Even today, almost 75-years after the fall of Nazi Germany, I encounter many Americans who do not realize that the Soviet Union and America were allies, much less that it was the Soviet Union that led to Adolf Hitler’s suicide and the end of Nazi Germany. Like many countries, Americans learn a sanitized self-serving world history. But in the case of America, many of the history lessons gloss over or bypass historical accuracy to make America the hero of the world.
Most Americans believe that it was America that was instrumental in the demise of Nazi Germany and the end of World War II with the capitulation of Imperial Japan. But the reality is much more complex than that. The turning point for Nazi Germany was a Soviet resolve to hold the line giving America the time it needed to build up its military and infrastructure to launch the second offensive that led to the fall of Hitler. Soviet Russia suffered tremendously giving America the breathing room it needed to invade Europe.
Even after the American-led invasion in Europe began, it was the Soviets that pushed through and got to Berlin before the Americans.
Because of Amazon Prime and Netflix, I’ve had the opportunity to watch television from other countries. I like military programs, especially those that involve aerial combat. The Chinese and Russian television and movies have been especially interesting. The aerial sequences are really nice.
One recent show I binged on was “The Attackers,” a television series from Russia from around 2013.
Its World War II aerial shots, although mostly CGI, were realistically, mostly accurate and captivating. But as I watched the show, I soon realized something different. The series about a Soviet Yak Squadron fighting in the front lines as the Germans were advancing towards Moscow has the normal love intrigue and heroism by the Soviet pilots. But it wasn’t overly pro-Soviet. It surprised me that it didn’t attempt to gloss over Soviet issues nor other combat-related problems that many countries are wrestling with today.
The program depicted the suffering of the Russian people during the German invasion and the Soviet purges under Stalin. The Squadron dealt with a pilot that survived the purges simply because pilots were needed more than the camps needed more prisoners.
The pilot was ostracized by the Soviet leadership simply for being a “noble” whose parents were executed during the purges. He refused to renounce his parents and was put in a camp. But because of his flying skills from his Spanish service and the Soviet’s need to put pilots into airplanes he was sent to the front-line squadron.
It was the pilots who were up against better equipped Nazi pilots and airplanes that didn’t see him as a traitor but as one of their own. It was common suffering that made him part of the pilots. Not only did the Russian series not demonize the Germans it didn’t try to create the illusion that the Soviet pilots were superior or that the Russian planes were magnificent.
Instead, the television series pointed out the lack of pilot proficiency, especially against the Nazi pilots and the fragility of the Soviet aircraft at the beginning of the German invasion of Russia. The program pointed out how the Soviet society leadership focused on keeping their power while giving us a glimpse into how the general Soviet military and people recognized that a mechanic or a welder was just as important to the war effort as the pilots. It also pointed out how sacrifices were the linchpin to the Soviets keeping the Germans at bay until America was ready to enter the war.
With inferior equipment and military experience, the Soviets relied extensively on bravery and sacrificing many to hold the line. The television series ended with the Soviet regiment being sacrificed to hold the German advance. Except for a few of the pilots who were diverted at the last minute to other bases by an order relieving them of dying for their country, the rest of the regiment was killed.
The protagonist in the drama was a woman fighter pilot. But the other pilots each had their own stories developed as well. There was the pilot that was executed after refusing to fly a mission. He had flown hundreds of missions and had earned several awards but psychologically he was done. He was “tired” he told his superiors and the squadron pilots rallied around him, including the regiment commander.
However, the political officer determined that he needed to be executed for his refusal to follow an order. He was executed before an important mission in front of the other pilots. Clearly, it was designed to deliver the message that the political apparatus was in control.
The pilots responded by completing their mission, although it was clear that they were not fighting for the political apparatus, the Soviets, but for their homeland.
That was the underlining current of the television show, that the Patriotic War was fought by people fighting for their homeland and not for the Soviet ideology. That surprised me because I expected the superiority of the Soviet ideology to be part of the show.
