Sunday, May 11, 2014

VE Day 2014

Vladimir Putin VE Day 2014
A war veteran saluted among the crowd at a Victory Day ceremony in Odessa, Ukraine. Authorities in the city feared that pro-Russian groups would use the day to stage an attack.

The anniversary of Victory in Europe Day, May 8, comes every year. However, it means more in some places than in others. That difference reveals a story that should be told.

VE Day in 2014 was like many others, typical of VE Days in the 21st Century. If you lived in the United States, you probably barely noticed it. There were no Presidential speeches, no parades, no military reviews. In fact, even if you closely followed the media, the day most likely passed without your even noticing it. It did for me, and I'm quite attuned to events of World War II.

There's absolutely nothing unusual about that. The casual person likely would feel that the media handled it precisely the right way. After all, it's ancient history and that's something the "old people" cared about. The world has moved on, and it was just one of many anniversaries. July 4th and Memorial Day, now those are important because everyone gets a holiday. VE Day? Who cares. Might as well celebrate the end of the War of 1812.

So far, so good. That's simple reality. If any day from the World War II era does get any play now, it is D-Day, June 6th, or Pearl Harbor Day, December 7th. Even those, however, are given scant account these days. The last time D-Day was a big event was when Ronald Reagan went to Normandy in 1984 to celebrate the 40th anniversary. There were still a lot of veterans alive from both sides for that service, and even the surviving Germans in particular were more happy to participate. There isn't much for them to celebrate about those years otherwise.

Students of the war know why VE means more in the East than in the West. The Soviet Union and Germany were hacking at each other for four solid years, incurring immense casualties on a daily basis. There were continuing battles over little-known cities such as Kharkov that resolved nothing, but the battles raged on and on and on simply because they were in the right place on the map. Names that Westerners never knew nor cared anything about, such as Novorossiysk or Zhitomir or Sevastopol, are hugely important to millions of people in Russia to this day - just not to the West. Nobody in the United States lost a father in Bryansk.

The simple fact is that, all protestations to the contrary, the Soviet Union won World War II. The Western Allies certainly contributed and made the war much, much shorter - but they never had to engage in a grinding defensive struggle where they would feed divisions in and see them promptly get chopped up, necessitating more divisions and more divisions, with the bodies buried three-deep beside the road and the rivers turning red with blood. No, the Western contribution was more economic, via Lend Lease to England and the Soviet Union. Even the fabled bombing offensive against Germany and Japan was a logistical exercise, requiring industrial output and then targeting rather than guys running around with guns getting shot. Sea power was important, but the actual battles at sea between the Western Allies and Germany were few and far between.

The howls of protest at any minimization of the Western contribution are to victory understandable, but they are drowned out by reality. Sure, the Allies fought their way across Europe. The other major Allied contribution was a series of invasions - short, sharp actions which required the clearing out of territory, then the build up of material until overwhelming force was achieved. After that, it was only a matter of setting the steamroller into action and forcing the enemy back into what often turned into wild flight. Even at the time, American observers in the Soviet Union noticed that the Russians weren't especially or, in their eyes, appropriately appreciative of the American contribution to the war. It was a sensitive topic for Westerners who had a lot of interaction with the Soviets, and remains so for anyone who really wants to talk about it.

Vladimir Putin VE Day 2014
Residents of St. Petersburg carried portraits of their ancestors on Friday as Russia marked the 69th anniversary of the defeat of Germany.

The war in the East was brutal. The Germans explicitly told their soldiers to spare nobody - to not "engage in knightly conduct" - and made a point of noticing that the Soviets had not signed the Geneva Convention, so that no standards whatsoever applied to treatment of Soviet prisoners. The Soviets quickly noticed this, and responded in kind. There was general hatred between the two sides on the Eastern Front that was completely absent in the West. Hitler and his cronies may have fought equally hard against France, England and the United States, but they did not have contempt for those nations. In fact, Hitler apparently dreamed at times of forming a partnership with England rather than subjugating it, though of course his brutal war aims prevented that from ever happening. By VE Day, many in Germany viewed the Western forces as the equivalent of relieving armies, which were to be greeted warmly and resisted only perfunctorily because they would at least be lenient and save the remaining Germans from the Soviets, who would be anything but lenient.

