The population of the Soviet Union suffered around 26 million deaths during the Second World War which is a vast sum compared to the 6.9 million deaths suffered by Germany or the 451,000 deaths of the British Empire. This represented around 14% of the pre-war population a figure only exceeded by Poland’s 17%. Suffering on a huge scale however it is measured.
Yet casualty figures are complex, measured in different ways and according to varying definitions and so are a notoriously unreliable form of measurement and so often include a range of figures. Nonetheless, the scale of Soviet military losses at around 9 million compare unfavourably with total German military losses of 4.3 million or even the highest estimate for Ostfront losses of 4 million. Attempts since 2000, to raise the Soviet figure to 10 or 13 million have only served to widen this discrepancy which shows the Soviet military in a bad light.
The aim of this article is to examine the current state of research and to explore various factors and their relative weighting in order to understand this issue.
German figures for war losses have suffered from a number of issues that make their accuracy hard to gauge. In the first place the various military authorities all ran different reporting systems, some counted only Germans, Austrians and ethnic Germans from the East and ignored the ‘foreign’ volunteers, others did not count the Volksturm as a Party organisation, nor were Axis nation’s losses recorded. Then there was the confusion during the last five months of the war when the reporting system all but broke down, the large numbers of POWs captured in the final months who went missing, the destruction of records and finally the division of Germany into two halves, not reunited until 1989.
The result has been a range of estimates which have tended to increase with time which are listed below (in thousands):
1945 OKW wartime statistics Total: 3,626.0
1945 OKW War Diary: Dead: 2,001.4 Missing/POW: 1,902.7 Total: 3,904.1
of which Ostfront: Dead: 1,105.9 Missing/POW: 1,018.3 Total: 2,124.3
1960 Deutsche Dienststelle Dead: 2,730.0 Missing/POW: 1,240.6 Total: 4,000.0
1969 Muller-Hillebrand Dead: 2,230.3 Missing/POW: 2,870.4 Total: 5,100.7
2000 Overmans Dead: 2,851.4 MIssing/POW: 2,467.1 Total: 5,318.5
of which Ostfront: Total: 3,862.9
2005 German Red Cross Dead: 3,100.0 Missing/POW: 1,200.0 Total: 4,300.0
While Overmans estimate is undoubtedly the highest, his methodology has been questioned by Zetterling (see here for his critique) so a more conservative estimate might be around 4.5 million total casualties.
The armed forces of Italy, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and Finland were all involved in the Soviet-German War and suffered the following estimated irrecoverable losses:
for a total of 659,579 which would raise the total Axis losses to just over 5 million.
Russian historical view of German losses
The Russian view of German losses is summarised in Krivosheev (1997) using captured documents that tend towards the higher end of the range of estimates including:
OKW War Diary up to 31.12.1944 Total: 3,904.1 plus
estimate of losses for 1945 1,277.0 for a total of 5,181.1
OKW Telegram at end of war Total: 4,630.0
From these sorts of documents, Krivosheev produces a material balance of Axis losses:
Wehrmacht: Killed and Died of wounds 2,869.3
: Missing in action 972.8
: POW 2,389.6
Austrians: Killed and Died of wounds 280.0
: POW 182.0
Foreign Volunteers: 15.0
Volunteers Hiwis, etc: 215.0
German total 6,923.7
Hungary (Killed/POW) 350 + 513.7
Italy 45 + 48.9
Romania 480 + 201.8
Finland 84 + 2.4
Axis total 8,649.5
as will shown later, this compares to a Soviet total of 11,444.1 which is around 30% larger. This estimate is higher than Western ones which would see Soviet losses being up to double the size of Axis ones.
The extent of Soviet losses were not revealed until after the fall of the Soviet bloc and even today there is considerable debate as to the overall demographic losses. This stems in part from the incorrect figures of the 1937 Census, the collapse of record keeping during the invasion of 1941, unsatisfactory record keeping systems, a division of responsibility for military personnel between the Red Army and the NKVD and other factors.
