I’d contemplated writing this post to be released on the 6th of June to coincide with the commeroration of the D-Day landings but in the end I felt it might have been churlish to do so. What is most interesting about this decision on my part is that it says a lot about the overall point I wanted to make. I’ll come to that in a bit.
The key point I wanted to make was that I get really frustrated with the narrative of D-Day being “the” turning point in World War II or the beginning of the end to pinch a phrase from one of Churchill’s early speaches. Quite clearly it was not. The German army, or Wehrmacht, of June 1944 was a largely spent force. The troops stationed on the Atlantic Wall were generally of very low quality, indeed they were often non-Germans pressed into service such for example in the Ost battalions. Try researching of tale of Koreans fighting for the Germans who were captured during D-Day; they had been pressed into service by the Japanese, then the Soviets and finally the Germans after being captured by the respective nation. It gives you an idea of the desperate straits the Wehrmacht was in at the time to raise enough manpower to defend their various fronts.
This of course begs the question why the Wehrmacht was so weak. The answer lies in the east and the sacrifices made by the Soviet people. Nazi Germany was defeated not on the beaches of Normandy but in the streets of Stalingrad and the steppes around Kursk. At Stalingrad Hitler was prevented from breaking into the oil rich Causcasus and indeed from driving into the largely undefended British Middle East. At Kursk the final German offensive in the east was not only halted but reversed by a massive Soviet counter attack that effectively gutted German military capability. From that point on the Eastern Front was an open wound through which Germany would eventually bleed itself white. The history of these campaigns is well documented by many experts so I’m not going to go into any more detail here suffice to say that you don’t have to take my word for how key they were to the defeat of Germany.
This brings me back to my starting point and the narrative of D-Day being a turning point in the war. I guess what I’m saying is that for us in the west it was the key moment. There is no denying that the sacrifices made on the day and in the campaign ahead were significant and not just for servicemen. We have a tendency to forget that the casualty toll amongst French civillians in Normandy far outweighed the loss of Allied military personnel for instance. What is clear is that D-Day has become a defining part of our national identity; it forms part of that collection of wartime cliches (see also Dunkirk, Battle of Britain and El Alamein) that some politicians would have us believe contribute to our “Britishness”. It is our turning point then rather than “the” turning point. In that sense the war fought between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany doesn’t fit with the narrative.
Stalin was always a problematic ally for Churchill, fitting into the mould of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”. I was a child of the 70’s and 80’s when the Soviet Union and the threat of nuclear war was something people were afraid of. Seeing the Soviets as the saviours of Europe from Nazi tyranny was not something I ever encountered when studying History at school. A friend of mine with more pop culture references than I describes Hitler fighting Stalin as “Sauron vs Voldemort”. Sitting on the wings it is difficult to say who you would prefer to win. As historians though and indeed as human beings, we should not and cannot forget the sacrifices made by other people in other places toward the same ends. I have a very strong aversion to Vladimir Putin and all he stands for but I had to agree with his comment about the Soviet contribution to victory in World War II because whatever else he is, he was right about that.
So, if I feel so strongly about this why couldn’t I hit the publish button on the 6th June? I think the simple reason is that I have, at some level, bought into the idea that Britain somehow defeated Nazi Germany and that all of our contributions were the most significant ones. There is an emotional brake for saying out loud what I intellectually know to be true. Whilst I find this to be frustrating in some sense I’m also glad I can recognise it. As a historian I don’t think you can ever be truly objective about what you write about, but you can at least be honest about your prejudices.