In the last post, we looked at how the Japanese found ways to resist the predatory behavior of Europe. In this post, we examine how the Soviet Era Russians and their satellite territories found ways to defeat a 20th century effort at colonization and enslavement.
The European War of 1939 to 1945—known as the Second World War in the West—is almost never regarded as an effort at colonization, enslavement, and resource expropriation. In this post, I argue that the massive German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941 was in many ways an attempt at the colonization of the Slavic people who were regarded by their would-be colonizers as inherently inferior, a people who, like West Africans, were once a source of slaves for Western Europe.
In the war mythos of the Anglo-American West, the invasion is presented as part of an attempt by the “totalitarian” National Socialists of Germany, led by Adolf Hitler, to “take over the world”, or invade and take over the democracies, and “take away our freedom.” In this war mythology, the “good guys”, the democracies, defeated the “bad guys,” the totalitarian Nazis. While there is an element of truth to this, and the Nazis were indeed totalitarian very bad guys, the West’s popular war narrative is very far from the real story.
To begin with, the main antagonists of the Second European War were not the Anglo-American armies bravely fighting Nazi Germany as we are made to believe in countless Hollywood movies, popular history books, and D-Day celebrations in the popular media of the West. While the Anglo-American Allies made some contribution to the defeat of Germany, they were not primarily responsible for destroying the formidable German war machine, the Wehrmacht. The main antagonists of the European war were Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union (Russia), who fought each other in the most destructive war in human history, involving battles on a gargantuan scale never seen before and after.
For three and a half years, the Soviets fought the Germans—the most powerful and skillful military country of the early half of the war—mostly alone in some of the most ferocious and cataclysmic battles ever fought in all of human history (Kiev, Leningrad, Moscow, Stalingrad, Kursk). Early in the struggle between the two behemoths, there was some anemic assistance to the Soviets from Great Britain, and later, American Lend Lease assistance—supplies like food, trucks, jeeps, steel and some tanks and planes—which only fully kicked in by 1943 after the titanic battle of Stalingrad (where the Soviets annihilated a large German army along with some of its satellite forces). By the end of the July 1943 Battle of Kursk, which involved the largest tank battle in history, the German war machine had been smashed by the increasingly capable and fearsome Soviet Red Army, and the depleted and exhausted Germans could no longer mount any major strategic offensives. According to some major WWII historians, like Rtd. US Army Col. David M. Glantz, it is likely the Soviets would have defeated the Germans even without the June 1944 D-Day Normandy invasion by the Anglo-American Allies.
In April 1945, the victorious Red Army, 7 million strong, overran much of Eastern Europe and East Germany. A section of that invasion force, 2.5 million men and women, along with some 6,250 tanks, 41,000 artillery pieces, and 7,500 warplanes, surrounded Berlin, battered their way into the city in ruinous street-by-street fighting, and forcefully ended Hitler’s dream of taking over European Russia for the German Reich to exploit its mineral and agricultural resources. According to the great British Eastern Front historian, John Erickson, the Germans suffered a total of 13 million casualties in the so-called Second World War: 10 million of those were at the hands of the Red Army on the Eastern Front, while the rest (3 million) were in all the other sectors of the European war.
The numbers of weapons are important to note—by the end of the war, the Reds outnumbered the Germans in war equipment in some areas by a factor of 6:1—because by this time the Soviets were out-producing the Germans in industrial war materiel, testimony to the success of their leaders in transforming a backward peasant society into a modern industrial giant.
Why is this relevant to our discussion about African development? It is presented in this blog as another example of a poor, backward people (multi-ethnic in this case), who realized that an invasion and attempt at territorial take-over was coming, and “by any means necessary,” undertook the extremely difficult and painful task of preparing to resist it. It is not presented as a direct example of what African states could have done, or should do; it is merely presented here as an example of vigorous and successful action by the elites of a region to solve a life and death problem. The Soviet leaders did not shirk their historic responsibilities, and faced up to them boldly. Many Africans think the people of the African continent face impossible odds, and this post is meant to show how some people overcame even greater obstacles. It shows that even in the face of seemingly insurmountable difficulties, people are not helpless.
