Stalin’s War

-Sean McMeekin


Adolf Hitler dominates discussion of the villains of WW2 for obvious reasons, ranging from the simple fact that it was Hitler who unleashed the war and empowered most of the other villains to a lack of competition.  Mussolini is often taken as a figure of fun, a comic opera bad guy rather than an outright monster (which is far kinder than the original fascist deserves), while Japan never had a dictator who ruled in a similar manner.  Indeed, discussion is so often focused on Hitler that it tends to undermine aspects of the war that had very little to do with him.  The tensions that led to the Pacific War, for example, existed prior to Hitler’s rise to power and would have continued to exist even if some kindly soul had assassinated Hitler before he could start the war.  Worse, it tends to obscure the role of others in starting, fighting and eventually winning the war. 


Sean McMeekin attempts to address this issue by focusing his revisionist history of the war on Stalin and the USSR, rather than Hitler, Mussolini and the westerners who tried in vain to stop him.  It presents a picture of the communists manipulating their way into repudiating the debts owed by Tsarist Russia, then Stalin doing his level best to encourage the Germans, French and British to go to war in 1939, first by diplomatically hinting at Russian involvement on the West’s side and then by acting as Hitler’s de facto military ally during the invasion of Poland, ensuring the Nazis would have no choice but to continue the war against the British and French.  Stalin spent the Phony War, in this telling, securing Russia’s borders and discovering, just in time, the limits of Russian military power by invading Finland.  It was a period of distrust on all sides, with the Allies planning war against the USSR (which would likely have been ineffective, at best) and the Germans intending their own invasion once the Western Allies had been crushed.


Stalin expected Hitler’s invasion of France would bog down.  It was a surprise, to him, when France fell quickly and Britain was effectively chased off the continent.  Stalin seems to have been preparing for war – the book does dismiss the prospects of Russia striking first – but the sheer power of the German military shocked him.  The Russians found themselves tied to Germany while, at the same time, aware Hitler might invade at any moment.  Stalin adopted a policy of both appeasing the Germans while trying to solidify Russia’s position and build up his defences, although there was a lack of serious planning. The Russian forces defending the western borders were primed neither to stand on the defensive nor take the offensive.


The war changed again when Hitler invaded Germany in 1941.  Stalin was quick to ally with the British and Americans, and took them for everything he could get.  Both powers appear to have been wilfully blind to the sheer scale of Russian demands, from short-term supplies to information and technology that would allow the Russians to compete with the Americans after the war.  They also made no attempt to use their colossal leverage over the Russians to push them to concede Polish independence (the author notes, sourly, that the Allies went to war to save Poland from a monster and ended the war with Poland belonging to a different monster) or even to demand the Russians treat British and American POWs decently and send them home.  Stalin’s double-dealing seems to have even extended to Japan, maintaining friendly relationships that might have benefitted the USSR, but the US could and should have regarded as treachery. 


Indeed, as the book goes on, it becomes more and more of a tirade against the fools in Britain and America who allowed it to happen.  The US State Department appears to have been riddled through with Russian spies and sympathisers, while FDR appears to have thought he could do business with Stalin and that their personal connection would override any short-term differences between the two.  The genteel FDR was no match for the gangster Stalin and it showed, even when there was clear proof of Stalin’s perfidy.  Churchill appears to have been somewhat more aware of the risks of dealing with the devil, but Britain’s power was on the wane and there was little he could do.


It is hard to know how seriously to take this.  A more charitable interpretation of the matter would note that Russia was desperately needed to wear down German power before the Western Allies landed in Europe and this was true.  From a cold-blooded point of view, fighting the war to the last Russian wouldn’t have been a bad idea.  There was also a risk that Stalin would come to terms with Hitler at some point, although – given the sheer horror of the Nazi regime – it is unlikely that any peace would last.  Stalin had certainly learnt his lesson about trusting Hitler!


The book does note that leverage existed, perhaps more than was appreciated at the time.  The Russians might have worked hard to downplay or outright deny the importance of lend-lease, but it was vitally important to keep the Russians in the field.  Indeed, the scale of ‘borrowing’ from the US was so great a cut-off would likely have had long-term effects on the Russians ... although a cut-off that actually helped the Germans to win would have been disastrous.


Matters came to a head as the tide of war turned against Hitler once and for all, and Stalin showed his true colours.  Nationalist governments (in exile) and partisans were slandered and suppressed.  Communist puppet governments and militaries were installed, starting a brutal struggle that was little-known until after the end of the Cold War.  (Ironically, the Polish Communists proved to be more patriotic than Communist, at least at first, and a surprising number deserted to join various independent Polish forces.)  The West discovered, too late, that it had defeated one foe only to empower another, who’d trapped Eastern Europe in an iron curtain.  Worse, it had promoted the new foe so well it was hard to convince their populations that Communism was evil and Stalin a monster fully comparable to Adolf Hitler.  This touching and misplaced faith in the USSR would go on to blight efforts to contain Stalin and his successors until the USSR collapsed under its own weight. 


