Remembering the lessons of history
Memory comes back over and over again to participation of the Ukrainians in a number of important events during World War II, the greatest military cataclysm in history. It is not only about the celebration of victory over the Nazi German and Japanese military aggressors (May 9 and September 2, 1945) but also about the beginning of the war (September 1, 1939), the rout of the powerful armies of France, Britain, and their allies and the occupation of practically the entire Western, Central and Southern Europe by Germany and Italy (1939-41), the aggression against the USSR (June 22, 1941), the fierce battles against the Nazis on Ukrai-nian lands, such as the heroic defense of Transcarpathia (March 1939), Lviv (September 1939), Kyiv (July-September 1941), Odesa (August-October 1941), Sevastopol (October 1941-July 1942), and Kerch (November 1942-May 1943), etc. With due respect for the heroic exploit of the native land’s defenders, we are still asking: who unleashed that war, why did the aggressors achieve success at the initial stages of hostilities, have any conclusions be drawn from those events, are the lessons of history being taken into account?
It is undeniable that what led to the outbreak of World War II was a shortsighted policy of the Western states, particularly, the US, the UK, France, and some other countries, as well as crimes of the USSR Stalinist leadership, but still we should not forget the historical facts which show that the war, into the millstones of which the Ukrainians were drawn from the very beginning, was imposed on humankind by the German Nazis, Italian fascists, and Japanese militarists, who are in fact the main culprits. It is they, not the countries of the future anti-Hitlerite coalition of Britain, France, and the USSR, who launched aggressive military actions against other states (Austria, Czechoslovakia, China) back in 1937-38, which turned into a world war in 1939. The root cause of this military cataclysm was the Nazi strategy aimed at expanding the so-called living space (Lebensraum) for European and Asian “Aryans.” “We are overpopulated and cannot feed ourselves from our own resources. The solution ultimately lies in extending the living space of our people, that is, in extending the sources of its raw materials and foodstuffs,” Hitler said in the war preparation memorandum (August 1936). Even before that, the Fuehrer openly wrote in Mein Kampf: “We will stop the endless German movement to the south and west, and turn our gaze toward the land in the east.” In particular, Hitler believed that seizing Ukraine’s fertile lands will give Germany the strength that will guarantee success in the face-off with the Western states and Russia.
To achieve this goal, the Nazis considered it necessary to seize and plunder somebody else’s, including Ukraine’s, lands and wipe out most of the so-called “non-Aryan” peoples, including the Ukrainians, and to turn the survivors into meek salves.
What clearly shows who were the initiators and masterminds of a new worldwide massacre, who bears the main blame for its outbreak, is the fact that – with all, often well-grounded, complaints about the prewar policies of Western states and the USSR and all kinds of theoretical exercises and propagandistic slogans (e.g., about the “world proletarian revolution”), none of them considered attacking other countries as a means of pursuing the foreign policy in the 1920s and 1930s. For example, as far back as 1919 the British government proclaimed the principle of non-involvement in a big war “in the next 10 years,” and in 1927 the formula “10 years without a war” was extended by a few years. After the USSR had embarked on a course of “building socialism in one country” in the early 1920s, strengthening peace and business links with all counties and striving not to draw the country into military conflicts became the main direction of the foreign policy, which was enshrined in the relevant Communist Party and government documents. Before the beginning of World War II these states had no directive (i.e., binding) plans to attack Germany, Italy, or Japan. Of course, the countries of what later became anti-Nazi coalition also had their own military doctrines, held military exercises, and tried to teach their populace some elementary civil defense practices (even Princess Elizabeth, the heiress to the British throne, did a necessary training course). The military supplied the political leadership with memorandums that contained their opinions and proposals about the deployment and action of their armed forces. But that was nothing more than opinions and proposals, i.e., advisory documents. To assume a binding force, they were to be approved by national governmental bodies as imperative directives, a thing that was not done. In the Soviet Union, for example, “Comments on a Plan of Strategic Deployment of the USSR Armed Forces in Case of a War against Germany and its Allies,” which were submitted by the military on May 15, 1941, almost on the eve of the Nazi aggression, and contained proposals of some urgent measures, were never approved by the topmost political leadership. They did not assume a directive nature and remained nothing but comments that were only known to a few persons, had no binding force, and, naturally, were not put into practice.
