I have always been fascinated with the period of history that focuses around the Second World War. Thus, it seemed only fitting that I chose the Soviet Union's role in World War II. I have divided this paper into several sections to help complete this task. The first section will deal with the fundamental, underlying causes of the war and how they relate to or involve the Soviet Union. The next section will deal with the immediate causes of World War II and the Soviet Union's role in them. The third section will deal with the battles the Soviet Union was involved in during the war, excluding the Battle of Stalingrad. That will be covered in the fourth section of the paper. The fifth section will deal with the Soviet Union's role in ending the war in Europe and its brief role in the war with Japan. The final section will discuss the Soviet Union's role in the peace talks at the end of the war. I will conclude with my paper with facts such as the total amount of casualties in the Soviet Union and a few concluding remarks.
Underlying Causes of WWII
This first section is going to deal with the fundamental, underlying causes of the Second World War and the Soviet Union's role in them. There are four of these of fundamental, underlying causes of the War and they are similar to those of the First World War. These causes are nationalism, imperialism, the formation of alliance systems, and the arms, naval, and air races. I will deal with each of these causes individually.
The first underlying cause of World War II is nationalism. Although not as much a factor as in the First World War, it is still very important to understanding why the war occurred. First, there is the case of Hitler and Nazi Germany. Hitler used nationalism as his rational for Germany's annexation of Austria and for demanding the return of the Sudetenland to Germany from Czechoslovakia and, finally, for invading the Polish corridor. Nationalism was also thriving within the Soviet Union at this time. Nationalism was especially strong in the Ukraine. The Ukrainians were especially hateful of Stalinism. In fact, they welcomed the German invasion in 1940. If only they knew about the horrors the Germans would bring to the Jewish population of the Ukraine.
The second underlying cause of the Second World War is imperialism. This is very closely related to nationalism as it is extreme nationalism that causes nations to develop imperialistic attitudes. Let us begin with Germany once again. Hitler not only had a vision of uniting all of the German peoples under one government, but he also had a vision of total domination of Europe and possibly, the whole world. These views are very good examples of extreme nationalism and imperialism. Japan also had imperialistic views during this time period. The Japanese wanted to be masters of Eastern Asia and the Pacific and they also wanted the Europeans to leave the region, which can be seen as a nationalistic view. The Japanese began their imperialistic march and the war when they invaded Manchuria in 1931. So how does the Soviet Union fit into all of this? The imperialistic views of Germany and Japan were a great threat to the Soviet Union. Germany's desire for more land to the east was of great concern to the Soviet Union as well as Japan's invasion of Manchuria, since that put the Japanese in direct contact with the Soviets.
The third underlying cause of World War II was the formation of alliance systems. Alliance systems were very crucial to the coming of the First World War; however, they played a much lesser role in the coming of the Second World War. In 1936, Germany and Italy signed the Anti-Comintern Pact and they were joined by Japan in 1937. This was a pact against a communism and the nations that signed it later became known as the Axis Powers. This pact was obviously a direct attack on the Soviet Union and gave the Soviets good reason for concern as they were caught in between the Germans and the Japanese. However, the Soviet Union was not sitting idly by during this time. On May 2, 1935, the Soviet Union signed an agreement with France. This was a big risk on the part of the Soviet Union as there was a strong proto-fascist group in France at the time. The Soviet Union also made a similar arrangement with Czechoslovakia. France already had a treaty with Czechoslovakia, which meant that the Soviet Union would only come to the aid of Czechoslovakia if France did so first. This agreement with France became irrelevant when Germany and the Soviet Union signed a non-aggression pact in August 1939. In addition to the policy of non-aggression the two nations secretly agreed to divide up Poland and the Baltic nations. The Secret Protocol stated that the Soviet Union would get Estonia, Latvia, and Besurabia. According to the protocol Germany would get Lithuania. It is quite obvious that Hitler and Stalin were buying time with this pact, especially when Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941. The Soviet then joined the war on the side of the Allies which consisted of Britain, France, and later the United States.
The fourth and final underlying cause of the Second World War were the arms, naval, and air races. Together these races played a key role in the coming of World War II, as they did with the First World War(minus the air race). Obviously Germany held either the first or second place in all three of these races, Germany especially had the upper hand in the air race with its great Luftwaffe.
Immediate Causes of WWII
Once the underlying causes were in place, they only needed a few small "sparks" to "get the fire burning." These "sparks" were the immediate causes of the Second World War. These causes include(but are not limited to) the Spanish Civil War, the Japanese invasion of Manchuria, the German remilitarization of the Rhine, the anschluss of Austria, the invasion and annexation of Czechoslovakia, and the one "officially" that started the war, the invasion of Poland. I would now like to look at these events more closely. Although the Soviet Union was not directly involved with any of the causes(except the Spanish Civil War), most of the causes still had an impact on them.
