IN a speech last Sunday marking the 76th anniversary of victory in the Second World War, Vladimir Putin apparently spoke of the USSR having been ‘alone’ in the fight against Nazi Germany.
The Russian president told a rally in Moscow’s Red Square: ‘We shall always remember that this noble feat was committed precisely by the Soviet people.
‘At the most difficult time of war, in decisive battles which determined the outcome of the battle against fascism, our people was alone – alone in the laborious, heroic and sacrificial path towards victory.’
The official Kremlin transcript used the word ‘united’ rather than ‘alone’ and it is unclear if Putin deliberately changed it because of current tensions with the West.
His remarks were later challenged by Andrei Kolesnikov, head of the Russian Domestic Politics and Political Institutions programme at the Carnegie Centre in Moscow.
‘The Soviet people were not alone,’ he said. ‘There were Britain and the US, to say nothing of the partisan movements in Yugoslavia, Italy and other countries. So this is simply unfair, unjust and – most importantly – incorrect.’
If Putin’s seeming distortion was intended, it was a particular insult to Britain, the only country that was truly alone at the most pivotal point of the war. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he also failed to acknowledge the part the Soviet Union had played in enabling Hitler’s aggression.
In the summer of 1940, after German armies conquered the Low Countries and France, forcing the evacuation of our troops via Dunkirk, there was no imminent prospect of any effective military force coming to Britain’s aid.
With Hitler threatening to invade, many in high places here saw a peace deal with the Nazi dictator as the best option, even though this would seal German hegemony over Western Europe. But in one of the most momentous turning points in history, Prime Minister Winston Churchill persuaded the waverers that the only realistic option was fight on to the end.
If Britain had accepted Nazi terms, the war would have been over – and Hitler, secure in the West, would almost certainly have turned east as soon as possible to attack the Soviet Union.
As it was, the USSR – ruled by Joseph Stalin – was effectively an ally of Germany at that time. The Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact, sensationally signed on the eve of war in August 1939, had enabled both countries to invade Poland unchallenged and carve it up between them.
From then on, the Soviets supplied the Third Reich with millions of tons of vital raw materials such as oil, ore and rubber, which kept the Nazi war machine turning over, as well as sending vast quantities of grain and other foodstuffs.
They provided a secret naval base for the Germans near Murmansk in Arctic Russia, intended for submarine maintenance and attacks on shipping. Even on June 22, 1941, when Hitler finally invaded the Soviet Union with three million troops in Operation Barbarossa, trains were still transporting supplies to Germany.
By that time, Britain had been fighting the Germans for almost two years, now helped by Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa who had rallied to the cause.
While the Soviets were keeping assiduously to their pact with the Nazis, the RAF had in 1940 repulsed the German air force in the Battle of Britain, ending the threat of invasion.
At sea, there had been heartening Royal Navy successes against the battleships Graf Spee and Bismarck, while on land the British Army’s campaign in the Western Desert was getting under way. At the same time, the RAF’s bombing war against Germany was taking its first faltering steps.
Once Hitler launched Barbarossa, Churchill – no lover of communism – pledged Britain’s full support for the Soviets, saying: ‘Any man or state who fights against Nazism will have our aid. We are resolved to destroy Hitler and every vestige of the Nazi regime.’
From September 1941, Britain started sending war material to Russia via the hazardous Arctic convoys, landing supplies at Archangel and Murmansk. By the end of the war in 1945, some four million tons of vital goods had been transported across the freezing seas, including tanks, fighter planes, railway engines, trucks, fuel, ammunition, raw materials and food.
More than 3,000 merchant seamen and Royal Navy sailors died as they ran the gauntlet of German submarines, surface ships and aircraft to help keep their new ally in the war.
So, from the start, the USSR was never ‘alone’ in its conflict with Germany, which it called the Great Patriotic War. Instead, in 1941 it was joining Britain in the fight.
It has been argued that Stalin forged the 1939 pact with Hitler to give him time to build up his country’s defences. But in the ensuing period of almost two years, he repeatedly ignored warnings of the coming invasion and when it happened, the Germans initially swept all before them.
The Soviet dictator’s reaction was shock and disbelief. Instead of rallying his people, he locked himself in his dacha outside Moscow, seemingly on the brink of a nervous breakdown. When members of the Politburo turned up to urge him to take control, he thought at first that they had come to execute him.
In the end, of course, the people of the USSR did fight back with courage and fortitude against Hitler’s fanatical racial war of conquest and extermination.
Soviet soldiers endured some of the fiercest battles in history until their victories at Stalingrad and Kursk in 1943 began to turn the tide. Gradually they pushed back the enemy and in June 1944 the Allied landings in Normandy trapped the Germans in an unwinnable two-front war.
Perhaps the years when the Soviets fought their series of great land battles are what Putin meant by being alone. If so, he should have made it clearer.
But even before the Allies could take the field on mainland Europe, they were helping relieve the pressure on the USSR by engaging Hitler’s forces elsewhere. Britain, and later America, attacked Germany with devastating bombing campaigns and in November 1942, the British victory at El Alamein cleared German troops out of North Africa. Meanwhile in the Atlantic, the war against the U-boats was gradually being won.
Following the Normandy landings, the Allies pursued and destroyed the Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe in the West before finally linking up with the Soviets on the Elbe River at Torgau, near Leipzig, on April 25, 1945, closing the ring around the Nazis. Five days later, Hitler committed suicide.
By the time the red flag of the USSR was raised over the ruins of Berlin in May 1945, the Soviet military and civilian death toll was a staggering 27million.
That’s why today it is the received wisdom of some historians that victory over Nazi Germany was bought with the blood of the Russians, seemingly dismissing the Allied involvement almost as a sideshow.
There’s no question that the Soviets suffered most and inflicted most casualties on the Germans. But surely arguments about who did what and when dishonour the fallen by turning their sacrifices into a game of statistics?
Suffice it to say that all who served helped rid the world of the scourge of Nazism and every death was a tragedy, whether it was inflicted singly or in millions.
Next month sees the 80th anniversary of Operation Barbarossa, which will doubtless be marked with solemnity by Russia. Perhaps it would be an opportune moment for Putin to set the record straight.