By contrast, the leadership of Nazi Germany worked out and immediately brought into force 52 detailed and compulsory military directives of a bandit-style aggression against specific states. Some of these criminal documents were assigned not only numbers but also high-sounding code names. For instance, the plans of invasion were codenamed White Plan for Poland, Sea Lion for Britain, Marita for Greece, Weser Exercise for Norway and Denmark, Barbarossa for the USSR, etc.
What also proves the main responsibility of Hitlerite Germany and its satellites for unleashing the war is the fact that they applied the “total war” doctrine mapped out back in the 1920s by Ludendorff, Franke, and other generals in the Kaiser’s army. The doctrine called for wiping out entire nations “for the benefit of Aryans,” extolled the war as a self-sufficient force and “the ultimate manifestation of the people’s will,” and proclaimed supremacy of the military leadership over the political one. The doctrine of the well-known military theorist Karl von Clausenwitz on the supremacy of politics over military stra-tegy was pronounced outdated and disorientating in Nazi Germany. War and military preparations began to be considered the linchpin and the natural condition of the people and the state. Accordingly, all policies were to be pursued, also in peacetime, in the interests of what Hitler called “racial war.” This was the viewpoint of the then Nazi leaders who demanded that all Germans implicitly obey orders of the military leadership, even in the absence of military actions, and be pitiless towards the “non-Aryans.”
It was, therefore, about the elimination of non-Aryan, including the Ukrainian, ethnoses. All one could have done in those conditions was defend themselves, apply force to rebuff a brazen assault, resist the invaders, and do their utmost to save themselves, their relatives, and their nations from being destroyed.
British Prime Minister Winston Churchill was very well aware of the just and patriotic nature of an anti-Nazi war. For example, he said in a radio address on June 22, 1941, when the Hitlerites and their allies attacked the USSR: “No one has been a more consistent opponent of Communism than I have for the last 25 years. I will unsay no word that I have spoken about it. But all this fades away before the spectacle which is now unfolding. The past with its crimes, its follies and its tragedies, flashes away. I see the Russian soldiers standing on the threshold of their native land, guarding the fields which their fathers have tilled from time immemorial. I see them guarding their homes where mothers and wives pray – ah yes, for there are times when all pray – for the safety of their loved ones, the return of the breadwinner, of their champion, of their protector. I see the 10,000 villages of Russia, where the means of existence were wrung so hardly from the soil, but where there are still primordial human joys, where maidens laugh and children play. I see advancing upon all this in hideous onslaught the Nazi war machine… I see also the dull, drilled, docile, brutish masses of the Hun soldiery plodding on like a swarm of crawling locusts. I see the German bombers and fighters in the sky… delighted to find what they believe is an easier and a safer prey… Behind all this glare, behind all this storm, I see that small group of villainous men who plan, organize and launch this cataract of horrors upon mankind… We have but one aim and one single, irrevocable purpose. We are resolved to destroy Hitler and every vestige of the Nazi regime… Any man or state who fights on against Nazidom will have our aid. Any man or state who marches with Hitler is our foe… This is no class war, but a war… without distinction of race, creed or party… It is the cause of free men and free peoples in every quarter of the globe.”
This approach also occurs in that-time relevant documents and speeches of statesmen. For instance, the Anglo-Soviet communique on the negotiations between the Prime Minister of Great Britain and the Chairman of the USSR Council of People’s Commissars (August 1942) noted: “Both Governments are determined to carry on this just war of liberation with all their power and energy until the complete destruction of Hitlerism and any similar tyranny has been achieved.” This opinion has also been expressed more than once in the postwar time. Word War II was considered as one that assumed, from the very outset, the nature of an anti-Nazi liberation war of peoples for their survival. It has also been stated that all the USSR peoples waged a patriotic war.
The 1939-42 hostilities were tragic for the defenders of their native land. The Wehrmacht had seized the strategic initiative and established control over almost all the European countries, occupied the Baltics, Byelorussia, Moldavia, Ukraine, a large part of European Russia, and approached Moscow by the late autumn of 1942.