The first immediate cause of World War II was the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931. Some historians consider this as the official start of the war. Japan wanted the rich mineral resources found in Manchuria to help support their booming industrialized economy. This was of great concern to the Soviets because this put the Japanese right at their "back door." Although for a while, nothing happened between these two nations. When the Japanese invaded Manchuria, they also took Korea.
The second immediate cause of the Second World War was the Spanish Civil War. This was a war of the extremes, fascism versus communism. Although no nation "officially" entered the war, several nations threw their support to one side or the other. Italy and Germany supported the fascists. Their air forces used the war for target practice. They bombed and leveled several Spanish towns and villages. France, England, and the United States supported the communists, who they considered the "good guys" in this case. Stalin saw the war as an opportunity to enhance his power. He sent a token army to Spain and gave limited assistance to the loyalists. However, in the end Franco and the fascists won out in Spain.
The final causes all have to do with Germany, so I will look at them as a group. These four causes are known as the four gauntlets thrown down by Hitler for England and France. He wanted to see what they would do and/or how they would react. The first gauntlet was the remilitarization of the Rhineland. The Treaty of Versailles in 1919 had declared that the area known as the Rhineland to be a military-free zone, but in 1936, Hitler moved his armies into the Rhineland. France and England did nothing, as they are pursuing a policy of appeasement. This means that they tried to appease Hitler by giving him what he wanted and hoped that he would stop there. Hitler always said that if France and England had tried to stop him, they probably would have succeeded. The second gauntlet concerned Czechoslovakia. Hitler wanted the area known as the Sudetenland, which was populated mostly by Germans. Again, France and England tried to appease Hitler and in the Munich Pact, Hitler got what he wanted. Hitler then took the rest of Czechoslovakia in 1938 and France and England did nothing. Also, because France did not come to the aid of Czechoslovakia, neither did the Soviet Union. The third gauntlet thrown down by Hitler was the anschluss of Austria. Can you guess what France and England did? If you said nothing, you're absolutely right. However, when Hitler threw down his fourth gauntlet, invading the Polish corridor in 1939, France and England did do something. Hitler used his blitzkrieg, or lightning warfare, for the first time in Poland. The blitzkrieg consisted of three parts or stages. The first stage consisted of saturation bombing carried out by the Luftwaffe. This was intended to demoralize the enemy. The second stage consisted of armor plated tanks rolling across the countryside, crushing any further resistance. The third stage consisted of the Germany infantry involved in "mopping up" actions. Although Poland held out longer than anyone thought she would, she eventually fell to the Germans. World War II officially began in September 1939 when France and England declared war on Germany.
The Early Stages of WWII, 1939-1943
This section will deal with the early stages of the war, from 1939 to 1943. The battles covered in this section include the Finnish War, the initial invasion by Germany in 1941, the Battle of Kiev, the siege of Leningrad and Moscow, and the Battle at Kursk. With the exceptions of the Finnish War and the Battle at Kursk, all were Soviet losses(excluding the sieges). I am going to start out by discussing some of the diplomatic action going at this time.
On September 17, 1939, the Soviet Union enters Poland from the east. It is at this point that the pact from August is revised. In the revised pact Germany received additional territory in Poland and the Soviet Union got Lithuania. The Soviet Union also agree to provide Germany with resources and supplies for their war effort. In November 1940, Molotov went to Berlin to meet with Hitler. Hitler suggested that the Soviets should begin to move towards the Indian Ocean. It was obvious that Hitler was trying to get the Red Army out of Russia. When Molotov asked Hitler what his true intentions were, he got no response. This was clearly the beginning of the end of the German-Soviet relations. However, it seemed that relations with Japan were improving. In April 1941, a non-aggression pact was signed between Japan and the Soviet Union. This pact gave the Japanese some leeway as well as Stalin. However, he chose to keep several divisions of the Red Army in the Far East, this would come back to haunt the Soviets in the upcoming months.
Now, I am going start discussing some of the battles during the early stages of World War II. The first real action the Red Army saw in the war was during the Finnish War, which lasted from November 1939 until March 1940. This proved to be a very costly war for the Soviets. The Finns put up a pretty good fight, while the Red Army was decimated from the purges of the late 1930's. However, in March of 1940, the Soviet Union was triumphant and the Finland was defeated. Despite having an advantage in terms of sheer numbers, casualties were high. "Soviet soldiers fought stubbornly but took exceptional casualties, a total of 126,875 dead in four months. Their frozen corpses lay in grotesque heaps were they fell" (Overy, p. 56). The Finnish War showed the world how offensively incapable the Red Army was.
