History as Propaganda: Why the USSR Did Not ‘Win’ World War II

Strategic Culture


History as Propaganda: Why the USSR Did Not ‘Win’ World War II (II)

The title of this article is intended to be ironic because of course the Red Army did play the predominant role in destroying Nazi Germany during World War II. You would not know it, however, reading the western Mainstream Media (MSM), or watching television, or going to the cinema in the west where the Soviet role in the war has almost entirely disappeared.

If in the West the Red Army is largely absent from World War II, the Soviet Union’s responsibility for igniting the war is omnipresent. The MSM and western politicians tend to regard the Nazi invasion of the USSR in June 1941 as the Soviet Union’s just reward for the 1939 Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact. As British Prime Minister Winston Churchill put it, the USSR «brought their own fate upon themselves when by their Pact with [Joachim von] Ribbentrop they let Hitler loose on Poland and so started the war…» Operation Barbarossa, the Nazi invasion of the USSR, was Stalin’s fault and therefore an expatiation of sins, so that Soviet resistance should not be viewed as anything more than penitence.

Whereas France and Britain «appeased» Nazi Germany, one MSM commentator recently noted, the USSR «collaborated» with Hitler. You see how western propaganda works, and it’s none too subtle. Just watch for the key words and read between the lines. France and Britain were innocents in the woods, who unwisely «appeased» Hitler in hopes of preserving European peace. On the other hand, the totalitarian Stalin «collaborated» with the totalitarian Hitler to encourage war, not preserve the peace. Stalin not only collaborated with Hitler, the USSR and Nazi Germany were «allies» who carved up Europe. The USSR was «the wolf»; the West was «the lamb». These are not only metaphors of the English-speaking world; France 2 has promoted the same narrative in the much publicised television series, «Apocalypse» (2010) and «Apocalypse Staline» (2015). World War II erupted because of the non-aggression pact, that dirty deal, which marked the beginning of the short-lived «alliance» of the two «totalitarian» states. Hitler and Stalin each had a foot in the same boot.

MSM «journalists» like to underscore Stalin’s duplicity by pointing to the abortive Anglo-Franco-Soviet negotiations in the summer of 1939 to create an anti-Nazi alliance. No wonder they failed, how could the naïve French and British, the lambs, think they could strike a deal with Stalin, the wolf? Even professional historians sometimes take this line: the 1939 negotiations failed because of Soviet «intransigence» and «duplicity».

If ever Pot called Kettle black, this has to be it. And of course the trope of the Pot and the Kettle is a frequent device of western or MSM propaganda to blacken the USSR and, by implication, to blacken Russia and its president Vladimir Putin. There is just one problem with the western approach: the MSM «journalist» or western politician or historian who wants to incriminate Stalin for igniting World War II has one large obstacle in the way, the facts. Not that facts ever bother skilled propagandists, but still, perhaps, the average citizen in the West may yet have an interest in them.

Consider just a few of the facts that the West likes to forget. It was the USSR which first rang the alarm bells in 1933 about the Nazi threat to European peace. Maksim M. Litvinov, the Commissar for Foreign Affairs, became the chief Soviet proponent of «collective security» in Europe.

He warned over and over again of the danger: Nazi Germany is a «mad dog», he said in 1934, «that can’t be trusted with whom no agreements can be made, and whose ambition can only be checked by a ring of determined neighbours». That sounds about right, doesn’t it? Litvinov was the first European statesman to conceive of a grand alliance against Nazi Germany, based on the World War I coalition against Wilhelmine Germany. Soviet would-be allies, France, Britain, the United States, Romania, Yugoslavia, even fascist Italy, all fell away, one after the other, during the mid-1930s. Even Poland, Litvinov hoped, could be attracted to collective security. Unlike the other reluctant powers, Poland never showed the slightest interest in Litvinov’s proposals and sought to undermine collective security right up until the beginning of the war.

Litvinov reminds me of Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov in his thankless dealings with the Russophobic West. During the interwar years, the Russophobia was mixed with Sovietophobia: it was a clash of two worlds between the West and the USSR, the Silent Conflict, Litvinov called it. When things were going badly, Litvinov appears occasionally to have sought consolation in Greek mythology and the story of Sisyphus, the Greek king, doomed by Zeus to push forever a large rock to the top of a mountain, only to see it fall back down each time. Like Sisyphus, Litvinov was condemned to pointless efforts and endless frustration. So too, it seems, is Lavrov. The French philosopher, Albert Camus, imagined that Sisyphus was happy in his struggles, but that’s an existentialist philosopher for you, and Camus never had to deal with that damned rock. Litvinov did, and never could stick it on the mountaintop.

