Ukraines forgotten war against Germany before Russia conflict

Putin 'will lose in Ukraine' says former head of British Army

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November 6, 1943. Dead bodies litter the streets of Soviet Ukraine’s capital Kyiv, bomb-riddled buildings that once housed its people lay ruined on the floor, and gunshots and explosions puncture the air. But for those who survived the bloody onslaught of Nazi Germany and its unrelenting army, the day marked its liberation and the reclamation of the city at the heart of their country.

The anniversary of the 1st Ukrainian Front – led by its Army General Nikolai Vatutin – liberating Kyiv is not often recalled by many historians in the West, but its significance is remembered by those whose families lived it.

And at a time when Ukraine is under threat by another despot – this time in the form of Vladimir Putin – the spirit that conflict summoned some 79 years ago further cements the Eastern European country’s stature as one of the most spirited on the continent in the face of brutal adversity.

Dr Zbig Wojnowski, associate professor of soviet history at the University of Oxford, discussed the vital role Ukraine had in dethroning Hitler’s Germany and helping Soviet Russia, and its own controversial leader Joseph Stalin, reclaim its country. He also noted how this compared with Ukraine’s ongoing plight with Putin, where hundreds of Russians and Ukrainians have lost their lives in a dispute over territory since the conflict began in February this year.

He told “I think in both cases, Ukrainians, and the people who identified themselves as Ukrainian, played a prominent part in [those] military battles. They showed a great sort of spirit and morale.

“And I think in both cases, a sense of Ukrainian patriotism was crucial in motivating people to fight. I think it’s interesting that history remembers, a sort of Soviet Union victory in World War Two, which was primarily viewed as a Russian victory.

“But Ukrainians were disproportionately represented in the Red Army, and Ukrainians were often driven to fight by a sense of being Ukrainian. So I think it is important to recover that part of history because it’s been deliberately obscured in the Soviet Union.”

Ukraine become embroiled in World War Two in 1941, when Hitler launched an invasion of the Soviet Union. The attempts to conquer what is now called Russia and its Red Army were first discussed by Hitler during a discussion with his generals at Berchtesgaden, a German municipality the previous year. He told them that “with Russia smashed, Britain’s last hope would be shattered”. This, the German leader claimed, would see his nation “then be master of Europe and the Balkans”.

Stalin felt confident that the likes of Britain and the US would eventually halt Hitler’s Germany, but became severely hit with casualties across the following four years of war, including in the Battle of Stalingrad and the Battle of Kursk.

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Professor Wojnowski explained that prior to World War Two, which started in 1939, Kyiv had been subjected to “one of the most devastating events of the Thirties” through the Ukrainian famine. “Several million” Ukrainians in Soviet Russia “starved to death”, and by the time the Germans came into the country in 1941, they used this memory to sway Ukrainian sentiment towards their regime.

He continued: “[The Germans] kind of played on the memories of the Ukrainian famine, and generally on the sort of traumas of Stalin’s terror in an attempt to win over especially the rural population in Ukraine, during the occupation.

“And at first, it sort of worked. Within the first few months of the occupation, however, it was very apparent that the German occupation of Ukraine was very brutal in its own right.”

The historian noted that Soviet POWs were “starved on a massive scale”, the country’s natural resources were plundered and many of the initial German promises were left unfulfilled, leading many in Soviet Ukraine to question Hitler’s place in the heart of their region.

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And so by November 1943, the plot to reclaim Kyiv was completed. Ruslan Maksimovic, a writer for EurAsian Times, described the build-up and how Ukraine managed to take control of its capital back from Germany’s grip.

Two months prior to that victory, Soviet forces were for the first time in two years able to get back into Kyiv. A series of intricate plots were formed to hide the Soviet’s regrouping, and attack Germany in a surprise move.

On November 3, Ukraine’s offensive started and saw Germany lose vital ground to its rivals. Mr Maksimovic noted how the plan was “completely executed by the clock which rarely happens in war conditions”.

He continued: “By the morning of November 6, Soviet units entered the city – Kyiv was liberated. The operation to liberate Kyiv is characterised by important strategic and political results and quite logically chosen directions of attacks bypassing Kyiv (cutting two highways leading from the city to the south and west). For the operation, the necessary number of troops was allocated, who completed all the tasks.”

As the war seemingly came to an end Stalin would meet fellow leaders, such as British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and his US equivalent Franklin D. Roosevelt, as they hashed out a plot for a two-front war against Germany, as well as a plan for Europe post-World War Two.

Berlin would eventually fall in April 1945, but at a bruising cost for the Soviet Union. Statistics from the time show that Stalin’s USSR suffered the highest number of casualties in the war with some 20 million lives being claimed, approximately a third of all deaths during World War Two.

The cost for Ukraine itself was devastating. Analysis from encyclopedia Britannica noted that the country lost between five and seven million lives. It continued: “Even with the return of evacuees from the east and the repatriation of forced labourers from Germany, Ukraine’s estimated population of 36 million in 1947 was almost five million less than before the war.

“Because more than 700 cities and towns and 28,000 villages had been destroyed, 10 million people were left homeless. Only 20 percent of the industrial enterprises and 15 percent of agricultural equipment and machinery remained intact, and the transportation network was severely damaged. The material losses constituted an estimated 40 percent of Ukraine’s national wealth.”

And Professor Wojnowski concluded that this major sacrifice during the world’s most cutthroat war must always be remembered in its own right, and not shoehorned in with the losses made by Soviet Russia.

He added: “Ukraine has made a significant contribution to victory in World War Two in the Red Army, and that contribution has been forgotten, but it’s sort of now being recovered after the collapse of Soviet Russia.”

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