Inside Story

“Better to lose Australia”

Sean McMeekin’s new account of Stalin’s war will suit Vladimir Putin very well

Mark Edele Books 25 May 2021 2082 words

Joseph Stalin (seated at right) with Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt at the February 1945 Yalta conference to discuss the postwar reconstruction. War Office/Alamy

Stalin’s War: A New History of World War II
By Sean McMeekin | Basic Books | $71.99 | 864 pages

“Nothing could be worse,” said US president Franklin D. Roosevelt in March 1942, “than to have the Russians collapse.” Better to “lose New Zealand, Australia or anything else.” Why? Because “the Russians are today killing more Germans and destroying more equipment than you and I put together,” as he wrote to Winston Churchill later that year.

After some initial cold war amnesia, historians in the English-speaking world have, by and large, accepted that the war in Europe was won by the Red Army. Most also agree that, on balance, this was a good outcome. While Stalin’s totalitarianism would victimise millions, it was the lesser evil. And until the Western allies developed significant amphibious capability relatively late in the war, there simply was no alternative: only the Soviets could fight Hitler on the continent.

Recently, however, a new generation of English-language historians have returned to the tune that it was Private Ryan and his friends, or the valiant boys of Bomber Command, who won the war. Stalin and his soldiers, at best, were conduits for American military aid (via Roosevelt’s Lend-Lease scheme).

Now, Sean McMeekin has joined this new assault on the Soviet war record. Born in 1974, he has taken great delight in publishing books designed to increase the blood pressure of historians of an older generation. His biggest coups were a tome about the first world war that claimed, in the words of one reviewer, that Russia was “responsible for everything from the assassination of Franz Ferdinand to the Armenian genocide,” and a history of the Russian Revolution that argued Lenin’s victory showed what happens if you let liberals run a country. Hilariously, it also warned darkly of the new socialism of a Bernie Sanders or a Thomas Piketty.

Stalin’s War might well lead to heart attacks among historians of the second world war. In short, this fast-paced and well-written account argues that the historiography is too obsessed with Hitler, has underestimated the importance of Lend-Lease to the Soviet war effort, and has failed to see that the Soviet dictator was at least as bad as his German colleague. British and US support for the Soviet Union was caused by the leaders’ irrational “Stalinophilia,” not by a realistic assessment of the balance of forces. The Soviets only won because of Western military aid.

Such judgements are based on a caricatured picture of the literature on this war. Neither the authoritative three-volume Cambridge History of the Second World War (2015), nor Evan Mawdsley’s masterful short introduction (2009), for example, apologise for Stalin or concentrate on Hitler. The role of Lend-Lease has been discussed at length, and with significant nuance, including by scholars McMeekin quotes. And historians like Robert Gellately have written damning accounts of Stalin’s goals in war and cold war, which, predictably, are passed over by McMeekin. Don’t let bibliographical research get in the way of a good story.

If McMeekin is cavalier with historians who came before him, he’s often tendentious when it comes to using primary sources. To give one example: the speech of Stalin to the graduates of the Red Army military academies on 5 May 1941 that starts the book, which was published in 1998 in a collection famous among historians. This book is not “out of print today and difficult to find,” as McMeekin claims, but freely available on the internet. To cite the relevant section of the source in full:

Major-general of the tank forces is speaking. He proposes a toast to the peaceful Stalinist foreign policy.

Comrade Stalin: Allow me a correction. The peaceful policy ensured peace for our country. A peaceful policy is a good thing. For the time being, we pursued a line of defence — until we re-equipped our army, provided our army with modern means of fighting.

And now, when we have reconstructed our army, saturated it with equipment for modern combat, when we have become strong — now we need to move from defence to offence.

In order to defend our country, we are obliged to act in an offensive manner. From defence [we have to] transition to a military policy of offensive actions. We have to rebuild our education, our propaganda, our agitation, our press in an offensive spirit. The Red Army is a modern army, and a modern army is an offensive army.

Historians have puzzled over these words. Did Stalin tell his soldiers that he was planning offensive war? Did Stalin have one drink too many at the reception and make off-the cuff remarks he needed to walk back later? Or was this a pep talk to bring the troops into line with military doctrine: that any attack on the Soviet Union would be repulsed aggressively and finished quickly on the opponent’s territory? Each interpretation can be made plausible by citing other evidence, but none is provable beyond a reasonable doubt.

Historians are of course not obliged to tell their readers about every step they took from reading the sources to producing their interpretation. But McMeekin does something else altogether in order to advance his case against Stalin. Here is how he renders the leader’s remarks in his book:

What transpired next was so dramatic, so unexpected, that no one present ever forgot it… Stalin leapt to his feet, cut off the poor lieutenant general, and reproached him for pushing an “out of date policy.” Stalin then moderated his tone, reassuring the officers and party bosses present that the “Soviet peace policy”… had indeed bought the Red Army time to modernise and rearm, while also allowing the USSR to “push forward in the west and north, increasing its population by thirteen million in the process.” But the days of peaceful absorption of new territory, Stalin stated forthrightly, “had come to an end. Not another foot of ground can be gained with such peaceful sentiments.”

