“IIt is necessary to deprive the German command of all initiative, to get ahead of the adversary and attack the German army when it is still in the deployment stage and does not have time to organize the distribution of forces at the front, ”Soviet commanders wrote to Joseph Stalin. The day they did so is by far the most surprising part of the document: May 15, 1941, a month and a 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 level of WWII stories. It is over 800 pages long, including a 20-page list of archive collections and consulted archives. The list of source publications and literature is even longer, while the notes, often limited to citations, run over 90 pages. The book is well researched and very well written. Propose new ideas and revive old ones to challenge current dominant interpretations of the conflict.
The revisionist take begins with the title. McMeekin claims that there are more reasons to call World War II Stalin’s war than Hitler’s. Why is that? One explanation is that when the war is viewed from the perspective of its end rather than its beginning, it is Stalin who emerges as the main beneficiary. Also, if WWII 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 to central Europe and China’s Manchuria in the end, he is a more compelling world figure than Hitler.
The reader must decide whether that really turns Hitler’s war into Stalin’s war, but the change in perspective helps us to accept a different chronology of Soviet involvement in the war than is suggested by the stories of the eastern front. McMeekin invites the reader to look at the history of the war from a point of view that is rarely taken and appreciate the many tragedies and sad ironies of the great alliance as it took shape and functioned during the war. His account highlights the brutality of Stalin, who started the war on Hitler’s side and ended up gaining Western recognition of his first territorial acquisitions made in 1939-40 on the basis of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact.
McMeekin’s portrayal of Stalin as the preeminent figure of the war is not gratuitous. The Soviet dictator turns out to be far more powerful than his dismal diplomatic and military performance in the early stages of the war suggests or his inability to negotiate geopolitical preferences with Western allies in 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 war is achieved by projecting the power he acquired at the end of the conflict into the war years as a whole.
But although the focus is on Stalin, he is not the only leader whose actions are reassessed in the book. As McMeekin writes: “The pink glow of ‘good war’ has saved its victorious statesmen from the scrutiny of their World War I counterparts who led men into the trenches.” It was Roosevelt and Churchill who, according to McMeekin, turned “the conflict into Stalin’s war.” He points to Churchill’s “fickle approach to governance” and criticizes Roosevelt for prioritizing Stalin’s needs in war by taking 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 Western leaders, while not entirely unjustified, is sometimes read as a reprimand for not embracing Stalin’s logic and his foreign policy methods: dividing the world into capitalists and communists and, if necessary, allying themselves with Nazi Germany or Fascist Italy. to achieve the geopolitical goals he shared with them. McMeekin argues that Britain’s increased support for Finland in 1940 could have led to the building of an alliance not only with the United States, but also with Italy and Hungary. He condemns Churchill for refusing to negotiate with Berlin after the fall of France and for his “disparaging treatment of the Hess mission.” Roosevelt is responsible for rejecting any negotiations with the Germans when Stalin was involved in discussions about a separate peace with Germany in Stockholm.
“Such a foreign policy cannot be done in a democracy,” wrote the American diplomat Charles Bohlen of 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 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 and Churchill’s WWII policy suggested in the book.
To quote McMeekin, Stalin’s war It is not “a complete history of the Second World War”. But the author is also correct in suggesting that his is a fresh look at conflict, raising new questions and, it should be added, providing new and often unexpected answers to old ones.
Serhii Plokhy’s Nuclear madness: a new history of the Cuban missile crisis is posted by Allen Lane on April 13
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism