Here’s a picture of a display I like from the World War II museum in Moscow. My first impression was that’s a lot of dead/captured of the Wehrmacht’s best.

Lex put it better than me:

It was the Soviet soldier who killed the Wehrmacht. His story is too little known. It does not in any way diminish what our GIs and the British tommies did to say that Ivan bore the heaviest burden, rose from the ashes of defeat, never gave up, and battered the Germans into the dirt. He served an evil regime, but he was fighting for his life and the life of his people, and his country had been invaded, so by the playground rule (who started this?) he was the good guy.

25 thoughts on “Ivan”

  1. Yeah, well .. the Russians won the war cause German machine guns had to be cooled every now and then. There is no other explanation given the horrifying 9:1 ratio of Russian vs German military deaths on the eastern front.

    Of course the fact that US for the large part of the war was practically supply depot for the Russian army was helpful as well.

  2. “I wonder how many of the Russian military deaths could have been avoided if Stalin had not destroyed much of his own officer corps via the purges/”

    Some perhaps.

    On the other hand it was uniquely Russian tradition where human blood was considered to by far the cheapest of all strategic “resources” required to wage a war.

    My grandfather, who experienced Russian “liberation” of Eastern Prussia, used to tell us story how he witnessed drunk Russian soldiers laughing their asses off as one of their comrades was being literally tramped to death when he accidentally ended up underneath a horse-drawn supply car.

    Don’t know if that story was 100% true ( I have my doubts given the kind of hatred my grandfather had for Soviets) but it is a historical fact that Russians weren’t exactly into this “culture of life” thing Pope used to promote so much.

  3. I’m not so sure I can consider them being the good guys from my (Polish) perspective. They have “liberated” my counrty, systematically destroying and looting it’s cultural heritage, murdering civilians, raping women, sending thousands(about 100.000) Poles to Gulags.

    My hometown, Gdansk (or Danzig in German), has been systematically destroyed AFTER the “liberation”, being considered as a “German” town (for some 30 days, Russian soldiers blew up or burned house after house, resulting in 80-85% of destroyed buildings).

  4. If I were Xavras, I’d agree. For the Poles, Lituanians and many others the Russians were just one invading army instead of another. Even in that case, though, I think the Russians were less bad than the Nazis were. In George Weigel’s book about the Pope there is a lot of discussion about life under the Nazis, then under communist rule. The Nazis had a declared policy of destroying the Polish people completely, and they were serious about it. As bad as the Russians were, the Germans were worse. The Poles have spent many centuries in the unenviable position of being stuck between the Germans and the Russians. That has not usually worked out well for them. Also, I have talked to people who have actually lived under both. The consensus seemed to be that the German troops were psychotic in the degree of violence and humiliation they inflicted on helpless people, where the Russians were simply brutal. The Germans came off worse in these conversations.

    From the point of view of the United States, we wanted the Nazi regime destroyed, and the Soviets did most of the work and spilled most of the blood to do it.

  5. There were at least 3M Jews in pre-war Poland. The Germans killed most of them. It is obvious to me that the Russians were less bad.

  6. ” spilled most of the blood to do it.”

    Considering what happened in Eastern/Central Europe after 1945, it was obviously not enough …

    “The consensus seemed to be that the German troops were psychotic in the degree of violence and humiliation they inflicted on helpless people”

    From what I heard it was exactly the opposite. Great majority of German armed forces (Wehrmachtand Waffen SS) were very generally well behaved towards local population, (which could simply be a factor of their professionalism and discipline more than anything else) – something that was sorely lacking among invading Soviet hordes.

  7. Warmi, I absolutely disagree with your comparison. The notion that the Germans behaved well is, bluntly, mythology. I would refer you to Omer Bartov’s book The Eastern Front, 1941-45 : German Troops and the Barbarization of Warfare, among many others. The Germans went into Russia with the express intent of killing all of the slavs to obtain lebensraum for the German people. Their intent was genocide and they acted on that intent. The Russians behaved with brutality in Germany, after having survived this onslaught. Current scholarship has largely dispelled the haze of myth about the “honorable” German army in World War II. I am surprised that there is anybody left who still believes in it.

