Every five years, D-Day celebrations unnerve me a bit. The heroism and gallantry are unquestioned, but the historical significance for the course of WWII and scale of sacrifice are always exaggerated. I feel like we overcelebreate this war, because we are somewhat uncomfortable with the morality of so many others we have fought – not just Vietnam of course, but the Indian Wars, the Spanish-American War, or Iraq 2. Indeed I bet Americans know more about Hitler than George III. For a good examination, try here. Consider also:
1. The staggering size of the Eastern Front is too often overlooked by Americans. Estimates vary, but somewhere around 20 million Soviet citizens died fighting (or otherwise being butchered by) the Nazis. That is about 14% of the Soviet population of the time. By contrast about 200 thousand Americans died in Europe, about .15% of the US population at the time. That means 100 times as many Soviets died fighting the Nazis as Americans. Something like 70 thousand Soviet villages were torched or otherwise eradicated as the Nazis conquered around 20% of the Soviet land mass. Consider that in a one month battle at Kiev in 1941, over 600,000 Soviet soldiers were killed or captured; had anything like this happened to American ground forces in North Africa or Western Europe, the domestic cry for a separate peace would have been irresistible. Conflict on a such as scale hadn’t been seen since the high days of the Golden Horde, and the US was a late and minor participant. It dwarfs even the one US experience of massive combat on US territory – the civil war.
2. The USSR had essentially stopped the Nazi drive by the fall of 1943. Stalingrad, the turning point, was over by February of 1943 (as was El Alamein, a British victory, in late 1942). The last major German offensive around Kursk in the summer of 1943 was halted. The enormous Soviet offensive of 1944 dwarfed anything the Western allies could put on the continent that same year. This event would have proceeded without the Allied invasion. To be sure, an unknown counterfactual is how the USSR would have fared if the Wehrmacht had not been forced to prepare for a western landing. Furthermore, allied bombing obviously took its toll. But nonetheless, the FDR administration was quite content to allow the Nazi and Soviet totalitarians to exhaust each other.
3. The anglophone leadership (Canada, Britain and the US) realized by 1943, that this war, as Stalin famously said, was unlike any other in that the victor’s political ideology would imposed as far as his tanks could get. Patton knew this, which is why he wanted to drive on Berlin in 1945 and agitated to provoke a postwar conflict with the USSR while it was still exhausted. Hence, the allies waited to land. Stalin wanted a second front as early as 1942, but the English-speaking powers were content to play off-shore balancer – allowing the USSR to exhaust itself (so its postwar power would be that much weaker) and the Nazis to exhaust themselves too (so that the eventual Allied landing and eastward push would be that much easier).
This was excellent strategy. It husbanded Allied resources and allowed to two potential opponents to weaken each other. Churchill, Ike, Bradley and others were under no illusions about the brutality of Soviet governance and were willing to allow the Nazis to bleed the Soviets white. It also kept American casualties low, insuring a continued US domestic consensus to stay in the war. But this intelligent realpolitik clashes badly with the moral imperative of fighting fascism and the overtly moral way we celebrate US involvement against the Nazis. Watch Band of Brothers or Saving Private Ryan, and contrast that with the strategic logic of waiting to land until mid-1944 so that the western land war war would be easier and Stalin wouldn’t be able to march to the Atlantic.
4. I didn’t really realize this much until I went to Russia to learn the language and travelled around. The legacy of the ‘Great Patriotic War’ is everywhere. Everyone lost someone, and frequently in brutal circumstances Americans can’t imagine. Every Russian guide you get will tell you how Americans don’t know much about war, because we were never invaded, occupied, and exterminated. The first time I heard that, I just didn’t know what to say. You can only listen in silent horror as the guides tell you about how the SS massacred everyone with more than a grammar school degree in some village you never heard of before, or how tens of thousands of those Kiev PoWs starved or froze to death because the Wehrmacht was unprepared for such numbers and the Nazi leadership just didn’t care. Just because Stalin was awful, that does not mitigate the enormity of Soviet suffering or their contribution. Remember that the next time you hear about how America saved Europe from itself, or watch some movie lionizing the average GI, or play a video game depicting the relatively minor Battle of the Bulge as a turning point. If Speilberg really wants to make a great WWII epic, how about one about the eastern front?