ND Expert: Remembering D-Day

June 07, 2014 • Shannon Chapla

As the world marks the 70th anniversary of the D-Day invasion that led to the defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II, Michael Desch, professor and chair of political science at the University of Notre Dame, reflects on this day in history and draws a connection to the current Ukraine crisis.

“It was a big deal for Americans,” Desch says. “Candidly, though, it was not such a big deal for the war against Nazi Germany. The real day that marked the turning point in World War II was May 8, 1945, Victory in Europe Day. That’s the day the Russians celebrate because that’s when the war was over, and indeed, most of World War II was fought on the eastern front. Eighty-five percent of the German forces that were engaged in fighting the Allies were fighting against the Soviets, and the Soviets inflicted the overwhelming number of casualties on the Nazis. So, if you ask who won the Second World War, it was Uncle Joe Stalin and the Soviets with a cameo appearance by the Americans and the Brits.”

Desch says it’s difficult to comprehend what’s currently taking place in the Ukraine without understanding the different historical views of who won the Second World War and the relative importance of D-Day versus Victory in Europe Day.

“For many of the Russian speakers in the Ukraine and for many Russians, the issue of the Kiev government moving closer to NATO and the West brings back bad memories of the Second World War, in which the Ukrainian government broke away from the Soviet Union and collaborated with the Nazis in the war against the Soviet Union,” Desch says.

“So you see interviews with rebels fighting against the Kiev government and they say, ‘We’re fighting against the fascists.’ These are people whose grandparents had a different experience in World War II, not just the young men fighting on Omaha Beach, but whole families being ground up in the meat grinder that was the war on the eastern front. And so in a sense, our preoccupation with D-Day sort of blinds us to the fact that people in Eastern Europe, and especially in Russia, see the war in a very different historical light. It’s a living thing even today in the Ukraine crisis because the Russian-speakers really do fear that a pro-Western Ukrainian government in Kiev is going to be the second coming of the regime that collaborated with the Nazis in World War II.

Originally published by Shannon Chapla at news.nd.edu on June 06, 2014.