The next key event in the war was the German invasion of the Soviet Union. On the morning of June 22, 1941, 150 German divisions invaded along a front that stretched from the Baltic to the Black Sea. Winston Churchill claims in one of his books to have warned Stalin on three occasions when the invasion was going to occur, although only one time has been proven. The Germans drove in virtually non-stop and the Soviets suffered incredible losses. By the end of the year they had lost more than a quarter of their fighting forces. "Between June and December the Red Army lost 2,663,000 killed in action, 3,350,000 taken prisoner. For every German soldier killed, twenty Soviet soldiers died" (Overy, p. 117). There are four reasons why the Soviets took such heavy losses. The first reason is because Stalin had not allowed any defenses to be set up to counter the German offensive. The theory is that Stalin believed that extensive defenses would antagonize Hitler. The second reason that the Soviet Union suffered such heavy losses is because the Red Army performed poorly because of the purges. The purges had deprived the Red Army of its leadership. Fourteen out of sixteen army commanders, sixty out of sixty-seven core commanders, one hundred and thirty-six out of a hundred and ninety-nine division commanders and all eleven commissaires of defense were purged from 1936 to 1938. The third reason that the Soviet Union suffered such heavy losses during the initial German invasion was because Stalin had demanded a reorganization of the Red Army after the Finnish War. The Red Army had not had a chance to adjust to these changes before the invasion. The fourth and final reason is because Stalin demanded that territory should be held at all costs. It is estimated that in September of 1941, 800,000 Red Army troops were encircled and captured at Kiev.
The next key battles for the Soviet Union in the early stages of World War II were the sieges at Leningrad and Moscow. The siege of Leningrad lasted for over a thousand days from September 1941 until mid-1944. The siege of Moscow did not last quite as long and the people of Moscow did not suffer as much as the people of Leningrad. They could still get food and supplies from the east in Moscow, Leningrad could not. As a result, there were some reported instances of cannibalism in Leningrad. It is quite obvious that Stalin could have lifted the siege on Leningrad but chose not to, why? One reason could be that Stalin did not like Leningrad that much, both because that was where Sergei Kirov was from and because of the name. Another reason could be that Stalin wasn't in Leningrad, he was in Moscow and thus didn't feel the need to lift the siege.
The final key battle of the early stages of the Second World War occurred shortly after the turning point at the Battle of Stalingrad. This key battle was the Battle at Kursk and it resulted in a major victory for the Soviet Union. The battle took place in July 1943 and coincided with the Allied invasion of Sicily. The Battle at Kursk was the greatest tank engagement the history of the world. The German tanks were inferior to the Russian tanks and German morale was lower than that of the Soviets, who had just experienced a great victory at Stalingrad in the spring of 1943. This was the first battle in the major push to remove the Germans from the Soviet Union. Another big victory for the Red Army occurred in November when they recaptured Kiev. Even better the victory at Kursk only cost 70,000 Soviet soldiers their lives.
The Battle of Stalingrad, 1942-43
During World War II there were three major turning point battles. The first was the Battle of Britain, which was an air battle that occurred during the summer of 1940. The second turning point battle was the Battle of Midway, which was a naval battle between the Americans and the Japanese and took place in 1942. The third turning point battle was a land battle, the Battle of Stalingrad from 1942 to 1943. All three can be considered great Allied victories, but I am only concerned with the Battle of Stalingrad, as that is the only one of the three the Soviets were involved in.
The Battle of Stalingrad is an interesting battle indeed. In addition, to being one of the three major turning points in the war, the battle is also important because the armies were directed by Hitler and Stalin. Both commanders told their armies that there was to be no surrender. Stalingrad (name later changed to Volgograd in 1953) was an important target because it was the third largest city in the Soviet Union and the second most important communications center.
Things happened at the Battle of Stalingrad that did not happen anywhere else. After the battle was over, there was not a single intact building left in the city of Stalingrad. This was also the first battle where a German officer surrendered. The Soviets agreed to the terms of the surrender with his staff, because Paulus was to weak and sick to do so himself. Paulus's surrender enraged Hitler because he had just promoted Paulus to Field Marshall the day before. After the terrible loss at Stalingrad, the Germans began the slow, painful retreat back to Germany.
The Battle of Stalingrad can be broken down into two phases. The first phase, which lasted from September until November 1942, consisted of the German blitzkrieg, which had been fairly successful up to this point. While the saturation bombing by the Luftwaffe was still fairly effective, the Germans could not use their tanks at Stalingrad. The streets of Stalingrad were too narrow for their tanks and they could not use them. The second phase, which lasted from November 1942 until February 1943, consisted of hand-to-hand combat. The Germans did not fair very well at this either because the Red Army was more experienced in hand-to-hand combat. By the spring of 1943, Stalingrad had fallen to the Red Army. This victory was very costly for the Soviets, with half a million lives lost (not to mention that the city itself was completely destroyed). However, as Overy writes "for the first time German losses were also catastrophic: 147,000 dead and 91,000 taken prisoner" (Overy, p. 185).