Yes, without question, the Russian Bolsheviks—the socialist party that carried out the Russian revolution—and their successor leaders, the Stalinists, did many truly nasty, horrific things, were sometimes inefficient and wasteful, and made absolutely terrible mistakes (it is estimated that in the struggle to defeat Hitler, the Soviets lost 25-30 million people). But what cannot be ignored is that they took successful action to defeat a predatory attempt to seize their resources, render them servile and subservient, and possibly exterminate them as a people.
That Hitler and the National Socialists (Nazi Party) of Germany saw Russia as prey, and as a place to seize and take over was made quite evident as early as 1923, when Hitler wrote his testament, Mein Kampf, a book that was required reading for all Nazi Party members.
In that book, he wrote: “…we National Socialists must hold unflinchingly to our aim in foreign policy, namely, to secure for the German people the land and soil to which they are entitled on this earth…. We must stop the endless German movement to the south and west, and turn our gaze toward the land in the east….If we speak of soil in Europe today, we can primarily have in mind only Russia and her vassal border states.” Hitler believed that taking over Russia would provide living space or “lebensraum” for the expanding German speaking people of “Gross Deutschland” or the resource-sufficient Greater Germany that, in his vision, would have hegemony over Europe.
After Hitler came to power, and began the war in Europe, he was temporarily distracted by other pressing matters such as fighting a Britain he really did not want to fight, but which had declared war on him after he invaded Poland in September 1939. But after summarily crushing the British and the French in six short weeks, he came back to his original aim, which was to take over the Slavic regions of Eastern Europe, particularly the Soviet Union. In the words of Sir Ian Kershaw in his masterful biography of the German dictator,
“Germany had since 1939 become increasingly dependent on vast supplies of raw materials coming from the USSR [crude oil, grain, manganese, chromium, copper, nickel, platinum]…Economic, military, strategic and ideological motives were not separable in Hitler’s thinking on the Soviet Union….The cement holding them in place was, as it had been for nearly two decades, doubtless the imperative to destroy once and for all ‘Jewish Bolshevism’—an aim which would at the same time provide the necessary security in ‘living space’ [lebensraum] and give Germany political and military dominance over the continent of Europe.”
“The Russian is inferior,” Hitler told his Army Chiefs in a pre-invasion meeting. The Germans of the Nazi era were taught to see the Slavs of Eastern Europe, slaves of Western Europe in medieval times, as “untermenschen” or sub-human. They were in for a terrible shock.
Before the Bolshevik Revolution of October 1917, Russia was a poor and backward peasant society on the fringes of industrialization. The Bolshevik leaders, mostly radical intellectuals led by Vladimir Ulyanov, known to history by his revolutionary alias, Lenin, sought to transform their country, and latched onto the ideology of Marxism as a tool of revolution and transformation.
Their successful revolution led to a vicious civil war between the Bolsheviks and Russian counter-revolutionaries who wanted to bring back the old order. These counter-revolutionaries were known as the Whites, and they were supported by the Western capitalist countries, who, among other things, resented the fact that the revolutionaries had repudiated the loans the West had made to Czarist Russia. As a matter of fact, the West sent troops to aid the Whites: in 1918, the British, the French, the Italians, the Americans and the Japanese all landed troops in Russia, and they fought a number of battles against the Bolshevik revolutionaries.
All of this convinced the Bolsheviks that the West was intent on “strangling the Bolshevik baby in its cradle.” This ugly metaphor is said to have been originally made by Winston Churchill, then British Secretary of State for War and, at the time, an implacable enemy of the Bolsheviks. This belief that the West wanted to destroy them spurred the Bolshevik/ Stalinists to achieve many “impossible” things in the coming decades. The interventionist Western forces eventually withdrew after a series of military setbacks.
