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People’s perception of the war

LAURENCE REES: Is there enough knowledge about what was actually happening on the Eastern Front during the war in the popular consciousness today?

GEOFFREY WAWRO: Well, it used to be a truism that we focused on Anglo-American-Canadian efforts in the West, and we neglected the scale of the fighting in the East. But that’s been corrected in the last ten to fifteen years; there’s been an outpouring of scholarship where historians are working on the Red Army and working on the German Army in the East, and we’re seeing new memoirs from the Soviet side and the German side and a lot of scholars are just working in this area and emphasising the war on the Eastern Front. We know that the scale of the fighting there was titanic. You know, seventy five percent or so of German casualties in the Second World War are generated by the Red Army, so this is really where the German Army is worn down and destroyed. I think now there’s a much better awareness that World War Two against Germany was really won in the Eastern Front.

LAURENCE REES: But it is significant, isn't it, that in the Summer of 1944 the Soviets launch Operation Bagration, a couple of weeks after D Day, which absolutely dwarfs D Day in scale, but not many people in the West have really heard about it?

GEOFFREY WAWRO: The Operations on the Eastern Front are so big and so bloody and so repetitive that they tend to sort of blur together, and Operation Bagration’s a great example of that. It was the Russian annihilation of the German Army Group Centre. Remember there were three big army groups that went in on Barbarossa in 1941. Army Group South heading for those oilfields, Army Group Centre which passed through Smolensk on the way to Moscow, and Army Group North which swept through the Baltics to Leningrad. So Army Group Centre was really the anchor of that whole German front, blocking the shortest path to Berlin, and the Russians annihilated it at the same time as we were landing in D Day and marching on liberating Paris and then heading towards Germany. But the scope of the fighting was much bigger.

You had ten times as many Russians fighting in Bagration as you had Anglo-American-Canadian troops landing on the Normandy beaches. And you had three times as many Germans in action fighting trying to hold up the Russian advance as you had defending the Atlantic Wall. So it’s a perfect encapsulation of the problem. We all know about D Day, we know all about the heroic landings on the D Day beaches and their significance in liberating Europe, but we know so little in any kind of detail about Operations like Bagration which really open the door to Berlin. I mean, think about it, when D Day and Bagration jumped off, the allied armies in Normandy and the Russian armies on the Eastern Front were equidistant from Berlin, and in the German view they were sort of equal threats. After Operation Bagration Russia is seen as being the principal threat because they just kicked down the door altogether and reoccupied all the ground that was lost in 1941. They take most of Poland and they move into East Prussia and they’re at the very gates of Berlin while we’re still slogging our way through Normandy and towards Paris.

LAURENCE REES: Why did the Soviets have that level of success at that point?

GEOFFREY WAWRO: They’re amassing a couple of million troops against six or seven hundred thousand German troops; two and a half million troops against seven hundred thousand German troops with masses of artillery and tanks against an increasingly depleted German Army, whereas the numbers are a couple of hundred thousand German troops against a couple of hundred thousand Anglo-American-Canadian troops in Normandy. Also remember that we’re held up by the difficulties of an amphibious landing on a hostile shore, we have to fight through the hedgerow country and we have to get through some heavily defended river lines, and the Russians meanwhile are fighting the same sort of war they’ve been fighting ever since 1941, they’ve just been getting better at it. They’ve got momentum and they’re pushing back this increasingly exhausted German Army with sheer numbers of material.

LAURENCE REES:  If the Germans had ever concluded some kind of peace treaty - like Brest-Litovsk - with the Soviets at the end of 1941, do you think the West could ever have won the war with conventional weapons?

GEOFFREY WAWRO:  Probably not, just because if the United States were to become involved for some reason it would certainly pressure the Germans hard, and if the United States were to invest heavily in the revival of Great Britain as an ally, in creating insurgencies in the Continent, it would sap the Germans strength, perhaps.  But imagine American opinion at the time, what American President or legislator could have come forward and said, let’s do this thing, let’s roll back the German tide?  They would have seen this as being a European issue and that there was a re-drawing of the map in Europe and a re-shaping of the European balance of power, and they would have said, why are we going to commit GIs to fix a European problem that was created by left over issues from the Treaty of Versailles that we never even ratified and never even bought into.