Latest Reading: Norman Davies “No Simple Victory: WW II in Europe 1939-1945

fter our Christmas holiday trip to Poland, I wanted to learn a bit more about World War II. In Krakow we saw Schindler’s factory and the Jewish Ghetto, and this piqued the curiosity of our children. We explained the war and the Holocaust to them in the long car rides and watched Saving Private Ryan and Schindler’s List to reinforce their learning.

I chose the Davies book because it concentrated on Europe and it gave an outsider’s view to the war. I grew up with stories from my Dad, who was a boy during World War II and was fascinated with the war and what we were taught in school. I had an American-centric view of the war. Living in Eastern Europe has opened my eyes to a broader view of events.

Most of the war took place in Eastern Europe, specifically Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine. The two major combatants were the Fascist, Nazi Germans against the Communist Red Army of the Bolsheviks. It was a conflict of two great armies led by evil men, Hitler and Stalin, and the results were the deaths of millions of people, both soldiers and civilians, and the loss of opportunities for a good life for several generations of people.

I always thought that it was the Americans who came in and saved the day! I understood that the USA arrived to Europe to save the UK and France and landed on the beaches of Normandy and fought their way to Berlin. And then went on and defeated Japan as well. Davies however, shows with facts and his research and the research of others, that America only played a minor role in Europe. The Soviet Army did the hard work and won the war, not the USA. Most of the 16 million soldier deaths were suffered by the Soviets (9 million) and Germans (4 million). The biggest casualties were on the Eastern Front of the war with Barbarossa, Stalingrad, Leningrad, having over 10 times more deaths than say the Battle of the Bulge, the largest battle the Americans were involved in. The turning point of the war was not D-Day, but the huge tank battle at Kursk in the Ukraine. From that point on, the Germans were on a retreat that would not end until the Russians reached Hitler’s bunker in Berlin. America only contributed to 15 percent of Germany’s war deaths.

The reason most of the war was fought in Eastern Europe, is that the Germans wanted “room to live” and felt that the area east of Germany was meant for them and was filled with a “mix of subhuman and filthy” Slavs and Jews. Being of Slavic origin, I am glad Hitler and the Nazis got what they deserved. The Bolsheviks, the “74-year experiment that wasted tens of millions of lives” also wanted to expand into the area to take Communism to the world. The result were Poland being split into two by the Germans and Soviets, and Belarus suffering the most civilian deaths per capita and Ukraine most civilian deaths total of any country in the war. One example of the cruelty Poland faced was when the Nazis occupied Krakow, they immediately went in and executed the entire faculty of Jagiellonian University, because they felt Poles didn’t require universities, secondary schools, or educated leaders.

Stalin in my opinion was worse than Hitler. His internal purges and war tactics killed many more people than Hitler and the Nazis, even including the 6 million Jews in the Holocaust. In fact, the Stalinist Terror in the 1930s had roughly the same death toll rate (18 million estimated non-military deaths) as during the war in 1939-1945 (6 million non-military deaths). The Red Army used its numbers to win many battles, sacrificing millions of soldiers. Soldiers actually felt freer on the front lines in many cases, facing executions if caught of desertion or cowardice, or just being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Davies describes many atrocities and the disgusting conditions of the Red Army and Soviet policies with civilians. The GULag concentration camps in Russia and Siberia were much larger than Auschwitz or the other big Nazi camps.

I don’t want to downplay America’s contributions to the war too much however. They supply both Great Britain, the Western Allies and the Soviets. They also did keep Germany occupied on two fronts, although I think Russia could have defeated Germany on their own. The USA also defeated Japan in the Pacific theater, which had much less deaths than Europe, and used their superiority in the air and water. However, the US before 1941 did not have much of a military and it took a long time to build up their armed forces to match the Soviets or the Germans. It is ironic today that the US has the largest military in the world. It would be nice to spend the American GDP on something rather than maintaining the military.

I highly recommend No Small Effort. It gave me a better understanding of World War II and the impact of the war on Eastern Europe. I would like to read a similar book (s) on the Pacific Theatre of the war as well.