  8. Generally well behaved towards which local population? The Germans systematically wiped out Polish Jewry and Polish Jewish civilization. The undisciplined Russian raping louts weren’t very bad by comparison.

  9. My father spent a couple of years in a POW camp run by the Luftwaffe. The were treated quite well, essentialy because the German airmen wanted to receive equal treatment if they were captured.

    Kind of like the rationale for not torturing prisoners.

  10. Jody’s comment points out something worth noting. The Germans behaved very differently against the Americans and British than they did in the East. They behaved with abject brutality against captured Soviet soldiers. They did not behave in this fashion against the Americans and British.

  11. Would it be fair to say that these two different armies had different ideas of who was “not human” and who was? Or at least worthy? The Germans put the Slavs and the Jews and the Gypsies in the not worthy; the Russians had other criteria; they were not, however, known for the high value they placed on lives – including their own. As Lex observes, the Poles were unfortunate enough not be considered valuable by either. But if the Germans were worse it doesn’t make life under the Russians good. (And the last weeks have shown what criteria we choose to use to define a valuable life is a problem for us as well.)

  12. The Germans were guided by a racist ideology that labelled large ethnic categories of people as “not human”. The acted on this by using millions of people as slave laborers, providing minimal levels of food to so-called subhuman conquered populations like in Poland, by the physical extermination of millions of people as a matter of express government policy. This ideology was indoctrinated into their army by the Party and by most of the younger soldiers having participated in the Hitler Youth and, as Omer Bartov shows, by an ongoing process of indoctrination during the struggle on the Russian front. The idea that regular army troops did not kill Jews or otherwise engage in atrocities has been rebutted at this point. The German army was up to its eyeballs in the genocidal policies of the regime.

    The Soviet troops were led by people with a communist ideology which put “class enemies” in a category of people subject to being killed. It was a smaller category, more malleable, and you could sometimes get out of it. Moreover, the Russian troops came from a poorer country and were less literate, so the depth of indoctrination of these men was not as intense, though I am not so sure of this. Instead, they acted with brutality which was very harsh but not genocidal in character. Snall cheer if you were a German refugee and the Soviet tanks bulldozed you off the road, or a German civilian and you were murdered or raped. But if you must look at the two armies and answer the question “which one behaved worse, which one disgraced itself, its uniforms, its nation the worse of the two” my reading and conversations tells me the answer is: the Germans.

  13. I didn’t realize that the non-Jewish Poles had been slated for extermination. I imagine that their systematic deaths were of a lower priority for the Nazis than those of the Jews and perhaps had not reached the stage of implementation by wars end.

    The 9/1 ratio is remarkable. I wonder if it includes captured German soldiers that didn’t make it back to Germany? Many thousands, at least, never did.

    A novel, The War of the Rats, follows the (true) career of Russia’s best sniper from the siege of Stalingrad (referred to in the title) to the capture of Berlin. It touches on many of the aspects of this post and comments. Suspect it provides an accurate accounting and feel of these dark times and places. It was partially adapted into a decent movie, Enemy at the Gates, which, of course, is much inferior to the written work.

    Re. the brutality of the Russians: I think you have to keep in mind their privations and the deaths of their relatives and countrymen in the months leading up to the point when they, in their turn, were invaders. They were in a bad mood, to say the least.

  14. Re: non-Jewish Poles under Nazi rule.

    From Wikipedia:

    It was German policy that the (non-Jewish) Poles were to be reduced to the status of serfs, and eventually replaced by German colonists. In the Government all education but primary education was abolished and so was all Polish cultural, scientific, artistic life. Universities were closed and many university professors, along with teachers, lawyers, intellectuals and other members of the Polish elite, were arrested and executed. In 1943, the government selected the Zamojskie area for further German colonisation. German settlements were planned, and the Polish population expelled amid great brutality, but few Germans were settled in the area before 1944.

