What Russia Rightfully Remembers, America Forgets
On June 6, President Trump commemorated the 75th Anniversary of Operation Overlord, popularly known as D-Day, when approximately 160,000 U.S., British, Canadian and Free French soldiers landed in and around the beaches of Normandy, France. Speaking at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial in Colleville-sur-Mer, where the remains of 9,388 American fighting men, most of whom perished on D-Day, are interned, Trump promoted the mythology of American omniscience that was born on the beaches of Normandy. “These men ran through the fires of hell, moved by a force no weapon could destroy,” Trump declared. “The fierce patriotism of a free, proud and sovereign people. They battled not for control and domination, but for liberty, democracy and self-rule. Those who fought here won a future for our nation. They won the survival of our civilization.”
For Americans, D-Day stands out among all others when it comes to celebrating the Second World War. Immortalized in books, a movie starring John Wayne, and in the HBO series titled “Band of Brothers,” the landings at Normandy represent to most Americans the turning point in the war against Hitler’s Germany, the moment when the American Army (together with the British, Canadian and Free French) established a foothold in occupied France that eventually led to the defeat of Germany’s army.
What Trump overlooked in his presentation was the reality that the liberation of Europe began long before the D-Day landings. And the burden had almost exclusively been born by the Soviets.
In his defense, Trump is not alone in promoting an America-centric version of history; his speech was simply the latest in a series of historically flawed remarks delivered by a succession of American presidents ever since they began giving speeches at Normandy in commemoration of D-Day. President George W. Bush’s address on the 60th anniversary of the D-Day landings was typical of the genre, maximizing American glory while ignoring that of the Soviets. “Americans wanted to fight and win and go home,” Bush said. “And our GIs had a saying: ‘The only way home is through Berlin.’ That road to VE-Day was hard and long and traveled by weary and valiant men. And history will always record where that road began. It began here, with the first footprints on the beaches of Normandy.”
But Bush was wrong; the road to Berlin had its origins at the approaches to Moscow, where the Soviet army turned back German invaders in December 1941. It was paved at Stalingrad in 1942 with the blood and flesh of 500,000 dead Soviet soldiers, who had killed more than 850,000 Nazi soldiers and their allies; and it was furthered in the bloody fields of Kursk, in 1943, where at the cost of more than 250,000 dead and 6,000 tanks destroyed, the Soviet army defeated the last major German offensive on the Eastern front, killing 110,000 Germans and destroying more than 1,200 irreplaceable tanks (the total number of U.S. and British tanks lost in Europe from D-Day until VE-Day numbered around 11,500; the total number of tanks lost by the Soviet Union while fighting Germany was more than 85,000, while the Russians destroyed more than 40,000 German tanks from June 1941 to November 1944). By the time the U.S., British, Canadian and Free French forces came ashore at Normandy, the Germans had already lost the war.
That didn’t mean there wasn’t some serious fighting left to do. “The Nazis still had about 50 divisions,” Bush noted, “and more than 800,000 soldiers in France alone. D-Day plus one, and D-Day plus two and many months of fierce fighting lay ahead, from Arnhem to Hurtgen Forest to the Bulge.”
The road to Berlin described by Bush was one where the Soviets simply did not factor into the equation. “The nations that liberated a conquered Europe would stand together for the freedom of all of Europe,” Bush said. “The nations that battled across the continent would become trusted partners in the cause of peace. And our great alliance of freedom is strong, and it is still needed today.” The “trusted partners” Bush referred to was NATO, and the “cause of peace” contained first the Soviet Union, and later Russia.
It was as if the road to Berlin had ended with Americans capturing the Nazi capital, compelling Adolf Hitler to commit suicide and thereby ending the 1,000-year Reich. But that honor fell to the Soviets, who, in a two-week campaign, lost more than 81,000 killed and a quarter of a million men wounded seizing Berlin from fanatical Nazi defenders.
President Obama continued the tradition of minimizing the Soviet role in the Second World War. “Here,” Obama said, speaking on the beaches of Normandy in 2014, the 70th anniversary of D-Day, “we don’t just commemorate victory, as proud of that victory as we are. We don’t just honor sacrifice, as grateful as the world is. We come to remember why America and our allies gave so much for the survival of liberty at its moment of maximum peril. We come to tell the story of the men and women who did it so that it remains seared into the memory of a future world.”
