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Friday, 12 May, 2000, 00:05 GMT 01:05 UK
The Great Patriotic War: 55 years on
Map of Operation Uranus
In the week which saw Vladimir Putin sworn in as the new president of Russia, and promising to make the country strong, rich and civilised, BBC News Online's Chris Summers reflects on the "Great Patriotic War", which ended 55 years ago.

By the autumn of 1945 World War II was over and the winners and losers seemed clear.

But it was not as simple as it seemed.

Japan and Germany, economic and political basket cases by the end of the conflict, recovered surprisingly quickly and by the mid-1960s were economic powerhouses, politically stable and increasingly at ease with their identity and place in the world.

Of the victors, only the United States has retained its position in the world.

But the most calamitous events have befallen the Soviet Union, which finally collapsed in 1991 and was replaced by a raft of ethnic nations, including Russia, all of which continue to struggle against economic crisis.

'Sense of fear'

Professor Evan Mawdsley, an American historian based at Glasgow University, says the Soviets won the war but lost the peace.

Stalingrad claimed hundreds of thousands of lives
Speaking this week at a seminar on the battle of Stalingrad at the Imperial War Museum in London, Prof Mawdsley said: "World War II created a large area of Soviet influence in Eastern Europe, it perpetuated a sense of fear of the outside world and it perpetuated a huge military establishment.

"Such an establishment was quite logical in light of the war but that outlook, that level of military preparation turned out to be economically difficult to sustain.

"Victory in World War II and the creation of the military establishment was dangerous for the survival of the USSR," he told an assembled audience of war veterans, fellow historians and children from the Russian embassy school.

Most historians agree that Britain and the US could not have won the war without the Soviets, and vice versa.

Which begs the question - why did Hitler attack the Soviet Union in the first place, leading ultimately to his downfall and that of the Third Reich?

Jean Turner, secretary of the Soviet Memorial Trust Fund, says the decision was political, as much as military. Nazi ideology relied on the fact that Germans were the master race and Slavs, Poles, Jews and gypsies were "Untermenschen" who could be wiped off the map of eastern Europe without any moral dilemmas.

The concept of "Lebensraum" or living space, foresaw a giant German state stretching from the Rhine (while the French, Dutch and Belgians were subjugated, genocide was never on the cards) to the Volga.

'Astonishing arrogance'

Cities like Kiev, Odessa and Stalingrad would be given German names and be settled by "Aryan" farmers.

Antony Beevor, military historian and author of the bestselling book Stalingrad, says: "There was astonishing arrogance on the German side. Hitler, and most of his generals, expected to 'kick in the door and the whole rotten structure would collapse'."

But Mr Beevor says they had not bargained for "the astonishing physical and spiritual desire to defend the motherland".

The Nazis also underestimated the "super-human" efforts made to relocate Soviet industry - especially aircraft, tank and munitions factories - east of the Urals, and were taken by surprise by the level of Soviet technological advancement.

Stalin won an epic battle of wills with Hitler
When the T34 tank made its debut on the Eastern Front battlefields its mobility, speed and ruggedness came as a nasty shock to the German High Command, let alone the average Panzergrenadier.

The conflict on the Eastern Front was a bestial and barbarous affair compared to the fighting in North Africa, Italy and Normandy where, generally speaking, the "rules of war" were followed.

As "Untermenschen" the Soviet troops (and civilians) did not qualify for the niceties of civilised warfare. Prisoners of war were frequently executed and civilians were raped, robbed and made homeless.

Professor Oleg Rzheshevsky, head of the department of war history and geopolitics at the Russian Academy of Science in Moscow, says atrocities were committed on the Soviet side but on a far smaller scale.

Soviet dead dwarf Allied casualties

Nevertheless, out of the 91,000 German soldiers captured after the battle of Stalingrad, only 6,000 survived the prison camps and returned home - most of them falling prey to disease.

But it is a figure which pales into insignificance compared with the 27 million Soviets - 10 million troops and 17 million civilians - who were killed during the war, equivalent to half of Britain's wartime population.

Jude Law plays Soviet sniper Vasily Zaitsev
The British lost roughly 500,000 during the whole war.

During the Cold War, recognition of the Soviet sacrifice was conveniently ignored. Hundreds of war films were made about the war in the Pacific, North Africa, Normandy and Italy but Hollywood edited out the Eastern Front, with as much skill as a Stalinist censor.

But attempts are now being made to fill in the gaps.

Later this year a 56m version of the Stalingrad battle - Enemy At The Gates starring Jude Law and Ed Harris - is due out in the United States, and is already an early favourite for the Oscars.

With Law in the role of a heroic Red Army sniper it will almost be like the "good old days" of 1943-45 when British and American cinema audiences, following the newsreels, cheered on Uncle Joe Stalin and his troops as they gave 'Fritz' a good hiding.

The movie coincides with a growing political warmth between London, Washington and Moscow, which has survived the Chechnya campaign.

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09 May 00 | Europe
Putin hails Russian military
11 Feb 00 | Europe
Stalingrad meets Hollywood
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