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Contrast between the East & West

LAURENCE REES: Let's talk about the relative scale of the war between Western and Eastern Fronts. Of course, the war is vastly bigger in scale in the East.

WILLIAM HITCHCOCK: Well it’s very difficult for students and readers and scholars who are coming into this new and don’t know the geography well enough to imagine that these are somehow comparable in scale. But you’re quite right, the scope and scale of what’s going on in the East is enormous. It’s continent size movements of  armies, of refugees fleeing the arrival of the Red Army and is absolutely epic in scope. That’s not to diminish the contribution militarily of what’s going on in the West with the Americans and the British and their allies, but it is essential, I think, that we use our imagination to go back in time and to broaden out perspectives on what’s going on in the East. We have to multiply it by 10 or perhaps 50 or even a 100 fold, to imagine the scope, the scale, the sheer numbers of men that are involved with the war in the East.

The war in the East is something that remains in many ways the dark side of the moon particularly for American students of history. We have been inundated with imagery of American contributions to the Second World War and quite rightly so. It’s part of our national history, we’re interested in what our countrymen did in the Second World War and what our fathers and grandfathers did. But we often don’t have a place to begin to understand the nature of the war in the East and so we tend to write it off as a brutal nasty ugly affair involving two equally nasty, ugly participants, and having a general significance but we don’t know quite what.  The truth of the matter is of course perhaps 70 or 80% of the Second World War in Europe happened in the East. Germany was defeated principally by the Soviet Union and the Red Army through a very long, very difficult and very costly war of attrition.

The Americans came into - fighting - continental Europe quite late in the game but the first year they were bogged down in Italy which militarily wasn’t terribly significant and in the last year of the war from 1944 on they played an important role, but not perhaps as decisive as that same last year of the war in the East, because of the absolutely epic size and scope by which the Germans were finally broken.