The most striking aspect of the German-Soviet conflict in World War II was the vastness of its dimensions. With scarcely an interlude, the fighting lasted for 3 years, 10 months, and 16 days. From autumn 1941 to autumn 1943 the length of the front was never less than 2,400 miles and for a time late in 1942 it reached 3,060 miles. The conflict seesawed across eastern and central Europe between the Elbe and the Volga, the Alps, and the Caucasus. The German armies thrust 1,200 miles into the Soviet Union and Soviet troops countermarched 1,500 miles to Berlin. The total number of troops continuously engaged averaged between 8 and 9 million, and the losses were appalling. The Wehrmacht dead from all causes apparently numbered between 3 and 3.5 million. The military service deaths on the Soviet side reached more than 12 million, about 47 percent of the grand total (26.8 million) of soldiers of all nations killed in World War II.1 The war and the occupation cost the Soviet Union some 7 million civilians and Germany about 1.5 million. The losses, civilian and military, of Finland, the Baltic States, and eastern and southeastern European countries added millions more.
The great struggle completely unhinged the traditional European balance of power, and the line on which it ended retained all the essential characteristics of a military front. The war consolidated the Soviet regime in Russia, and enabled it to impose the Communist system on its neighbors, Finland excepted, and on the Soviet occupation zone in Germany. The victory made the Soviet Union the second-ranking world power.
The Soviet victory was a victory of raw manpower and industrial production by a regime that could exploit both with complete ruthlessness. The Germans contributed in two ways: after their initial blitzkrieg attempts failed, by trying to force a stalemate in the World War I style; and by the extreme and uncompromising nature of their war aims. The one placed a price in blood and matériel on ground; but the price could not be set higher than the Soviet Union could pay and, consequently, the Soviet leadership was guaranteed a virtually unbroken series of victories without which it might not have been able to extract such heavy sacrifices from its people.
The other gave the Soviet people no choice except that between an indigenous and a foreign tyranny.
However serious, all the German mistakes counted for less than the genuine, spontaneous heroism, self-sacrifice, and industry of the Soviet people. The Soviet bureaucracy proved itself capable of mobilizing manpower, industry, and agriculture for the war effort even under the tremendous handicap of having lost in the first months nearly two-thirds of its resources, industrial plant capacity, and agricultural production. The principal achievements were the relocation and rebuilding of existing industries, the construction of new mines and plants, the development of new agricultural lands, and, far from least, the unprecedented and unequaled concentration on war production. In actuality, the absolute increase in Soviet productive capacity was less important than the massive concentration on turning out the implements of land warfare, guns, ammunition, tanks, and fighter and ground-support aircraft.
The Soviet Union enjoyed certain important advantages over the other major belligerents. It fought on one front. Except to a minor extent in the Far East, it did not have to contemplate the emergence of other theaters. It fought an exclusively land war. It fought on its own or immediately adjacent territory and hence did not need to establish lengthy new supply lines, particularly over water, or construct and stock remote bases. Its troops and civilian population generated economic demands of a much lower order than did those of most of the other belligerents. Additionally, the Soviet Union received 10.2 billion dollars' worth of lend-lease assistance, mostly from the United States. Although, as the Russians maintain, they fought the war with weapons of their own design and manufacture, that they could do so owed in no small part to the support it received through lend-lease. Between 22 June 1941 and 20 September 1945 the Soviet Union received among other items 409,526 jeeps and trucks, 12,161 armored vehicles, 325,784 tons of explosives, 13,041 locomotives and railroad cars, and 1,798,609 tons of foodstuffs.
Against the Soviet quantitative advantage in manpower and matériel, Germany had a general qualitative advantage, specifically, a higher level of military proficiency. The ratio of the one to the other was not constant, and the shift was in the Soviet favor. The qualitative gap narrowed and, as the war progressed, declined in significance. The quantitative gap widened.
The Germans' advantage was not enough to secure a victory in 1941 and 1942, and by late 1942 the quantitative element predominated. The Germans accepted the terms imposed thereby even though they ran directly counter to the principles under which Germany had fought the war thus far. The German High Command did not attempt again to formulate a strategy founded on their superior generalship and tactics. To have done so would probably have required at the outset a decision to fight for a draw. As the war went on, the qualitative advantage that remained to the Germans was in the middle and lower command echelons where its effect was mitigating but not decisive. Eventually, the higher German commands passed to the hands of generals who tried merely to substitute quality for quantity. By then the Soviet Union had
developed commanders--Zhukov, Vasilevskiy, Konev, and possibly others--and formations, the tank armies in particular, that although they were still not the equals of the Germans in their prime, had achieved effective parity in performance. This achievement plus the quantitative advantage more than compensated for the continuing Soviet lag in other respects.
Every assessment of the German decline and defeat must inevitably take into account Hitler, his leadership, and his responsibility. The single national leader was a distinguishing feature of World War II. The tendency toward fusion of the military and political authority in wartime was not new. What was unusual was that popular opinion strongly inclined toward entrusting the powers of military decision to the political rather than military leadership. Franklin D. Roosevelt generally refrained from intervening in military operations. Churchill did intervene when he could and would gladly have done so more often had he not been discouraged by his own and the combined staffs and by the example of his American colleague. Stalin left his mark on Soviet strategy but, after the painful lessons learned early in the war, contented himself for the most part with a largely counterfeit military image. Hitler, however, decided German strategy from the outbreak of the war to its end, and after December 1941 he was in direct command of the German ground forces.
The responsibility for the German mistakes was chiefly Hitler's as was a major share of the credit for the successes. Undoubtedly, the former were greater than the latter and more decidedly his own; therefore, at the highest command level he was responsible for the German defeat. More fundamentally, he also bore the responsibility for the root causes of the defeat: the attempt to pursue unlimited objectives with limited means; and the creation of a political system that made itself intolerable to most of the rest of the world.
