Hitler and Stalin had previously agreed (Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact).
The democratic West (Great Britain and France) initially responded by declaring war on Nazi Germany. Having soon discovered that they were totally incapable of helping Poland militarily, an additional declaration of war against the second totalitarian invader of Poland, Soviet Russia, seemed pointless. Still, open war with Russia came very close a few months later, when Stalin attacked neutral Finland. Then Britain and France made plans to dispatch troops to help Finland, but in the end cancelled the enterprise as being logistically impractical.
The totalitarian alliance between Stalin and Hitler continued its aggression against the democratic West. Stalin tried to invade Finland, but was in the end unable to conquer the fiercely fighting Finns. Norway and Denmark were occupied by Hitler. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania were invaded by Stalin. Soon the Low Countries and France were overrun by Hitler. Stalin carved himself a piece of Romania.
Now Britain stood alone. Alone against Hitler? No, things looked a lot gloomier than that. Britain and the British Commonwealth actually stood alone against the Stalin-Hitler totalitarian alliance. This despotic league continued to wreak havoc on Europe for a full year after the fall of France. A steady traffic of Russian supply trains were rolling into Germany, as scheduled, making it possible for Hitler to invade Yugoslavia and Greece and to send Rommel’s tanks to North Africa against the British.
The Great Patriotic War (GPW) – a brand new war
But, as frequently happens among gangsters, the one betrayed the other. In late June 1941, an entirely new war suddenly broke out, a war that had nothing to do with the Second World War. Hitler had simply decided to overrun his erstwhile pal Stalin. This separate Stalin-Hitler war came to be called – by Stalin – the Great Patriotic War. From the start the Great Patriotic War took the stage as the main horror show. It became a vicious mass killing between two gangster regimes and it continued gushing blood up to its very end on May 9th 1945. Hitler eventually lost the Great Patriotic War, as we all know, giving occasion to the present-day grand celebrations in Moscow.
Second World War (WWII), act II
But what about the Second World War? Did it still continue, after the outbreak of the Great Patriotic War? Formally it certainly did. But in actuality it more or less petered ... not out, but sort of ... on. Britain didn’t have any military strength to mount major operations against Hitler. And there was of course no reason to aggravate Britain’s erstwhile enemy Stalin, who was now fortunately otherwise engaged. It rather became sensible for Britain to try to help Stalin in order to weaken Hitler, the remaining active WWII foe. But on the British WWII battlefield against Hitler not much happened, except mostly defensive action in North Africa and Greece.
Then in December 1941 again something unforeseen occurred, moving the Second World War in Europe from the back burner and making it – well, not exactly red hot, but at least briskly bubbling. After Japan had struck the US, Hitler (for some unfathomable reason) declared war on the United States. So now America, with its vast resources, became actively involved in the Second World War in Europe. Britain had at last acquired a powerful ally. In time this led to the allied landings in North Africa and Italy and later to D-day and the liberation of France. Finally Nazi Germany surrendered on May 8th 1945.
WWII vs. GPW
From the dates above we can calculate that WWII lasted for 6 years (1939-45), and GPW only for 4 years (1941-45). But what about the intensity of fighting in these two wars?
The Second Battle of El Alamein (23 Oct.-3 Nov. 1942) is often seen as the turning point of WWII, with good reason. The battle of Stalingrad (which was fought almost at the same time as El Alamein) is similarly considered as the turning point of GPW. Both were fierce battles, but if we count the victims (the sum of the number of soldiers killed on both sides), a dramatic difference appears:
Name of battle Killed (total)
El Alamein, WWII (23 Oct.-3 Nov. 1942): 5 000
Stalingrad, GPW (Sept. 1942-31 Jan. 1943): 750 000
El Alamein was largely a tank battle in an endless desert, so maybe it’s not surprising that there were fewer casualties here than in a place like Stalingrad, where huge numbers of combatants were squeezed into a small area.
So let us continue by taking a look at the total number of victims of a few other famous battles of the Second World War:
Anzio, WWII (22 Jan.-23 May 1944): 10 000
Normandy,France WWII (6 June-19 Aug. 1944): 132 000
Market-Garden, WWII (17-25 Sept. 1944): 16 000
Battle of the Bulge (Ardennes), WWII (16-29 Dec. 1944): 38 000
A similar sample of important battles during the Great Patriotic War gives us the following figures:
Moscow, GPW (Sept. 1941-Jan. 1942): 719 000
Voronezh-Voroshilovgrad, GPW (28 June-24 July 1942): 371 000
Kursk, GPW (4-22 July 1943): 325 000
Operation Bagration, GPW (23 June-29 Aug. 1944): 350 000
Berlin, GPW (16 April-7 May 1945): 250 000
It is well known that the military casualties were immensely larger in Russia than anywhere else. But comparing “the famous WWII battles” and “the famous GPW battles” in this way gives us an unsettling understanding of the horrendous difference between the Second World War and the Great Patriotic War.
It actually seems that the Second World War never was the main war in Europe. Rather, the main event was a merciless gangster war between two ruthless dictators with similar but bitterly opposed totalitarian ideologies – Adolf Hitler (National Socialism) and Josef Stalin (Socialist Nationalism). Unfortunately, the consequences of this gangster war were not limited to the combatants alone. It extended its grisly effects to most nations of Eastern and Central Europe.
Russia’s present leadership has returned to the old Soviet way of looking at Stalin’s accomplishments. Yes, Stalin made some mistakes, they say, but he won the Great Patriotic War and founded the mighty Soviet Empire. And he liberated Europe from "fascism" (= Stalin’s label for Nazism).
Did he? Liberation normally means that you kick out the oppressor, wait for a while so you may receive flowers and champagne from the grateful liberated people, and then return back home. This is what the Allies did in France and elsewhere in Western Europe. But Stalin didn’t. He kicked out the oppressor Hitler, but then he stayed on permanently, oppressing the same people in his own gory fashion, closely resembling Hitler’s. Soviet twilight descended on Eastern and Central Europe, lasting for half a century.
A truly long war
The Second World War is frequently seen as the epitome of a Just War, as a heroic fight between easily discernible Good and Evil, Good Democracy against Evil Totalitarianism. And so it was. But only as long as we don’t get the Second World War mixed up with the Great Patriotic War. Stalin’s fight with Hitler had nothing to do with liberation or democratic ideals. To have Hitler engaged on a second front was of course essential for the Western Allies, from a military point of view. But this didn’t make the GPW a fight between Good and Evil. It was still just a fight between two of the most terrible Evils of the 20th century.
Strictly speaking, WWII never ended in 1945. Because the second totalitarian power that had started it all, Soviet Russia, was still at large. But the democratic camp was too tired and war-weary in 1945 to continue fighting the WWII with arms. Instead, WWII transformed itself into the Cold War. So WWII was indeed a very long war, starting in 1939 and ending in 1991, with the collapse of the second original aggressor, the Soviet Union.
The numbers of killed soldiers in the various battles are taken from: