Monday, February 19, 2007

On my High Horse for the Red Army

I normally like to confine my criticism of Peter King to football-related topics like racial stereotyping, missing the boat on Michael Vick, and Northeastern provinciality, but today, we're going to dust off the ol' history degree and get after Peter on a new front: American-o-centric views of World War Two:

Until Sunday, this place, for me, was a Tom Brokaw book, a History Channel show. But as we talked with Nicholas on the hour trip back to Caen, we wondered what would have happened if the Germans hadn't been repelled from France. Would England have been next? And would the emboldened Germans then have crossed the Atlantic and tried to take America? Would our way of life, our football and our baseball, our corner bars and big universities, have been forever changed? The Super Bowl just monopolized the lives of so many in North America. It was one of the highest rated TV programs of all time. Imagine a world without it.

Peter is apparently unaware of the fact that the Americans, Canadians, and British faced roughly 20% of the Wehrmacht because the remaining 80% was almost entirely committed in the East. Moreover, by June 1944, the Red Army had essentially won in the East, as they were rolling towards Poland and had achieved massive superiority in terms of troops and tanks by this period. So, to answer Peter's questions:

1. The Germans were going to be repelled from France; it was just a question of whether the Soviets or the Western Allies were going to march under the Arc du Triomphe.

2. If the Germans couldn't attempt an invasion of England in the summer and fall of 1940, when they were not at war with the USSR or the US, they sure as hell weren't going to do so by 1944. And if they weren't coming across the English Channel, they sure as hell weren't coming across the Atlantic. So no, we wouldn't be the Western division of the Bundesliga if not for D-Day.

This is not to say that the US didn't do a good deed by forcing the Axis into a war. The US did do some good by degrading the Germans' industrial capacity and deflecting a few divisions away from the East. We also did some serious good in defeating the Japanese in the East and ending their genocidal activities in Manchuria (although they were ultimately replaced by Mao, so be careful what you wish for). However, my pet peeve is lionizing the D-Day invasions and ignoring the fact that the Soviets were the ones who really beat the Germans. The Soviets sustained 10,700,000 combat deaths as compared to the US's 407,000. It's cool that Peter King showed enough interest to go to the Normandy beaches and pay homage to our war dead. Most Americans probably couldn't find France on a map, let alone find their way to Normandy. That said, I get bothered that few in this country recognize the role that the Soviets played in defeating the Nazis (and I'm primarily talking about Soviet citizens, as their leadership was criminally inept for much of the war and doesn't deserve plaudits). Either that or I just like playing the role of history snob. It dovetails nicely with European football snob.


Anonymous said...

What bothered me most was the phonetic spelling of the guide's French-tinged English. It struck me as patronizing.

Given my previously stated view of sportswriters and the general public's lack of historical knowledge, I'm not surprised by the rest of the piece.

Ed said...

"The Germans were going to be repelled from France; it was just a question of whether the Soviets or the Western Allies were going to march under the Arc du Triomphe."

Which is about as big a question as there is, given that the Soviets marching under the Arc du Triomphe would have meant a Red continental Europe. I'm sure the Parisians would have been ecstatic to trade Nazi Occupation in exchange for the last eight brutal years of Stalin's regime or enduring, say, the fate that befell the Hungarians in 1956. And that's not even mentioning the greater political cost of a smoldering Cold War with the balance of power decidedly against the West.

I think, given the larger political context, Peter King can be given a pass...

Michael said...

Agreed, Ed. The kudos that the US and UK deserve is not saving France from the Germans, but rather that they saved it from the Soviets. On the other hand, maybe the Soviets would have demanded less of a buffer without an American presence in Europe. Unlikely, but it's an interesting counter-factual.

Anonymous said...

If we're handing out kudos for countries that turned the tide in WWII, we have to acknowledge that the Soviet counter-offensive was in no small part related to the resupply of armaments from the US. At least that's how your father remembers it from his history books, the Germans having depleted the munitions factories in the west of Russia.

Michael said...

Good point on the aid from the US to the Soviets, mainly because our jeeps were incredibly useful for them and we helped them with food rations. That said, tanks were the most important equipment on the Eastern Front and the Soviets found that the American tanks they received were totally inferior to the T-34 (which first came into use in the defense of Moscow in late 1941) and mostly useless against panzers.

The Soviets also deserve some credit for retaining much of their industrial capacity by moving their industry east of the Urals so they weren't totally dependent on aid from the US.

Well, that's at least my recollection from the 45-minute walks in Pittsburgh.

Unknown said...

I like how you used the words "criminally inept" to describe Soviet leadership during WWII.

I watched the first episode of a PBS program called "Blood on the Snow", that detailed the start of the Great Patriotic War between the Soviets and Nazis.

Part of the reason for the Navi's rapid advance in the early part of the war, was that Stalin would not allow Zukov to bring the Red Army to defend the borders near Germany before the invasion. Stalin was in denial, he refused to believe that Hitler would break their non-aggression pact.

Before Russia entered the war, Stalin once asked the director of the Moscow Opera to fashion an opera about the Nazis defeating Britain and France. When Stalin walked away, the director said to a comrade, "but if Britain and France fall, we will be left alone on the continent with Hitler!"

If you have a chance to watch that program, you should. It's called "Blood Upon the Snow: The Hour Before Midnight." It has previously unreleased footage from the Soviet archives.

It also introduced me to an excellent piece of classical music; Sergei Prokofiev's "Montagues and Capulets".

Michael said...

"Blood in the Snow" sounds like a good show. I read a good book last year on the first ten days of the war - "Stalin's Folly" by Constantine Pleshakov - and he does a good job of explaining how Stalin was in total denial that the Germans were about to attack, despite lots of evidence from his intelligence agents that an attack was imminent. In fact, he refused to allow his border troops to prepare for fighting because he thought that would be seen as a provocation, and his troops were told not to fire on the Germans, leading to some amusing/tragic "can we fire back?" exchanges between the front and their superiors when the Germans attacked.

The Soviets had a great mass of their troops right on the border with the Germans, but they did not have any defense in depth, so once the Germans broke through, there was nothing to stop them. The Soviet air force was not close to the border, which is the evidence that Pleshakov uses to argue that Stalin was not planning on a preemptive strike on Germany, as some have argued.

The Soviets managed to survive only because they had an inexhaustible supply of men and material. Their army was completely unprepared for the conflict and took obscene losses in the first few months. The fact that Stalin had purged the entire officer corps in 1937 didn't help matters. (There was a case of one general who had been imprisoned and had his teeth knocked out, but Stalin had to recall him when the Germans attacked. I wish I remembered the name of the general.)