On the surface, Stalin’s War does provide a new and worthwhile insight into how Russia’s brooding presence shaped the course of the war even before Operation Barbarossa.  It is undeniable that Stalin worked hard to benefit from Germany’s early victories – before realising he’d empowered a monster himself – and that the geopolitics of Eastern Europe and the Balkans made it hard for the Russians to stand against Germany even if they’d wished to join Britain and France.  Poland and the other Eastern Europeans had excellent historical reasons to fear Russian troops on their soil – and, as 1945 makes clear, they were right to fear.


Stalin’s War also discusses Stalin’s limits as a war leader.  His was the sole will driving the USSR in 1941, yet he didn’t make reasonable defensive preparations (for example, using light forces to hold Eastern Europe and force the Germans to cross hundreds of miles before reaching the real defences) or take seriously reports of German movements in the hours before Barbarossa.  He purged commanders who’d had no time to learn their trade, then penalised common soldiers for daring to be taken captive.  He made many good decisions – staying in Moscow – and he learnt from his mistakes, but he also got very lucky.  If Hitler had been less ruthless, and his treatment of the USSR’s population a little kinder, the war might have gone the other way.


It also indicts the British and American politicians and diplomats who thought they could make nice with Stalin, even regard him as a trustworthy ally rather than the opportunist gangster he was.  Stalin didn’t have grand dreams of conquering the world – unlike Hitler – but he had few qualms about taking whatever he could get, either through force or seduction.  There was more than enough proof of his true character for people to notice, as well as enough leverage to make it possible to demand real concessions in exchange for goods and weapons.  The book also reminds us that distant staffers rarely understand the facts on the ground, which undermines faith in Western advice when the advice is literally suicidal.  (For example, pushing the Chinese Nationalists to accept Communists into their government, something that proved beyond dispute to the Nationalists that America was at best ignorant and at worst openly malicious.) 


That said, at times the book turns into a screed against the wilfully blind that reminds me of the belief in right-wing circles that the US State Department is a greater menace to the United States than Al Qaeda/Islamic State.  There is a lot of truth in this – there were communist sympathisers and even outright spies and agents at the time, as well as careerists who pride themselves on knowing foreign countries when they never stepped outside the embassy and government buildings (if they ever visited at all) – but it does tend to exclude the simple fact the Western Allies needed the USSR and that meant a certain degree of, metaphorically speaking, holding their nose when they dealt with Stalin. 


It also credits Stalin with being a little too manipulative to be true, although it does make clear that Stalin’s plans fell off the rails in 1940, after France was crushed swiftly and brutally by the Germans.  He was far from alone in believing the war would last much longer, or in suspecting Britain would concede defeat and make peace with Germany in 1940 (a belief also shared by Mussolini).  Later, the book credits him with pushing the ‘unconditional surrender’ policy to ensure Germany couldn’t come to terms with the Western Allies and even ensuring – somehow – that Germany made one last throw of the dice in launching the Battle of the Bulge.


It is difficult to know how seriously to take this section, although it is clear that Stalin did manage to keep Britain and America as his allies despite an ever-growing number of red flags.  Stalin wasn’t the only one pushing for unconditional surrender after 1919 and it is absurd to suggest otherwise, although – as the book notes – it made it harder to deal with anti-Hitler factions within Nazi Germany.  This may have suited Stalin, but it also suited his allies.  The logic behind the Battle of the Bulge had little to do with Stalin – Hitler could no longer hope for a strategic victory in the East, yet if he could pull one off in the West ...  The operation failed, of course, and failure is always an orphan, but the plan wasn’t as senseless as it seems. 


But this is, in a sense, the true danger of a man like Stalin.  They don’t have grandiose plans that fall apart when they meet reality.  Instead, they take advantage of situations as they develop and work to ensure matters work out to their satisfaction.  Given opportunities to take land or money or power for themselves, they do so.  And they disguise their gangster-like acquisitive natures behind a facade of gentle bonhomie, a friendly attitude that seems to render all their horrors moot, but is really nothing more than the smile on the face of the tiger.  It is also too easy to forget the danger when someone is flattering you, until it is too late.


Overall, Stalin’s War is a very interesting read.  How convincing you’ll find it, though, is a different matter.  The writing slowly becomes a screed against Stalin and those who empowered him and does it, at least in part, by attributing near-supernatural powers to him or crediting him with brilliant insights which may well have been just coincidence.  In doing so, it undermines its own case.  It also relies too much on a deluge of facts and figures – often repeated, like the T-34 being built partly with American technology – that hamper understanding and obscure the main point.


But in a world where gangster politics are on the rise, it is probably a very important book.  Just read with care.