My point is that it was the West, notably the United States, Britain, and France – yes, that’s right, the same old gang – which dismissed Litvinov’s repeated warnings and spurned his efforts to organise a grand alliance against Nazi Germany.

Dominated by conservative elites, often sympathetic to fascism, the French and British governments looked for ways to get on with Nazi Germany, rather than to go all out to prepare their defences against it. Of course, there were «white crows», as one Soviet diplomat called them, who recognised the Nazi threat to European security and wanted to cooperate with the USSR, but they were only a powerless minority. The MSM won’t tell you much about the widespread sympathy for fascism amongst conservative European elites. It’s like the dirty secrets of the family in the big house at the top of the hill.

Poland also played a despicable role in the 1930s, though the MSM won’t tell you about that either. The Polish government signed a non-aggression pact with Germany in 1934, and in subsequent years sabotaged Litvinov’s efforts to build an anti-Nazi alliance. In 1938 it sided with Nazi Germany against Czechoslovakia and participated in the carve-up of that country sanctioned by the Munich accords on 30 September 1938. It’s a day the West likes to forget. Poland was thus a Nazi collaborator and an aggressor state in 1938 before it became a victim of aggression in 1939.

By early 1939, Litvinov had been rolling his rock (let’s call it collective security) up that wretched mountain for more than five years. Stalin, who was no Albert Camus, and not happy about being repeatedly spurned by the West, gave Litvinov one last chance to obtain an alliance with France and Britain. This was in April 1939. The craven French, rotted by fascist sympathies, had forgotten how to identify and protect their national interests, while the British stalled Litvinov, sneering at him behind his back.

So Sisyphus-Litvinov’s rock fell to the bottom of the mountain one last time. Enough, thought Stalin, and he sacked Litvinov and brought in the tougher Vyacheslav M. Molotov.

Still, for a few more months, Molotov tried to stick the rock on the mountaintop, and still it fell back again. In May 1939 Molotov even offered support to Poland, quickly rejected by Warsaw. Had the Poles lost their senses; did they ever have any? When British and French delegations arrived in Moscow in August to discuss an anti-Nazi alliance, you might think they would have been serious about getting down to business. War was expected to break out at any time. But no, not even then: British instructions were to «go very slowly». The delegations did too. It took them five days to get to Russia in an old, chartered merchantman, making a top speed of 13 knots. The British head of delegation did not have written powers giving him authority to conclude an agreement with his Soviet «partners». For Stalin, that must have been the camel breaking straw. The Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact was signed on 23 August 1939. The failure of the negotiations with the British and French led to the non-aggression pact, rather than the other way around.

Sauve qui peut motivated Soviet policy, never a good idea in the face of danger, but far from the MSM’s narrative explaining the origins of World War II. Good old Perfidious Albion acted duplicitously to the very end. During the summer of 1939 British government officials still negotiated for a deal with German counterparts, as if no one in Moscow would notice. And that was not all, the British prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, boasted privately to one of his sisters about how he would fool Moscow and get around the Soviet insistence on a genuine war-fighting alliance against Nazi Germany. So who betrayed who?

Historians may debate whether Stalin made the right decision or not in concluding the non-aggression pact. But with potential «partners» like France and Britain, one can understand why sauve qui peut looked like the only decent option in August 1939. And this brings us back to Pot calling Kettle black. The West foisted off its own responsibilities in setting off World War II onto Stalin and the Soviet Union.

History as Propaganda: Why the USSR Did Not ‘Win’ World War II (II)

While MSM lays the blame on Stalin’s «alliance» with Hitler for starting World War II, it takes the opposite tack in the fighting of the war by ignoring the Soviet role in destroying Nazi Germany. The Red Army is practically invisible.

On 22 June 1941, more than 3 million German soldiers invaded the Soviet Union on a front stretching from the Baltic to the Black Seas. The Red Army was caught flat-footed largely because Stalin would not believe his own intelligence reports which accurately warned of the German invasion. Stalin invited one particularly valuable Soviet agent in Berlin to «go f*** his mother» («…Mozhet poslat’ … ‘istochnik’ … k *** materi») when he warned that invasion was imminent. It was an open secret in Europe that Hitler would attack the Soviet Union.

