“History is written by the victors” is a well known and often accurate statement, however, for me it was never truer than when examining Russia’s role in World War II (WWII).
With VE day (Victory in Europe) having now just passed, it was notable that many people highlighted the important role Russia played in bringing about freedom in Europe by helping to defeat Nazi tyranny. Whilst there is absolutely no doubt that Russia played a huge role in defeating Nazism, we need to take a step back and look at their overall contributions more objectively.
Germany Invades Poland (Only Germany?)
On 1st of September 1939 Germany invaded Poland which in effect resulted in the outbreak of WWII as France and Britain declared war on Germany on 3rd September. However, an often forgotten/ignored intervention happened on September 17th as part of the Nazi/Soviet agreement (Molotov-Ribbentrop pact), Russia invaded Poland from the east. This military intervention by Russia involved up to 800,000 troops and resulted in between 3000 – 7000 Polish deaths. The outcome of this was the annexation of Poland between the Nazis and the Soviets, ironically the Soviets controlled over 50% of Poland and 13 million people as a result of their invasion.
What did France and Britain do?
Both France and Britain were stunned by Russia’s intervention, however, they did not declare war on Russia. On a technicality Britain had a secret protocol to the 1939 Anglo-Polish treaty that specifically limited Britain’s obligation to protecting Poland to aggression from Germany only. In addition to this on a purely practical point, Britain and France were barely equipped to face down the Nazis, coupled with the Soviets would have been an impossible task. Therefore, France and Britain were muted on Russia’s invasion of Poland and set about defending France against the impending German invasion.
What happened to the Polish people under Russian Occupation?
The Russians captured 250,000 Polish prisoners during the invasion, these prisoners were denied any type of legal status as the Russians had not signed up to the international convention on rules of war. As a result, almost all officers were murdered with the remaining soldiers sent to forced labour camps.
Stalin ordered the murder of 22,000 Poles by the Soviet police during the Katyn massacre, in addition to this Soviet police rounded up and executed anyone they deemed as a perceived threat from intellects, politicians to religious leaders.
According to sociologist, Prof. Tadeusz Piotrowski, during the years from 1939–41, nearly 1.5 million people (including both local inhabitants and refugees from German-occupied Poland) were deported from the Soviet controlled areas of former eastern Poland deep into the Soviet Union. Only a small number of these deportees returned to their homes after the war. According to American professor Carroll Quigley, at least one third of the 320,000 Polish prisoners of war captured by the Red Army in 1939 were murdered. It’s estimated that between 10 and 35 thousand prisoners were killed either in prisons or on prison trail to the Soviet Union in the few days after the 22 June 1941 German attack on the Soviets.
But Russia Liberated Poland
In Poland, German Nazi atrocities ended by late 1944, but they were replaced by Soviet oppression with the advance of Red Army forces. Soviet soldiers often engaged in plunder, rape and other crimes against the Poles, causing the population to fear and hate the regime. 50,000 members of the Polish Underground State were deported to Siberia and various other Soviet Labour camps.
Trumped up charges were levelled against many Polish people as an excuse to execute them including accusations of fascism whilst in reality many of the Poles had been fighting Nazi tyranny since 1939.
6000 political deaths were instigated by the Soviets whilst it is estimated that 20,000 more Poles died in Communist prisons.
One of the darkest legacies involving Russian troops was the scale of rapes they carried out on females. Polish records indicate that 100,000 people were raped during the “liberation” of Poland.
It’s also worth nothing that Poland was not fully liberated from Russia until 1956.
Was Poland an Isolated Example?
No, the crimes of the Soviet Union whilst in conjunction with the Nazis or fighting against them are innumerable and extremely difficult to quantify, some examples are as follows:
– Illegally annexing Estonia in 1940. In 1941, 34,000 Estonians were drafted into the Red Army with only 30% surviving the war. It has further been reported that less than 50% of these men seen military service with remainder perishing in concentration camps.
– When the Nazis invaded Estonia the Soviets deported 300,000 Estonians, many of whom were executed. In fact, as a result of Soviet occupation of Estonia it permanently lost 20% of its population.
– Some 300,000 Lithuanians were deported or sentenced to terms in prison camps on political grounds. It is estimated that Lithuania lost almost 780,000 citizens as a result of the Soviet occupation, of these around 440,000 were war refugees.
