Victory Day: how the working class and socialism triumphed over Nazism

by Robert Montgomery, 28th May 2022

“Anyone who loves freedom owes such a debt to the Red Army that it can never be repaid”,

Ernest Hemingway, 1942

On May 9th the people of Russia and antifascists the world over celebrate the Red Army’s victory over fascism 77 years ago. In the context of the ongoing US-NATO proxy war in Ukraine it’s important to examine the nature of that war and what class forces actually won the victory over fascism. On this Victory Day two conflicting and false narratives have emerged. 

On the one hand is the narrative of the corporate media in the NATO centres that this Victory Day is just a cynical attempt by Vladimir Putin to use the day to legitimize the Russian invasion of Ukraine.  German Chancellor Scholz‘s speech on Victory Day accused Russia of waging a “war of extermination” and “breaking with civilization.” Turning history on its head Scholz drew an equals sign between Russia and Nazism by calling Russia a genocidal entity that must be fought and destroyed. The reality disguised by Scholze’s words is that German tanks and weapons will once again be flowing into Ukraine to assist fascist forces in a war of ethnic cleansing of the Russian speaking Donbass, and to the expand the military encirclement of Russia by NATO.

Opposing this is the narrative that views Victory Day through the lens of Russian nationalism. For Putin victory day represented the triumph of the “Great Patriotic War” to defend the Russian Motherland. The anti-communist Putin blames the current crisis in Ukraine on the Bolshevik policy of the right of nations to self-determination. The Russian nationalist narrative is echoed by leftists like George Galloway who credits “the great Generalissimo Stalin” with leading the Red Army to victory over fascism.

Soviet flag being carried by Russian troops during their special military operation within Ukraine.

Since it is Russian national sovereignty that is threatened by military encirclement and eventual physical dismemberment by the forces of US-NATO imperialism, the drumbeat narrative of Russian aggression and barbarism is patently false and must be rejected. Revolutionary Marxists support Russia’s right to defend itself against imperialist encroachment and military attack. But our support to the nationalist Putin regime is very critical in nature. On Victory Day Putin and the oligarchs he represents want to bury the class content of the the victory of the Red Army beneath the tricolor of Russian nationalism and Great Russian Chauvinism. 

But the legacy of the Russian Revolution lives on in the historical memory of the working class. The tension between Putin’s nationalism and the legacy of the USSR expresses itself in the contradictory manner in which the Hammer and Sickle flag of the Soviet Union has manifested itself during the fighting. Russian soldiers have been seen taking down the Ukrainian flag from pubic buildings and replacing it not with the Russian flag but the Soviet Flag. They have flown it from the turrets of their tanks.  Most famously, “Anna Babushka” came out waving it at soldiers she thought were Russians coming to liberate her town only to find angry Ukrainian soldiers who in the face of her protests stomped on the flag. The red flag emblazoned with the hammer & sickle of Victory Day is hoisted in the liberated cities of the East and South.

The Nazi war on the USSR that began on 22 June 1941 was a planned war of annihilation.  It was not only a war for territory, raw materials and markets, but also a war driven by racism and ideology. The destruction of Bolshevism, the extermination of the Jews and the creation of living space in the east, which Hitler had proclaimed in Mein Kampf was put into murderous practice. Code name, Operation Barbarossa, was fought under the slogan “Sklaven Sind Slaven” (Slavs are slaves).  It marked a new phase of the Holocaust, setting in motion the systematic campaign to destroy European Jewry. The Wannsee Conference, where the decision to implement the “Final Solution” was taken, was held just seven months after the launch of Barbarossa. The following quotations suffice to encapsulate the exterminist and racist logic behind the invasion of the USSR:

As one SS Oberfuhrer put it:

In Russia, all cities and cultural sites including the Kremlin, are to be razed to the ground; Russia is to be reduced to the level of a nation of peasants, from which there is no return…. the struggle must aim at the annihilation of today’s Russia and must therefore be waged with unparalleled harshness… No adherents of the present Russian-Bolshevik system are to be spared.” 

Wehrmacht General Hoepner address to the 4 Panzer Group, 2 May 1941:

“The war against Russia is an important chapter in the struggle for existence of the German nation. It is the old battle of Germanic against Slav peoples, of the defence of European culture against Muscovite-Asiatic inundation, and the repulse of Jewish-Bolshevism. The objective of this battle must be the destruction of present-day Russia and it must therefore be conducted with unprecedented severity. Every military action must be guided in planning and execution by an iron will to exterminate the enemy mercilessly and totally. In particular, no adherents of the present Russian-Bolshevik system are to be spared.”

Over 27 million Russians died in the slaughter, 18 million of them civilians (one in ten Russians). Hitler planned to kill precisely 30 million Russians in order to carve out the space deemed necessary for Germany to become an imperialist country able compete with the hegemonic US. The genocide of European Jewry and Operation Barbarrossa against the USSR were a single interconnected process— the complete extirpation of  “Judeo-Bolshevism” and the destruction of the urban intelligentsia of Eastern Europe. 