Stalin seems to have been the only government leader not to believe it. US and British intelligence reckoned that the Red Army could not hold out for more than three or four weeks. That was the German estimate too.

During the first six months of fighting the Red Army lost three million soldiers; 177 divisions had to be written out of the Soviet order of battle. But instead of quitting after three or four weeks, as expected, the Red Army kept fighting through thick and thin, in spite of unimaginable catastrophes, the worst of which was the fall of Kiev in September 1941. To add to the horrors, the Germans sent in einsatzgruppen, death squads, to kill communists, Jews, Soviet officials, intellectuals, or anyone who got in their way. Women were stripped naked and forced to queue while waiting be to shot. Ukrainian and Baltic collaborators lent a hand. Hundreds of thousands, then millions of Soviet civilians died.

Yet the war was no walk in the park for the Wehrmacht.

It made large territorial gains but at the loss of an estimated 7,000 casualties a day. This was a new experience for the Germans who until then had destroyed every adversary they faced with relatively little loss to themselves. Poland was essentially beaten in four days; France, in six. The British army was run out of Europe, first at Dunkirk, where it left all its arms, and then in Greece and Crete which were fresh British fiascos. There were also others later on in North Africa. The Wehrmacht was finally beaten at the battle of Moscow in December 1941, long after British and US intelligence said the war in the east would be over. It was the first time the Wehrmacht had suffered a strategic defeat.

Blitzkrieg against the USSR had failed.

The British were happy to have a fighting ally who didn’t after all surrender in three or four weeks. Churchill broke out cigars and cognac when he got the news of the German invasion and made an inspiring speech on BBC. But in that summer of 1941 the British government hesitated to call the Soviet Union «ally» and Churchill was adamant that BBC would not play the Soviet national anthem, the Internationale, on Sunday evenings with those of other British allies. Churchill only relented on this point after the battle of Moscow.

1942 was another year of sorrow and sacrifice for the Soviet Union. Everyone knew that the Red Army was carrying the main burden of the war against Germany.

In the autumn Soviet forces fought with their backs against the Volga in Stalingrad. Someone said Stalingrad was Hell. «No, no», another replied, «it was ten times worse than Hell». The Red Army won this ferocious battle, and the last German soldiers surrendered on 3 February 1943, fifteen months before the Normandy landings in France. On that date there was not a single US or British division fighting on the ground in Europe, not one. In March 1943 the tally of German and Axis casualties was enormous: 68 German, 19 Romanian, 10 Hungarian and 10 Italian divisions were mauled or destroyed. That represented 43% of Axis forces in the east. Many historians and contemporaries from clerks in the British Foreign Office to President Franklin Roosevelt in Washington thought that Stalingrad marked the turning of the tide of war against Hitler.

You won’t read much about all this in MSM, though some historians in the west have gotten the story right. MSM will tell you that the Red Army could not have defeated the Wehrmacht without US Lend Lease worth billions of dollars. What MSM will not say is that most Lend Lease arrived only after Stalingrad where Hitler’s fate had been sealed. They won’t tell you either that already in 1942 Soviet industry was out-producing Nazi Germany in various categories of armaments, long before Lend Lease supplies began to make a difference. The United States paid the price of war in Studebaker trucks and aluminium, and ogromnoe spasibo, thank you very much, Russians replied, but the Soviet Union paid in rivers of blood and tears.

The British government tried to convince public opinion, which understood the importance of the Red Army fight against Hitler, that it was doing something to contribute to the common cause.

This was the «strategic bombing» of Germany, though it was not very strategic or accurate either. A British study indicated that one bomber out of three came within 8-9 kilometres of hitting its target. So the British and Americans started bombing cities and killing large numbers of civilians. In raids on Hamburg in 1943, for example, they killed 40,000 people. Berlin was also hit with increasing loss to the civilian population.

Well, I guess that was worth something in terms of Red Army morale.

By mid-1943, Red Army morale was just fine. In July the battle of Kursk marked the beginning of a great counter-offensive which led to the liberation of Kiev and further north Smolensk in the autumn of 1943. The Wehrmacht was kaiuk, finished, a year before the Normandy landings. The Red Army became an unstoppable juggernaut. Na zapad!, to the west, was its war cry.

