Did the Soviet Union Really “win” the war?
There is something amoral in even posing such a question given the horrendous loss of Russian life resisting Nazi aggression. Superlatives are exhausted when describing the four-year-long Eastern Front between June 22, 1941 and the surrender of Nazi forces to the Soviets on May 9, 1945. While German and Soviet sources are in conflict over almost every category or respective loss, most historians agree that somewhere between 25-27 million Russians died during the “Great Patriotic War”—a Russian brand name redefining World War II as largely a defensive land war fought on the vast Eastern front. Well over eight million of those deaths were Red Army military personnel.
In the 75 years since the end of the war, German losses likewise have been constantly recalibrated upward, from over four to five or even six million combat deaths. Of those killed, over 4 million German soldiers died on the Eastern Front, hundreds of thousands of others were captured, missing or wounded with permanent disabilities and eventual deaths. Perhaps two of all three German combat deaths from June 1941 to May 1945 occurred on the Eastern Front, as well as over 75 percent of the Wehrmacht’s total losses in armored vehicles, trucks, artillery, and airplanes.
To calibrate the Russian common claim that it essentially won World War II, a variety of different rubrics is often cited. Certainly, in terms of the sheer wreckage of the Wehrmacht’s deployed manpower and materiel, the Soviet army deserves the chief credit. But whereas the United States and British Empire defeated Japan, retook Western Europe, knocked Italy out of the war, fought in North Africa, the Mediterranean, and destroyed the industrial base of the Third Reich at a cost of somewhere around 900,000 military deaths, the Soviet Union lost roughly ten times that number, as well as 285 times the number of British civilian deaths.
One way of making sense of the vast carnage is that the Wehrmacht simply destroyed itself in Russia in the sheer effort to kill over four Russians for every German lost. Stalingrad is nearly twice the distance to Berlin as is Normandy, and the front that stretched from Leningrad to near Grozny was three times longer than the 400-mile Western front of World War I. In that endless expanse, Blitzkrieg, honed through fighting in a densly populated, confined, and well-connected Europe, perished for good.
After the German disaster at Stalingrad, it was impossible for the Third Reich to win World War II, but very possible for the Anglo-Americans one day to invade and liberate Western Europe, given the attrition in the east of the Wehrmacht. So, by the metrics of damage inflicted and losses received, the Soviets suffered, and made the Axis suffer, far more than did either Britain or the United States.
But for all the horror of the Eastern Front, did the Germans and Soviets fight in isolation? In Germany’s case, it mostly did. Its two Axis partners, Japan and Italy, were largely absent from the fighting, other than Mussolini’s disastrous decision in summer 1942 to send some 12 divisions to join Army Group South, half of which—over 112, 000 soldiers—were killed. The Soviet Union was in no position to help the Allied effort in the Mediterranean, to rid North Africa of Italian and German troops, to invade Sicily and Italy to drive Italy out of the war, and to continue for another 20 bloody months to push German forces back up the Italian peninsula to the Alps.
Nor did the Soviet Union after 1942 have much of a navy. The destruction of the Italian, Japanese, and German navies was the sole responsibility of the British and American fleets. To supply Britain and the U.S.S.R., to keep Suez open, to protect the lifelines of the British Empire and the alliance from Australia to South Africa to the Artic Circle, the two navies required huge investments of men, ships, and planes. Britain, with American help, eventually destroyed the German U-boat and surface fleets in the Atlantic and Mediterranean. Only then did North American merchant ships by 1944 face little risk in reaching Britain, while the combined navies and air forces earlier had shut down most maritime importation to German ports.
In terms of aiding the Soviet Union, especially in the dark days of 1941–42, the two allies eventually supplied over 20 percent of all Soviet materiel—some 14,000 aircraft, 400,000 trucks and jeeps, 13,000 tanks, and perhaps most importantly 8,000 tractors and heavy equipment along with 2,000 locomotives, 10,000 rail cars, and 13,000 battle tanks. And by focusing on dire Soviet shortages in food, gasoline, explosives, aluminum, tires, nonferrous metals, and radio communications, Russian industry was freed to concentrate on the heavy industrial production of superior tanks and artillery pieces.
The Germans were soon astonished that supposedly backward enemy divisions were far more motorized than their own horse-powered troops. The United States, in fact, supplied more trucks to the Soviet Union than all the aggregate trucks available to Italy, Japan, and Germany throughout the entire course of the war.
Or as Joseph Stalin later put the Allied effort in context, “The most important things in this war are the machines…. The United States is a country of machines. Without the machines we received through Lend-Lease, we would have lost the war.” It is neither boastful nor irrelevant to note that whereas Britain and the U.S. sent vast supplies, often through dangerous shipping routes to the U.S.S.R., Stalin was apparently in no position to supply anyone other than his own courageous troops.