There’s no easy answer, said Norman Davies, an Oxford-educated British historian and Poland specialist who has written widely on the 1939-1945 conflict.
During the Wiktor Weintraub Memorial lecture, sponsored by the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, Davies used the disarming question as a wedge to pry open the real story of the war in Europe.
It wasn’t the “good war” of liberation and victory that is widely celebrated in the West, he contended. World War II was — if measured by sheer duration and by the scale of killing — a grinding struggle in eastern and central Europe that pitted one tyranny against another, then suffocated democracy in most of Europe for decades.
The hour-long talk was delivered at Harvard Sept. 20. Sitting as rapt as grade-schoolers were about 100 onlookers in the Thompson Room, which was jammed from one polished wall to another.
Davies prides himself on having been a schoolteacher for four years before getting down to the business of writing history. It was an experience that taught him the usefulness of big questions, and the narrative power of analogy.
He’s written 13 books since 1972, including the recent historical survey, “Europe at War 1939-1945: No Simple Victory.” In it, he tries to adjust the perspective that the brunt of the war was borne by the Western powers.
A few years ago, while writing his book “Rising 44: The Battle for Warsaw,” Davies said he was struck by how widespread misconceptions are about the war in Europe. Celebrations in 2005 of the 60th anniversary of the war’s end deepened in him the idea that there was no real perspective on what happened in the Soviet-Nazi war.
From June 1941 to the summer of 1944, this collision of two totalitarian powers accounted for 80 percent of the fighting in World War II, said Davies — a fact since largely obscured by a post-war fog of Allied mythmaking.
Among the Davies so-called myths:
That D-Day was big and decisive. (About 80 percent of German forces were lost on the Eastern Front, he said, where the biggest battles raged.)
That the West triumphed over the Third Reich. (Germany was all but defeated by the Soviets well before the Allies landed troops on the continent, he contended.)
In fact, asserted Davies, it was the Red Army that played the decisive role in defeating Germany, “and they were in the service of an evil tyranny.”
Sheer numbers alone help dispel myths about the war, he said. In 1939, the United States had half as many trained soldiers as Poland — and it took until 1944 to muster 100 American divisions. The Germans fielded 230 divisions, and the Soviets as many as 400.
Other numbers tell the story of the scale and horror that characterized the Soviet war. Davies asserted that more men were shot by Stalin’s secret police during the war, for instance, than were lost by the entire armed forces of Great Britain.
And epic battles? Try the six-month battle for Stalingrad, he said, where 1.5 million were killed. Or the monumental clash of Soviet and Nazi tanks, planes, and soldiers during the battle of Kursk in 1943. More than 6,000 tanks were involved, almost as many planes, and a staggering 2.2 million soldiers.
As for the myth that the war liberated Europe, said Davies: Most of Europe went from being under Hitler’s boot to being under Stalin’s.
Poland, Hungary, Romania, Yugoslavia, and other nations at the crossroads of combat were gobbled up by the Soviets in 1944 and early 1945, while the Red Army idled outside Berlin waiting for the Allies to creep toward the Rhine.
Winning a war means defeating an enemy, collapsing its economy, destroying its political structure — then replacing it with another. By those terms, Davies averred, the Soviets won the war in Europe.
Militarily, the Allies contributed less than the Soviets to the defeat of Germany, he said. Politically, they failed to restore democracy to most of Europe.
Poland, for one, had staked its future on an Allied victory, and in the meantime suffered the highest civilian casualty rate of any European power. In the end, the freedom guaranteed by the Allies “never happened,” said Davies.
A small number of concentration camp survivors were liberated, but they are not symbolic of a liberated Europe, he said. “Their places were soon taken by waves of other captives [under the Soviets], which is often forgotten and rarely imagined.”
In sum, World War II in Europe was not a “bipolar” event pitting the forces of good against the forces of evil, said Davies. It was a war with three sides: the titans of Germany and the Soviet Union, and the Western powers — whose armies entered the fighting too late and too weakly to turn the tide against Germany. Even Lend-Lease supplies, he said, were “too late to tip the war on the Eastern Front.”
This is not to denigrate the contribution of American forces, said Davies. They were simply unprepared early on, came into the European war too late, and were preoccupied with the war against Japan. “The two tasks were too much,” said Davies.
It was also the Pacific war that forced the United States to look the other way at Stalin’s land and power grabs, said Davies, since the Red Army was needed for “the final battle” in Japan.
Davies ended his talk by telling the story of one man, his father-in-law, whose “fate is a sort of parable of what happened to Eastern Europe.” A Polish biologist, he was arrested by the Germans in 1939, a month after the outbreak of war, and imprisoned at Dachau and Matthausen for being in the academic elite.
He survived the war in German concentration camps, only to be liberated, then arrested, by the Soviets — for having survived the camps. Couldn’t only a fascist sympathizer have done that?
He was tortured by the Gestapo in 1939, then again by the Soviet secret police in 1945 — both times “on the same oak table in the same police station” in his hometown, said Davies.
“This doubled experience” is the essence of the what happened on the dominant front during the Second World War,” he concluded — the clash in the East “of two murderous regimes which destroyed millions of people for no logical reason.”