Roger Moorhouse on the historical echoes of the war in Ukraine
Historian Roger Moorhouse writes on the ways in which recent developments in the Russia-Ukraine conflict echo the Second World War
It was “an army of beggars”, one eyewitness wrote – a mass of soldiers seemingly as interested in plunder as in fighting. Another spoke of their outdated equipment, shabby uniforms and dilapidated vehicles, as likely to break down as to be destroyed in combat.
This description might adequately apply to Ukrainian reports of the Russian invasion of 2022. In fact, it is a portmanteau of reactions to the Soviet invasion of Poland more than eight decades ago, in September 1939. Every conflict, of course, calls up its own historical echoes, associated with the events themselves or the locations being fought over. In that respect, the war in Ukraine is no exception. Indeed, given that the Kremlin’s methods of subverting its neighbours appear largely unchanged from Soviet times – including false-flag operations, deportations, disinformation and so-called referendums – it would be hard for the historian’s antennae not to be twitching while watching the news from Ukraine.
The current Ukrainian counteroffensive in the northern Donbas, east of Kharkiv, is a good case in point. Kharkiv itself is redolent with brutal history from the 20th century. The city was fought over extensively during the Second World War, changing hands between German and Soviet forces four times between 1941 and 1943. The end result was that a city that once boasted a population of more than a million was reduced to a moonscape of refugees and ruins.
There are other similarities to current events. The second of those battles for Kharkiv, in May 1942, was largely fought along the line of the River Oskol around Kupyansk and Izyum – a line also reached by Ukrainian forces in September 2022. That earlier battle – a German victory – resulted in nearly 300,000 Soviet casualties. Russian and Ukrainian forces are today fighting atop their ancestors’ bones.
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The Kremlin’s methods appear largely unchanged from Soviet times. It would be hard for a historian’s antennae not to be twitching
Yet Kharkiv has another, even darker resonance. Its central prison, run by the Soviet People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs (or NKVD), was one of the three main execution sites used in the 1940 Katyń Massacre in which some 22,000 captured Polish officers and policemen were murdered in cold blood by their Soviet captors. Starobilsk, site of the camp in which the prisoners killed in Kharkiv were held, is currently being contested between Russian and Ukrainian forces. Few in the west will recognise its significance, when – or if – its name flits across our television screens.
In a broader sense, the recent collapse of the Russian frontline is symbolic of a longer-term corrosion of Russian forces through institutionalised corruption and technological backwardness. It might be argued, of course, that corruption and backwardness are nothing new to Russian military culture, and that they can be adequately counterbalanced by coercion and propaganda. To some extent that is correct but, crucially, failing morale among Russian troops, coupled with the collapse of the Kremlin’s propaganda rationale for the invasion – and the expectation that Russian forces would be welcomed in Ukraine – has compounded those deeper ills. Many Russian soldiers, it seems, are no longer sure what they are fighting for. History has countless examples of how damaging a lack of faith in the cause can be.
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That failing morale has hardly been helped, of course, by the evident crisis in supply in the Russian army. Russian and Soviet armies have rarely shown much concern for the welfare of their troops. Some Red Army soldiers invading Poland in 1939 did so lacking boots or even rifles – testament to a mentality that viewed the “ordinary” soldier as thoroughly expendable: a tool to be used and then discarded, replaced by another unfortunate.
The invasion of Ukraine shows us that little has changed in this regard. Ill-trained and ill-supplied, with long-range missiles hampering their support infrastructure and arms and fuel dumps, Russian soldiers in the field appear to find themselves more than usually abandoned to their fate. Images of the new wave of Russian reservists, often supplied with antiquated Soviet-era equipment, will do little to assuage their concerns.
All of which suggests an army in a degree of disarray, as the partial Russian collapse in recent months might confirm. If we are being optimistic, we might suggest that it is reminiscent – albeit on a much smaller scale – of Operation Bagration, the Soviet summer offensive of 1944 that effectively destroyed German Army Group Centre and opened the very real probability of a German defeat.
It is a common maxim that history repeats itself. It doesn’t, of course, but it sometimes creates echoes. Some are coincidences with no real significance. Sometimes, however, those echoes can reveal a deeper truth. In the case of this war, both categories are present. Superficial coincidences abound, thrown up by accidents of geography or the simple fact that the return of armoured warfare to the European continent was always bound to call forth comparisons to the last time such horrors were seen.
Echoes of the past are evident in the use of widely discredited referendums – another tactic from 1940
Yet some of the echoes created by the Russian invasion of Ukraine are not accidental or superficial but instead betray the deeper truth of the Kremlin’s method of war. For those with an understanding of the history, those echoes are plainly evident in the arrogant rhetoric about “the Russian world” that opened the invasion, so redolent of the spurious “spheres of influence” that accompanied the war in 1939.
They are evident in the Kremlin’s mealy-mouthed mendacity in describing the war as a “special military operation”, just as the 1939 Soviet invasion of Poland was officially not an invasion, the word “war” being forbidden. They are evident in the so-called referendums – another tactic from 1940 – called to supposedly legitimatise Russia’s conquests, the results having long since been pre-ordained.
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They are evident in the forced deportations of hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian civilians to the Russian interior, a crime strangely under-reported in the western media yet instantly recognisable to the countless Poles, Lithuanians, Latvians and Estonians whose forebears suffered the same grim fate in 1940 and after. And they are evident in the atrocities committed by Russian forces against civilian populations: the epidemic of rape grimly reminiscent of the Red Army’s brutal conquest of Berlin in 1945, the casual looting of everyday objects, and the victims of torture, bodies tossed into mass graves with genocidal contempt.
The echoes, then, can be overwhelming, but they shouldn’t deafen us to the real significance of what is happening today. The war in Ukraine is not a re-enactment or a greatest-hits medley. It is, instead, to a large extent a battle for the future of Europe itself. In that, Ukraine is attempting to write a new chapter in its own history, looking forward not back. And, though we are wise to be cognisant of the history, we would do well to recognise the significance of that fact.
Roger Moorhouse is an author and historian whose books include First to Fight: The Polish War 1939 (Bodley Head, 2019)
Roger Moorhouse is a historian specialising in modern German and Central European history, especially Nazi Germany and Poland during WW2.