The Red Army, Stalin told its future commanders, “must get used to the idea that the era of the peace policy is at an end and that the era of widening the socialist front by force has begun.” Anyone “who failed to recognise the necessity of offensive action,” Stalin admonished, “was a bourgeois and a fool.” The defensive doctrine that had animated strategic planning and war-gaming for a European conflict prior to 1941, he explained, was appropriate only for a weak, unprepared Red Army.

This is not history in the normal sense of the word: a disciplined, if imaginative rendering of the past constrained by what the sources say. The archival account of this speech simply does not have Stalin leap to his feet; he says nothing about an “out of date policy,” a thirteen million population increase, or a push to the west and north. No bourgeois fools and widening fronts. Where does McMeekin get this from? I checked the online version of the source, its hard copy version in the collection he cites from, and the version in the Stalin archive (for which he gives a wrong file number in his footnote). Nowhere could I find words even close to these.

A close reading of the convoluted endnote to this episode and a trip to my university’s library eventually revealed the source: an account by a German diplomat who was not present at the occasion. Published in 1956 and cited in 1985 in a notorious German revisionist history (translated into English in 1987), this version relies on interrogations of captured Soviet soldiers later in the war. It has been dismissed by most historians for obvious reasons, but McMeekin claims that it conforms to other eyewitness accounts. I checked these, too: no such words. Instead, they confirm the more boring Soviet archival version.

The most telling quotations, then, the words that allow McMeekin to prosecute his case against Stalin the alleged warmonger, come from an account far removed from the actual speech and published well before the Soviet archives opened. They have been called “embellishment(s)” by the most in-depth investigation, which McMeekin cites as if it supports his reading (it does not). So much for the revelations from the Soviet archives on which this book is said to be based.

The misleading use of the 1941 speech is not the only technical concern historians might raise with McMeekin’s account. He misquotes a famous Stalin speech of 1931 as having taken place in 1928 (with a footnote leading nowhere); he misplaces Stalin’s deportation of the Soviet Korean population (which happened in 1937 in response to the outbreak of war in Asia) to 1938, allegedly some kind of perverse victory celebration after the Battle of Lake Khasan; he claims that Britain was “grasping for legal straws to avoid entanglement with Stalin” by interpreting the phrase “European power” in the 25 August 1939 Agreement of Mutual Assistance with Poland to mean Germany only (in fact this was explicitly stated in a secret protocol to the agreement); he asserts that the April 1941 neutrality pact with Japan allowed Stalin “to concentrate everything he had on the West,” stripping “his Far Eastern defenses” (in fact, Soviet troop strength in the east never fell below 1.1 million men, with significant military assets deployed throughout the war); etc. etc. His account of the role of US and British aid — central to his argument — is a beautiful polemic that unfortunately obscures the real constellation of forces and is not infrequently undermined by his own evidence.

Most egregiously, McMeekin cites a 1939 forgery of an alleged Stalin speech as authentic, claiming that it was recently “discovered in the Russian archives.” There is, indeed, a copy — in an archive holding foreign-origin documents — and it is a translation from a French original. Even the article McMeekin cites for proof of the authenticity of this document notes that “it seems to originate from an article published in the French La Revue universelle” in 1944. As the most accomplished political historian of Stalinism wrote in a work McMeekin cites himself: “Most historians have never assigned much significance to this forgery. Neither the Politburo archive nor Stalin’s own files contain even circumstantial evidence of such a speech.” But McMeekin cites it — because it fits his plot.

Such examples undermine confidence in McMeekin as a historian. His book makes a lot of arguable points: that Stalin always had one eye on his own Eastern Front, the front with Japan; that he was a Marxist who saw little difference between an English Tory and a German Nazi; that his foreign policy was cynical to an extreme degree, exploiting his allies as much as he could; that in the run-up to the notorious Molotov–Ribbentrop agreement of August 1939 he was far from a passive figure, actively shopping around for the best deal he could get for his country; that the Soviet invasion of Poland in 1939 was more than just a bloodless sideshow; that the Sovietisation of the newly acquired “western borderlands” in 1939–41 and then again from 1944 was an incredibly violent affair; that Britain and France could have stopped both the German war machine and Stalin’s expansion into eastern Europe had they bombed the Baku oilfields in 1940; that the April 1941 neutrality pact with Japan was a major “coup” with serious strategic consequences; that the Soviets were busily preparing for war with Germany in 1941; that Roosevelt was naive in his dealings with Stalin; and that both the US president and the British PM adopted “an attitude of wilful blindness toward Stalin’s crimes.” He is right, too, in pointing out that many aspects of Stalin’s war make it impossible to tell the story of the second world war as a simple fight of good against evil. But his zeal to completely discredit the Soviet (read: Russian) war effort has seduced him into suspending the critical method his métier demands.

McMeekin has thus done a great service to the history warrior in the Kremlin. Vladimir Putin has long complained that Western historians downplay his country’s contribution to victory over Germany and Japan. The Russian president has also offered his own tendentious account of how to properly understand this history. McMeekin’s account is an equally misleading response in a new international history (cold) war. A gifted writer and a talented polemicist, he has lowered the historian’s craft to the level of propaganda. The result is a lamentable step back in our understanding of Stalin and his second world war. Those Russian historians who follow the line laid down in the Kremlin will have a field day with this book as an example of Western distortions of history. McMeekin has made their job rather too easy. •