Celebrations to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War are an opportunity for Western governments to re-write History argues Chris Bambery
The 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War (the war with Japan went on for another four months) sees a growing spat between Russia on the one side and Western governments on the other. Russian President, Vladimir Putin, argues that the United States is pressing its allies not to attend the 9 May celebrations marking the anniversary in Moscow.
You do not have to defend Putin, or indeed the Soviet union’s wartime dictator, Joseph Stalin, in any way to recognise one simple fact – the Russians played the overwhelming part in the destruction of Hitler’s Third Reich, and the price they paid was far, far greater than that of their principal allies. That is not to disrespect the sacrifice of British, American and other servicemen but it is a truth most of them would have gladly admitted back in May 1945. My father served in the Royal Navy from 1939 until the defeat of Japan and always told me that “the Russians won the war,” which made me puzzled why they were never featured in my regular diet of war comics - these gave the impression the Brits won the war with a bit of help from the Americans.
Russian losses were staggering, 20 times those of Britain and the USA combined, amounting to 29 million casualties. The Red Army inflicted three quarters of German casualties.
From Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union in July 1941 the Germans threw everything into that campaign, leaving a few divisions in North Africa to fight the British and in Western Europe to garrison the occupation that followed the Fall of France in June 1940. Even after the Allied landings in France in June 1944 they continued to prioritise the Eastern Front.
When British and American forces (the former included Canadian, Polish and other nationalities) crossed the Rhine into Germany in March 1945 there were just 26 German divisions in Western Germany, the bulk of them holding the Baltic ports. As the Russians advanced on Berlin for the kill they faced 170 divisions. In that one operation they lost 300,000 dead, missing or wounded.
In my 'The Second World War: A Marxist History' I am scathing about Stalin’s alliance with Hitler - without the material Russia supplied Germany it could not have conquered Western Europe - and about his conduct of the war, particularly in the early months of the German invasion. I quote a Russian officer after the fall of Berlin who quipped:
“Yes we got to Berlin, but did we have to go via Stalingrad?”
The Red Army was brutal, not least towards its own soldiers. The workers in the factories turning out the weapons needed to defeat Hitler worked in savage conditions, and national minorities who Stalin suspected of being disloyal were rounded up en masse and deported to Siberia.
But the people of the Soviet Union fought the Third Reich not through love of Stalin but because they came to understand Hitler was waging a genocidal war from the start of his Russian campaign. The Jews were murdered from day one but so too were “commissars” (Communist Party members), while captured Red Army soldiers were at first left to starve and then later used as slave labour to be worked to death. Civilians were treated as slaves too and denied food.
So one does not have to bow before either Stalin or Putin, to recognise in marking the 70th anniversary of the end of World War Two there is something highly unseemly in this Western boycott of Russia’s anniversary events. If they’d wanted to criticise Russia’s takeover of Crimea they could have done so, but still marked the sacrifice of the Russian people.
But then the actual end of the war in Europe set the tone for all this.
At 2.41am on 7 May in Northern France two German commanders signed the surrender of Germany on behalf of Hitler’s designated successor, Admiral Doenitz, at the headquarters of the overall commander of Western Forces in Europe, the American General Eisenhower. The surrender document was drawn up by the Americans without any reference to their British and Russian allies. No senior British commander or government minister was present when it was signed. A junior Russian officer was flown in at the last minute. Stalin refused to accept this as the Red Army was still fighting to take Prague.
The Russians staged their own surrender ceremony in Berlin the next day (which is why they mark Victory Day on 9 May not on 8 May as do the British and Americans). The British commander on the Western Front, Field Marshal Montgomery also staged his own separate ceremony for the cameras.
None of the Allies then or now paid any attention to the wishes of the people of Europe (in August I’ll come onto the realities of the war in the east when we mark VJ Day) or to the sacrifices they made.
No mention will be made this week of the Yugoslav partisans who liberated their country with just a little help from the Red Army at the end. They fought a colossal liberation struggle, suffering more casualties proportionally than even the Russians. Nor too the Italian partisans who liberated Milan, Turin, Genoa, Venice and all of Northern Italy with an insurrection in April 1945. Nor the Greek resistance which, having taken over their country in August 1944 found Winston Churchill ordering in British troops to attack them, beginning a brutal civil war that scars Greece until today.
What celebrations will there be in Setif in Algeria to mark what happened there on VE Day on 7 May 1945? Eight thousand people demonstrated under the slogan, “For the Liberation of the People, Long Live France and Independent Algeria". They were brandishing the green and white flag once flown by the legendary leader of resistance to the French colonisation of their country, Abdul el-Kader.
The French sub-prefect of the town ordered his chief of police to seize the banners. He was warned that might mean a fight and the sub-prefect replied, “All right then there’ll be a fight.”
The police opened fire but were overwhelmed by the crowd. Arms were seized and demonstrators fanned out across the area killing 103 colonists. The French response was savage, with planes and warships bombarding civilian homes. An official French inquiry found 500 to 600 casualties occurred, In this “Savage War of Peace”, the British writer, Alistair Horne, put the figure at 6,000.
I focus on this aware that I could have talked about such actions by the British (I’ll return to this in August as we mark the end of the war with Japan). Both Churchill and the French leader, de Gaulle, had fought Germany to retain the power of their respective states and of their overseas Empires.
After France had surrendered, with a pro-Hitler regime taking control of government, de Gaulle had fled to London pleading for resistance to the Germans. The army he assembled under British patronage was largely made up of African and Arab troops because the French officers in the colonial garrisons were right wing and preferred a German victory.
Some 300,000 Moroccans fought for de Gaulle but, as his forces reached France after the Allied landings in June 1944 and he could enlist more white French troops, the Arabs and Africans were unceremoniously dispatched home so that the French army which reached Germany was mainly while. This policy was called blanchissement (whitening).
A West African soldier in de Gaulle’s army, Yeo Kouhona, recalled how his unit was withdrawn from the front line and sent to the south of France far from the fighgting, saying:
“We had started the war and it was almost over now and we were being replaced by French troops who’d been afraid.”
Bitterness at such treatment fed into the uprising at Setif. That helped spark an eight-year liberation struggle which would drive the French out of Algeria and bring France itself close to civil war. Across the colonial world, despite the wishes of Churchill, de Gaulle and their Dutch and Belgian counterparts that pattern would be repeated as their empires passed away. The world had been turned upside down.
In all the ceremonies this week there will be no mention of Setif. Such is the way of our rulers.
Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.