According to Obama’s “story,” “it was here, on these shores, that the tide was turned in that common struggle for freedom. … Omaha, Normandy—this was democracy’s beachhead. And our victory in that war decided not just a century, but shaped the security and well-being of all posterity. We worked to turn old adversaries into new allies. We built new prosperity. We stood once more with the people of this continent through a long twilight struggle until finally a wall tumbled down, and an Iron Curtain, too.”
Obama’s was a stilted, inaccurate version of history. Before the Soviet Union became “an old adversary,” it was a new ally—a fact ignored by the American president. And the implication that the American journey that began on the beaches in Normandy on June 6, 1941, didn’t come to an end until the Soviet Union collapsed is, simply put, ignorant.
On June 22, 1941, the Soviet Union was attacked by Nazi Germany. Some 3.8 million Axis soldiers, backed by more than 6,000 armored vehicles and 4,000 aircraft, launched a surprise attack along a continuous front that ran from the Baltic Sea in the north to the Black Sea in the south. Known as Operation Barbarossa, the German offensive decimated the defending Soviet forces, breaking through the front lines and driving deep into Soviet territory, initiating a conflict that would last nearly four years. During that time, more than 26 million Soviet citizens would die, including 8.6 million soldiers of the Red Army (these are conservative numbers—some estimates, drawing upon classified information, hint that the actual number of total deaths might exceed 40 million, including more than 19 million military deaths).
The traumatic impact of what became known as the Great Patriotic War cannot be overstated. The complete devastation of entire regions at the hands of the invading Germans is something Americans never have experienced, and as such can never comprehend. Every year following the end of the Great Patriotic War, on June 22, the people of the Soviet Union—and later, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the citizens of Russia and the other former Soviet republics—observed the Day of Remembrance and Sorrow, during which time all entertainment programming is banned from television and radio.
As the number of survivors of the Great Patriotic War diminish, the Russian government, in an effort to keep the memory of those who fought and died alive and relevant to modern times, established the honorary title of City of Military Glory to honor the “courage, steadfast spirit and mass heroism” shown by the defenders of cities so designated “in the struggle for the freedom and independence of their Fatherland.” In 2015, Russian President Vladimir Putin, following a wreath-laying ceremony at the Kremlin, gave a speech noting his designation of five Russian cities as Cities of Military Glory.
“June 22 is a special date for Russia and for our people,” Putin said. “On this day, 74 years ago, the Nazis attacked our country in the most devious fashion and the Great Patriotic War began. The Soviet people went through the greatest trials, defended their native soil at the cost of huge sacrifices and privations, achieved an unconditional victory and vanquished a powerful enemy, thanks to their unity and unprecedented love for their homeland.” Putin continued:
Our sacred duty is to remain true to these great values of patriotism, preserve the memory of our fathers’ and grandfathers’ feat, and honor the veterans. The conferral of the title of City of Military Glory has become not just a tradition but also a symbol of our devotion to the generation of victors. Today, this title is being conferred on the towns of Grozny, Feodosia, Petrozavodsk, Staraya Russa and Gatchina. The defenders of these cities made a tremendous contribution to bringing closer the victory over Nazism.
I think that for everyone in these towns this is a welcome event and also a very significant one, because this lofty title does not only help to preserve the historical memory, but, just as importantly, is also an expression of the genetic connection we feel with those whom we honor as heroes.
What kind of echoes does this produce in the hearts and souls of ordinary people today? If here, on this soil, my forebears were heroes, this means that I too carry a piece of all that is my treasure and pride. This is what the link between generations is all about.
Putin’s speech was patriotic. It celebrated past military glory. It honored the dead. But there was no talk about the need to link the sacrifices of the past to the need to defend current Russian policy priorities. For Putin and the Russian people, the memories of the sacrifices incurred during the Great Patriotic War are too deeply seared into their collective psyche—their very genes, to paraphrase Putin—to allow them to be cheapened by the present.
Whether you love Putin or hate him, one thing is for certain: His speech was the epitome of how one honors their dead.
Given the sad state of affairs between the United States and Russia today, it is hard to imagine that during the Second World War the two nations were part of a “Grand Alliance” that included Great Britain (France and China were brought in at the conclusion of the war). But the reality is that the United States and the Soviet Union, while confronting the same enemy in the form of Nazi Germany, fought two different wars. In its fight against Nazi Germany and Italy, the United States lost 183,588 killed in action or missing, 560,240 wounded and 108,621 prisoners of war. In the first six months of the Great Patriotic War, the Soviet Union lost 802,191 killed, 1,336,147 wounded and 2,835,482 prisoners of war.