Debates are still rife on what caused those failures. Of course, one must take into account the fact that Germany, like any aggressor that always has an advantage at the initial stage of aggression, made full use of such benefits as mobilization of the armed forces, a detailed operational plan, a good disposition and morale, combat initiative, a surprise invasion, active utilization of the captured territories’ geopolitical, military, and economic potential, etc. These factors, reinforced by the erroneous policies of the political leadership, and inefficiency of the military command which, to quote Churchill, “always get ready to fight the previous war,” contributed at the beginning of World War II to a defeat of the powerful armies of France, partly, Britain, and the friendly states, and the seizure of the majority of European countries by the Hitlerites and their allies.
At the same time, due account should be made of a sufficiently high level of the German military operational command. First of all, the Wehrmacht made wide use of the so-called sudden concentric offensive operations in 1939-42, such as breaking through the enemy defense in the weakest points, bypassing fortified areas, surrounding and neutralizing the enemy. The main goal was not the capture of populated areas (they were besieged) or a frontal assault against the enemy defenses but the destruction of the enemy’s personnel and armaments. It is in this way that the German troops decisively defeated the Polish and the united French-British armies in 1939 and 1940, respectively. The French-British command pinned hopes on the Maginot Line defensive fortifications. But the Wehrmacht delivered a heavy strike across the forest-clad Ardennes, where the enemy did not have enough fortifications and troops, cleaved the latter and forced them to surrender (in the winter of 1945 the Hitlerites repeated this maneuver which had fatal consequences for the Allies). Tellingly, the Germans refrained form frontally storming a large British grouping pinned to the seashore near Dunkirk: it was impossible to surround it (the ocean protected the defenders’ rear), and a frontal attack against a large group of the troops ready to offer desperate resistance would have inevitably inflicted heavy losses on the attackers. As a result, the British managed to evacuate their soldiers across the English Channel.
Unfortunately, the USSR failed to draw the necessary conclusions from the tragic experience of battles in Western Europe. Nobody can deny, for example, the unforgivable fault of Joseph Stalin who believed the false assurances that Germany did not have aggressive plans against the USSR, which were contained in Hitler’s personal letter sent in May 1941.
Moreover, the clearly belated directive, which the USSR’s topmost political leadership approved and sent to the military districts at 00:30 on June 22, 1941, on the eve of the Hitlerite invasion, contained not only the warning of a likely sudden attack of the Germans which “could begin with provocative actions,” but also a categorical demand that the troops “do not give in to the provocations that may cause serious complications,” and “resort to no other actions [except for alerting the troops. – Author] without special permission.” In other words, the troops were forbidden to put up resistance to the likely aggressors unless they are specifically told to do so. Honoring Hitler’s request “not to give in to any provocations of my generals” and, if these provocations are still resorted to, “not to launch counteractions,” Stalin, according to Marshal Georgy Zhukov’s memoirs, hesitated for several hours on June 22, 1941, after the Wehrmacht’s attack, before authorizing armed resistance to the aggressor. Even after the German Ambassador Schulenburg handed in a note on the declaration of war and marshals Tymoshenko and Zhukov insistently demanded that he order the beginning of hostilities, Stalin said: “Hitler does not perhaps know about this. We must get urgently in touch with Berlin.” The peoples and the army of the former USSR paid a terrible bloody price for a credulity that amounts to a crime in the case of a statesman.
As a result, the Soviet troops were never fully alerted in many places and thus could not prevent the Hitlerites from crossing the border, destroying a large number of Soviet aircraft on the airfields, and seizing the strategic initiative at the initial stage of the hostilities. Incidentally, asked by Stalin about the Red Army’s weakest spot, the then Chief of the General Staff, Marshal Boris Shaposhnikov, said: “The officers and the air force.” The officer corps had fallen victim to wide-scale repressions in the late 1930s and the early 1940s, and a huge number of Soviet airplanes were destroyed in the first hours of the war.
Among the other factors were inadequate operational and tactical reconnaissance and an inferior system of communication, which often distorted or even forestalled any true information on the situation at certain segments of the front line. Under these conditions, commanders often made erroneous decisions, which resulted in heavy losses and defeats. Marshal Zhukov reminisces that in the first days of the war the Genera Headquarters, as well as front commanders, “did not know the true state of affairs,” and whenever they made a decision, including one on counteroffensive under Directive No. 3, they proceeded “not from the analysis of the real situation and well-grounded assessments but from intuition and inspiration for activity without due account of the troops’ potential. Most of the counterattacks were poorly organized… and failed to achieve the set goal.” After the loss of front line trains with weapons and logistical equipment and a considerable number of factories that produced them, including those in Ukraine, the main “weapon” of Red Army soldiers were the slogans “Hurrah” and “You must.”
