What a Difference a Day Makes

05/12/2015 02:38 pm ET | Updated May 12, 2016

This past Saturday, May 9, the Russians celebrated the 70th anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany (VE-Day, for "Victory in Europe," as it is known in the West, or simply "Victory Day," as it is known in Russia) with the largest military parade held in Red Square since the victory parade of June 24, 1945, where soldiers of the victorious Red Army threw down the banners of the defeated Nazi host at the base of Lenin's Mausoleum, atop which stood Joseph Stalin and other Soviet dignitaries. This anniversary is notable because it is believed to be the last major celebration of the end of the war in Europe where large numbers of survivors of that conflict would be in attendance. The 2015 Moscow Victory Day celebration has also been highlighted by the lack of attendance by high-level representation from Russia's war-time western allies protesting Russia's annexation of the Crimea and its ongoing involvement in separatist activities in eastern Ukraine.

This snub was seen as a means of denying Russia's President Vladimir Putin a propaganda moment, thereby serving as a reminder to Putin of Russia's growing isolation from the West. To Russia, the West's actions are but another reminder that the United States and Europe have forgotten the huge sacrifices made by Russia in bringing German Fascism to its knees, a historical amnesia that manifests itself, at least from the Russian perspective, in policies that give short shrift to Russia's historical prerogatives in the former Soviet territories Moscow calls the "near abroad."

It is not that the West has forgotten the Second World War. Similar celebrations were held the day before, on May 8, in London and Washington, DC, with much fanfare. To the casual observer, it might seem odd that a singular event would be celebrated on two different days. A quick review of the history of the final capitulation of Nazi Germany shows that Colonel-General Jodl, acting on orders of Grand Admiral Karl Dönitz (who took over as the leader of the Third Reich after Adolf Hitler committed suicide on April 30), signed documents of surrender at Reims, France, where General Eisenhower had his headquarters. Although this surrender, which came into effect at 2:41 am on May 7, was witnessed by a Soviet General who served as a liaison officer, the Soviet government refused to accept this act as representing the general capitulation of Nazi Germany, and demanded that a second surrender ceremony be convened in Berlin the next day, where the Germans would repeat their submission, this time under the gaze of their Soviet conquerors. Although backdated to reflect a May 8 date of execution, the new surrender document wasn't actually signed until the early hours of May 9 -- thus the disparity in the calendar when it comes to celebrating the defeat of Nazi Germany in the West and Russia today.

But if history has taught us anything, it is that perception creates its own reality. From the perspective of the Western powers (the United States, the United Kingdom, and France) the war in Europe was wrapping up well before either the Reims or Berlin surrender ceremonies. On May 2, 1945, more than a million German soldiers in Italy and Austria surrendered to American forces after prolonged secret talks, which were viewed by the Soviets as a violation of the West's assurances that there would not be a separate peace negotiated with Germany. On May 4, millions more Germans surrendered to allied forces in the Netherlands and southern Germany. The Reims surrender on May 7 was but a formalization of the reality that, for the United States and its western allies, the war in Europe was already over. German forces in contact with the Western allies readily laid down their arms.

For the Soviets, the early days of May 1945 represented a very different reality. Although the German capital of Berlin had surrendered on May 2 (following a ferocious two-week campaign that resulted in more than 300,000 Soviet casualties), the Soviet forces still faced off against millions of desperate German troops whose sole mission seemed to be to fight the Red Army while simultaneously seeking to surrender to either the British or Americans. The concept of a "separate peace" was alive and well all along the Soviet front lines. Tens of thousands of German survivors of the Berlin carnage fought a running battle with Soviet forces in their attempt to reach the River Elbe and surrender to the Americans halted on the other side. In northern Germany, hundreds of thousands of German soldiers bitterly resisted the Soviet advance while simultaneously negotiating terms with the British. But the biggest concentration of German military might was the nearly 1.2 million men of Army Group Center concentrated in and around the Czechoslovakian capital Prague. While the citizens of London danced in the streets on May 7, celebrating an end to the war, the Soviets were engaged in one last cataclysmic confrontation with Nazi Germany that concluded only on May 12, four days after the surrender in Berlin. This final battle cost the Soviets 52,500 casualties, including nearly 12,000 killed. Once again, the Germans resisted the Soviet advance in an effort to buy time for their comrades (and civilian refugees) to reach safety behind the American lines. If one were Soviet, one could not help but think that there was some sort of collusion taking place between the western allies and the Germans to preserve German combat capability (something the formation of NATO, less than a decade later, only seemed to confirm).

The difference between VE-Day and Victory Day is far more than simply a matter of calendar dates -- each represents a far different reality, and vastly different perceptions, of what "victory" constituted, and what its ultimate price was. One cannot diminish the sacrifice made by any of the allied participants who helped defeat Nazi Germany in the war in Europe. The United Kingdom lost some 450,000 people, military and civilians, fighting both Germany and Japan, or a little less than 1% of its pre-war population. France lost 550,000 of its citizens, or 1.35% of its population. And the United States suffered 420,000 dead (407,000 who were military), or .32% of its population.

