Conflict & Justice

For the Russians, D-Day was significant, but maybe not as important as the West imagines

Russians don't deny that D-Day was an important event in World War II, but they might bristle at the idea that it was the turning point in the war.  

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Most argue that without earlier key Soviet victories on the eastern front — battles won at great human sacrifice — the war with Nazi Germany would not have been won at all. 

While US textbooks recite the heroics at Normandy, Russian children learn of the battle of Stalingrad (1942-1943), the great tank battle of Kursk (1943) and the breaking of the siege of Leningrad (1944) as moments that turned the tide of the war. The battle of Stalingrad was even turned into a blockbuster movie in Russia for its 70th anniversary earlier this year. It was the highest-grossing Russian film of all time.

In a way, the Russians can even claim some credit for the D-Day strategy: the Allies' landing in Normandy in June of 1944 came in response to repeated appeals from Soviet leader Joseph Stalin to ease pressure on the eastern front. But by that time, Soviet forces all but had the Germans on the run.

And if you (and perhaps Russian President Vladimir Putin) are looking for historical ironies, here's one: by June of 1944, the Soviet army was just coming off a string of victories to liberate Ukraine from fascism. Mr. Putin has invoked — many would say distorted — these memories to justify Russia's actions amid the current standoff with Ukraine. By this logic, Russia 're-liberated' Crimea from fascists nearly 70 years to the day.

Given Russia's annexation of Crimea, much has been made of whether Mr. Putin 'belongs' at today's ceremonies marking D-Day's 70th anniversary in Normandy.  Arguably, he doesn't. But Russia and other countries of the Soviet Union certainly should be represented — if only to remember the lives lost on the eastern front.

Perhaps it's a legacy of the Cold War being waged through the classroom. Americans grow up hearing little of Russia's sacrifices in the war — about the key battles on the eastern front and the 20 million Soviet lives lost. Similarly, Russians know little about D-Day, Pearl Harbor, and the war in the Pacific.  

As Winston Churchill famously said, "History is written by the victors."

It's true. And, in this case, there just happen to be several of them.