Posts Tagged 'pascal bruckner'

So did the Red Army really singlehandedly defeat the Third Reich?

This bugs me. It’s Geoffrey Wheatcroft writing in The National Interest:

The idea that the United States was the savior of Europe in World Wars I and II is popular in some circles on both sides of the Atlantic, but is demonstrably false. Between the formal entry of the United States into the Great War in April 1917 and the last German offensive in March 1918, hundreds of thousands of Entente soldiers were killed, mainly British in the summer and autumn of 1917 after the frightful slaughter of the French army in the spring; and in that period of nearly a year, fewer than two hundred Americans died. In the course of that war, the Frenchmen killed defending their country were twice as numerous as all the Americans who have died in every foreign war taken together from 1776 until today. As a matter of historical fact, the Third Reich was defeated by the Red Army and not by the Western democracies. Even though over one hundred thirty-five thousand American GIs died – a startling figure today – between D day and V-E day, more than half a million Russians were killed.

If Wheatcroft had expressed his point less categorically – if he’d written that the Third Reich was defeated primarily by the Red Army – I wouldn’t have blinked. I’ve read this before; I thought it was the conventional wisdom. But seeing it described as “a matter of historical fact” made me pause. How do we measure the “historical fact” of the Allies’ relative contributions to the victory over Nazism? [1]

According to Wheatcroft, it’s measured by counting the number of casualties each country suffered. The Soviets lost more soldiers than the Americans; therefore the Soviets deserve the larger share of the victory.

Strange, I would’ve thought the measure of military success was the number of enemy soldiers you killed.

It’s true that the Soviet Union sacrificed more to defeat Hitler than any other country. But much of that sacrifice was wasted. Millions of Soviets died through the incompetence and brutality of their own political masters. It was Stalin’s blindness to Hitler’s pre-invasion manoeuvres that allowed the Germans to occupy Russia’s industrial heartland at a stroke. Only then, with reluctance, did Stalin shift his attention from killing his own citizens to killing Germans. His tactics, if they can be dignified with that name, involved throwing masses of underequipped men virtually under the treads of invading panzers. To retreat was a crime against the motherland: in 1941 and ’42, according to the historian Dmitri Volkogonov, 157,593 men were executed for “cowardice”. [2]

(How many Americans were executed for desertion in World War II? One: Eddie Slovik. Were the Americans that much braver than their Soviet allies? Of course not – thousands in fact deserted – but the US Army was more prudent in its valuation of a soldier’s life.)

This doesn’t diminish the Soviets’ contribution to the war effort, which was vast and decisive. In fact it’s even more marvelous what they accomplished, given the handicaps imposed by their leaders. Without the Soviet contribution, the western democracies probably couldn’t have defeated Hitler’s armies on their own. But could the Soviets, fighting on their own, have defeated Hitler – say, if the democracies had capitulated after the fall of France?


Perhaps a better way to compare the effectiveness of the western and eastern armies is not to compare Allied deaths but to compare German deaths. Estimates vary widely, but since I’m looking for a ratio rather than a total, one source will do as well as another. For military deaths only:

Killed by Soviet Union Killed by other Allies [3]
2,742,909 534,683

This limited comparison (which excludes casualties among Italian and other Axis forces, as well as Germans killed in the Balkans, Scandinavia, and Germany itself [4]) suggests that the Red Army was roughly 5.5 times as lethal as the other Allied forces combined. This is a somewhat more convincing argument for Wheatcroft’s claim that “the Third Reich was defeated by the Red Army and not by the Western democracies”.

However. At the end of the war, the Allied democracies held over twice as many German prisoners of war as the Soviets – 7.7 millions versus 3.1 million, according to this chart.  This makes sense, because the war in the east was far more brutal. Soviet soldiers were likelier to execute prisoners, and German soldiers were likelier to fight to the bitter end, knowing their chance of surviving Soviet captivity was slim. At the close of the war, as defeat became inevitable, German strategy was based partly on the recognition that their countrymen would be better off surrendering to the Americans or Brits.

Still, conceding that a POW has been removed from combat just as effectively as a KIA, let’s reevaluate those figures:

Killed or captured by Soviet Union Killed or captured by other Allies
5,870,289 8,201,683

By this calculation, the Allied democracies were almost one and a half times as effective at neutralizing German soldiers as their Red Army counterparts.

But those POW figures are distorted by the fact that at the end of the war, most German military units surrendered to whichever occupying power they happened to find themselves facing. Maybe a still better way to compare Soviet and Anglo-American military effectiveness would be to add up casualties and POWs taken in action.

This page offers some insight. I’ve combined the data from Tables 5 and 6:

Killed in action Missing KIA + missing
Eastern front: 1,105,987 1,018,365 2,124,352
West + southwest: 157,523 603,695 761,488

(These data omit the final months of the war, and also exclude Navy and Air Force deaths.) Note that on Germany’s eastern front the number of confirmed deaths slightly exceeds the number of missing, while in the west and southwest (i.e. western Europe, Italy, and Africa) the number of missing is almost four times the number of confirmed deaths. I interpret this to mean that the bulk of the missing in the west and southwest were taken prisoner. [5]

If that’s true, then about 26% of German ground troops were removed from action, one way or another, by the democratic Allies. Throw in naval and air casualties, most of which were sustained in western Europe and the Mediterranean, and you’ve got the western democracies responsible for perhaps 30% of German manpower losses through the end of January, 1945 – which doesn’t include the final push into Germany.