    The Polish civilian population suffered under German occupation in several ways. Large numbers were expelled from areas intended for German colonisation, and forced to resettle in the General-Government area. Hundreds of thousands of Poles were deported to Germany for forced labour in industry and agriculture, where many thousands died. Poles were also conscripted for labour in Poland, and were held in labour camps all over the country, again with a high death rate. There was a general shortage of food, fuel for heating and medical supplies, and there was a high death rate among the Polish population as a result. Finally thousands of Poles were killed as reprisals for resistance attacks on German forces or for other reasons. In all, about 3 million (non-Jewish) Poles died as a result of the German occupation, more than 10 percent of the pre-war population. When this is added to the 3 million Polish Jews who were killed as a matter of policy by the Germans, Poland lost about 22 percent of its population, the highest proportion of any country in World War II.

    And this:

    Many non-Jewish Poles were either transported to Germany and used as slave labour or simply executed. In the cities the Germans would round-up and kill indiscriminately as a punishment for any underground or anti-German or pro-Jewish activity. In the countryside they kept prominent citizens as hostages who would be executed if necessary. Sometimes they liquidated whole villages; at least 300 villages were destroyed. Hans Frank said, “If I wanted to put up a poster for every seven Poles shot, the forests of Poland would not suffice to produce the paper for such posters.”

  15. If you are arguing that the Germans were worse than the Soviets, how do you account for the fact that Stalin killed more people than Hitler did?

  16. Because it was a response to this assertion: “Great majority of German armed forces (Wehrmachtand Waffen SS) were very generally well behaved towards local population”. The behavior of the two armies was what was in question. The overall evil of the two regimes is a related but different question. One reason Stalin killed more people was that he was in power longer. Hitler was a risk-taker, Stalin was not. Hitler bet his regime and his life, and lost. If he had defeated Soviet Russia, the Germans would have killed every Jew and every slav in Eastern Europe over a period of years, according to their own public statements. They lost, so they didn’t get to try. I really don’t know which regime was more evil. They are both about as bad as you can ask for.

  17. I couldn’t agree with you more, Lex. It’s probably idle to speculate which was the greater evil, but fascinating nevertheless. Consider a commander of that war who is in a race to out-maneuver an opposing force and encounters a minefield. An American general would send in engineers to clear the mines. A German might do that or might force slaves or captives into the field to detonate the mines. Only the Russian would march his own soldiers in at gunpoint.

  18. “There is no other explanation given the horrifying 9:1 ratio of Russian vs German military deaths on the eastern front.”

    I disagree with the 9:1 KIA ratio. According to When Titans Clashed, David Glantz: Soviet Army KIA/MIA totaled 10 million, Wehrmacht KIA/MIA totaled 5 million for all of WW2. Conservatively, I’d say half or 2.5 million were on the Eastern Front (probably much higher, but for arguments sake). This would put the ratio at 4:1. Not great, but not 9:1. It would be 9:1 if you include the 20 million Russian civilians the Wehrmacht killed.

  19. “disagree with the 9:1 KIA ratio. According to When Titans Clashed, David Glantz: Soviet Army KIA/MIA totaled 10 million, Wehrmacht KIA/MIA totaled 5 million for all of WW2.”

    The various source quote different numbers going from 10 000 000 to 14,500,000.
    For example Britannica claims 11 000 000 while Encarta puts the number at 13,000,000. There are some Russian historians who estimate number of military deaths to be closer to 20 000 000.
    Given the secrecy of Stalin regime , my guess is that we will never know.

    The civilian loses range from 6,700,000 to 16,000,000 or so but again, we will never know how many of these were killed by Germans and how many perished in Stalin’s own gulags which were very much active during ww2 – I am sure Stalin was more than willing to blame everything on Nazis.

    Germany military losses are usually quoted around 2 500 000 to 3 500 000.

