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Eastern FrontMay 1945

Defeat of the Nazis

Who really defeated Germany?
The surrender of Nazi Germany in May 1945 was an occasion for great celebration for the Allies. But which of them had been most responsible for Germany's defeat?

Video Transcript

Commentary: This is London on Tuesday 8th May 1945 – VE Day. Victory in Europe. After five years and eight months of struggle, after nearly 400,000 British people had died, after the trauma of Dunkirk and the Blitz, after all of that and more had come victory over Nazi Germany. But the British hadn’t won the war in Europe on their own. And during this conflict, they and the Americans had both been protected to a large extent by an accident of geography.

Sir Max Hastings: The British and the Americans were quarantined from the Germans by tremendously serviceable expanses of sea. And this meant that they had a luxury usually denied to nations in war of choice - of choosing when and how to fight the enemy.

Commentary: It was a luxury denied to another of the Allies – the Soviet Union. And this is their victory parade, held in Moscow on the 24th June 1945. The Soviets hadn’t entered the war until June 1941 when they were invaded by the Germans, but unlike Britain and America a large amount of their territory had been occupied by the Nazis. But now that the Cold War was developing, the true nature of the Soviet contribution to the conflict was beginning to be obscured in the West.

Professor William Hitchcock: 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 the American contribution to the Second World War, quite rightly so - it’s part of our national history, we’re interested in what our countrymen did in the Second World War, what our fathers and grandfathers did. But we often don’t have a purchase, a place to begin to understand the nature of the war in the East.

Commentary: This was the nature of the war in the East. Hitler had called for a war of annihilation against the Soviet Union, and a war of annihilation is what his soldiers had given him.

Words of Adolf Hitler (March 1941): We must forget the concept of comradeship between soldiers. A Communist is no comrade before or after this battle.1

Commentary: Soviet losses in this war were a staggering 27 million dead. No other nation in history had ever suffered on this scale before. 

Andrew Roberts: Russia is a power which can lose people to the degree that a parliamentary democracy can’t and it had the sheer wherewithal, the lack of alternative. We could have made peace with Hitler in 1940. It wouldn’t have been very nice, but it wouldn’t have meant German troops stationed here on our soil. Russia couldn’t do that. Russia was going to be turned, through Lebensraum, into a desert as far as the Slavs are concerned. And so it had to be a war to the knife, to the end, to the death.

Commentary: The fighting on the eastern front dwarfed that in the west. This is the massive Soviet offensive launched in June 1944 around the time of D-Day. And whilst the Germans had around 30 divisions to meet the Allies in the wake of D-Day, here on the eastern front they had 165 - more than five times as many.

Professor Geoffrey Wawro: The scale of the fighting there was titanic. 75 per cent or so of German casualties in the Second World War generated by the Red Army. So this is really where the German army is worn down and destroyed.

Sir Max Hastings: An awful lot of senior British officers, senior British politicians in World War Two were very, very happy at the notion that not only should Germany lose the war, but that Russia should be bled to death in the process of defeating Germany. And this coloured British attitudes at the top. Churchill too, in his less guarded moments, Churchill was by no means unhappy to see the Russians doing the bleeding and the dying that otherwise the British would have had to do.

Commentary: The 'Big Three' – Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill – met together and discussed how best to defeat Hitler. But it was not a meeting of equals in this struggle against Nazism. 

Sir Max Hastings: At the great wartime summits Churchill, Roosevelt, Alanbrooke, George Marshall, they persuaded themselves that they were figuring out how to win the war. This was not true. What they were figuring out was how to help the Russians to win the war.

Commentary: Ultimately the historical reality is indisputable. The greatest contribution to the defeat of Hitler was made not by the western democracies, but by another dictator – Joseph Stalin and his Red Army.


1 Ian Kershaw, Hitler, 1936-1945: Nemesis, Allen Lane, 2000, p. 356