At the end of the war Stalin announced to the Allies that the USSR had lost 7 million people, a figure that was raised to 20 million by Khrushchev in 1962 and to as high as 26.6 million today in the Andreev, EM; Darski, LE; Kharkova, TL 1993 study. The official study into Soviet military losses was released by Krivosheev (1993) and updated in 2001 and revealed that the Soviet Union had conscripted 34, 476.0 personnel of which 11,444.1 were irrecoverable losses, 8,668.4 losses less returned POWs or 12,400.0 as reported by the military commissariats. This broke down as follows (in thousands):
Killed in action 5226.8
Died of wounds 1102.8
Died of disease 555.5
MIssing in action & POW 3396.4
Unrecorded losses of 1941 1162.6
Total irrecoverable losses 11,444.1
Servicemen reconscripted from occupied territory 939.7
POW returned from captivity 1836.0
Actual irrecoverable losses 8,668.4
(reservists captured before joined colours 500.0)
however this total has been challenged since 2001 by researchers like Sergey Aleksandrovich Il’enkov who claim figures of 13 million or more. His research is based on using the card index files for soldiers in the TsAMO archive. Similarly S. N. Mikhalev in 2000 claimed 10,992.0 dead based on conscription records.
For losses among Soviet civilians, Philimoshin (1995) provides an official estimate which shows civilians killed by enemy action:
Civilians killed (including 2500.0 Jewish deaths) 7,420.4
Forced labour dead 2,164.3
Famine in German occupied area (Hunger Plan) 4,100.0
Total civilian losses 13,684.7
Famine in USSR due to wartime conditions 2,500.0-3,200.0
Military losses 8,668.4-13,850
Total according to ADK around 26,000.00
In reality these figures only give a broad outline of the historical situation however they do show firstly the scale of Axis predation on the civilian population of the occupied territories and secondly that Soviet military losses were considerably greater than those of the Axis powers.
In many ways the debate regarding the exact scale of the USSR’s losses is fruitless and misses the real point, which is how did the USSR suffer such a scale of loss when her opponents suffered so much less? The exact multiple does not matter since we know that it was large.
How did the Soviet Union suffer such high losses?
Undoubtedly the losses of the Soviet Union, both military and civilian represent a unique historical event, something out of the ordinary, an outlier. This can be seen by comparing the above losses with those of the Great War, where Russia lost 2.2 million military and 410,000 civilian casualties with around 3 million POWs, Germany 2 million military and a handful of civilian ones and Austro-Hungary 1.5 million military and 120,000 civilians losses. Russian losses are roughly equal to those of the Central Powers and are dwarfed by the scale of the Soviet ones. Yet there was a difference between the overall military casualties of the Entente Powers which totalled 6.4 million against the Central Powers 4.4 million, largely explained by over 2.5 million losses of the Anglo-French forces on the Western Front. Strong German defences in siege conditions and stubborn Entente attacks were costly for France which lost 1.4 million or 3.5% of her population in military deaths and scarred her for a generation. Even so the advantage of the Central over Entente Powers was at best a factor of 1.5 whereas the Soviet case might range from 1.5 to as high as 3.0.
Factors, effects and outcomes
Mark Harrison has proposed that there are three main factors that might account for the Soviet losses, which are a) Poverty b) Repression c) Rapidity of modernisation during the 1930s. These factors are all items that can be measured at the economic level, yet they do not give a clear indication of how this translated down to the lowest levels of detail, the deaths of millions of individuals.
To take Poverty as an example, Maddison (2013) shows that in 1940 the USSR had a GDP per capita of $2,144 1990 (Int.GK$) and a population 195,970,000 people while German had a GDP per capita of $5,403 and a population of 69,835,000 people. This meant that each German citizen was 2.5 times wealthier than a Soviet one, however the fact that the Soviet population was 2.8 times larger meant in effect that both economies were roughly the same size. As far as war making potential, Germany had a significant advantage, as classic economic theory states that a country has a baseline of economic activity to keep the population, fed, clothed and housed and kept warm. Say for the sake of argument, that this was $1,000 per capita which would leave the Soviet Union $1,144 per capita of GDP to spend on war or other activities and Germany would have $4,403 per capita. This would give the USSR a theoretical war making GDP of $224,000 million and Germany one of $307,000 million. Couple this with the fact that by 1940, Germany had conquered half of Europe and gained additional potential GDP, a fact balanced by her need to devote some effort to fighting the British Empire. Once Germany invaded the USSR, by the end of 1941, around 40% of the economy had been swallowed up in the occupied territories with the loss of nearly 70 million Soviet citizens so the war making potential of the rump had shrunk even further. Hence the need by the Soviet authorities to squeeze literally every last ounce of effort from the economy to keep fighting.
