The presence of President Vladimir Putin on the Normandy beaches on the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings was planned long before the current conflict over Ukraine, but it is a useful reminder of the fact that Russia is not some Asiatic tyranny on Europe’s eastern borders. It is a European country that has played a major role in the continent’s affairs for centuries.
Not only were the Russians on the same side as the “Western” allies in the Second World War. They did most of the heavy lifting in the war against Nazi Germany, and they paid by far the highest price.
While 850,000 American, British and Canadian troops were landing on the French coast in June of 1944, 6 million soldiers of the Soviet army were fighting massive battles with the German army in eastern Europe. The land war in eastern Europe was already three years old, and by June of 1944 the Russians had won: the Germans had already begun the long retreat that ended above Hitler’s bunker in Berlin 11 months later.
The price the Russians paid for their victory over Nazi Germany was huge: at least 11 million military dead (compared to fewer than 1 million dead for the Western allies). No other country in history has lost so many soldiers, but in the end it was the Red Army that destroyed Hitler’s Wehrmacht: 80 per cent of Germany’s 6 million military dead were killed on the Eastern Front.
The main strategic significance of the Normandy landings, therefore, was not the defeat of Germany, which was already assured. It was the fact that Moscow had to accept that Europe would be divided between the victors down the middle of Germany, rather than along some line further west that ran down the Franco-German border, or even down the English Channel.
President Putin, who began his career as a KGB agent working in Soviet-dominated East Germany, will certainly be aware of the irony that he is commemorating a military operation whose main result was to contain Soviet power. And his presence will remind all the other participants in the rituals of remembrance that the propaganda lied: the Second World War was not really fought to defend democracy from tyranny.
Hitler never intended to conquer Britain, and was surprised when his armed forces conquered France in 1940. He was certainly not out to “conquer the world”, a preposterous ambition for a country of only 80 million people. His real target was Russia: the “Jewish-Bolshevik” Soviet Union. And he couldn’t even conquer that.
Unlike previous great-power wars, the two world wars had to be represented as moral crusades against evil because new wealth and technology turned them into total wars that required mass participation. If people are going to be asked to sacrifice vast numbers of their children in a war, they must be told that it has some higher purpose than the traditional one of settling disputes among the great powers.
The people who lived through the First World War were fed that lie, but we no longer believe it now. To a remarkable extent, the Western countries that fought in the Second World War still believe that it was a moral crusade, because Hitler was a very evil man.
So he was, but almost nobody in the countries that were fighting him knew about the death camps until the war was over. Moreover, the country that was carrying the heaviest burden in the war against Nazi Germany was a monstrous tyranny led by Joseph Stalin, a man who certainly rivalled Hitler in terms of how many millions of people he murdered.
It seems churlish to insist that the Second World War was just another great-power conflict on the day when the last survivors of the generation who fought in it are gathering to honour those who died on the beaches of Normandy, probably for the last time. But there is no other time when people will actually pause to listen to such an assertion, and it is important that they understand it.
If the world wars were moral crusades against evil, then our only hope of avoiding more such tragedies in the future (probably fought with nuclear weapons) would be to extinguish evil in the world. Whereas if they were actually traditional great-power wars, lightly disguised, then we might hope that we could stop them by changing the way that the international system works.
That was the real conclusion of the governments on the winning side in both world wars. It’s why they created the League of Nations after the first one, and the United Nations after the second. Both organisations were designed to break the cycle of great-power wars by criminalising those who start wars and taking the profit out of victory (because nobody will recognise your conquests even if you win).
The League of Nations failed, as first attempts often do, but the United Nations did not. There has been no Third World War, and no great power has fought any other for the past 69 years. Putin’s presence in Normandy is an embarrassment precisely because he broke the UN rules by forcibly annexing Crimea, but the enterprise is still, on the whole, a success. So far, so good.
Gwynne Dyer is an independent
journalist based in London