What also played the fatal role was a poor background of many Soviet top generals in military operational art. In 1941-42 the Wehrmacht conducted the same abovementioned concentric offensive operations on the Soviet-German front line. Conversely, the commanders of many Red Army units often preferred the in-line positioning of their troops in defense and frontal attacks on German fortified positions, especially in cities and villages, in the offensive. This approach resulted in defeats and unjustifiably heavy losses. The Soviet troops’ in-line defenses were usually broken through by wedge-like strikes in the most vulnerable sectors. After this, the Wehrmacht’s mechanized units would close the ring deep in the rear of the defending troops and begin to eliminate the latter. For this reason, in 1941-42 Soviet formations conducted most of the defensive battles in encirclement, disconnected from the other troops, bases, reserve replenishment and logistic support lines, which in fact predestined their defeat. The situation was aggravated by an untimely and inadequate reaction of the Soviet Supreme Command to the danger of encirclement. It is for this reason (and not because most of the Soviet soldiers did not wish to fight, as some publications unfoundedly claim) that hundreds of thousands of Red Army soldiers and officers were killed or taken prisoner (when all the combat resources, such as ammunition, fuel for tanks and other vehicles, were exhausted) in 1941 near Kyiv, in 1942 in the Izium-Barvinkiv direction, on Chersoneses Cape near Sevastopol, etc.
Ukraine was one of the main participants in Word War II hostilities. Particularly, in the first days after the Hitlerites had attacked on June 22, 1941, the South-Western Front troops fought desperately and heroically against the aggressor, in spite of a shortage of the personnel, transport, and communication equipment, the absence of logistic, close air and artillery support, and poor planning of the operations (the abovementioned line defense and frontal counterattacks). Fierce fighting raged in the vicinity of Rava-Ruska, Peremyshl, Lviv, Lutsk, Rivne, Dubno, Brody, etc. Among those who covered themselves with undying glory were the defenders of Kyiv, Odesa, Kharkiv, Sevastopol, and Kerch. More than 7 million citizens of Ukraine (92 percent of the conscription-age people) fought against the Nazi invaders in the USSR Armed Forces, which accounted to 23 percent of the latter’s total strength. About a million people fought in guerrilla units and underground resistance organizations of various colors, a half of which died. The Ukrainians commanded most of the Fronts and made a large part of the entire officer corps. But, naturally, those who played the decisive role in defeating Nazism were rank-and-file soldiers and sailors, as well as the lowest-rank officers, who fought the enemy and strove, as much as they could, to win the Great Victory in battlefield trenches, on a tank, an aircraft or a ship.
We think one must make a more ample use of museums to acquaint the general public, especially the young, with our people’s heroic exploits. This requires the updating of the obsolete expositions at these institutions, including the National Museum of the History of the Great Patriotic War, as well as new research. What could also serve the spreading of truthful information is a more active involvement of experts in media debates. One of the measures that could help, to a certain extent, achieve this goal is a Higher Degree Award Commission provision that research results should be also spotlighted in the mass media.
One of the main lessons to be drawn from the experience of fighting the Nazi invaders in Word War II should be awareness of the importance of the improved training of our national armed forces and the betterment of their military operational art. Soldiers and officers must be taught to conduct hostilities and display patriotism, devotion to the glorious army traditions, discipline, and be ready to physically fight the enemy and even sacrifice themselves. Like anywhere in the world, what should also serve this purpose is parades, ceremonial reviews, ample financial and logistical support, etc. A strong and combat-ready army based on the principle of defense sufficiency is needed not only for defending the country in the hard times of war but also for ensuring the security of the latter in peacetime. The very existence and high efficiency of the armed forces must caution potential aggressors against encroaching on the territorial integrity and sovereignty of the Ukrainian state.
Volodymyr Shevchenko is a professor, Doctor of Sciences (History), Meritorious Figure of Education of Ukraine