Soviet troops advance under fire
June 22nd marked the 65th anniversary of the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union. Since the opening months of the war found Soviet soldiers completely unprepared for the onslaught, in Russia this date passes with far less notice than the VE Day celebrations in May. All around the world people prefer commemorating victories to defeats, though military strategists have understood since the Spartans that more lessons are learned from failure than success.
The Wehrmacht following Napoleon's path into Russia
In popular memory, most Americans probably don't know very much about the Eastern Front. Part of this is because there are very few good American or British movies on the subject, with the silly Enemy at the Gates probably the only recent example of a popular film about the Eastern Front.
The attack began on June 22, 1941, with the largest invasion in human history. Hitler's Wehrmacht - combined with Finnish, Romanian, Bulgarian, Italian and European volunteer SS formations numbered close to 4 million soldiers, advancing on a line 1,600 miles long from the Gulf of Finland to the Black Sea. By 1945, Nazi Germany and its allies had lost 5 million soldiers, and Soviet military losses were more than double that number. Some historians believe that the Soviet Union lost as many as 17 million civilians in the war.
Soviet troops armed with SK machine guns advance through the snow
On the other side of the English Channel divide, many Russians are unaware that the Red Army finished the war in 1945 with major help from American industry. During the war the U.S. supplied the Red Army with over 375,000 trucks, mostly through the Arctic (and U-boat infested) sealanes into Murmansk. These trucks made it possible for the Soviet General Zhukov to supply his troops during the Red Blitzkrieg in the summer of 1944. While it is true that for the first two years of the war, the USSR largely bore the brunt of Hitler's fury alone, by June 1944, with the Allies landing in Normandy and the Soviets driving into Belarus, the two forces were finally fighting together.
There are some limited parallels today, in the sense that both the U.S. and Russia are still fighting a form of fascism, though one more global in reach and not localized to one country or region. Just as it took two years to finally coordinate Allied and Soviet strategy, so it has taken some years since the September 11th attacks for the U.S. to view Russia as a full partner in the fight against jihadism. The Beslan atrocity in 2004 finally reinforced to U.S. foreign policy thinkers that Russia was not facing just another separatist movement with local objectives, but the same brutal nihilism masquerading as religion that killed 2,900 people in New York, Pennsylvania and Washington D.C.
Victory: American GIs shaking hands with Red Army soldiers at the Elbe in April 1945