Glenn Sacks: During the Cold War, Americans were rightly dismayed by 1970s Soviet history textbook’s portrayal of D-Day and America’s role in the defeat of Nazi Germany. Current Russian textbooks and statements by some Russian leaders are similarly problematic. But they’re not the only ones distorting the truth. I know because I am a high school history teacher in the largest public school district in California.
By Glenn Sacks
Glenn Sacks teaches at James Monroe High School in Los Angeles, firstname.lastname@example.org. He wrote this commentary for CALmatters. Please see his previous CALmatters commentaries here and here.
“In June, 1944, when it had become obvious that the Soviet Union was capable of defeating Hitler’s Germany with her forces alone, England and the USA opened the second front…Allied forces, commanded by General Eisenhower, landed in Normandy…met with practically no opposition from the Hitlerites, and advanced into the heart of France.”—a 1970s Soviet history textbook.
During the Cold War, Americans were rightly dismayed by 1970s Soviet history textbooks’ portrayal of D-Day and America’s role in the defeat of Nazi Germany. Current Russian textbooks and statements by some Russian leaders are similarly problematic.
But they’re not the only ones distorting the truth. I know because I am a high school history teacher in the largest public school district in California.
As President Donald Trump and other Western leaders head to Normandy to commemorate D-Day’s 75th anniversary, American textbooks, educational materials and media consistently minimize the USSR’s central role in defeating Nazism. At the same time, they inflate the American and British role.
For example, the official California Subject Examinations for Teachers for Social Studies asks: “Which of the following events best marks the turning point of World War II?” These are the answer choices:
- The Rape of Nanking by the Japanese.
- Operation Barbarossa by the Nazis.
- The D-Day invasion by the Allies
- The signing of the Rome-Berlin Axis
Three of these are irrelevant. The “correct” answer—D-Day—is little better.
Operation Overlord/D-Day was politically important, and the American and British soldiers deserve enormous credit for their bravery. However, in military terms Overlord pales in size and significance to numerous Soviet Army operations. How could D-Day be the “turning point” when by June, 1944 Nazi Germany already had been in retreat for nearly a year?
The Soviet victory at Stalingrad, fought from August 1942 to February 1943, turned the tide of the war.
Stalingrad was the last stronghold keeping the Nazis from the oil fields of central Asia, which the oil-starved German war machine desperately needed. Determined Soviets fought block by block and house by house.
So horrific were the casualties that the life expectancy of a Soviet soldier during much of the battle was less than one day. Combined, nearly 2 million people were killed or wounded in and around Stalingrad before Germany surrendered.
The history books California Social Studies teachers use today fail to even mention other battles whose importance also dwarfs D-Day’s, including:
- The Battle of Kursk in July, 1943, the largest tank battle ever. The Soviets defeated nearly a million German soldiers. Kursk was the first time in WWII a German offensive was stopped before breaking through enemy defenses, and it was the last German offensive in the East. (Soviet politician Nikita Khrushchev, annoyed by the myth it was “General Winter” that stopped the Nazis, noted that in this summertime battle the Germans “fired the first shot; they chose the time, place, and form of the battle.”)
- Operation Bagration in June, 1944, right after D-Day. The USSR inflicted the largest defeat in German history, facing a million German soldiers and destroying or crippling 60 German divisions.
Russian president Vladimir Putin was widely criticized in 2014 when he dismissed Ukraine’s contributions to victory in WWII by saying: “The war was won mostly due to the human and industrial resources of Russia.”
Yet Britain’s conservative wartime prime minister Winston Churchill—an arch opponent of communism—saw the Soviet role Putin’s way. After D-Day, Churchill told the House of Commons:
“[T]he obvious, essential fact to this point [is] that it is the Russian Armies who have done the main work in tearing the guts out of the German army.”
The U.S. and Soviet populations were about equal at the start of the war. Yet while the United States lost 400,000, the Soviets lost 27 million—one out of every five citizens.
Over 80% of the German casualties were inflicted on the Eastern front. The USSR lost one-third of its national wealth and ended the war with millions starving and 25 million people homeless. Gen. Dwight Eisenhower noted, “When we flew into Russia, in 1945, I did not see a house standing between the western borders of the country and the area around Moscow.”
America is right to honor the heroes who defeated Nazi Germany. America is wrong in its consistent failure to acknowledge the truth, that a majority of those heroes were Russian. In my class, I honor the America heroes. I make sure to honor the Russian heroes too.