The simple fact was that in the late 1930s even though the USSR was large, it was still one of the poorest per capita countries in Europe roughly on a par with Poland and exceeding only Bulgaria, Romania and Portugal. Greece, Spain, Italy and Hungary were all wealthier. This poverty factor produced a wide range of different effects, the health of Soviet citizens was poor due to crowded housing and low levels of sanitation, there was a lack of infrastructure, hence the main means of transportation were railways and although a heavy industry had been created, other modern industries such as optical glassware or electronics were cottage industries. More over, much of this technology was imported from the USA or Germany and the base of home grown designers was small, limiting where expansion would occur. At the same time, agriculture had been given large numbers of tractors during the 1930s but the effects of collectivisation meant that level of production remained stubbornly static and food was scarce.
As an example of the outcome of these effects, let us consider Soviet anti-tank (AT) measures. In line with many other countries, Soviet anti-tank defence was based around dug-in infantry units, exploiting terrain features, protected by minefields, AT guns, close infantry assault weapons and artillery.
An enemy force approaching the position would be channelled along specific routes by anti-tank ditches or terrain features and then taken under artillery fire to pin the attacking infantry in place so that the enemy tanks advanced unprotected. Control of the artillery was by telephone with radios as backup, yet low educational standards among gunnery personnel meant that they relied on simple fixed fire plans. Failure to stop German infantry would mean that Soviet defenders would have to halt them by using machine guns exposed to tank fire and nor could the artillery redeploy easily since it was horse-drawn and lacked motor vehicles for all but the howitzers. Compared to British practice using heavier guns, radio control, sophisticated fire control tables and motor traction, Soviet response could be slow and thin.
Mines were a Soviet speciality, often of wooden construction to avoid detection, they could be planted in marked fields, laid hastily by sappers in the path of an advance or strung together on a rope as a daisy chain and pulled into the path of a tank by a brave infantryman in a foxhole. However against tanks, the most likely outcome would be to blow a wheel off which would put the tank out of action for a day in the repair workshop.
The next line of defence for the Rifle Divisions were their 45mm AT guns which were emplaced to fire to the flank, so that one companies guns did not protect themselves but the company next door and hits were obtained on the sides of enemy tanks. The 45mm M1937 originated in 1932 and was the equivalent of the German 37mm PAK36 or the British 40mm QF 2-pounder however by 1942, the increasing armour protection of German tanks to 50mm, rendered all these guns obsolete. The Germans introduced the 50mm PAK38 and the 75mm PAK40 while the British introduced the QF 6-pounder to be deployed with infantry units. The Soviets unwilling to break mass production simply upgraded to the 45mm M1942 with a longer barrel and introduced sub-calibre discarding sabot ammunition (UBR-243P). This restored AT capability until 1943 when further improvements in German tanks rendered these improvements marginal. The 45mm AT gun soldiered on in large numbers till the end of the war increasingly backed up by field guns (76.2mm ZIS-3), AA guns (85mm M1939) and army level AT guns (100mm M1944). Each Rifle Division fielded 48 AT guns which were almost always 45mm types. Ironically the Soviets had a replacement available in the 57mm ZIS-2 M1943 which would have given them the same capability as the British but production only restarted in June 1943 and the small numbers were given to AT Regiments of Reserve of the High Command. This a good example of Poverty since the small, hard pressed Soviet economy dare not switch production to newer more expensive weapons and struggled on with obsolete ones that inevitably costs lives.