The very end of the war, Victory over Japan in August 1945, told the same story. The United States efficiently had carved out operating room in the Pacific via a series of relatively quick invasions. While there was fierce fighting in places like Iwo Jima and Saipan, and too many brave men lost their lives on those overgrown rocks, there was no possibility of strong reinforcement by the other side. Once an objective was taken, that was it - after Guadacanal, the enemy disappeared from the places it lost pretty much forever. It was all so different than in places like Kharkov, where you could take the place, lose it, take it, lose it - and still be fighting there two years later. The US even avoided an invasion of Japan via its invention and use of nuclear weapons, whereas the Soviets actually invaded Japanese-held territory with troops. It is patriotic to think that the Japanese surrendered because of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but the Soviet invasion was just as important and of more immediate concern to the Japanese, because the Soviets were close and getting closer every day. You can't just grin and bear it when there are enemy soldiers running down the street past your door as you can a far-off enemy lobbing bombs at you, no matter how fearsome those bombs may be. Which contributed to the Japanese surrender decision - the atomic bombs or the Soviet invasion - remains a matter of debate to this day.

All of this resolves itself down to the key point: the end of World War II meant a lot more to the Soviet Union than it did to the West. Yes, the end of the war was intensely celebrated by England and the United States, and we've all seen the pictures of the sailor kissing the girl in Times Square on VE Day. However, even after Germany surrendered, there was still Japan for the United States to take care of, and, in any event, it really wasn't personal between the United States and Germany as it was with the Japanese. VE Day in the West was celebrated, and then largely forgotten. Today, it is simply something you learn about in school for your test and then kind of half-remember when you notice it in a headline.

To the Soviet Union, though, VE Day is the important one. They call it Victory Day and celebrate it every year as if the war just ended a few years ago. Huge military parades are mounted, and people actually remember. There were so many casualties in the Soviet Union - an order of magnitude higher than in the West - that almost everyone was affected personally by the death of somebody near and dear. The only comparison with people in the West would be those families there who lost loved ones in the Holocaust - but the occupied Soviet territories suffered that as well. The peoples of the former Soviet Union regard Victory Day as one of the most important on the calendar, and that is unlikely to change any time soon.

This played out in 2014 in a singular way. Vladimir Putin actually had a victory to celebrate on Victory Day 2014, which was a huge rarity in Russia. In fact, truth be told, Russia hadn't really had a victory of any kind since the original VE Day. There were minor scuffles in the intervening 69 years, but they were mostly defensive in nature in places like Prague and Hungary. Vietnam was more a victory for the Chinese, as was Korea. The Cuban adventure in the early '60s also was more of a defensive victory. Little by little, the Soviet Union disappeared and much of its territory along with it. There were never any real victories to celebrate on Victory Day - until 2014.

Celebrations in 2014 were the same as usual, but also different. A Ukrainian head of the Soviet Union had blithely given away the Crimea in the 1950s, not really thinking it meant much within the larger context of the Soviet Union, which in any event still seemed to be on the ascendant. With the catastrophic breakup of the Soviet Union in the early '90s, though, that territory suddenly really was lost. President Putin, though, didn't think that was right. He sent in troops and recovered the Crimea in early 2014 despite international condemnation, then immediately sealed the deal with formal annexation. It was quick and painless - but it was a real victory, the addition to Russia of some of the most prime real estate in Europe. It recovered a warm water port, and put back in the Russian orbit the summer palaces of the Czars and Josef Stalin's favorite dacha. There was nothing the West could say about it, though they tried, but this was about Russian pride. Russia finally had something to celebrate again on Victory Day. You can't put a price on that kind of boost to national esteem, no matter the transient economic consequences, which on the scale of importance next to that amount to nothing.

Vladimir Putin VE Day 2014
President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia attended a parade on Friday in Crimea, a territory which came under his control in March.

So, VE Day in 2014 was special. But it was only special to some - and for very good reasons.


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