Instead, the Stalin purges were just one more impediment to the Russian squadron.
I do not know enough about the Russian view on Stalinist ideology today or the Soviets for that matter. I was surprised to see Stalinism treated as it was. It wasn’t anti-Stalin or Soviet but rather it was part of the many other issues going on with the squadron and their families. There were pro-Stalin ideology players in the drama of the movie, and they had an impact on the story line, but they were just another element to a multidimensional story.
For example, the pilot that was deemed dangerous because of his family’s nobility connections suffered the consequences of that via the leadership. He was denied his officer rank and instead made a sergeant, although he was a fighter pilot. However many of the pilots treated him as an equal even though some of them forced him to sit with the enlisted during meal time. He was constantly blamed for intelligence failures or operational mishaps by the political officer who consistently argued that he was a Nazi spy.
In one episode, he was shot down behind enemy lines. The Soviet leadership argued that he purposely crashed on the Nazi side while his pilots and the regimental commander argued that he was loyal. Interestingly, the pilot found himself in a camp where the Soviets were collaborating with the Nazis in exchange for better food and payment for their services. Many were captured Soviet military.
They argued that the Nazi’s were “human” as opposed to the Stalinists who were purging many of the Russians. These prisoners were actively hoping for a German victory. They tried to get the pilot to accept this new reality, although the pilot continued to look to escape and return to his squadron. He escaped and when he reached the Soviet lines, he was imprisoned to be interrogated as a possible traitor or spy.
It was the squadron pilots, the regiment commander and other Soviet leadership who were able to get him released back to his squadron.
I am not sure how historically accurate this scene is, but it again showed the ongoing battle between Stalin ideology and the ongoing Nazi German invasion of Russia. A true battle between the Right vs the Left, both in their extremes.
But the female captain, the protagonist, played a part that many do not understand about the issue of women in combat. The Soviet Union was the first nation to allow women combat pilots. There were many women fighter pilots serving in the Soviet Union during World War II. There is a famous women-only regiment that flew night bombing missions. I’ll write about that in another post.
What I found interesting is how the women were depicted in the television show. It wasn’t a simple contrast of men vs women in combat or the typical love issues that arise out of mixed gender combat units. There was some of that, although it was treated more from the sense that it wasn’t a matter of whether a Soviet soldier was going to die, but how soon. It is historically well-known that Soviets, especially during that time, developed a sense of life where one lives their life as if they would die tomorrow.
The women suffered the same doubts and victories as their male counter parts.
But what caught my attention was the idea that sex wasn’t prohibited but was discouraged not because love impeded mission capability because males might protect women from danger; but because a pregnancy would impede mission capability.
The way pregnancy was treated in the show was not that pregnancy was a bad thing, it was a good thing from the perspective of life, but because a trained pilot was difficult to replace, a pregnancy was a problem. Training pilots is time-consuming and expensive. A pregnant pilot reduces the squadron by one trained and possibly experienced combat pilot which reduced squadron capability. It is as simple as that. A pregnant mechanic causes front-line problems because there is one less able individual performing duties because they must be evacuated away from the front lines putting stress on the system. A pilot is much more expensive to unit capability.
The show dealt with both examples of pregnancy by showing that it wasn’t a matter of disloyalty or a violation of military rules but how it reduces unit readiness. I do not know how accurate it is historically, but it was an interesting point made.
It wasn’t until 2013 when the United States officially removed the ban on women serving in combat units. America is still grappling with how to integrate women into combat units. México has begun to integrate women into front line military units with the first female fighter pilot assigned to a fighter squadron this year.
Russia has been doing it since World War I.
It is more complex than pregnancies because there are logistical issues to address but the experience is there and the answers to many of the problems have been addressed already. But the pregnancy example demonstrates that it isn’t about the ability of women to perform but rather the fact that they are different.
I’m glad that I can watch shows from other countries thanks to technology.
I really wish more Americans would take the time learn more about history even if it is to simply by watching a television show from another country. The world is more than America.