Seventy-five years ago, on 8 May 1945, World War II came to an end. Victory in Europe (VE) Day has been commemorated annually ever since and this year’s was expected to be among the most notable given it is the last big anniversary likely to feature surviving combatants. But a virus that preys on people has had other ideas, and VE Day events have been cancelled, postponed or rescaled to digital, virtual versions.
Even in other years, however, VE Day has had its problems. The Soviet Union and its throwback incarnation Russia have always been excluded from what became very much a “Western” thing, an Anglo-French remembrance and triumph. This is doubly offensive because it was the sacrifices that the Soviet Union made that won the war. More than 20 million Soviets died, many in the struggle to stop the German armies from seizing Leningrad, Moscow, Stalingrad and the oil fields of the Caucasus. The personnel and resources that Hitler had to commit to the Soviet front meant that slowly the possibility of an Allied invasion of Western Europe by sea – D-Day – became a reality.
Here is how the importance of the Soviet Army’s victory at Stalingrad was summed up by the eminent foreign correspondent and historian William L Shirer, writing in his monumental The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (1960).
“Stalingrad, wrote Walter Goerlitz, the German historian, in his work on the General Staff, ‘was a second Jena and was certainly the greatest defeat that a German army had ever undergone.’
“But it was more than that. Coupled with El Alamein and the British-American landings in North Africa it marked the great turning point in World War II. The high tide of Nazi conquest which had rolled over most of Europe to the frontier of Asia on the Volga and in Africa almost to the Nile had now begun to ebb and it would never flow back again…
“… And finally, in the snows of Stalingrad and in the burning sands of the North African desert, a great and terrible Nazi dream was destroyed. Not only was the Third Reich doomed by the disasters to Paulus and Rommel but also the gruesome and grotesque so-called New Order which Hitler and his SS thugs had been busy setting up in the conquered lands.”
Shirer explains what that New Order meant: “… a Nazi-ruled Europe whose resources would be exploited for the profit of Germany, whose peoples would be made the slaves of the German master race and whose ‘undesirable elements’ – above all, the Jews, but also many Slavs in the East, especially the intelligentsia among them – would be exterminated.”
It is one of the bitter ironies of contemporary reality that what German force of arms and genocide could not do, the Euro and the European Union (EU) have instead achieved for Germany: dominion over Europe and the subjugation especially of southern Europe, and in particular Greece, which gave Hitler’s armies so much trouble. The bailouts forced on Greece in the wave of the economic crisis were not to save the Greek state or its people but rather to rescue German banks overcommitted to dubious “developments” in Greece and elsewhere in the south of Europe. So, to save the trumped-up dignity of German fiscal probity, Greece and its people are in a state of permanent indenture.
Three-quarters of a century on from the end of continental conflict, Europe is faced once again with pressing questions about its future. The United Kingdom exiting the EU has shattered the dream of European unity. Erosion of civil rights in the east of Europe, together with the corrosive effects of coronavirus, may well destroy the mythos – the ideology – of pan-Europeanism.
On this VE Day, here is what the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union meant to two people: David Bronstein, the Ukrainian-born chess great who tied a match for the world chess championship in 1951, and Sergey Belavenets, who played each other in the 13th USSR Championship semi-final at Rostov-on-Don in 1941. Writing in his autobiographical collection of games, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (1995), Bronstein recalls:
“After the game my opponent, who was Chairman of the Qualification Commission of the Soviet Chess Federation, was silent for a minute. Then he smiled and said to me: ‘I see that we made the right decision when we promoted you to the rank of master.’
“… Several days after this game was played the tournament was stopped as the Germans crossed the frontier into the USSR.
“Before we left we had dinner together and Belavenets told me in a soft voice that he believed he would not survive the war. Sadly I never saw him again as he was killed on the battlefield on 7 March 1942 near Novgorod at the age of 32.”