The Great Patriotic War
Amna Malik Vice President, Pakistan-Shanghai Cooperation Organisation Friendship Forum
T he Nazi invasion of the USSR in June 1941 heralded the beginning of the most titanic battle in the history of humanity. The war ended in complete defeat for Nazi Germany less than four years later with the fall of Berlin on May 9, 1941. Over 20,000,000 Soviet citizens and soldiers died in the struggle to liberate the Motherland from the fascist aggressors. Standing squarely in the middle of the Soviet Union’s timeline is the Great Patriotic War, the Russian name for the eastern front of World War II. In recent years historians have tended to give this war less importance than it deserves. The war was more than just an interlude between the ‘prewar’ and ‘postwar’ periods. It changed the lives of hundreds of millions of individuals. For the survivors, it also changed the world in which they lived. During the nineteenth century international trade, lending and migration developed without much restriction. Great empires arose but did not much impede the movement of goods or people. By the twentieth century, however, several newly industrializing countries were turning to economic stability by controlling and diverting trade boundaries. German leaders wanted to insulate Germany from the world by creating a closed trading bloc based on a new empire. To get an empire they launched a naval arms race that ended in Germany’s military and diplomatic encirclement by Britain, France and Russia. To break out of containment they attacked France and Russia and this led to World War I; the war brought deaths and destruction on a previously unimagined scale. World War I undermined the international economic order. The international economy disintegrated into a few relatively closed trading blocs. The British, French and Dutch reorganised their trade on protected colonial lines, but Germany and Italy did not have colonies to exploit. Hitler led Germany back to the dream of an empire in central and eastern Europe; this threatened war with other interested regional powers. Germany’s attacks on CzechoSlovakia, Poland (which drew in France and Britain) and the Soviet Union aimed to create ‘living space’ for ethnic Germans through genocide and resettlement. Italy and the states of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire formed more exclusive trading links. Mussolini wanted the Mediterranean and a share of Africa for Italy, and eventually joined the war on France and Britain to get them. In the interwar years the Soviet Union, largely shut out of western markets, but blessed by a large population and an immense territory, developed within closed frontiers. The Soviet strategy of building ‘socialism in a single country’ showed both similarities and differences in comparison with national economic developments in Germany, Italy and Japan. Among the differences were its inclusive if paternalistic multinational ethic of the Soviet family of nations with the Russians as ‘elder brother’, and the modernising goals that Stalin imposed by decree upon the Soviet economic space. Soviet war preparations began in the 1920s. The context for this decision was the Soviet leadership’s perception of internal and external threats and their knowledge of history. The ‘war scare’ of 1927 reminded them that the government of an economically and militarily backward country could be undermined would immediately accentuate internal tensions with the peasantry who supplied food and military recruits and with the urban workers who would have to tighten their belts. They could not forget the Russian experience of World War I when the industrial mobilisation of a poorly integrated agrarian economy for modern warfare had ended in economic collapse and the overthrow of the government. The possibility of a repetition could only be eliminated by countering internal and external threats simultaneously. Thus, it served to trigger change. In the mid-1930s the abstract threat of war gave way to real threats from Germany and Japan. Soviet war preparations took the form of accelerated war production and ambitious mobilisation planning. In the summer of 1939 Stalin accepted an offer of friendship from Hitler; in August their foreign ministers Molotov and Ribbentrop signed a treaty of trade and non-aggression and In this way Stalin bought two more years of peace. In the summer of 1940 Hitler decided to end the ‘peace’. Having conquered France he found that Britain would not come to terms; the reason, he thought, was that the British were counting on an undefeated Soviet Union in Germany’s rear. He decided to remove the Soviet Union from the equation
as quickly as possible; he could then conclude the war in the west and win a German empire in the east at a single stroke. A year later he launched the greatest land invasion force in history against the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union remained at peace with Japan until August 1945, a result of the Red Army’s success in resisting a probing Japanese border incursion in the Far East in the spring and summer of 1939. In June 1941 Hitler ordered his generals to destroy the Red Army and secure most of the Soviet territory in Europe. German forces swept into the Baltic region, Belorussia, the Ukraine, which now incorporated eastern Poland, and Russia itself. Stalin and his armies were taken by surprise. Hundreds of thousands of Soviet troops fell into encirclement. By the end of September, having advanced more than a thousand kilometers on a front more than a thousand kilometers wide, the Germans had captured Kiev, put a stranglehold on Leningrad and were approaching Moscow. The German advance was rapid. But the invaders suffered unexpectedly heavy losses. Moreover, they were met by scorched earth: the retreating defenders removed or wrecked the industries and essential services of the abandoned territories before the occupiers arrived. German supply lines were stretched to the limit and beyond. Desperate resistance denied Hitler his quick victory. Leningrad starved but did not surrender and Moscow was German forces were then destroyed by the Red Army’s defence of Stalingrad and its winter counter-offensive. Their position now untenable, the German forces in the south began a long retreat. In the summer of 1943 Hitler staged his last eastern offensive near Kursk; the German offensive failed and was answered by a more devastating Soviet counter-offensive. The German Army could no longer hope for a stalemate and its eventual expulsion from Russia became inevitable. The Red Army’s journey from The particular Soviet contribution to the Allied war effort day of the war. In Churchill’s words the Red Army ‘tore the guts’ out of the German military machine. For three years it faced approximately 90 per cent of the German vast majority of Allied war deaths, roughly 25 million. In 1945 Stalin declared that the country had passed the ‘test’ of war. Of those alive when war broke out, almost scarred by physical and emotional trauma, by lost families and treasured possessions, and by the horrors they had been caught up in. Moreover the everyday life of most people remained grindingly hard as they laboured in the following years to cover the costs of demobilising the army and industry and rebuilding shattered communities human assets and a quarter to a third of its physical wealth. The simultaneous destruction of physical and human assets normally brings transient losses but not lasting impoverishment. The transient losses arise because the people and assets that remain must be adapted to each other before being recombined and this takes time. Losses of productivity and incomes only persist when the allocation system cannot cope or suffers lasting damage. In the Soviet case the allocation system was undamaged. Economic demobilisation and the reconversion of industry restored civilian output to prewar levels within a single a living nation.