After the civil war was won by the Bolsheviks, the Russian economy was wrecked and industry was non-existent, and there were various acrimonious arguments among the Bolshevik leaders about what to do next. A struggle for power ensued after the death of Lenin in 1924. Soon after, the shrewd political animal Iosif Djugashvili, whose revolutionary nickname was Stalin (meaning “steel” in Russian), emerged as the new head of Soviet Russia. He outmaneuvered his rivals by allying with one faction to defeat the other, and then allying with another to defeat his former allies. The Old Bolsheviks who had carried out the revolution and fought the civil war were eventually all killed off by the new vozhd or leader, Stalin.
Stalin remade the Bolshevik Party in his image, and then used the party apparatus to drive the young socialist state into the industrial age. He did it with absolute ruthlessness and a calm indifference to death and human suffering—the same implacable way he waged the war against the Germans. He forcibly collectivized farming because the individual farmers who had expropriated the large farms of the past during the revolution only produced enough to feed their families. His cadres shot or sent to Siberia anyone who resisted collectivization. The grain produced by the collective farms was seized and used to purchase capital goods and machinery from the West. Sometimes it was done so harshly that people starved.
Iron and steel were the foundation of the drive to industrialization. In 1928, the year before the decision to go all out for industrialization, the Soviet Union only produced 3.5 million tons of pig iron, but under the five year plans that were introduced, was producing 10 million tons at the end of the first plan. In that first plan, the Soviet commissars built from scratch some 1,000 factories.
The Stalinists placed economic emphasis on machine building so they would end their dependence on imported machinery from the West. They set impossible targets such as demanding a GDP leap of 20%, and when these targets were not met, or were met with shoddy goods, they blamed “wreckers” and “saboteurs” and shot scapegoats.
There were huge hiccups along the way, and many false starts in the production of equipment, especially war equipment. For example, they were only able to manufacture four of the first generation Soviet heavy bombers, and even this small number failed to function properly, and suffered eleven training crashes in two weeks, killing 30 crew.
It was not easy to turn a peasant country into an industrial nation. As the British historian of the Bolsheviks, E. H. Carr, remarked, “To impose on the raw peasant the discipline of factory work was a task of enormous difficulty, which invited, and perhaps necessitated stern measures of compulsion. The beginnings of industrialization have rarely been painless. Industrialization in the Soviet Union, launched in a backward economy and without the support of foreign capital, placed an unnecessarily harsh burden on the worker.” According to Carr, some of the problems the Soviet leaders had to contend with included “… drunkenness at work… absenteeism….unpunctuality…sleeping at work… theft.” These sorts of problems are not unique: they were found in England at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, and can be found in many West African countries today.
But the leaders of the Soviet Union were not deterred and Stalin relentlessly drove his people on. As he forcefully told his managers at a Conference of Socialist Industry in January 1931, “To slacken the tempo would mean falling behind. And those who fall behind get beat up. But we do not want to get beat up! One feature of the old Russia was the continual beatings she suffered because of her backwardness….All beat her—because of her backwardness, her military backwardness, cultural backwardness, political backwardness, industrial backwardness, agricultural backwardness. Such is the law of the exploiters: beat up and rob the backward and the weak….You are backward, you are weak—and therefore you are wrong; therefore you can be beaten up and enslaved.”
Stalin was clearly on to something there. The Soviet success in overcoming its backwardness was clearly manifested in their resounding defeat of a would-be colonizer and enslaver, something their leaders foresaw, planned for, and delivered.
Mein Kampf by Adolf Hitler
Hitler: 1936-1945 Nemesis, by Ian Kershaw
Nazism: A history in documents and eyewitness accounts, 1919-1945, edited by J. Noakes and G. Pridham
The Bolshevik Revolution vol 3 1917-1923, by E.H. Carr
Foundations of a Planned Economy 1926-1929, vol 1, part 2, by E. H. Carr & R.W. Davies
Foundations of a Planned Economy 1926-1929, 2, by E.H. Carr
Stalin, by Isaac Deutscher
Stalin: Waiting for Hitler, 1929-1941, by Stephen Kotkin
When Titans Clashed: How the Red Army stopped Hitler by David M. Glantz and Jonathan House
Colossus Reborn: The Red Army at war, 1941-1943, by David M. Glantz
The Road to Stalingrad &The Road to Berlin, by John Erickson
The Fall of Berlin 1945 by Anthony Beevor