– Almost every country occupied by the Russians faced mass executions usually on false charges, large scale rape against the female inhabitants and mass deportations – usually to Soviet style concentration camps known as Gulag.
What happened the Germans?
The Germans carried out barbaric acts on the Russians and committed mass atrocities against the Russian people particularly during the invasion of Russia in 1941, therefore a backlash was inevitable.
As the Red Army advanced, Nazis propaganda against the Russians regarding their atrocities backfired and it almost hastened the retreat of German civilians. Fleeing before the advancing Red Army, large numbers of the inhabitants of the German provinces of East Prussia, Silesia, and Pomerania died when evacuation columns encountered units of the Red Army. Civilians were run over by tanks, shot, or otherwise murdered. Women and young girls were raped and left to die.
The Russian army was guilty of mass rapes during WWII with many women committing suicide when the Red Army closed in rather than await the inevitable. It was said at the time that victims ranged from 8 to 80, sometimes the “justification” used was retribution for the suffering the Russian endured although rape was carried out by the Russians in other countries long before Russia was invaded by the Nazis. Others put it down to the mass consumption of alcohol that the Russians consumed. In Berlin estimates of rape victims from the city’s two main hospitals ranged from 95,000 to 130,000. One doctor deduced that out of approximately 100,000 women raped in the city, some 10,000 died as a result, mostly from suicide. The death rate was thought to have been much higher among the 1.4 million estimated victims in East Prussia, Pomerania and Silesia. Altogether at least two million German women are thought to have been raped, and a substantial minority, if not a majority, appear to have suffered multiple rape. (https://www.theguardian.com/
In his analysis of the motives behind the extensive Soviet rapes, Norman Naimark singles out “hate propaganda, personal experiences of suffering at home, and an allegedly fully demeaning picture of German women in the press, not to mention among the soldiers themselves” as a part reason for the widespread rapes. Naimark also noted the effect that tendency to binge-drink alcohol (of which much was available in Germany) had on the propensity of Soviet soldiers to commit rape, especially rape-murder. Naimark also notes the allegedly patriarchal nature of Russian culture, and of the Asian societies comprising the Soviet Union, where dishonor was in the past repaid by raping the women of the enemy. The fact that the Germans had a much higher standard of living visible even when in ruins “may well have contributed allegedly to a national inferiority complex among Russians”. Combining “Russian feelings of inferiority”, the resulting need to restore honour, and their desire for revenge may be the reason many women were raped in public as well as in front of husbands before both were killed. According to Antony Beevor, revenge was not the only reason for the frequent rapes; but the Soviet troops’ feeling of entitlement to all types of spoils of war, including women, was an important factor as well. Beevor exemplifies this with his discovery that Soviet troops also raped Soviet and Polish girls and women that were liberated from Nazi concentration camps as well as those who were held for forced labour at farms and factories. Many German soldiers feared being captured by the Soviets and where possible attempted to be captured by the western Allies. The logic for this was justified with many Germans captured by the Russians facing brutal conditions in concentration camps. Approximately 3 million German soldiers were captured by the Russian during WWII. Russian statistics indicate that of this 3 million, 380,000 died in captivity. German historian Rüdiger Overmans maintains that the actual figures is closer to 1 million as Russian prisoner of war camps were known the have a high mortality rate. Furthermore, despite the war ending in 1945, many Germans remained incarcerated up until 1956 when the final prisoners were released. What is beyond dispute is the cruel and sadistic conditions that these prisoners would have endured which was a trademark of the entire Russian military regime at that time and markedly similar to that of the Nazis.
Did the ends justify the Means?
There is no doubt that the evils of Nazism needed to be confronted and destroyed, here the Russians played a key role and endured a heavy loss of life as a result. However, long before WWII began, at its inception and long after its end Russia was involved in innumerable war crimes that have been too often forgotten when relaying the horrors of WWII and its aftermath. The evils of Nazism are rightly scrutinised and long may this continue but we should not forget the evils the Russians and indeed others carried out. If we are to cherish the freedoms that we enjoy today it has to be through the lens of an honest and complete narrative.
Choyaa is a Fermanagh Orangeman