We Wouldn't Have Won the "Good War" Without the Soviets—Why Did They Fight?


Roger R. Reese is professor of history at Texas A&M University and the author of numerous works on the Red Army, including "Stalin's Reluctant Soldiers: A Social History of the Red Army, 1925-1941," "The Soviet Military Experience: A History of the Soviet Army, 1917-1991," and most recently "Why Stalin's Soldiers Fought: The Red Army's Military Effectiveness in World War II."

Adam Kirsch turned some heads in the New York Times recently with a profile of the ongoing reassessment of World War II as the “Good War” for the United States by historians. This challenging of deeply-held national myths about the “Good War” is now causing some discomfort in the U.S., but one can only imagine what effect such an exercise would have in contemporary Russia.

For both the Soviet Union and its Russian successor state, the Great Patriotic War (World War II minus the Soviet invasions of Poland and Finland in 1939 and the Baltic States in 1940) not only catapulted the USSR to world power status but also served as the legitimizing factor that saved the Communist Party and prolonged Stalin’s brutal and tyrannical rule until his death in 1953.   Their contribution to the defeat of Nazism was the greatest of all the Allies, which they continue to claim as a basis for international respect.   While there is a great deal being written about the war these days in Russia, particularly by the few remaining survivors, it focuses on the experience of the war and reaffirms the worth of the sacrifices; there is no re-evaluation of the leadership, strategy, tactics, or diplomacy.   Khrushchev famously denounced Stalin’s military leadership in his famous 1956 secret speech, but for many, Stalin is once again the great wartime leader.   And although many collections of archival materials are being published that show serious holes in the official and semi-official versions of the Great Patriotic War, there has been little attempt to analyze the historical implications of them.   For instance, there is no discussion in Russia today of collaboration by those living under German occupation, and the partisan movement is hyped to convey the idea that even in the occupied areas all remained faithful to the country, party, and commitment to victory.  Simply put, there has been no reassessment of the war in Russia because it could only undermine Russia’s one fading claim to international glory.

There has been, however, and continues to be assessment and reassessment in the West of the Soviet role in the war—particularly surrounding the question of just how the oppressive Stalinist regime, responsible for the deaths of millions of people prior to the war, was able to mobilize society to pull off the victory.  One school of thought has it that Soviet citizens only fought because they were forced to, that in their hearts they really despised the Stalinist regime and wished it would fall (with some actually taking up arms against the Communists, especially in newly-annexed constituent republics).  The other, which was orthodoxy in the Soviet Union and has gained traction recently in Russian pop culture, claims that the Soviet people really did love Stalin and fought for him and the socialist system he was creating.  Surprisingly, each view is correct, to a certain extent.   The problem, however, is that both arguments take as an article of faith that individuals fought for the Soviet Union solely because of political factors, whether it be love or fear of Stalin.  This is myopic and ignores all other the human motivations that come into play when people are faced with war.

Indeed, it was the Stalinist regime’s ability to keep an army in the field through voluntarism and the population’s general compliance with the draft that enabled the USSR to win the war.  It was their ability to replace losses that enabled the Red Army to survive and win despite inept leadership, costly tactics, disorganized logistics, and Stalin’s strategy of a broad-front war.  The Soviets’ ability to continually field fresh forces confounded the Germans and threw Hitler’s strategy into disarray.  All told, approximately 39 million Soviet citizens served in the armed forces during the war.   There were 4.5 million soldiers on active duty at the time of the German invasion on June 22, 1941 and a further 34 million were mobilized between that date and the end of hostilities in 1945, mostly to compensate for the ghastly 40 percent loss rate.  Of those 34 million, approximately 4 million volunteered to serve, mostly in 1941.  The rest were conscripted or delivered to the army from the gulag. 

Neither a supposed love of Stalinism nor fear is a good explanation of why the Soviet people willingly risked their lives.  The death penalty for draft evasion and desertion was not the deterrent so many imagine it was.  Some 750,000 men attempted to evade the draft—500,000 successfully so.  Nearly 2.5 million men deserted, but few were shot.  Most were just sent back to their units.  Blocking detachments, troops placed behind front-line units to prevent them from retreating, were not the murderous gangs of secret policemen as myth has it, but were mostly fellow soldiers who turned men back to their units or detained them for reassignment.  Penal battalions were not suicide units, but were temporary assignments that offered soldiers a real chance of survival and redemption in lieu of execution.  Therefore, a large degree of willingness to serve and fight was implicit in the behavior of the Soviet soldier.

A close examination of memoirs, diaries, letters, and interviews reveals that the sources of this willingness were patriotism and a sense of civic duty, which were mainly Russian sentiments not widely held by other nationalities and ethnic groups.  These feelings were anchored in the identity of the historic Russia of the tsars and ancient Muscovy.  Millions of citizens consciously loved Russia (and the USSR) but despised the Stalinist system imposed upon it.  Others, mostly Russian white- and blue-collar workers and students, did admire Stalin and believed in the future socialist paradise he claimed was in store for them.

We also have to acknowledge that Stalin just got lucky.  First, the simple fact is that most people normally obey their governments and can be got to serve and fight—enthusiasm not required.   Second, Hitler invaded without provocation, thus handing the Soviets a just war, a war in which people could generally be counted on to defend their homeland without considering domestic politics.  Finally, the barbarous treatment of POWs and oppressive occupation policies of the Nazis rallied many wavering Soviets to the flag. 

In the end, despite these advantages in manpower, the war was a close-run thing for the Soviets.  It was never easy to keep enough men and women in the field because of horrendous casualties, well beyond the scale of anything experienced by the Western Allies.

Russians have a right to be proud of their success in defeating the Germans and although a dispassionate, apolitical reappraisal of how victory was won could open many Soviet-era wounds, it could not diminish the importance of their contribution.   Suffice to say, victory against Germany may well have been impossible without the Soviet Union.

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