Backing up the AT guns was another obsolete weapon which the Soviets deployed in large numbers right up until the end of the war, using tens of thousands of men and suffering casualties. The PTRD-41 and automatic PTRS-41 anti-tank rifles (ATR) were deployed in all the main combat units and in separate Army level units with over 470,000 produced and although it had some utility in combating German light armour, against tanks by 1942, they were virtually useless and against the Tiger PzKfwg VI AT riflemen were forced to concentrate on knocking out vision blocks in the commanders cupola, hoping to blind the tank. Each Rifle Division fielded a staggering 212 AT Rifles with over 500 personnel devoted to their use. Both the British and Germans developed successors to their ATR in the form of HEAT charge projectiles, the PIAT projector for the British and the Panzerschrek and Panzerfaust rockets for the Germans. In fact the Soviets did attempt to produce a similar version, RPR-82 rocket launcher which suffered technical problems and such a large back blast that it did not enter service until the 1950s, leaving Soviet infantrymen to rely on captured Panzerfausts. The closest that the Soviet Union came to deploying an infantry HEAT charge was the RPG-43 AT hand grenade which had to be lobbed at a tank so that a streamer deployed from its base ensuring that it landed upright on the tank roof. This was analogous to many other infantry close combat AT means, such as grenade bundles, Molotov Cocktails, satchel charges and magnetic shaped charges. German experience was that infantry units using such methods suffered heavy losses and no doubt the Soviet experience was the same. A good account of AT defence can be found in Zamulin (2018) which shows that this combination of defences could succeed in wearing down German tank offensives however it also shows the cost in infantry casualties as the 72nd Guards Rifle Division which bore the brunt of the armoured assault, started the battle with 8,668 men but had lost 2,747 killed, wounded or missing in action or 30% after two days of fighting from extensive fortifications and dense minefields. This figure accords well with US Army experience of green troops under tanks attack, in the examples of the 34th Infantry Division at Kasserine Pass in 1943 and the 106th Infantry Division at the Battle of the Bulge, the latter losing 50% of its strength in four days fighting. The worst performance of a unit in the US Army during the war, two of its three regiments with 6,000 men were surrounded and surrendered, seems on a par with the Guards Rifle Division performance.
The outcome of Poverty can be seen across the range of Red Army equipment, the tanks lacking good optical devices and electronics suffered heavy losses even when faced by standard German medium tanks such as the PzIV. Both sides in the war faced the need to increase the firepower of their infantry, Red Army did this by going backwards to Great War technology, by issuing sub-machine guns which were powerful but short ranged and easy to manufacture. By contrast the German response was innovative, creating a new class of weapons - the assault rifle.
While the linkage between Poverty and equipment is clear cut, there are other effects and outcomes that are less easily attributed. Zamulin (2018) highlights the issue of officer competence as before the battle, defence construction was incomplete, badly sited, training had not been carried out, plans had not been formulated and supplies remained undelivered. Added to which were cases of drunkenness and keeping ‘field wives’ at headquarters. A general shortage of trained officers, led in October 1942 to the conversion of political commissars into field officers after a two month training course with NKVD officers ending up as generals commanding divisions. The 92nd Guards Rifle Division performed badly during the battle while under the command of a former NKVD general. Lack of suitable officers candidates reflected a general low level of education in the population at all levels and a shortage of suitable officers, and Non Commissioned Officers as well as technical specialists.
Similarly the lack of radios and a reliance on telephone communications had a direct effect on the speed at which the Command could react to events and transmit its orders. Zamulin (2018) gives example during the Kursk Operation where it took 7 hours for orders from the Front commander, Vatutin to reach the 92nd Guards Rifle Division. The orders were placed n the evening and specified a night move, however by the time they arrived at the divisional command post, it was dawn and the move forward into combat was carried out in broad daylight. Similarly the transmission of reports and orders between Division and Army was slow and fraught with difficulties. This was communications to a Great War standard.
Outcomes as part of a system
Roger Rees (2011) and other social scientists such as Catherine Merridale, have postulated that the Red Army won in the end because it was able to sustain itself in battle, throughout all the defeats and costly victories.