Of course, this is only one way to compare the wartime contributions of the Soviet Union and western Europe, and I recognize that it’s incomplete. Another way of looking at it would be to say, “Regardless of how many German soldiers the Soviets killed or captured, they tied up the bulk of the Third Reich’s military capacity.” It’s no great achievement to take a German bullet, but that’s one less bullet the Germans have to fire elsewhere. The Red Army held off the Germans at the critical point in the war, allowing the Americans and Brits to get organized and open up a second front.

To admit that the Nazis were defeated by the efforts of all the Allies doesn’t take anything away from the sacrifices of the Soviet Union in its Great Patriotic War. Millions of Russians died so that millions of Americans didn’t have to. But the suggestion that the United States was somehow an idle bystander in the conflict is nonsensical and offensive. [6]

Am I being too hard on Geoffrey Wheatcroft? He’s only trying to debunk the myth that American GIs dealt Nazism its greatest blow on the cliffs of Omaha Beach. The specific comment that he’s responding to comes from Pascal Bruckner in his book The Tyranny of Guilt: An Essay on Western Masochism. Bruckner writes (as quoted by Wheatcroft) that

without American help in 1917, and especially in 1944, [Europe] would have been purely and simply wiped off the map […]

Obviously Bruckner is being hyperbolical here – even a Nazi-dominated Europe would still have been Europe, “purely and simply” in the geographical sense. But Bruckner doesn’t attribute the entire victory to the Americans, he only says their help staved off certain defeat. I think this is a less disputable position than the one Wheatcroft is advancing as “a matter of historical fact”.

What’s more, a peek at the original text (courtesy of Google Books) reveals that Wheatcroft is leaving a crucial clause out of Bruckner’s argument. Here’s the sentence in full (emphasis is mine):

Europe suffers, with respect to its American cousin, from the debtor’s complex. It is clearly understood, at least in Western Europe, that without American help in 1917, and especially in 1944, it would have been purely and simply wiped off the map or permanently colonized by Soviet troops.

Bruckner’s untruncated point is that a western Europe left to shift for itself in the 1940s would have been screwed either way – if not screwed by Hitler, then screwed by Stalin, like Poland and Czechoslovakia and all the other countries “liberated” by the Red Army. The presence of three and a half million American servicemen and women (and billions of dollars of aid) helped assure the survival of European freedom, in its western half at least.

It bugs me that this truth bugs Geoffrey Wheatcroft so much.


1. I’m not going to analyze Wheatcroft’s comments about World War I, because I know less about that conflict, but I suspect he’s on firmer ground there.

2 This and other details of Stalin’s ghastly war leadership can be found in Martin Amis’ Koba The Dread (pp. 195-212). See also Part I, Chapter 6 of Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago.

3. “Killed by other Allies” includes all German deaths in France, the Low Countries, Italy, and Africa, plus those killed in the Battle of the Atlantic. “Killed by Soviets” includes figures from the eastern front only. I’ve excluded deaths in the Balkans and Scandinavia as they don’t fall neatly into either column, and anyway the numbers aren’t big enough to significantly skew the totals.

4. This is a big caveat. According to the same chart, 1,230,045 German soldiers died in the defense of their homeland in 1945. Assuming they died in the same ratio as those killed in the wider war – about 5.5 killed by Soviets for every 1 killed by the other Allies – then the totals look something like this:

Killed by Soviet Union Killed by other Allies
3,772,297 735,340
Killed or captured by Soviet Union Killed or captured by other Allies
6,899,677 8,402,340

5. It’s possible I’m misinterpreting these figures. If you can think of another explanation for the far higher rate of “missing” troops in the western and southwestern theatres, please let me know.

6. I’ve left out of this discussion the armaments, food, and other assistance supplied to the Allies by the United States under the lend-lease program. I can’t find a webpage that discusses in any but the vaguest terms what percentage of Soviet, British, and other Allied war materiel was provided by the USA. This page – the third chapter of a pamphlet called How Shall Lend-Lease Accounts Be Settled? published by the US Army in 1945 – provides an overview of lend-lease, then adds:

This does not mean that our major allies – except for the revived French army which was almost completely equipped under lend-lease – were mainly dependent on American supplies. It has been estimated that lend-lease provided only 10 percent of British war equipment, and certainly a lesser proportion of Soviet materiel.

But in 1945, for domestic political reasons, the US government had reason to downplay how much the Soviet Union’s military capabilities had been augmented by its support. According to this page, the United States provided $11 billion worth of supplies to the Soviet war effort, in the form of locomotives, tanks, aircraft, trucks, and artillery, amounting to “almost 10% of all Russian war materiel.”


Michael A. Charles is a writer, animator, and musician currently living in the Vancouver area.

Michael is the singer and guitarist for the band known as Sea Water Bliss and the creator of Garson Hampfield, Crossword Inker.

You can find many of Michael's videos on the Gallery page.

Garson Hampfield, Crossword Inker