But these numbers pale in comparison to the losses suffered by the Soviet Union and, more to the point, Russia. Of the 26,600,000 Soviets who died during the Second World War, 13,950,000 were Russian -- more than half the total lost. Of the 10,700,000 military dead, 7,200,000 were Russians. Fully 12.7% of the Russian population perished during the conflict, percentages surpassed only by Ukraine (16.3%) and Byelorus (25%), nations whose territory was fully occupied by the Germans and whose civilian populations suffered horribly as a result. Let there be no doubt: when it came to fighting the Nazi invaders, this was very much a Russian war, something the current occupant of the Kremlin, and the people he governs, have never forgotten.

There is lingering resentment in certain former Soviet republics (Georgia and Ukraine lead the way, for obvious reasons) that Putin's Russia has hijacked the victory of the Soviet Union over Nazi Germany as a Russian, versus Soviet, accomplishment. Tiny Georgia, with a pre-war population of only 3,610,000 people, lost 190,000 military and 110,000 civilian dead, some 8.3% of its population. Other Soviet republics suffered grievous losses as well. There is a tendency in the post-Cold War, post-Soviet era to wax nostalgic about the omnipresence of Soviet ideology in the former Soviet republics while ignoring the reality that what we called the Soviet Union was, in effect, little more than Russian imperialism dressed up as Marxism-Leninism. One only needs to look to the Second World War to find the most flagrant illustration of this reality.

On July 3, 1941 -- less than two weeks after the German invasion -- Joseph Stalin (a Georgian by birth) gave a speech (his first since the invasion) in which he drew upon classic Soviet themes: "The issue is one of life or death for the Soviet State, for the peoples of the USSR... It is not only a war between two armies, it is also a great war of the entire Soviet people against the German fascist forces." But, as it turned out, the people most affected by the German invasion didn't seem too inclined to willingly die for the Soviet cause. Many Ukrainians openly welcomed the German invaders (something they regretted later, when the true nature of Nazi Germany's anti-Slav racism was revealed). And many Byelorussians and Russians, with the memory of Soviet atrocities fresh in their minds, seemed to prefer to surrender or retreat rather than to stand and die. There was resistance, much of it inspired, but the fact of the matter was that to many observers it seemed as if the Soviet Union was convulsing in its final, violent death throes at the hands of the German invaders.

On November 7, 1941, the 24th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution that swept Lenin, Stalin, Trotsky and others into power, Stalin made another speech, this one addressed to Red Army reinforcements assembling in Moscow before being dispatched directly to the front lines (which at that time were less than 100 kilometers from Red Square). In this speech, Stalin did not appeal, as he had in July, to the memory of Lenin, the Bolshevik cause or the Soviet state, but rather to "Holy Russia" and the heroes of Russia's imperial past -- Alexander Nevsky, who defeated invading Swedes and Germans in 1240 and 1241, respectively; Dmitri Donskoi, who repelled the Tatar Horde at Kulikovo in 1380; Kuz'ma Minin and Dmitri Pozharsky, who drove the Poles from the Kremlin in 1612; Alexander Suvorov, who defeated the Prussians, Poles, Turks, French and Russian rebels in the late 18th century; and Mikhail Kutuzov, the hero of Borodino who defeated the invading armies of Napoleon in 1812. It is very telling that, when Hitler's armies were threatening to capture Moscow and topple the Soviet government, Stalin did not turn to the new "Soviet Man" for salvation, but rather Mother Russia -- and Mother Russia delivered, a fact that Russians today have not forgotten, despite the hazy, historically-challenged memories of Russia's numerous detractors.

There is no defense of Russia's ongoing actions vis-à-vis Ukraine, or its annexation of the Crimea, just as there can be no excuse for its support of Abkhazian and Ossetian separatists in Georgia and the military invasion and ongoing occupation and intimidation of that country. But nothing happens in a vacuum, and when it comes to international relations, Newton's third law of physics applies in full force: for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. George Santayana has famously noted that those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it. But what of those who simply are ignorant of history, especially when it is not their own? America, in particular, seems to be populated by people who, wittingly or not, have taken Francis Fukuyama's theory of "the end of history" to heart. Mr. Fukuyama based his premise on the notion that the universalization of Western liberal democracy represented the ultimate expression of the human ideal and that, having achieved this in the United States and Europe, the rest of the world would simply follow suit.

What sounded plausible at the nexus of American ascendancy over the Soviet Union in the early 1990's seems laughable today, and yet the concept of American exceptionalism remains ingrained in the American psyche, in large part driven by the idea that American democracy represents a universal ideal. But as I reflect on the Second World War, and those we nostalgically refer to as "America's greatest generation" who sacrificed so much to achieve victory, I have to ask myself what about America today could compel its people to willingly sacrifice 13%-20% of its population to preserve this country. One only needs to recall the draft riots during the Civil War, or the anti-war isolationism that continued to grip much of America while the Second World War raged. Perhaps there is an answer, but I can't put my finger on it at the moment. But I do know what could compel Russians to make such a sacrifice, even in the name of an unpopular, despotic government: Mother Russia. We in the West seem to have forgotten that lesson of history. One thing is clear: the vast majority of the people of Russia will not forget the insulting snub shown them by the non-attendance of Western leaders at what was, and is, for all Russians, a very solemn occasion. With all due respect to Mr. Fukuyama, history has not, in fact, ended. The Russian people know theirs. Do we?