Of course this view is looking at the experience of soldiers, not at the causes of casualties yet Rees does come to five conclusions that might be indicators of the main cause. He states that
The Red Army was militarily effective because it remained in the fight
Morale fluctuated wildly depending on the date and location but was not uniform
The State was not the main motivation to fight
Repression was limited and soldiers balanced the lethality of the State against the Battlefield
The main driver was patriotism for Russia, Ukraine, etc, to defend ones home and family
The picture that emerges is of the Red Army as a fast running machine over which the State has only limited control and can only influence at the margins. From Krivosheev (1997) it is possible to build up a picture of the irrecoverable losses and wounded compared to the size of the field army, given that the field army reached a stable level of 6 million personnel while the overall size of the armed forces had a level of 11 million. The ‘churn’ can easily be seen from the graph below which shows that the Red Army lost its entire effective strength on most war years, which meant that every year the Soviet state had to recruit and train or return wounded from hospital a force equivalent to six million men. Dunn (2007) describes how in 1941 the entire peacetime army had been destroyed by Christmas, so this process started right from the inception of hostilities.
This huge undertaking was repeated year after year, with its own momentum as the demand for troops for the front line meant that the new recruits were only given the minimum of training before being despatched to their units. The process quickly ate through the USSR’s stock of trained reservists, who at least had some level of military training and forced the raising of inexperienced new levies with little military experience. Lacking sufficient training, these young men were caught up in a vicious cycle that sent, especially infantrymen, to the front thoroughly unprepared.
Added to this pressure was the Red Army’s method of managing its units whereby units started active operations under strength, typically Rifle Divisions which were supposed to count 9,435 personnel (Shtat 04/550 10th December 1942) only fielded 7,000 men or less. By the end of an offensive, Rifle Divisions had been left in the combat zone until they were exhausted and numbered 3,000 men or less largely composed of men in rear area support units and a handful of combat troops. If it were fortunate, the unit would be moved to a quiet area of the front line to hold defensive positions until the next offensive, if not it would be prepared for the next offensive bound while holding its positions in the combat zone. In the weeks prior to the next offensive, the Division would be filled out by new recruits and wounded returning to the ranks and the cycle would repeat. The consequences of this system meant that divisions rarely retained a sufficient core of experienced officers, NCOs and older soldiers to train up the new recruits when they arrived and since their arrival was within three weeks of the start of offensive operations, there was insufficient time to train them anyways.
Once started the system took on a vicious momentum of its own that was hard for even the State to alter, even when there was a relative pause in the fighting for a few months such as at the Spring of 1943. The effect was magnified in part, as a result of Soviet strategy that pursued a broad front approach launching operations across all 10 Fronts and maintained a punishing schedule of offensive after offensive on successful Front in order to keep the Germans off balance, once they had been levered out of their fixed defences. The offensives on the southern part of the front-line from August 1943 to March 1944 is a prime example of this.
Factors - Repression
Rees comes to the conclusion that the popular vision of repression is largely a myth and goes onto to describe the three methods by which the Red Army maintained discipline and punished the perceived crimes. Firstly each unit had a ‘Special Section’ which monitored day to day performance and could send soldiers to Penal Companies or officers to Penal Battalions, yet in a Rifle Division this unit only numbered 18 and only carried small arms. The second method was the Blocking Detachment, although it has to be said that both the British and French armies made use of similar units in the Great War. Soviet ones existed from August 1941 until they started to decline in 1944, finally being disbanded in October and were company sized units carrying small arms who were deployed at the rear edge of the battlefield at Army or Front level to round up the soldiers found wandering behind the front-lines. These units did not have permission for summary executions although they did feed into the Red Army justice system. The third method was more sinister in that it was run exclusively by the NKVD and these were the Filtration Camps set up to process both soldiers and civilians who were found in the recaptured territories to determine whether they were spy, traitors, deserters or innocent partisans. These camps could order executions, penal servitude in a camp or further punishments following the usual NKVD practice. To this we have to add the NKVD operations on the Home Front in rounding up draft evaders and deserters who had simply gone home.
