Russia on Saturday marked the 75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War in Europe, a day after its erstwhile Western allies in the fight against Nazi Germany.
It was the continuation of a tradition dating to the era of Communist dictator Joseph Stalin, who dismissed the Nazi surrender to the Western allies signed in Reims, France, on May 8, 1945, insisting on another signing of the capitulation the next day in the German capital, Berlin, which had fallen to Soviet forces.
That isn’t the only difference between how the wartime allies remember a conflict that remains, for some, a dominating, albeit shifting, cultural reference point in contemporary national identities.
Subsequent politics and propaganda, reassessments and the emergence of new wartime facts, as well as changing cultural tastes and the immediate needs of political leaders and peoples of the day, have altered memory. They also have changed over time how the end of the devastating struggle is marked, as well as how it is remembered, say historians.
Russia has celebrated victory in what it calls “the Great Patriotic War” every year since 1945, but commemoration has undergone a makeover. Parades were often staged without tanks and missiles rumbling across Red Square under the baleful eyes of septuagenarian and octogenarian Communist Party secretaries.
Under the leadership of Russian President Vladimir Putin, however, Victory Day has become a bigger and more militaristic affair, one in which advanced military hardware has been showcased, and Stalin has been lauded in a recasting of patriotism.
But this year, thanks to the coronavirus, the big Moscow celebration scheduled for the 75th anniversary of VE Day was canceled. It was much the same in the rest of Europe, which saw governments shelve plans for brass bands and packed crowds, military parades, concerts and street parties.
Some things never change, though.
In his book Inferno: The World at War, 1939-1945, British military historian Max Hastings notes that each of the victorious nations "emerged from the Second World War confident in the belief that its own role had been decisive in procuring victory.”
Who the key player was in the defeat of the Nazis in Europe remains an issue — canceled celebrations and the pandemic notwithstanding.
While most see the United States as having played the crucial role in vanquishing Adolf Hitler, the British, according to polling data released this week, see themselves as having played the biggest part in the war effort — although they acknowledge that the Nazis would not have been overcome without the Soviet Union bleeding Germany’s Wehrmacht on the Eastern Front.
In contrast, Americans, Germans and the French believe the U.S. war effort ultimately was the most significant contribution in achieving victory in Europe, according to a survey conducted by British pollster YouGov. Recent polls conducted in Russia, however, show Russians are convinced they’re the ones deserving the main credit for Hitler’s defeat — a reflection, possibly, of the huge death toll the country suffered in the war.
An estimated 25 million to 31 million Russians were killed in the conflict — 16 million of them civilians, and more than 8 million from the Red Army. Russians also point to the fact that Soviet forces killed more German soldiers than their Western counterparts, accounting for 76 percent of Germany’s military dead.
Some military historians say death tolls and the number of casualties shouldn’t be seen as reflecting necessarily what was crucial in the defeat of the Nazis. The Allied victory was more complicated than the heroic sacrifice of Soviet soldiers. Historian Anthony Beevor told Britain’s The Times newspaper that Stalin was more callous than Western leaders, who tried to minimize casualties.
“The Red Army dispatched militiamen into attacks without any weapons and basically expected them to stop Panzer divisions with their own bodies,” he said. “They were suffering a 42 percent fatal casualty rate. They just threw away a quarter of a million lives.” Others say Western attitudes toward the Soviet Union are colored by the fact that Stalin concluded a nonaggression pact with Hitler in 1939 that was instrumental in allowing the Nazi leader to unleash a world war, before turning his attention to Russia.
The U.S. mobilized about the same number of troops as Russia but fought on more major front lines — not only in Europe but also in the Pacific and North Africa. American war production — its ability to churn out astounding numbers of bombers, tanks and warships — was possibly the key war-winning factor, say some historians, who point out American factories produced more airplanes than all of the other major war powers combined.
And without U.S. supplies, the Soviet war effort would have been massively diminished. America supplied Stalin with 400,000 trucks, 2,000 locomotives, more than 10,000 rail rolling stock and billions of dollars' worth of warplanes, tanks, food and clothing. At the same time, the U.S. also supplied nearly a quarter of Britain’s munitions.
“We were lucky to have America as an ally,” Russian historian Anatoly Razumov told VOA recently. He said American technology and supplies formed the base of Russia’s war effort. “And we want to close our eyes to that. It’s shameful! Sometimes I talk to ordinary people who don’t want to understand. We were together during the war. How would it be if we hadn’t had this help? It was not a victory of just one country over Hitler. It was a victory of the whole world over him.”
That view was echoed 75 years ago by Winston Churchill, Britain’s iconic wartime leader, when at 3 p.m. (London time) on May 8, 1945, he broadcast to the British people to announce victory in Europe.
He recapped his nation’s lonely stand against Hitler in 1940, but he highlighted the gradual appearance of “great allies” in the fight, suggesting victory had been achieved because of a combined effort. “Finally,” he said, “the whole world was combined against the evildoers, who are now prostrate before us.”
Churchill concluded his broadcast: “We may allow ourselves a brief period of rejoicing. … Advance Britannia! Long live the cause of freedom! God save the king!”
Britons allowed themselves a respite Friday from coronavirus woes to mark VE Day. The celebration was a more muted and stationary affair than had been planned, as it was in neighboring France and elsewhere in Europe. Parisians waved the French tricolor from balconies. Britons had tea parties in their gardens and along their streets — making sure they remained a safe distance from each other as they raised a glass to the countless individual sacrifices that led to victory in Europe in 1945.
How the war was won — who deserves the lion’s share of credit — seemed lost at the moment of quiet celebration and as they listened to a broadcast by Queen Elizabeth, who, like other Western leaders, used wartime sacrifices to inspire hope in the fight against the coronavirus now. Weaving the themes of wartime endurance and success, she said Britain was still a country that those who fought in WWII would “recognize and admire.”
And she added: “Never give up, never despair.”
In Washington, war veterans joined U.S. President Donald Trump in laying a wreath at the World War II Memorial. “These heroes are living testaments to the American spirit of perseverance and victory, especially in the midst of dark days,” White House spokesman Judd Deere said, cutting through the clamor of historical debate.