Jewish World Review May 16, 2005 / 7 Iyar 5765
Games with history
Think of it: There was an American president standing in Red Square, right in front of Lenin's Tomb, reviewing goose-stepping Russian troops, some of them dressed in Soviet uniforms of World War II vintage.
It would have taken a sci-fi writer with quite an imagination to come up with a wild scene like that back in, say, 1985, when the Cold War and its nuclear arms race were still on. But that was the scene on the front pages as the world observed the 60th anniversary of V-E Day.
The images from Red Square may provide a useful corrective to the foreshortened view of the Second World War that a lot of Americans carry around in the back of our heads, a view in which the Eastern Front was just one long backdrop for the real show.
In this country, the popular history of WWII is a Hollywood-style series of disjointed flashbacks, as in the old black-and-white Movietone newsreels:
Hitler invades Poland. Blitzkrieg in France! Dunkirk and the gallant little ships that saved an army. The Blitz . . . JAPS BOMB PEARL HARBOR . . . The Doolittle Raid. Guadalcanal. Rommel vs. Montgomery in North Africa. Kasserine Pass and El Alamein, Salerno and Monte Cassino. D-DAY! The Battle of the Bulge and the Bridge at Remagen. PATTON! John Wayne in "The Sands of Iwo Jima." ATOM BOMB ENDS WAR. And, oh yes, the Russians also fought.
That cursory, one-eyed history of the Second World War says most about another conflict, the Cold War. For it wasn't just the Soviets who played games with history to magnify their heroism; the West played with history for its own purposes, and not very subtly.
Aside from the 900-day siege of Leningrad and the Battle of Stalingrad, which was the turning point of the whole war if it could be said to have one, the Eastern Front remains a blur to this generation of Americans (like so much else in history).
Perhaps that's because the sheer scale of the war in the East defies imagination, and dwarfed every other front. The front line extended for thousands of miles from Russia's frozen north to the simmering steppes of central Asia.
All of the available figures have to be approximations, but a third of the country's male population would be called up to serve, 12 million would be lost, 6 million of them in combat. (Compare to the 400,000 American lives lost.) Some 13 million Soviet civilians would die during the war years.
Two out of every three German soldiers lost during the war would fall on the eastern front. To this day, Kursk ever hear of it? remains the greatest tank battle in the history of armored warfare. The war in the East was no sideshow. In terms of sheer numbers, geography and duration, it was the main event.
Needless to say, or maybe not so needless, the Russians have their own skewed history of what they call The Great Patriotic War. To quote one 84-year-old veteran of the Red Army who was attending the ceremonies in Red Square: "Of course the Allies were an enormous help, but they came into the war only at the end. If the Americans and British had helped us earlier, we would have had far fewer dead on our soil."
Brushed over in that myopic version of the war is the long, defiant year Britain stood alone against the Nazi onslaught and the Nazi-Soviet Pact that made the war possible. One is reminded of what Viscount Montgomery was supposed to have told a Russian general who wanted to know what had taken the Allies so long to start a second front: "Sir, I was fighting on the first Second Front when you were still allied with Hitler."
How easily history can be forgotten. Or selected for political convenience. The immense numbers of casualties cited by the Russians include millions who were murdered by the Nazis' willing collaborators in much of the Soviet empire, where, as in France, there were many eager to do Hitler's dirty work.
No, history is not a simple thing. And certainly not as simple as Vladimir Putin made it out to be when he told the crowd at a commemorative gathering at the Bolshoi Theater: "For three long years, the Soviet Army in fact almost single-handedly battled against fascism."
In fact? Single-handedly? So much for Britain's Finest Hour and the whole Pacific Theater of Operations. Not to mention North Africa and Italy. On such occasions, one is reminded that Russia's current autocrat is an ex-KGB man, and maybe not so ex-.
Once again a Russian leader is appealing to patriotic sentiment, just as Stalin did during the Great Patriotic War, to divert attention from his own ruthless use of power. No, history is no simple thing, but it still repeats. And it still teaches, but do we learn?
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