Saving Private Ivan: Mike Davis Remember Normandy’s heroes – but als

Saving Private Ivan: Mike Davis Remember Normandy’s heroes – but also that
the Red army played the decisive role in defeating Nazi Germany

The Guardian – United Kingdom
Jun 11, 2004

The decisive battle for the liberation of Europe began 60 years ago
this month when a Soviet guerrilla army emerged from the forests and
bogs of Belorussia to launch a bold surprise attack on the mighty
Wehrmacht’s rear.

The partisan brigades, including many Jewish fighters and
concentration-camp escapees, planted 40,000 demolition charges. They
devastated the vital rail lines linking German Army Group Centre to
its bases in Poland and Eastern Prussia.

Three days later, on June 22 1944, the third anniversary of Hitler’s
invasion of the Soviet Union, Marshal Zhukov gave the order for the
main assault on German front lines. Twenty-six thousand heavy guns
pulverised German forward positions. The screams of the Katyusha
rockets were followed by the roar of 4,000 tanks and the battle cries
(in more than 40 languages) of 1.6 million Soviet soldiers. Thus
began Operation Bagration, an assault over a 500-mile-long front.

This “great military earthquake”, as the historian John Erickson called
it, finally stopped in the suburbs of Warsaw as Hitler rushed elite
reserves from western Europe to stem the Red tide in the east. As a
result, American and British troops fighting in Normandy would not
have to face the best-equipped Panzer divisions.

But what American has ever heard of Operation Bagration? June 1944
signifies Omaha Beach, not the crossing of the Dvina River. Yet the
Soviet summer offensive was several times larger than Operation
Overlord (the invasion of Normandy), both in the scale of forces
engaged and the direct cost to the Germans.

By the end of summer, the Red army had reached the gates of Warsaw
as well as the Carpathian passes commanding the entrance to central
Europe. Soviet tanks had caught Army Group Centre in steel pincers
and destroyed it. The Germans would lose more than 300,000 men in
Belorussia alone. Another huge German army had been encircled and
would be annihilated along the Baltic coast. The road to Berlin had
been opened.

Thank Ivan. It does not disparage the brave men who died in the North
African desert or the cold forests around Bastogne to recall that 70%
of the Wehrmacht is buried not in French fields but on the Russian
steppes. In the struggle against Nazism, approximately 40 “Ivans”
died for every “Private Ryan”. Scholars now believe that as many as 27
million Soviet soldiers and citizens perished in the second world war.

Yet the ordinary Soviet soldier – the tractor mechanic from Samara,
the actor from Orel, the miner from the Donetsk, or the high-school
girl from Leningrad – is invisible in the current celebration and
mythologisation of the “greatest generation”.

It is as if the “new American century” cannot be fully born without
exorcising the central Soviet role in last century’s epochal victory
against fascism. Indeed, most Americans are shockingly clueless about
the relative burdens of combat and death in the second world war. And
even the minority who understand something of the enormity of the
Soviet sacrifice tend to visualise it in terms of crude stereotypes of
the Red army: a barbarian horde driven by feral revenge and primitive
Russian nationalism. Only GI Joe and Tommy are seen as truly fighting
for civilised ideals of freedom and democracy.

It is thus all the more important to recall that – despite Stalin, the
NKVD and the massacre of a generation of Bolshevik leaders – the Red
army still retained powerful elements of revolutionary fraternity. In
its own eyes, and that of the slaves it freed from Hitler, it was the
greatest liberation army in history. Moreover, the Red army of 1944
was still a Soviet army. The generals who led the breakthrough on the
Dvina included a Jew (Chernyakovskii), an Armenian (Bagramyan), and
a Pole (Rokossovskii). In contrast to the class-divided and racially
segregated American and British forces, command in the Red army was
an open, if ruthless, ladder of opportunity.

Anyone who doubts the revolutionary elan and rank-and-file humanity
of the Red army should consult the extraordinary memoirs of Primo
Levi (The Reawakening) and KS Karol (Between Two Worlds). Both hated
Stalinism but loved the ordinary Soviet soldier and saw in her/him
the seeds of socialist renewal.

So, after George Bush’s recent demeaning of the memory of D-day to
solicit support for his war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan, I’ve
decided to hold my own pri vate commemoration.

I will recall, first, my Uncle Bill, the salesman from Columbus, hard
as it is to imagine such a gentle soul as a hell-for-leather teenage
GI in Normandy. Second – as I’m sure my Uncle Bill would’ve wished –
I will remember his comrade Ivan.

The Ivan who drove his tank through the gates of Auschwitz and battled
his way into Hitler’s bunker. The Ivan whose courage and tenacity
overcame the Wehrmacht, despite the deadly wartime errors and crimes
of Stalin. Two ordinary heroes: Bill and Ivan. Obscene to celebrate
the first without also commemorating the second.

Mike Davis teaches American history at the University of California at
Irvine and is an editor New Left Review; his latest book is Dead Cities

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