But Hitler was no mere incompetent accidentally propelled into a commanding position from which he could sabotage the efforts of the military professionals. His conduct of the war displayed a devastating logic that even at its most destructive found at least as many convinced adherents as it did opponents among the leading military men. He inspired public confidence and represented the will of the nation to a greater degree than any other person or group. He gave Germany the kind of leadership it wanted. Where he failed was in not possessing the ability to produce the results he promised; that failure was appreciated earlier by some than by others but by all too late.
In statistical terms, numbers of troops engaged, length of front, distances covered, and major battles fought, the Eastern Theater dominated the war against Germany. On the basis of those statistics and ignoring the fact that space and distance in the Soviet Union meant less than in the rest of Europe, the Russians claimed the preponderant contribution to the war against Germany.
To determine the true proportions of the Soviet contribution to the victory the theater must be looked at in strategic perspective. Four significant limiting features can be identified immediately: the war in the East was a ground war in a single theater; the Soviet Union contributed nothing to the employment of strategic air power against Germany; the Soviet contribution
to the war at sea was small, so small that the Baltic Sea remained a German lake and the German naval training ground until 1945; and the Soviet Union benefited through being relieved of the second front threat in the Far East.
Proper perspective also requires an examination of how the German defeat was accomplished on the ground. Stalingrad and the North African Campaign put an end to the period of the German strategic initiative and demonstrated that both the Allies and the Soviet Union had achieved the capability of bringing superior strength to bear at decisive points. In the aftermath of Operation ZITADELLE the Soviet Union took the strategic initiative on the east. On the west the Allies began exercising their own strategic initiative with the invasion of Sicily. Subsequently, in their deployment, the Germans rated the threats from east and west as about equal. In fact, they were inclined to regard that from the west as potentially the more dangerous because of the shorter distances to the German vital centers. Up to the time of the landing in Normandy, even though the Allies were actually engaged only in a secondary theater in Italy and great battles were being fought on the Eastern Front, on balance the Allied and Soviet strategic accomplishments were about equal. The German strength was split about evenly between east and west.
Essentially, until the late spring of 1944 the Soviet Union and the Allies were maneuvering into position to deliver the crucial blows. The environments were different. For the Allies the war had a global aspect in which air and sea activities and logistics operations weighed heavily. Theirs was the problem of staging a gigantic amphibious invasion, a one-shot, do-or-die undertaking that afforded no latitude for preliminary sparring and an appallingly black and white prospect of victory or defeat. The Soviet problem was to reduce the still substantial buffer of Soviet territory the Germans held and get within striking range of the Reich. The Soviet forces had cleared the Ukraine and northern Russia and were deployed in the center on the axis Warsaw-Berlin. They had exacted and had themselves paid heavy prices in blood and matériel. The Allies had completed the less spectacular but technologically and economically more demanding preparations on their side and had in the meantime brought the air and sea operations against Germany nearly to a climax. The invasion succeeded. By the end of summer the Allied armies had plunged to the German border, and the Soviet armies had reached the Vistula and the border of East Prussia. In December Hitler committed his last strategic offensive potential on the west, and the Russians broke through to the Oder. From mid-February 1945 to mid-April the Soviet armies stood on the Oder, and the Allies crossed two-thirds of Germany to the Elbe. By then, fear and hatred and the will of one man were all that kept the war alive.
The Soviet contribution to the victory in Europe was important but not overwhelming. Soviet postwar claims notwithstanding, the war in no sense demonstrated the superiority of Marxist theory. The German-Soviet conflict was euphemistically billed in Germany from the start as a crusade against Bolshevism, but the Soviet Government chose not to submit its system's popularity to a direct test and, instead, nominated itself to lead a war for
national survival. The Soviet people opted for the indigenous dictatorship. That was possibly the most enduringly important decision of World War II. The margin of decision was narrow, and even though the Germans failed to offer more than superficial inducements, remained so until the last glimmer of an alternative had vanished. The war was a true test of strength between ideologies only in that the Soviet regime evinced greater adaptability in identifying itself with Russian nationalism.
Likewise, Soviet strategy in World War II was by no means a convincing display of ideological superiority. It was cautious, methodical, and politically oriented. Its most distinguishing feature was the heavy political overburden it carried. At, no doubt, some considerable additional cost in life and matériel, the Soviet armies always fought for ground as much as to defeat the enemy. The Soviet command planned its operations as if under a compulsion to legalize every territorial acquisition by actual military conquest. In the end, when time had run out, it went so far as to insist on staging a sham battle for Czechoslovakia; similarly it had insisted on a token invasion of Bulgaria after that country surrendered. Soviet strategy was grasping rather than sweepingly aggressive as the German strategy had been; it was inhibited, psychologically defensive, and morally ruthless.
Nevertheless, the German defeat was an outstanding victory for Marxism in that it broke the quarantine in Europe which had for a generation confined communism as a system of government within the boundaries of the Soviet Union. That changed the complexion of the war in its final stage and made genuine peace impossible. In the postwar era it has sometimes appeared that any alternative would have been preferable. Probably none could have been devised that would not in some form have given Hitler his miracle.
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1. The Bulletin of the Press and Information Office of the German Federal Republic (volume I, Number 7, 25 June 1953) gives 13.6 million as the total Soviet military losses, including 1.75 million permanently disabled.
The much larger Soviet losses can be accounted for by the extremely heavy losses of the 1941 and 1942 campaigns, less efficient medical services, and the Soviet tactics, which throughout the war tended to be expensive in terms of human life. The Germans, on the other hand, although they often deliberately sacrified masses of men, by doctrine expended manpower sparingly.