U.S. President George W. Bush rained heavily on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s 60th anniversary war-end parade when he said the United States had renounced the Yalta agreement that conceded to Moscow postwar control over Eastern Europe. Putin had every right to be annoyed.
Yalta was in February 1945, and Bush was born in June 1946. So he probably found it hard to realize that Yalta simply recognized a reality at the time — namely that Moscow already controlled East Europe. And how about Moscow’s many concessions at Yalta? Can they be revoked, too?
If not for those concessions, a slew of other territories — Greece, Turkey, Iran, Manchuria, Finland, Berlin, much more of Germany, Austria, all of the Korean Peninsula, and even northern Hokkaido — could have ended up under full or partial Soviet control.
The Anglo-centric view of world affairs has 20-20 hindsight where its own concessions are concerned, and zero-zero when it comes to concessions by the other side. Our Japanese friends share the same problem, and not coincidentally.
The same is true when it comes to recognizing the Soviet role in winning the war against Adolf Hitler. The Anglo-centrists lavish attention on Allied 1943 victories in North Africa and Italy, and the 1944 Normandy landings in particular. Some even like to see these events as crucial to Germany’s defeat. But these battles were sideshows compared with Stalingrad and other Soviet battles on the Eastern front at the same time.
Hitler threw 80 percent of German military might, including a 3 million Nazi army, into the vain effort to defeat the Soviet Union. If even a small part of that effort had been diverted to oppose the Allied forces in western Europe and north Africa, today there would be no more talk about splendid Allied victories. We would all be learning German.
The crucial Kursk battle of July 1943 alone involved more than 50 German divisions, more than half of which were destroyed, setting the stage for the Soviet advance on Berlin.
Meanwhile, the simultaneous Allied landings at Sicily, often seen as a turning point in the Allied war against Hitler, faced only two German divisions and a few weak Italian divisions.
The Normandy landings, another claimed turning point, faced only 200,000 German troops and a handful of Panzer tank divisions. At Kursk alone the Soviets faced and defeated close to 800,000 enemy troops and 3,000 tanks.
By 1945 at Yalta, the U.S. and Britain had no trouble recognizing the debt the world owed to the Soviets for their role and sufferings in defeating Hitler. As Winston Churchill wrote at the time: “When Stalin entered the room we all rose and, for some reason, stood to attention.”
Today, most of this seems to have been forgotten. We are reminded constantly of German brutality against the European Jews. There is even a word for it “The Holocaust.” But there is no word for the equally monstrous gassings, executions and starvation of millions of Soviet citizens and soldiers captured by the Germans. Except for their sacrifices, there would not be a single person of Jewish origin alive west of the Urals today.
Some say Moscow’s clumsy efforts to appease Germany with the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact of 1939 contributed to its later military problems. But the Soviets can and do claim that Western appeasement of Hitler at Munich, which came earlier, was, in the long run, much more harmful.
In Moscow, where I was stationed in the early 1960s, the resentments still boiled. One was over the enormous imbalance between Soviet and Western losses in the struggle to defeat Hitler. The ratio of military casualties was 9-1. Total Soviet population loss was put at over 20 million. Property damage was incalculable.
Resentments did not stop there. Like some Japanese, many wanted to believe that at Munich and elsewhere the West had deliberately sought to encourage Hitler to attack east rather than west.
Pro-German elements in London were long suspected of trying to get a truce with Hitler that would have allowed the Nazis to concentrate even more troops on the Eastern front. Former U.S. President Harry Truman’s 1941 remark about being happy to see the Germans and the Soviets annihilating each other was well remembered.
The Allied delay in opening a second front against Hitler — originally promised in 1942 and then in 1943 — was an especially sore point. For two long years Moscow was forced almost single-handedly to bear the full brunt of the Nazi onslaught. The one saving grace was a Japanese decision to abandon plans to attack into Siberia, in favor of further advances into China.
When the second front finally arrived at Normandy in mid-1944, Soviet troops were already advancing on Berlin. Some believe that even Normandy would not have occurred if Soviet troops had not already been moving into Eastern Europe.
The final insult was Yalta, where a war-weary and weakened Soviet Union was forced to give up many of the fruits of its hard-earned victory — plans for the future control of Germany especially.
True, nothing can excuse the brutality of subsequent Soviet behavior toward the East European peoples. But Moscow could at least claim that many of those peoples had assisted or condoned Hitler’s attack, and that it had the right to make sure there could be no repetition — a right that has been steadily eroded as these peoples line up to join NATO.
The U.S. in its various post-1945 efforts to extend hegemony over neighboring Latin American nations has had no such excuse.
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