Allied or Soviet Victory in Europe?

Ralph Zuljan

There is no doubt that the war in Europe, for the most part, was fought and won on the Eastern Front. Almost any aggregate measure you choose will show that the Eastern Front destroyed the Nazi war machine. The human and material losses the Third Reich sustained in its four year war against the Soviet Union far outstripped the losses it suffered in Africa, Italy, Western Europe, the Air War, and the Battle of the Atlantic combined. So, could the western Allies have defeated Germany without the USSR? Probably not. However, would the Soviets have stood a chance without the western Allies? Probably not. It is also one of the great ironies of recent history that while the Soviet Union invested much more blood and treasure, it was the US and its allies that reaped the greatest benefits.

While the defeats inflicted on Germany by the USSR and the western Allies (the USA, UK and a variety of minor powers) were painfully unequal in scale, this is in the final analysis an unreasonable comparison. The Allies were also engaged against Japan while the Soviet Union only entered that conflict after the war with Germany was concluded in 1945. Furthermore, the Allies forced Germany to commit some of its limited industrial resources to counter the air war and the naval war in the Atlantic. How many more German planes would have been on the Eastern Front without that? A lot. More to the point, just the threat of an Allied invasion got Germany to deploy combat units in the west and the Balkans, not many in 1941 but more in 1942 and many more still in 1943-44. That steady reduction in the number of German units on the Eastern Front helped the USSR gain the upper hand in its titanic life and death struggle against the Third Reich. Is it coincidence that the Soviets started to make serious gains against the Germans only after the Allies landed in Sicily? or that the Germans did not go on the offensive in the east after that? No, it is not.

After the invasion of Sicily the Germans remained on the defensive on the Eastern Front for the rest the war. For Hitler, the threat of an invasion of the continent far outweighed the risks of a slow and possibly temporary retreat in the east. There was space to be traded for time in the east but not in the west, as Hitler formally noted in Directive 51 issued in November 1943. The Soviets had made gains before that but there was no evidence that these gains would be held. So, by the time the western Allies landed, significant German forces were already deployed in the West and the Balkans. German commanders on the Eastern Front tended to whine about this "waste" because they could have made better use of those forces. But that is hindsight. With the Allies engaged in the land war (even in a minor way), the Soviets could discount the ability of the German army to recover from its failure to break through at Kursk, unlike after the tentative Soviet victory in the winter of 1941-42 and the Stalingrad victory in the winter of 1942-43, neither of which prevented a new German thrust in the following summer. From 1943 on a significant percentage of the Third Reich's military forces were either engaged or at least deployed against the western Allies.

Having given the western Allies their due, it should be recognized that the Soviet contribution to the war against Nazi Germany was absolutely necessary to an allied victory in Europe. Without it, the Third Reich would have been able to field comparatively huge forces against any Allied invasion of Europe and the Nazis could have switched production towards the air and naval assets required to fight the sea powers. This was in fact Hitler's intention for the period after the defeat of the USSR as laid out in Directive 32 "Preparations for the period after ‘Barbarossa.'" The defeat of the Soviet Union in 1941 or 1942 would have sealed the fate of Europe.

There can be no doubt that the human and material losses to the USSR and the western Allies were grossly unequal when compared to the political and economic benefits derived from the ultimate victory over the Third Reich. While more than a bit ironic, this is a testament to the nature of international relations. The Soviet alliance with the West was a military and political pact built on a mutual interest in defeating Germany and the Axis. The Soviets did not fight for the sake of the western Allies and the Allies did not fight for the Soviets. Each state had its own agenda to carry out and they agreed on little more than the fact that the Soviets needed help to defeat Nazi Germany. They could barely agree on how much help or what kind of help, much less the postwar order. Towards the end of the war, the western Allies also took an interest in how great a victory the Soviets were to be allowed in Eastern Europe, but that too is international politics for you. Churchill, for example, wanted to take Berlin with an eye on postwar negotiations with the Soviets. Much of the postwar animosity between the former allies comes from this lack of appreciation in the west of the tremendous scale of the fighting on the Eastern Front.

It is a nasty brutish world and the results of WWII reflected the relative power of the western Allies and the USSR. By the time of the victory in Europe the western Allies were substantially more powerful than the Soviet Union and so they reaped the profits of World War II which many Soviets would say were paid for with Soviet blood.

Originally published in "World War II" at on July 1, 1998.
Revised edition published in "Articles On War" at on July 1, 2003.

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