The scale of these activities is given by Rees who shows that during the course of the war the NKVD rounded up some 2,846,000 draft dodgers and deserters which resulted in 251,408 being punished for draft infractions and 126,956 for desertion, a rate of 8.2% compared with a rate of 3% found in British and US forces. The overall number in this category, when compared to the number conscripted is also about 8%. Interestingly there were thousands of draft dodgers who evaded detection throughout the war and were never caught.
Turning now to the Special Sections and Blocking Detachments, for the years 1942 and 1943, the NKVD caught 1,250,000 million men with no documents (deserters) and 200,000 stragglers which represented around 14,000 a week, a figure in line with the statistics for the three months from August to October 1942 where 140,755 men were detained, of whom 131,094 were sent back to their units, 2,776 sent to Penal Companies, 185 to Penal Battalions and 1,189 were shot as spies or traitors. Given that this period was during the disastrous retreats during the German summer offensive, known as Case Blue, the modest 0.84% of soldiers who were shot given an overall desertion rate of 12% does not seem excessive. Of course this was higher than Western Powers even during the Great War, however with the exception of France, they did not have an enemy power occupying a third of their country. Even in the darkest days of 1941 when trying to stop the rout of the Red Army before the invaders from June to September, the NKVD apprehended 657,364 personnel, 249,966 via the Special Sections and 407,395 via the Blocking Detachments. Given the smaller size of the Field Army at around 3 million, this represents maybe 10% over the period which given the huge defeats along the entire front, does not seem at all bad. The detainees had 632,486 returned to their units, 16,106 were determined to be spies and 8,772 to be deserters (no weapons or papers) of whom 10,201 were executed and shot. The 1.5% shot was high yet given the panic of invasion and defeat in line with the 1942/3 figures. These two examples show that the effect on the individual Soviet soldier, even if caught up in an encirclement, was relatively low and the 158,000 soldiers shot for various crimes and the 436,600 sent to the GULAG were excessive by Western standards, nonetheless this represents only 1.7% of the men mobilised. From this Rees concludes that repression was a minor factor in the motivation of Red Army soldiers.
There was another influence on the Red Army by the NKVD in that the GULAG was trawled to see if it could provide soldiers for the front line. This resulted in 975,000 former camp inmates being given a uniform and sent off to join the Red Army and resultant reduction in size of the camps allowed a further 117,000 NKVD soldiers to be sent to the front as well.
The casualties suffered by the Soviet Union during the Soviet-German was were an outlier of extraordinary proportions. Some factors in this event have been given above but no doubt there are others as yet unexplored, yet it is hard not to agree with Rees that Repression played a relatively minor role in this, while the wider effects of Poverty and the Speed of Modernisation must claim the lion’s share of the blame. Further work is needed to separate these two and to explain how the Wehrmacht managed to achieve such a level of superiority that they managed to inflict such losses. In search of further insight, the next part of this series will compare the Soviet experience with other countries to see if any insight to these issues.
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Scott Dunn. Stalin’s Keys to Victory. Stackpole 2007
S. A. Il’enkov. The memory of millions of fallen defenders of the Motherland must not be consigned to oblivion. Voennno-Istoricheskiy Arkhiv No. 7(22), 2001, pp. 73-80
G. F Krivosheev. Soviet casualties and combat losses in the twentieth century. Greenhill 1997
A. Maddison. Historical Statistics. (2013) https://www.rug.nl/ggdc/historicaldevelopment/maddison/releases/maddison-project-database-2013
M. V. Philimoshin. Лиудские потери СССР в период второи мировои воины:сборник статеи [About the results of calculation of losses among civilian population of the USSR and Russian Federation 1941–1945] pp. 124–131. 1995. in Евдокимов, Ростислав. [Evdokimov, Rostislav] Людские потери СССР в период второй мировой войны: сборник статей [Human Losses of the USSR during the Second World War: a collection of articles]. Ин-т российской истории РАН (Russian Academy of Sciences). ISBN 978-5-86789-023-0.
Roger R Rees. Why Stalin’s soldiers fought. Kansas 2011.
V. Zamulin. The Forgotten battle of the Kursk Salient. Helion 2018