Ending the War, 1943-1945
After the Battle of Stalingrad and several other battles in 1943, it was quite clear that the tide of victory was turning towards the Allies. However, there was still a long way to go with almost two full years left of war before the Germans actually surrendered. This section of the paper is going to deal with the Soviet Union's role in ending the war in Europe. The topics covered in this section will include the opening of a second front, the Partisan movement, the invasion of Berlin, the war in the Far East, and the treason of Andrei Vaslov.
It was quite obvious that a second front needed to be opened in Europe to alleviate some of the pressure on the Soviet Union. Churchill insisted that the second front should be opened in southern Europe. There are two reasons why he might have wanted to do this. The first reason was that he might have been trying to redeem himself for an incident during World War I in the Crimea. A second reason for opening a front in southern Europe would be that it would cut off the Soviet Union and the advancing Red Army. However, Franklin D. Roosevelt had a different idea, he wanted to open the second front in the west, in France. Stalin claimed that Churchill and Roosevelt were dragging their heels, resulting in greater destruction in the Soviet Union. Roosevelt finally won out, and a second front was opened in France on June 6, 1944.
With the opening of a second front, the complete turnaround in the tide of victory was concluded. The Allies began to experience many victories beginning in 1943. The Soviets were equally successful during this period. The siege of Leningrad was lifted in January 1944, the Crimea is retaken in May 1944, and finally, Soviet troops entered Poland in January 1944. Once in Poland, the Red Army had to deal with the Partisan movement. The Partisans were a group of civilians who formed their own underground army which was headquartered in Warsaw. They gave the Red Army quite a hard time during the Battle of Warsaw. The Partisans became more numerous at the end of the war. The Ukraine was another area where the Partisans played a major part. The Partisans there were divided between pro-Hitler and pro-Stalin.
By the end of April 1945, the Allies had reached Berlin. The Red Army got there first and had the city encircled by April 25, 1945. The Americans and Soviets met for the first time on the Elbe River. There they tried to decide who should be the first to enter Berlin. It was decided that the Soviets should go first because they had suffered the most during the war. Later, the other Allies would begin to reconsider this decision. Regardless, on May 2, 1945, the Red Army marched into the city of Berlin. By this time Hitler is gone, believed to have committed suicide on April 30.
As I mentioned at the beginning of the paper, the Soviets did not play much of a role in the Far East. However, I also mentioned that there were several divisions of the Red Army stationed near Vladivostok. Two days after the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, August 8, 1945, the Soviet Union declared war on Japan. They then began moving their troops into Manchuria and began confiscating machinery (mostly agricultural) and other resources to help their own economy. However, the Soviet Union never really played an active role in the war with Japan.
The final topic I want to deal with in this section is the treason of Andrei Vaslov. Vaslov was a commander in the Red Army who was captured in 1942 by the Germans. It is clear that he then gave evidence that he might be willing to form an army of Russians to fight on the side of the Germans. Hitler ultimately gave Vlasov permission to form such an army, but delayed for two years. When Vlasov finally formed his army in November 1942, it consisted of two divisons. He was then captured by the Americans and after much discussion was finally turned over to the Soviets. Vlasov was then tried and executed in 1946(?).
There were several meetings during the war to discuss the terms of peace at the end of the war. One example of such a meeting, is the meeting between Roosevelt and Churchill in the winter of 1940-41. There they discussed several things, one of which was the formation of a United Nations after the war ended. However, there are only three conferences I am going to discuss in this paper. These meetings were held at Teheran, Yalta, and Potsdam and were meetings between the Big Three (Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin) with the exception of Potsdam, which only Stalin attended.
The meeting at Teheran happened in 1943 and it was the first meeting between the Big Three. At Teheran, the Allies agreed upon the opening of a second front and they agreed to let the Soviet Union keep all the Polish territory it could acquire. The most important of the three meetings occurred at Yalta in February 1945. Here it was insisted that the Soviet Union would take part in the invasion of Japan in exchange for several concessions made to the Soviets. It was also agreed that the Allies would only accept unconditional. Potsdam was much different than the others, as Roosevelt was replaced by Truman and Churchill was replaced by Atley. Stalin used this change in leadership to get more concessions for the Soviet. The meeting at Potsdam in June 1945 played a large part in starting the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union.
The Second World War had many ramifications for the Soviet Union as well as the rest of the world. During the war, Stalinism was put on hold and the Soviet people could lead somewhat normal lives. However, the Soviet people suffered terribly during the war. Overy writes "Stalin's empire was won with reservoirs of Soviet blood. Soviet forces alone had casualties of over 29 million" (Overy, p. 287). There is no precise figure for the number of civilian deaths, only estimates which number in tens of thousands. Regardless the numbers, it is quite obvious that the Soviets suffered terribly during the war and the rest of the world would find out the consequences in the years to come.
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