Babi Yar massacre of Jews

 Ukraine occupied a key place in the war strategy. The planners of Operation Barbarossa designated Ukraine as a “surplus” territory because it exported grain to other republics of the USSR, a region equivalent of the present Russian Federation. Ukraine was seen as a strategic asset for its grain, as a major source of coal in the Donbass, as a highly industrialized region, and as a bridge toward the Black Sea region and the oil of the Caucasus. The extermination gas vans of the SS-Einsatzgruppen first rolled into Ukraine behind the panzer tank battalions. Assisted by their Ukrainian nationalist allies of Bandera’s OUN the Nazis murdered 33,000 Jews in the Babi Yar ravine in Kiev in two days. Five months later many of the OUN collaborators would follow their victims into the ravine after conflicts with the Germans over who would rule in Ukraine. The invasion came two years after the August 1939 non-aggression pact between Hitler and Stalin which ushered in the German invasion of Poland and World War II. The non-aggression pact occurred two years after the purge of the Red Army in which 30,000 officers were executed.  The purge decapitated the officer corps of the Red Army, leaving the Soviet Union vulnerable to a German attack. 

Von Ribbentrop shakes hands with Stalin after signing the Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation, and Demarcation, the continuation of the nonaggression pact.

The purge killed more high level officers than were killed in the four years of the war. The most imaginative generals of the Civil War — Tukhachevsky, Yakir, Eideman, Kork and Primakov— were tortured and shot in May 1937.  Had they been alive in 1941, the initial catastrophe of Hitler’s invasion would have been significantly reduced.  Stalin’s incompetent toadies, Budenny and Voroshilov, had to be sacked shortly after the invasion began. The Civil war hero Rokossovsky was released from his cell to play a major role organizing the defense of Stalingrad and the counteroffensive. Generals trained in tank warfare and still committed to revolutionary ideals like Zhukov and Timoschenko were elevated to central command positions. 

Despite being warned by his own intelligence agent in Japan of the timeline and plans of coming attack Stalin trusted in Hitler to honor the pact. Fearing that the onset of war would lead to his own overthrow Stalin suffered a nervous breakdown. He  disappeared for a week after the invasion assuming he would be shot for dereliction of duty. He didn’t address the masses for 11 days  following the invasion. Despite his capitulation and collapse Stalin bestowed on himself the grandiose title of “Generalissimo,” and embellished his role as leader of The Great Patriotic War to defend the Russian Motherland. Despite the parasitism and privileges of the bureaucracy the October Revolution lived for the Russian working class. A forty year old adult in 1941 would have experienced the revolution of 1917. Those over twenty were the children of the revolution. Stalin may have murdered its leaders, but he had not destroyed its achievements: the state ownership of the means of production and the planned economy proved to be tremendous advantages. The Wehrmacht was not fighting against a Tsarist army of forcibly recruited semi-serf peasants, but against the motivated army of a workers’ state. Despite the terror of the 1930s, rather than capitulate it displayed remarkable determination and readiness to sacrifice everything to defend the gains of the October revolution.  

Red Army soldiers advancing against Nazi positions Stalingrad

In the 10 months of the initial blitzkrieg the Axis armies had destroyed almost all of the Soviet Air Force on the ground as well as entire armies. Ukraine fell and as Russian soldiers fought to stem the advance. By superhuman effort and the advantages of a centrally planned economy, whole factories were dismantled and moved eastwards beyond the Urals to prevent them falling into enemy hands. Though initially vastly outnumbered by the Wehrmacht (the German armed forces), the Red Army was able to defend Stalingrad and eventually go over to the offensive. By early February 1943, the entire 6th Army of General Friedrich Paulus had been destroyed, the first major military defeat suffered by the Nazis in the course of the war. As Leon Trotsky had predicted in 1934, “should the Russian Revolution … be forced to direct its stream into the channel of war, it will unleash a terrific and overwhelming force.”

The colossal battle of Stalingrad turned the tide of the war. The advance of the  Red Army boosted the morale of the people of the USSR and in Nazi-occupied Europe. The battle galvanized the anti-Nazi resistance in Germany, including the “White Rose” group of Sophie and Hans Scholl. Antifascist partisans in Yugoslavia, Greece, and Italy went in the offensive. On May 8, 1945 the red flag flew in Berlin. 

The Soviet victory energized the working class all over the world. Partisan struggles in Yugoslavia, Greece, Italy and France, the German “antifas”, and most of all the image of the Red Flag flying over liberated Berlin, resonated in the hearts of millions all over the world. It was the residual strength of the Russian Revolution that played the decisive role in the defeat of fascism. The Soviet counteroffensive inspired the growth of resistance movements throughout Nazi-occupied Europe and internationally. Victory Day was a victory of the working class over fascism and imperialism. Red salute to all those who fought and died to win the victory and today especially to those who lay beneath the soil of Ukraine. 

Soviet flag hoisted over the Reichstag May 2nd 1944

Robert Montgomery

Originally from Boston, he has been active in antiwar and labour struggles for almost fifty years. He has functioned as an independent Trotskyist since leaving the SWP (US) in the 1970s. A historian he has published numerous articles on US labor history. A union activist he has served on numerous action committees and was local president of a municipal library union. He is a retired medical radiographer.

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