“It is necessary to deprive the German command of all initiative, forestall the adversary, and to attack the German army when it is still in the deployment stage and has no time to organise the distribution of forces at the front,” wrote the Soviet commanders to Joseph Stalin. The day on which they did so is by far the most surprising part of the document: 15 May 1941, one month and one week before Hitler attacked the USSR. In the spring of 1941, the Soviets considered attacking the Germans first, writes Sean McMeekin in his latest book, Stalin’s War.
The volume is impressive even by the standard of histories of the second world war. It is more than 800 pages long, including a 20-page list of archival collections and files consulted. The list of source publications and literature is even longer, while the notes, often limited to citations, occupy more than 90 pages. The book is well researched and very well written. It puts forward new ideas and revives some old ones to challenge current mainstream interpretations of the conflict.
The revisionist take starts with the title. McMeekin claims that there is more reason to call the second world war Stalin’s war than Hitler’s. Why is that? One explanation is that when you look at the war from the perspective of its end rather than its beginning, it is Stalin who emerges as the main beneficiary. Besides, if the second world war is to be treated seriously as a global conflict and not just a European one, then Stalin, with his troops occupying parts of eastern Europe and fighting the Japanese in Mongolia at the beginning of the war, and his armies marching into central Europe and China’s Manchuria at its end, is a more convincing world figure than Hitler.
Whether that indeed turns Hitler’s war into Stalin’s war is for the reader to decide, but the change of perspective helps us accept a different chronology of Soviet participation in the war than the one suggested by histories of the eastern front. McMeekin invites the reader to look at the history of the war from a vantage point rarely taken and appreciate the many tragedies and sad ironies of the grand alliance as it took shape and functioned during the war. His account highlights the brutality of Stalin, who began the war on Hitler’s side and ended by obtaining western recognition of his territorial acquisitions first made in 1939-40 on the basis of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact.
McMeekin’s portrayal of Stalin as the pre-eminent figure of the war does not come without cost. The Soviet dictator emerges as much more powerful than is suggested by his dismal diplomatic and military performance in the early stages of the war or by his inability to negotiate any geopolitical preferences with the western allies at Yalta beyond the territories already occupied by the Red Army first in 1939-40 and then in 1944-45. The image of Stalin as consistently dominant in the war is achieved by projecting the power he acquired at the end of the conflict back into the war years as a whole.
But while attention is focused on Stalin, he is not the only leader whose actions are re-evaluated in the book. As McMeekin writes: “The roseate glow of the ‘good war’ has saved its victorious statesmen from the scrutiny applied to their World War I counterparts who led the men into the trenches.” It was Roosevelt and Churchill who, according to McMeekin, turned “the conflict into Stalin’s war”. He notes Churchill’s “mercurial approach to statecraft” and criticises Roosevelt for prioritising Stalin’s needs in the war by adopting a “Germany first” approach. The assistance offered to the Soviet Union through Lend-Lease was 50 to 100 times more than that given to Chiang Kai-shek, the leader of nationalist China, America’s key ally in the war with Japan.
McMeekin’s criticism of the western leaders, while not entirely unjustified, sometimes reads like a reprimand for not adopting Stalin’s logic and his methods of foreign policy: dividing the world into capitalists and communists and, if needs be, allying himself with Nazi Germany or fascist Italy to achieve geopolitical goals that he shared with them. McMeekin argues that Britain’s stronger support of Finland in 1940 could have led to building an alliance not only with the US but also with Italy and Hungary. He condemns Churchill for refusing to negotiate with Berlin after the fall of France and for his “contemptuous treatment of the Hess mission”. Roosevelt is held responsible for refusing any negotiation with the Germans when Stalin was engaged in discussions about a separate peace with Germany in Stockholm.
“Foreign policy of that kind cannot be made in a democracy,” wrote American diplomat Charles Bohlen from Yalta in February 1945 to his colleague George Kennan in Moscow. Kennan proposed that Europe be divided in half between the USSR and the western allies. Bohlen argued that the western leaders could not do such a thing even if they wanted to without creating a political storm at home. The same applies to most of the alternatives to Roosevelt’s and Churchill’s second world war policy suggested in the book.
To cite McMeekin, Stalin’s War is not “a comprehensive history of the second world war”. But the author is also right to suggest that his is a new look at the conflict, which poses new questions and, one should add, provides new and often unexpected answers to the old ones.
Serhii Plokhy’s Nuclear Folly: A New History of the Cuban Missile Crisis is published by Allen Lane on 13 April