Who Really Defeated Hitler’s Germany: USA, Britain or the Soviet Union?
by John-Henry Hill, M.D., Ph.D.
January 20, 2017
Asked in another way: who played the most significant role in defeating Hitler’s Germany? (I think all would agree that the U.S. – pretty much on its own- defeated Japan.)
As an American born in the early 1950’s it was accepted as fact that “America had won the war!” Both in Europe and the Pacific. The USA had won because we were “exceptional”: no one could beat ever us! Of course, that was the talk of young children and civilians (among whom I include ex-military who had not experienced combat. We had never fought in a war, much less seen one. But, defeat: unthinkable!
Even at an early age I noted that one group remained silent regarding the war: the combat veterans. (The REAL combat veterans “up on the line”; NOT the cooks and other support personnel.) My father, uncles and most of the fathers in the neighborhood never talked of the war – either to us or with each other. The war and its memories were something to be pushed back into the past; and combat veterans wanted them to remain there.
Today most Americans still believe that the USA is invincible. After all, but for America’s involvement in WW-2 (our troops and especially our equipment for our troops and our allies), we Americans still believe the people of Europe and Russia would be speaking German. While much of Europe’s younger generation accepts this version of history with the USA as the victor, immediately following WW-2 much of Europe did NOT think that way. The poll below taken in France over the decades illustrates this fact.
At the war’s end in Europe, a mere 12% thought Britain played the most significant role in defeating Germans; the U.S.A. got 20% in the poll, and the Soviet Union was given overwhelming credit (57%) for defeating Germany. (The devastation of the German Army at Stalingrad was a huge turning point, with the Germans on the defensive in the East for the rest of the war. By D-Day (June 6, 1944) the Russians were literally knocking on Germany’s door and would eventually have defeated Germany alone.) However, perceptions change with time (and propaganda) and since 1994 the importance of the USA in WW-2 Europe has increased greatly, while younger folks might begin to wonder if the Soviet Union played any role at all.
So, WHO played the most significant role in defeating Hitler’s Germany? The answer is easy: the Soviet Union.
However, one need only look at the numbers of “military deaths” by front by year. On the Easter Front, Soviet troops killed: 10.6 million; German troops killed: 4.3 million. And the vast majority of these deaths occurred long before D-Day at Normandy on June 6, 1944. Comparatively, Britain lost 370,000; France 220,000; and the USA 180,000. From the above chart, the sheer numbers of German-Axis soldiers killed by the Soviets is staggering – almost reaching 1 million in 1942 and increasing every year thereafter.
The number of soldiers killed varies greatly, with those presented above far below other estimates and not explained by statistical variation. (NOTE: Even though the USA suffered 96,000 killed in the Pacific theater, we will consider concentrate here solely on the Western European/Mediterranean and Eastern European fronts.)
Best estimates for the Western and Eastern fronts are:
MILITARY DEATHS CIVILIAN DEATHS TOTAL
United States 309,000 2000-3000 312,000
United Kingdom 397,000 67,000-93,000 463,600-496,000
France 250,000 350,000 600,000
Soviet Union 8.8 – 10.7 million 15.0-16.9 million 25.6-27.6 million
GERMANY 3.5-5.53 million 1.6-3.3 million 6.6-8.8 million
Infrasructure Destruction and Massive Killings
One must also not forget the horrendous destruction throughout the Soviet Union, Germany – and the several countries in which they fought battles. The amazingly swift invasion and occupation of France by Germany was nearly bloodless. Similarly, although Britain suffered a great deal of property destruction (as well as deaths) by German bombings, its infrastructure was left relatively intact. The USA, Canada, etc. were left untouched. But the Soviet Union and nearby nations were subject to “slash and burn” by the German military: small villages to large cities obliterated; its inhabitants were killed or required to leave (in most instances a death sentence). All infrastructure not vital to the Germany Army was destroyed. And that not destroyed during Germany’s invasion was destroyed by German troops during their withdrawal.
Even the Soviet Union’s great cities, Moscow and Stalingrad, came under attack – the latter being utterly destroyed. Only the aerial bombings by the Allies over Germany and Japan exceed the destruction incurred by the Soviet Union.
Another method to determine who played the most significant role in defeating Hitler’s Germany is “drop” one of the major allies (always keeping the other three in the war) and project if Hitler’s Germany would have won or lost.
