30 June 2011

The Biggest War in History, Part Eight: The past as present

The Soviet War Memorial in Treptower Park, Berlin, Germany (from Wikipedia, taken by "Victorgrigas")
Part Seven
Aftermath and Legacy

The population pyramid says it all. Even today, the Great Patriotic War continues to have a demographic effect on Russia and the other 14 nations that comprise the former Soviet Union. The male/female balance in the USSR tilted decisively in favour of women as a result of the huge numbers of men killed in the war - even today, there is still a noticeable imbalance between men and women, worsened by lower male life expectancy due to widespread alcohol abuse.

Everyone in the country was touched by the war in some way even if they survived; particularly those who liberated the death camps. The biggest and bloodiest war in history had devastated large parts of the country. If the Second World War still resonates even among young children in the UK today, then the effect must be just as large in Russia and the other republics.

A large number of war films and TV series were produced (and are still produced) by Soviet/Russian companies; most of these are not particularly well-known in the West. I've only heard of a few (Seventeen Moments of Spring, for example) and seen none of them - my Russian is only basic at best and I'd need subtitles to watch them.

Stalin's victory in the war led him to a wave of popularity that lasted until the Secret Speech in 1956 - he still remains pretty popular in Russia today, much to the puzzlement of Western commentators, including myself. His well-known paranoia remained and only his death in March 1953 prevented another major purge.

The USSR gained a considerable amount of territory from the war - including parts of Germany, Poland, Romania and Finland, as well as ending the independence of the three Baltic republics that had gained their freedom in 1918. It also retained a fear of attack from the West - with Germany now replaced by NATO, led by the United States. The retention of very large military forces, as well as the large-scale naval build up under Gorshkov, all stemmed from a desire to defend the Motherland, rather than wanting to take over the world (not that spreading communism wasn't part of Soviet foreign policy).

Of course, the large Soviet military meant that the West, fearing an attack itself, spent considerable amounts of money on weaponry itself.

It can only be said that if Hitler had never come to power, the world would be a much better place.


The sheer scale of the Great Patriotic War boggles the mind. I visited Auschwitz a few years ago and saw one of the rooms they had where the pile of shoes that had been found when the camp was liberated. That's the moment that the sheer scale of The Holocaust hit me fully. Ten million was only really just a number until then. 26.6 million (and those were just the people in the USSR) is now a far realer number.

There was a casual indifference to human life on both sides during this conflict. I've yet to mention the Soviet tactics of NKVD commissars shooting retreating forces and the use of penal units to clear minefields by running across them. The latter sounds more like something someone would do in a computer game. Of course, the Germans were far worse - Hitler's lack of grip on military realities doomed millions.

I think the memories of this war, combined with the threat of nuclear destruction, has helped us ensure broad levels of peace in Europe for over 60 years. Hopefully, the memories will not die with the veterans.

I will close with one simple word in Russian to those who helped bring down the most evil man in history:


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