No American took time out on June 22 to commemorate the German invasion of the Soviet Union, and with it the initiation of a conflict that made the D-Day landings possible through the sacrifice of tens of millions of dead Soviet soldiers and civilians. Nor did any American take time out on the day after, June 23, and give thanks to the people of Russia and the former Soviet Republics for securing our victory at Normandy.
And why should they? For decades, Americans have been spoon-fed a version of history that placed American sacrifice, as considerable as it was, above all else. But let there be no doubt that if it weren’t for what transpired on June 23, 1944, the story of the great American victory that “saved civilization” would be much different in the telling, written in the blood of tens of thousands of soldiers whose lives would have been lost if not for the courage and sacrifice of their forgotten, unacknowledged Soviet allies.
While the landing at Normandy had gone well, the advance inland was a different matter. By June 23, 1941—a mere 17 days after the D-Day landings—the U.S. and U.K. forces were stuck in ferocious fighting with German troops dug in behind thick hedgerows that made movement of men and armored vehicles virtually impossible. The port of Cherbourg was still in German hands, which meant that desperately needed supplies were not getting to the troops doing the fighting and dying. Any serious reinforcement of the German position in France would have made the allied beachhead tenuous.
But there wouldn’t be any German troops moving into France, for the simple reason that they were all tied down fighting a life-or-death struggle on the Eastern front, trying to cope with a massive Soviet offensive known as Operation Bagration. The details of the fighting are irrelevant, but it made anything taking place in France pale by comparison. By the time Operation Bagration ground to a halt, in mid-August 1944, some 400,000 German soldiers from Army Group Center—the most highly trained, experienced men in the German army—were either dead, wounded or taken prisoner, and some 1,350 tanks destroyed. The Soviet offensive tore a gigantic hole in the German lines that had to be filled with troops and material that otherwise would have been available to contain the Normandy landings. The cost of this victory, however, was staggering—180,000 Soviet dead and 590,00 wounded, matching in a span of two months the total casualties suffered by the U.S. in the entire European theater of operations, including North Africa, from 1942 to 1945.
Shortly after Operation Bagration ground to a halt outside the gates of Warsaw, Operation Overlord officially came to an end. Denied reinforcements, the Germans were unable to contain the allied buildup at Normandy, and when the breakout from the beachhead began in earnest, in late July, the German forces were routed. Overall, the Germans lost some 240,000 men killed or wounded during Operation Overlord, while the combined allied casualties were around 210,000 men killed and wounded. But it could have been worse—much worse.
Operation Bagration saved D-Day, but you won’t hear any American presidents acknowledging that fact. Nor will any Americans pause and give thanks for the sacrifice of so many Soviet lives in the cause of defeating Nazi Germany. Let there be no doubt that the United States played an instrumental role in the defeat of Hitler—we were the arsenal of democracy, and our lend-lease support to the Soviet Union was critical in the success of the Soviet army.
But the simple fact is that we never faced the German A-team—those men had perished long ago on the Eastern front, fighting the Soviets. The German army we faced was an amalgam of old men, young boys, unmotivated foreigners (including thousands of captured Russian and Poles), and worn-out, wounded survivors of the fighting in the east. We beat the Germans, but because of the pressure brought to bear on Germany by the Soviet Union, the outcome in Western Europe was never in doubt.
Why does this matter? Because facts matter. History matters. The hubris and arrogance derived from our one-sided, exaggerated and highly inaccurate version of the Second World War, where American forces liberated Europe with the assistance of their North Atlantic allies, carries over to this day. It feeds a narrative that gives credence to the fictitious omnipotence of NATO and the total disregard for any Russian perspective regarding the future of a continent the Soviets liberated through the blood and sacrifice of tens of millions of their citizens. While we Americans continue to celebrate a version of events that is highly fictionalized, the Russians commemorate a reality anchored in fact. Given the current geopolitical trajectory in Europe, where the framework of security and prosperity the United States and its North Atlantic allies built in the aftermath of their “grand victory” against Nazi Germany teeters on the brink of collapse, there will come a time when fiction-based arrogance will clash with fact-based realism. If history tells us anything, those who more accurately remember the lessons of the past will fare far better than those who, by their ignorance, are condemned to repeat their mistakes.