Time for Bagration commemoration: looking to the Eastern front
Opinion: In Normandy, the Germans deployed 11 divisions against the initial D-Day landings. In the east, the Germans had 228 divisions
‘The Bagration campaign, (which started in June 1944) also saw a further hardening of the attitudes between the combatants on the eastern front. The scene was set for the merciless campaigns of 1945, culminating in the brutal battle of Berlin.’ Above, Soviet soldiers marching in Red Square, Moscow during a victory parade on June 24th, 1945. Photograph: Stringer/AFP/Getty Images
Few people can have missed the recent media coverage of the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings. Setting aside the hyperbole of the assembled phalanx of world leaders, it was impossible not to be moved by the testimony of the veterans who, as young servicemen and women and Resistance fighters took part in the D-Day operation. In western history, it was a key moment as the push back against the forces of Nazism in Europe began.
It was interesting to note the media comment regarding Vladimir Putin’s attendance at the commemorations due to recent events in the Ukraine. There is no small irony here as this month will also see the 70th anniversary of Operation Bagration, a major Soviet offensive of the second World War. Sunday (June 22nd) will mark the anniversary of the opening of Operation Bagration in 1944.
The operation was timed by the Soviets to start on the anniversary of the invasion of Russia by Germany in 1941 and was named after Gen Pyotr Bagration, who had been killed at the battle of Borodino in 1812 fighting the invading armies of Napoleon. The Soviet army of 1944 knew how to commemorate significant events.
From the wider Allied perspective, the timing of the Soviet offensive was also crucial. As the Allies found fighting out of the Normandy beach-heads extremely difficult, the huge Soviet offensive in the east ensured that German forces were not diverted westwards to bolster the defences in France. The statistics are telling – in Normandy, the Germans deployed 11 divisions against the initial D-Day landings. In the east, the Germans had 228 divisions deployed. None of these were sent westward to oppose the Allied forces.
By August 1944, the Soviets had succeeded in their objective of destroying the German Army Group Centre while retaking Belorussia ( now Belarus) and also advancing into eastern Poland. Bagration, and another offensive in the Ukraine, had succeeded in putting the Soviet army within striking distance of Warsaw and later Berlin.
In Europe, our history of the second World War is largely driven by a western-orientated narrative. This is perhaps understandable as relatively few western scholars and writers have examined Russia’s second World War history. Prof Geoff Roberts of UCC is a notable exception to this rule. Over the coming week, there will be commemorations in Russia at some of the key sites of the Bagration operation and a new memorial will be unveiled in Belarus. Russian veterans of that operation, a key one in the second World War, will be in attendance. It would appear that no major western leader will be attending these commemorations.
Next year will mark the anniversary of the end of the second World War. How will this be handled, given all its associated horrors and especially in light of more recent international tensions? Dr David Murphy lectures with the Centre for Military History and Strategic Studies at NUI Maynooth