If D-day ceremony aimed to send Putin a message about fighting tyranny, Ukraine’s allies should have paid more attention to history

The recent D-day commemorations strove to project a message of western unity in the face of a new European aggression. This time it was not Nazi Germany that was the threat, but Russia.

It was the right message to send – and one sorely needed at a time when the devastating conflict in the Middle East is competing with Ukraine for the world’s attention. But we need to be careful with the oft-repeated story that the Normandy landings were about the west saving freedom and democracy in Europe from Nazism.

By the time the allied invasion launched in Normandy, a much larger Soviet operation was completing its rout of the German armies in Ukraine, Belarus and the Baltics. And recognising the role that the Soviet Union, including Ukraine, played in that conflict is vital for our understanding of the situation today.

The Soviet Union began asking its western allies to open a second front in Europe in 1942. At that point, the Red Army had its back to the wall, fighting off the onslaught of the German Wehrmacht on its own territory. Instead, Washington sent military aid while Britain concentrated on the smaller Mediterranean and North Africa fronts.

Churchill finally agreed to open the western front under pressure from Josef Stalin and Franklin Roosevelt in late November 1943. By this point, the tide of the war had turned after the battles for Stalingrad and Kursk, and the Red Army was driving the Germans off its territory as it began its advance westwards.

The invasion of Normandy certainly eased the pressure on the eastern front – but by this point it was dwarfed by the Soviets’ military effort. As historian Richard Overy points out, while 15 German divisions fought in Normandy during the early stages of the Allied invasion, 228 Axis divisions were fighting in the east.

D-day did more to ensure that western Europe would be safe from the Soviets than it did to save Europe from fascism. The presence of Allied troops in western Europe helped guarantee that Stalin would abide by the agreements for the post-war settlement. It’s almost certain that without Operation Overlord (the battle of Normandy), Nazism would still have been defeated – but the map of post-war Europe might have looked quite different.

Not just Russia’s war

Now, Russia’s abhorrent war on Ukraine makes it difficult to acknowledge publicly the crucial role the Soviet Union played in defeating Nazism and the enormity of its sacrifice in human lives. But it is worth remembering that the Red Army was not only Russian.

Like the Soviet Union itself, it was multiethnic. Russian troops were a majority, but the Ukrainians were the second largest group – and there were scores of others. Belarusian partisans made a meaningful contribution to the Soviet military effort – at great cost to the civilian population.

Nor did the Russians have a monopoly on suffering. While, in the end, much of Russia’s territory remained beyond the German grasp, not an inch of Ukraine and Belarus was spared the three-year-long genocidal Nazi occupation.

Belarus lost a greater share of its population than any other country in Europe. It was also the epicentre of the largest military operation of the entire war, Operation Bagration, which also swept through Ukraine and the Baltics just as Operation Overlord was unfolding in northern France.

Bagration was, in the words of historian Catherine Merridale, as ambitious and more costly and momentous than the D-day landings. Yet, it is barely known or remembered in the west.

Ukraine was in the eye of the storm then, as it is now. The second world war, whose collective memory Putin’s propaganda shamelessly distorts and manipulates to justify the unjustifiable, was as much about Ukraine as any other place. Ukraine featured prominently in Hitler’s plans for eastward expansion. He advertised his intention to annex “Europe’s breadbasket” long before the war began.

Once Nazi Germany launched its invasion of the Soviet Union, capturing Ukraine with its rich resources became a priority that cost Hitler the opportunity to capture Moscow. More than 600,000 Soviet citizens died defending Kyiv in the first few months of the war.

Stronger message of solidarity

But when the Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky was warmly greeted at the D-day commemoration in France, it was as the leader of a courageous country fighting against aggression akin to Nazi Germany’s today, rather than the leader of a nation that helped defeat Nazism during the second world war.

This was unfortunate. The message of solidarity with Ukraine would have sounded stronger on this occasion if it were grounded in the recognition of its suffering in the second world war and its contribution to a shared victory over Nazism.

Ukraine’s war record certainly had its dark side, a fact that Putin’s propaganda is only too eager to exploit. But if we cut through the unalloyed patriotism of these war commemorations, few countries can boast an unblemished record when caught between two aggressive empires or saddled with a brutal occupation.

The organisers and participants of the D-day commemorative event were right to show gratitude to the remarkable courage and sacrifice of men who disembarked into what must seemed like hell on earth on Omaha Beach back in June 1944. But the west must remember all those who made sacrifices in the fight against Nazism – and who need the west’s help now.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Natalya Chernyshova received funding from the British Academy during 2020-2022.