    As far as behavior of German military … I just quoted anecdotal information from my own relatives on the Polish side of my family who happened to fall under Soviet occupation during early days of ww2 (eastern parts of Poland), were scheduled to be deported to Siberia by their new Soviet masters and were literally liberated by Germans ( at least they related this as such to me).
    The fact that many of them fled westwards with German army as Soviets were advancing speaks volumes about their perceptions of relative danger of these two regimes.

    All in all I have yet to meet anyone from the former eastern Poland who would claim otherwise ( I grew up in a place known as Prussia which ,after the war, was mostly populated with Polish refuges from the Eastern parts of pre-war Poland – the part that was to be incorporated into USSR. The original German residents of Prussia were either slaughtered by the Soviets or fled west.)

    You have to understand that Soviet behavior towards local population in 1939 after they took parts of Poland and Baltic republics ( in collaboration with Nazis ) was markedly worse than what is generally known as “soviet style” liberation in the late stages of the war.

    I have to admit that I am a bit biased since both ethnic sides of my family ( one was Polish with some members participating in the defense of Poland against Nazis and Soviets in 1939 – the other very German including one of them fighting Soviets in the East as a part of Waffen SS outfit) were unified by their hatred for Soviets but that’s how they related these things to me.

  20. Yeah, the people of Eastern Europe suffered from all sides. Saying anything nice about the Red Army does not sit well with them. But I have to say as an American that I am glad the Red Army fought as hard as it did.

  21. Lex, I agree that the level of oppression of Poles under German occupation was worse than that during and after the “liberation” by the Red Army. I also agree that the German goal was to greatly reduce or entirely exterminate the Polish population, whereas the Soviets were “only” after the class enemies (a great part of population, as Poland was a “capitalist” country before the war, and a country with a very strong anti-German resistance, the Home Army – Armia Krajowa, with about 400.000 members).

    So, I agree that the Soviets were the “less bad” guys, compared to Germans, but I cannot classify them as the “good” guys.

    AS to the different levels of brutality of Soviet “liberation” and/or occupation : the brutality level was much stronger in the territories invaded in 1939-1940 (eastern parts of Poland, the Baltic states) that were to become parts of the Soviet Union, and in the territories recognized as “German” such as the western and norhern parts of today’s Poland, Prussia and Germany…

    As the family ties in our region are frequently rather complicated (I have ancestors of Polish, German, Lithuanian, Belorussian and surely others origins), members of my family had the rather dubious pleasure to ttake part in these two konds of Sovit occupation, in addition to the German one.

  22. That last phrase was to be:

    As the family ties in our region are frequently rather complicated (I have ancestors of Polish, German, Lithuanian, Belorussian and surely others origins), members of my family had the rather dubious pleasure to take part in these two kinds of Soviet occupation, in addition to the German one.

    Sorry for the typos, my English is not very good these days…

  23. Xavras. When I said the Soviet soldier was the “good guy”, I meant as opposed to his German enemy who had invaded his country and meant to kill everybody who lived there. He was not any kind of good guy to the people in the countries he occupied who did not want him there. Also, I do not mean in any way to diminish the evil of communism. The problem is that the people of Eastern Europe were crushed between two boulders, and there was not much they could do about it.

    Your complicated family ties are interesting and characteristic of that part of the world. Prussia, Poland and Lithuania have all, over the years, governmed various patches of that region, and the families intermarried and cannot all be sorted out. Anne Applebaum has a book called BETWEEN EAST AND WEST : Across the Borderlands of Europe, (excerpthere) which deals with this issue.

    Your English is fine.

  24. Both the Soviets and the Nazis were murdering tyrants. Of course it is in the interests of the leftist neo-historians to downplay the fact that Stalin’s idicts starved to death millions in the Ukraine during the 1930’s and that the Nazis went after more than Jews. The neo-historians also downplay the fact that the Nazis managed to convert over have of France to their cause and the Vichy French government troops fought the allies. Any argument about who was the worst reminds me of the delimma posed by young boys” Which would you rather do. Slide down a razor blade or have your testicles squeezed in a vice? Life for the freedom loving was the same under both regimes, emasculating!

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