What Stalin really wanted was a second front in France.

The Americans and British made promises which they could not or would not keep. Churchill was schizophrenic about the Soviet Union, sometimes he considered it an ally; at other times, he called the Russians «barbarians» and Bolsheviks who had to be kept out of Eastern and Central Europe. His idea was to invade Italy (September 1943), not France, move quickly north up the Italian boot, then pivot eastward to keep the Red Army out of the Balkans. It seemed like a great idea on paper, but in reality, it was a flop. Allied forces didn’t get to Rome until June 1944. Italy proved to be a drag on Allied resources, more than it did on the Wehrmacht. Stalin kept pressing for a real second front in France, the shortest route into the German heartland, and he finally got a real commitment for it at the Teheran conference in the autumn 1943. This was Operation Overlord.

Of course, if you live in the west, the Normandy landings were the crucial event of World War II which sealed Hitler’s fate. Everyone in the west has heard of Operation Overlord, but just ask a class of university students, as I do, if they have ever heard of Operation Bagration which started two weeks later. Instead of students’ raised hands to signal knowledge of Bagration, I get puzzled looks. While the western Allies were cooped up in the Normandy pocket, the Red Army smashed the centre of German lines in the east and advanced in a matter of weeks some 500 kilometres to the west. German propagandists denied the gravity of the Wehrmacht’s defeat, and so to mock them, the Red Army marched 57,000 German POWs, part of the Bagration harvest, through the streets of Moscow in July 1944. It was the only way Germans could see the Soviet capital.

Ken Burns, the skilled American documentary film maker, declared in The War, about the US experience of World War II, that «without American power and without the sacrifice of American lives, the outcome of the struggle in Europe would have been very different». This is true, though perhaps not in the sense that Burns intended. Without «American power», the Red Army would have had the honour of planting its red battle flags on the Normandy beaches, liberating all of Europe with the support of anti-fascist resistance movements. This was just the outcome that Churchill, for one, was determined to avoid.

After Overlord and Bagration, it was only a matter of time before Nazi Germany collapsed, and everyone knew it.

The stronger the certainty of victory over Nazism, the weaker became the Grand Alliance against it. Roosevelt died in April 1945 and within a fortnight US policy began to shift toward anti-Soviet hostility. In London Churchill asked his Russophobic generals for a war plan against the Soviet Union. It was to be American and British forces, stiffened by German divisions presumably without Nazi insignia, which would confront the Red Army. A top secret document was actually drafted, «Operation Unthinkable», the first version of which was circulated a fortnight after VE Day. «The overall or political object», Churchill’s generals wrote, «is to impose upon Russia the will of the United States and British Empire». The Russians might «submit to our will» or they might not, but «if they want total war, they are in a position to have it». Oh my, what boasting. The plan was half-baked, unworkable, and utterly reprehensible. Eventually, it was shelved. «Unthinkable» marked the beginning of what would become a public campaign which has continued to this day to transfer the war’s origins to Stalin’s responsibility and to render imperceptible the Red Army role in destroying the Wehrmacht. Just consult any western poll of who «won» World War II. In the west most people think it was the Americans. This distortion of reality helps to assure the misgivings of some Eastern Europeans who appear to think that the war against Nazi Germany was a horrible mistake. If only Hitler had not been so unreasonable.

In some ways, nothing has changed since 1945: the United States and its loyal amanuensis Britain are still trying to impose their will on Russia.  General Buck Turgidson-Breedlove, a contemporary Dr Strangelove and commander of NATO forces in Europe, said only a few weeks ago that NATO was ready «to fight and win» a war against Russia. It sounds like «Unthinkable» all over again. The European parliament and the OSCE are in the forefront of propaganda depicting Stalin as the chief associate of Hitler in setting off World War II. Remember Stalin, forget the Red Army is the West’s main strategy for transforming the history of World War II into a Russophobic narrative. You can understand why the West pursues this strategy; the real history of the origins and conduct of World War II does not fit into the fairy story of the western lamb and the Soviet wolf. The victory of the Red Army and Soviet peoples over Nazi Germany is so remarkable and so inspiring that even the multifarious, well-funded efforts of three generations of western propagandists have been unable to efface it. And they never will…

Strategic Culture