Bagration: Saving Europe Twice
Some years ago I had drinks with 4 acquaintances. All of these fellows claimed they loved to read about history and to a one, suggested that World War 2 was their area of expertise. A drink in, I started to hold forth on the Soviet contribution to the war and unsurprisingly was met with disagreement and even rancor. One of them suggested that I was exaggerating, two told me I was just dead-wrong, and the last recited what I call an “Uncle Dewey” story, which is to say he was repulsed by my perspective because of an individual family story of sacrifice. Four against one, I thought, not a fair fight. Indeed, to make it fair I suggested they bring in another 50 on their side!
Belligerent now, I asked them to name the war’s biggest operation. Again, the answers were risible. One said D-Day- not a terrible answer just an incorrect one. The second, curiously suggested it was Operation Valkyrie. I quickly downed my second drink though I came close to spitting it up. The third answer was the Battle of the Bulge. The fourth was “El Alamein.” Howlers to say the least.
As I started spinning out of control, I reminded myself of a few things. First, most Americans were raised on propaganda and with regard to the War were likely reading “histories” that actual Nazis wrote. After all, Halder was brought to US by the US Army Historical Division and then, with many fellow Nazi cronies, developed a set of historical studies that met US Cold War needs- including helping create the myth of the “clean Wehrmacht” and diminishing the predominant Soviet role in destroying the Wehrmacht and liberating Europe from Nazis while elevating the American role.
Second, most Americans have no capacity to comprehend numbers and even the minimal capacity they have diminishes as the numbers get larger. The fact that the Soviets had single battles in which they had more killed than the US did in the whole war, in both theaters, is not something the American mind can accept or comprehend.
Third, American exceptionalism and jingoism inevitably posits that they are on the “side of the angels” and contribute more than anyone else to both democracy and freedom; Orwellian to be sure given the American role in deprecating both concepts world-wide for more than a century, with a death toll impossible to tabulate.
I stopped the spin to answer the question, which is not one that is up for debate, at least not in knowledgeable circles. Indeed, Operation Bagration was far and away the largest in the war, effectively destroying Army Group Center and moving the Wehrmacht to the Western bank of the Vistula. The men and materiel amassed, the coordination with partisans, the intricate deception (maskirovka) plans, and the sheer intensity of the operation made even apocalyptic battles look like skirmishes. Bagration was indeed the end of the Reich, which crumbled completely less than a year later.
Operation Bagration was launched on the third anniversary of Barbarossa and was named after Prince Piotr Bagration, who died fighting and defeating Napoleon at the Battle of Borodino in 1812. That the Russians saved Europe, not once but twice, cannot be forgotten and can be remembered with just one word- Bagration.