Monday, June 22, 2009

Tenacity Writ Large

If you know any Russians, you might want to wish them a happy anniversary of the Great Patriotic War. 68 years ago today, Nazi Germany launched Operation Barbarossa and attacked the Soviet Union, which at the time was benevolently neutral toward Germany during World War II. In fact, Soviet food, oil and other raw materials had helped Germany to circumvent the British sea blockade.

If Hitler had instead decided to stay at peace with the Soviet Union, he would probably have won. The hundreds of divisions which Germany had used - and lost - against the Soviets could probably have kept the U.S., U.K., Free French and other Allies at a standstill.

More to the point, even as it was the war was a very near thing. Within the first two weeks alone, German forces advanced over 200 miles in all directions, occupying Lithuania, Latvia, Belorussia and Western Ukraine and taking - among many others - the cities of Vitebsk and Orsha. Before the summer was out, Estonia and the Soviet north including Novgorod, as well as Smolensk (the gateway to Moscow) and most of the Ukraine were gone. German troops literally got to within sight of the Kremlin in Moscow, besieged Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) and entered Stalingrad (now Volgograd) in the Volga River near the Caucasus.

We will never know even approximately how many Soviet civilians and troops died; the official figure is over 20 million and it is widely regarded as an underestimate. (Many deaths in war are due to disease, starvation and other secondary causes.)

As Victor Kravchenko, head of the Soviet Department of War Engineering Armament during the war (and subsequent defector to the U.S.) has made clear in his I Chose Freedom that besides the vast Russian spaces (as it were, a safe space to make mistakes), exactly one thing saved the Soviets, and hence the Allied cause: the absolute will on the part of the Russian people never to give up.

No nation would have had more excuse. The Nazis - who hated the Slavs as much as they hated the Jews - performed unspeakable acts of vengeance on anyone who dared resist. The Soviet people and even the troops often died of starvation, cold or inadequate support in terms of fuel, ammunition, working machinery and other problems.

And let us be clear: many if not most of the Soviet people hated their regime in Moscow with a passion, having suffered through purges, mass arrests and executions - often following unjust and totally unfounded accusations of treachery and other crimes.

For nearly four years, the Soviet people stood firm against one of the most powerful - and most evil - regimes ever to grace this planet. Many more saw the war's beginning than its end. If they had buckled - as had the people of Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium and France - Nazi Germany would have crushed continental Europe...and gotten away with the Holocaust.

Sometimes sheer stubbornness and a refusal to ever give up really count.

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