In the city of Moscow in Russia, as in so many cities around the World, there is a tomb of an Unknown Soldier. The inscription reads: ‘Your name is unknown. Your deed is immortal.’
Victory in Europe Day
This May, the people of the United Kingdom and many others marked the 77th anniversary of ‘Victory in Europe (VE) Day’ on May 8, marking the end of the Second World War in Europe.
When the surrender of Nazi Germany became effective, it was already past midnight in Moscow; and thus it is the following day, May 9th, which is commemorated as ‘Victory Day’ in Russia and in the other nations which together with her formed the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) in 1945.
Hitler’s Eastern Front
On June 22 1941, the forces of Nazi Germany attacked the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics in Operation Barbarossa, the greatest and most brutal land conflict in human history. Despite copious intelligence from the British concerning the plans, and even the date of the invasion, the Soviet Leader, Joseph Stalin, was caught unawares; and his forces, badly weakened by his own purges, were no match for the greatest military machine on Earth at that time. The Soviets suffered catastrophic defeats as they simply threw men at the oncoming juggernaut. By October, Hitler’s armies were approaching Moscow. They had not, however, accounted for another enemy which had thrown back all invaders before them: the Russian Winter.
As the temperature dropped to -40C oil solidified in engines and tracked vehicles stuck fast in muddy roads which froze around them. Then the Soviets unleashed their Siberian troops, who were well acquainted with extreme cold and who threw the German forces back 200 miles.
The following year the Germans tried again, driving towards the oilfields of the Caucasus. But by now the Soviets were getting their strategy together, and the German 6th Army was annihilated in the frozen ruins of Stalingrad. ‘General Winter’ had helped once again.
Operation Barbarossa intended to acquire vast areas of ‘Lebensraum’ (Living Space) for Hitler’s Aryan ‘Herrenvolk’ (Master Race). In his nightmare vision the people of the East, whom he numbered among the ‘Untermenschen’ (Subhumans), would toil as slaves in his Nazi empire. Hitler would live and die for his Eastern campaign. His mad dream, which had pushed to the gates of Moscow and the banks of the Volga, would play its final act in the shattered streets of Berlin in the Spring of 1945. But victory came at horrendous cost for the Soviet people. Of the 55,000,000 people who died in the Second World War, ONE THIRD came from the Soviet Union; and without their appalling sacrifice, our mutual Victory in Europe would never have been possible.
The Cold War begins
In light of this bloody and brutal episode in the history of those lands it is all the more tragic that two of the nations which once stood together as a common land in the struggle against the Nazis are now at war with each other. Each accuses the other of harbouring or behaving like Nazis. But an understanding of the current conflict can partly be found in the context of the Second World War. When that conflict ended, the World quickly polarized into two distinct hemispheres: the Communist nations, led by the USSR, in the East; and the Capitalist nations led by the United States of America in the West.
The Western nations formed the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and the Eastern group formed the Warsaw Pact. The USSR was determined to establish a defensive ‘buffer zone’ against the West in Europe and so an ‘Iron Curtain’ descended across the continent, from behind which the Soviets maintained control, any dissent being ruthlessly suppressed as in Hungary (1956), and Czechoslovakia (1968).
For some forty years East and West would face each other off in the ‘Cold War’, but with both sides possessing enormous nuclear arsenals, neither was prepared to risk plunging Mankind into the abyss attempting a first strike. This continued until Communism fell in 1989 and the Warsaw Pact disintegrated in 1991.
Why Ukraine resists
It was perhaps understandable that those nations in Eastern Europe who had lived under the Communist tyranny quickly sought to embrace Western values and seek future protection under the umbrella of NATO.
But for Russia, ever mindful of her ‘Great Patriotic War’ (the Second World War), this meant the end of her ‘buffer zone’ and the steady advance of NATO towards her borders. It is this which has provided the current Russian Leader, Vladimir Putin, with his pretext for the present invasion; and one cannot help but feel for the people of Ukraine, for whom May 9th is also Victory Day and who were guaranteed their independence and safety by both Russia and the West when they were persuaded to relinquish their nuclear weapons in 1994, having signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in Lisbon two years earlier. Ukraine has now been attacked by one, and all but abandoned by the others.
And so, 77 years on from the original Victory Day and with Europe at war once again, it seems the Unknown Soldier’s deed is certainly immortal.
Whether it was worthwhile remains an open question…