1.) If USA was not in war ============> Germany loses (probably in 1948)
2.) If Britain was not in war ============> Germany loses (probably in 1946)
3.) If France ** was not in war ============> Germany loses (1945)
4.) If the Soviet Union was not in war. ============> Germany wins (probably 1947)
** France was included out of politeness. Indeed, it can be argued that Polish troops, especially those fighting in Italy, contributed far more than the French. I recall the joke told by American troops in Europe about an advertisement in a French newspaper, “French military rifle for sale; never fired; dropped once.”
Assessing the “biggest contributor to victory” in a rigorous, objective manner is exceptionally difficult, if not impossible. The problem lies with the variables one selects as measures and the weights they are given. Second, even agreed-upon variables tend to devolve into comparisons of counter-facts, and the truth is that nobody has any strong idea how the war would have turned out, for example, absent US involvement (both men and material), or if the German-Soviet non-aggression pact had held, etc.
The Soviet Union’s successful resistance of Nazi invasion and subsequent reclamation of Eastern Europe was the most important of many factors in defeating Germany. As historian Richard Overy Explains In His book Why the Allies Won :
“If the defeat of the German army was the central strategic task, the main one was the conflict on the eastern front. The German army was first weakened and then driven back, before the main weight of Allied ground and air forces was brought to bear in 1944. Over four hundred German and Soviet divisions fought along more than 1,000 miles. Axis divisions between 1941 and 1945. The scale and geographical extent of the eastern front dwarfed all earlier warfare. Losses on both sides far exceeded anywhere else in the military contest. The war in the east was fought with a ferocity almost unknown on the western fronts. The battles at Stalingrad and Kursk [Note by JHH: largest tank battle in history], which broke the back of the German army, drew from the soldiers of both sides the last ounces of physical and moral energy.”
If you are looking at the human toll of the war, the Soviets clearly incurred the heaviest losses. Tony Judt’s “Postwar” cites estimates suggesting there were 8.6-10.7 million Soviet Military Deaths and over 16 million civilian Deaths in World War II. The US lost 418.500 Military and Civilians in ALL theaters of the war – still a staggering figure, but not on the scale as Soviet Losses. Of course, it’s possible – and highly preferable! – to contribute to the success of the process. But it’s worth reflecting on just how massive the sacrifice the Soviet people made was.
The effects of World War 2, called the “Great Patriotic War” in Russia and Ukraine, still linger today. On visiting Russia and Ukraine one first notices the solemnity of military events and holidays – even after so many years, it is if the people of Russia and Ukraine are still grieving. (In contrast, in the U.S “Veterans Day” is celebrated with barbecues; and what percentage of Americans knows the dates of “VE Day” and “VJ Day” – “Victory in Europe Day” and “Victory Over Japan Day”, respectively.) The second feature noticed in Russian society is the larger number of women compared to men. Despite the fact that many women fought in the Soviet Army, the loss of men was so great that the women still far outnumber the men to the present day. Indeed, it is a topic young women frequently talk about in private and, upon approaching the age of marriage, greatly worry about. Even after 72 years the male-to-female ratio has yet to reach normal. And to the Russian people, the essence of being a woman (or man) is marriage and children. (A never-married with no children young Russian woman has not fulfilled her personal self or her societal role.) And even though the Russian woman are, in my opinion, by far the most beautiful in the world, Russian men are aware of the male-female ratio and do not share that desperation to get married and have a family as do the women. In short, psychological scars that persist in all generations of Russians; and even in generations born long after the “Great Patriotic War”.
Having lived permanently since early 2010 in Odessa, Ukraine (where the ethnicity is overwhelmingly Russian – as is true of most parts of Ukraine) and traveled extensively in Crimea (now part of Russia) and Russia proper, I can assure the American people that the LAST thing the Russian people want is an armed conflict with anyone. Like Americans, they wish to live their lives in peace and raise their families. They have seen war on their homeland and devastation that Americans can not even imagine. Those memories are burned into their brains, regardless of the generation. And they realize that, should a major armed conflict break out with the U.S., once again their homeland may be part of the battleground. However, they are determined that any future war will NOT be fought on Russian territory alone, but in all the lands of the combatants. No Russian wants that. No sane European or American should want that, because the Russians will fight back with a vengeance regardless of the cost, just as they did in defeating Hitler’s Germany.