[Marxism] Mike Davis on D-Day
lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Jun 9 14:12:46 MDT 2004
Remembering Bill and Ivan
By Mike Davis
The decisive battle for the liberation of Europe began sixty years ago
this month when a Soviet guerrilla army emerged from the forests and
swamps of Belorussia to launch a bold surprise attack on the mighty
Wehrmacht's rear. The partisan brigades, including thousands of Jewish
fighters and concentration-camp escapees, devastated the rail lines
linking the German Army Group Center to its bases in Poland and Eastern
Three days later, on 22 June -- the third anniversary of Hitler's
invasion of the Soviet Union -- Marshal Zhukov gave the order for the
main assault on German front lines. Twenty-six thousand heavy guns and
rocket launchers pulverized German fortifications in a matter of
minutes. The banshee-like screams of the Katyusha rockets were
punctually followed by the roar of 4000 tanks and the battle cries (in
more than 40 languages!) of 1.6 million Soviet soldiers. Thus began
Operation Bagration, an assault launched over a 500 hundred mile long
But what American has ever heard of Operation Bagration? June 1944
signifies Omaha Beach not the crossing of the Dvina River. Yet the
Soviet summer offensive was almost an entire order of magnitude larger
than Operation Overlord (the invasion of Normandy) in both the scale of
forces engaged and the direct cost to the Germans.
By the end of summer, the Red Army (which included full divisions of
Poles and Czechs) had reached the gates of Warsaw as well as the high
passes of the Carpathians which command the entrance to Slovakia as well
as Hungary. Soviet tanks, in a stunning reverse blitzkrieg, had caught
Army Group Center in steel pincers and destroyed it. The Germans would
lose more than 300,000 men in Belorussia alone. Another huge German army
had been encircled and would soon be annihilated along the Baltic coast.
The road to Berlin had been opened.
It is no disparagement of the brave men who died in the sinister
hedgerows of Normandy or in the cold forests around Bastogne, to recall
that 70% of the Wehrmacht is buried on the Russian steppes not in French
fields. In the struggle against Nazism, approximately forty "Ivans" died
for every "Private Ryan."
Yet the ordinary Soviet soldier -- the tractor mechanic from Samara, the
actor from Orel, the miner from the Donetz, or even the high-school girl
from Leningrad -- is invisible in the current celebration and
mythologization of the "Greatest Generation." It is as if the "new
American century" cannot be fully born without exorcising the central
Soviet role in the epochal victory of the last century.
Indeed, most Americans are shockingly clueless about the relative
burdens of combat and death in the Second World War. And even the
minority who understand something of the enormity of the Soviet
sacrifice tend to visualize it in terms of crude stereotypes of the Red
Army: a barbarian horde driven by feral revenge and primitive Russian
nationalism. Only G.I. Joe and Tommy are envisioned as truly fighting
for civilized ideals of freedom and democracy.
It is thus all the more important to recall that -- despite Stalin, the
NKVD, and the massacre of an entire generation of Bolshevik leaders --
the Red Army still retained powerful elements of revolutionary
fraternity. In its own eyes, and that of the slaves it freed from
Hitler, it was the greatest army of liberation in history.
Moreover, the Red Army of 1944 was still a Soviet Army. The generals who
led the brilliant breakthrough on the Dvina included a Jew
(Chernyakovskii), an Armenian (Bagramyan), and a Pole (Rokossovskii). In
contrast to the class-divided and racially segregated American forces,
command in the Red Army was an open, if ruthless, ladder of opportunity.
Anyone who doubts the revolutionary élan and rank-and-file humanity of
the Red Army should consult the extraordinary memoirs by Primo Levi (The
Reawakening) and K.S. Karol (Between Two Worlds). Both hated Stalinism
but loved the ordinary Soviet soldier and saw in her/him the seeds of
So, as George W. Bush demeans the memory of D-Day to solicit support for
his war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan, I've decided to hold my own
I will recall, first, my kindhearted Uncle Bill, the salesman from
Columbus, although it is hard to imagine such a gentle soul as a
hell-for-leather teenage GI in Normandy. Second -- as I'm sure my Uncle
Bill would've wished -- I will remember his comrade Ivan. The Ivan who
drove his tank through the gates of Auschwitz and battled his way into
Two ordinary heroes: Bill and Ivan. Obscene to celebrate the first
without also commemorating the second.
Mike Davis is the author of Dead Cities: And Other Tales, Ecology of
Fear, and co-author of Under the Perfect Sun: the San Diego Tourists
Never See, among other books.
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