Stalin’s War: A New History of World War II
By Sean McMeekin
Great history books are revelatory. This characteristic makes them hard to put down. Often the revelation comes from new facts and historical data that the author discovers through lengthy research. It is becoming harder to find such works. This is not because there is a lack of history to discover. The job takes hard work and years of dedication. Too much of the current historical literature is not revealing anything new. It is rather a reinterpretation of what is already known in narrative form. This tells the reader less about the history and more about how the historian wants us to understand the history. None of this is the case in Stalin’s War.
Dr. Sean McMeekin’s book, Stalin’s War: A New History of World War II, is an ambitious and provocative historical account. The author’s attention to detail and in-depth research provides a trove of new information about Joseph Stalin and the Soviet Union. As a result, it is the rediscovery of forgotten historical events that drives the core of Dr. McMeekin’s thesis. In the case of the Soviet Union, the fact that historians like Dr. McMeekin are unearthing new facts nearly 70 years after the death of Stalin reinforces the central premise of the book. That is the Soviet Union under Stalin was a duplicitous and immoral regime that played geopolitical chess in pursuit of worldwide communist revolution. Furthermore, they were as depraved as the Nazis and equally culpable in the start and perpetuation of World War II.
The tragedy of this history is that Churchill and Roosevelt never grasped that the Soviets were as morally corrupt as the Nazis. This fact appears most notably in the personal meetings between Roosevelt, Stalin, and Churchill. Stalin’s War sheds light on the ineptitude of Roosevelt in dealing with his Soviet counterpart. Dr. McMeekin illustrates that Roosevelt had a deep desire to be liked if not loved by the communist dictator. If we take a schoolyard analogy, think of a bully on the playground. Stalin would be that bully. Then consider another weaker kid that wants the bully to like him. Unfortunately, this kid would be Roosevelt. Typically, the schoolyard bully would want to beat up the weaker kid. But the weaker kid has an ace to play. His parents are rich and every day he brings shiny new toys to school. To get the bully to like him, the weaker rich kid lets the bully “borrow” his shiny new toys. But the bully doesn’t like him. In fact, the bully has contempt for the rich kid with the shiny new toys. The only reason the bully doesn’t beat him up is because he might lose access to the shiny new toys.
What were the shiny new toys that Roosevelt had to offer? They came in the form of Lend-Lease aid, and they were much more destructive and expensive than the typical Hot Wheels. Dr. McMeekin runs through the numbers in terms of tanks, planes, weapons, oil, steel, aluminum, and even butter. All of these were offered to the Stalin to “borrow.” The purpose behind the aid was to help the Soviet Union on the eastern front after Nazi Germany launched Operation Barbarossa. Thus, Roosevelt’s intentions were noble. But the size and scope of the aid was incredible costing the United States over $1 trillion in today’s dollars. Even more telling is that the aid was delivered with no strings attached. There was never any guarantee that the USSR would pay it back. And, of course, they never did. Meanwhile, Britain paid off its debt over the course of 61 years with a final payment in December 2006.
Dr. McMeekin goes into great detail about the conferences at Tehran, Potsdam, and Yalta when Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin met. One would think that Roosevelt and Churchill would have presented a united front against Stalin. But it wasn’t so. In fact, there were many times in which Churchill was on his own. In one case, Stalin felt brazen enough to make fun of Churchill to his face. Churchill was like the cool, athletic kid in the schoolyard. The bully would like to beat him up, but knows that its going to be a tough, bloody fight. Besides there are plenty of weaker kids to pick on and a rival bully to worry about. Of course, the rival bully was Nazi Germany.
Germany’s invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939 would not have happened without Stalin. The two bullies in the European schoolyard, the Nazis and the Soviets, colluded together. They signed a non-aggression pact called the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. That pact was signed on August 23, 1939. It is named after each country’s foreign affairs minister, Ribbentrop for the Nazis, and Molotov for the Soviets. Dr. McMeekin explains that this pact should give Stalin as much culpability for starting World War II as Hitler. While the Nazis fired the first shot, the Soviets were not far behind them. Indeed, Soviet forces invaded Poland on September 17, 1939. Poland was the dividing line in the European sandbox. One bully struck from the west (Nazi Germany) and the other bully struck from the east (the USSR). They both decided to respect each other’s half of the sandbox initially.
The Soviet invasion of Poland was the opening salvo in Stalin’s war. It was quickly followed by the invasion and subjugation of the Baltic States of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia. The USSR also invaded Finland and part of Romania. The invasion of Finland was less successful than the others. Dr. McMeekin points out that the USSR invaded six countries after collaborating with the Nazis. But the western powers did not see Stalin’s belligerence in the same way that they saw Hitler’s. Dr. McMeekin explores the many reasons why this was the case. One of the primary reasons is that the USSR was less public about their intentions than the Nazis.
The Soviets and the Nazis were equally immoral, but ideologically opposed. Long-term they were foes and likely to go to war. So, what was Stalin’s purpose in collaborating with Hitler? First, he was gambling that the western Allied powers would enter the war and fight against Nazi Germany. That gamble paid off. From Stalin’s point of view the Anglo-American allies and the Nazis were no different. They were all part of a global capitalist system and were, therefore, enemies of communism. The USSR was committed to destroying them for the sake of communist revolution. However, Stalin wagered that it was better if they destroyed each other first and then the USSR could mop up the pieces. What Stalin miscalculated was how quickly Nazi Germany would be able to conquer western Europe through their infamous blitzkrieg. Unlike World War I, there was no western front. Hitler’s war machine was much more formidable and had learned from the tactical and operational failures of the first world war. As a result, Stalin faced the prospect of a stronger and more aggressive Germany that could soon turn its sights on the USSR, which, eventually, it did.
What Britain and the United States never seemed to understand was that Stalin was not simply a nationalist committed to defending the borders of Mother Russia from Nazi aggression. On the contrary, Stalin was a true ideologue and as committed to communist revolution as Hitler was to German lebensraum. The Allies never took seriously Stalin’s global ambitions. Soviet conquest and Nazi conquest were equally brutal. Millions of people of different races and nationalities suffered the same harsh fate under the Soviets that Jews suffered under the Nazis. The Soviets executed political prisoners and sent many to gulags. In Poland, the Soviets were the perpetrators of the infamous Katyn massacre. Despite the USSR’s consistent denial (until 1990), Stalin personally approved the massacre of over 20,000 Polish officers and POWs in the spring of 1940. When the Soviets invaded Germany in 1945, they raped, pillaged, and engaged in random acts of violence. Stalin sanctioned rape. Additionally, Soviet soldiers killed refugee women and children and, in some cases, ran over by tanks. They looted and burned homes. In fact, Soviet brutality extended to their own people. Dr. McMeekin explains that Soviet POWs in American custody often attempted suicide to avoid involuntary repatriation to the USSR. The monstrosity that was Stalin’s Soviet Union was more than apparent by the time V-E Day arrived on May 9, 1945.
The treatment of conquered people illustrates the stark moral contrast between the western powers and the Soviet Union. There is a reason that refugees fled west and continued to do so until the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. In 1983, when President Ronald Reagan called the Soviet Union an “evil empire”, he was not wrong. The Soviet Union was rotten to the core just like the Nazis. It is a shame that the western powers either did not realize this fact, ignored it, or perhaps were duped by the many Soviet infiltrators that populated high ranking positions in the U.S. government. If the western powers had realized this fact, then perhaps the only aid they would have offered Stalin would have been indirect by pouring American money and resources into the liberation of western Europe. If American military power had been solely dedicated to freeing France and defeating Germany than the western Allies could have done the latter without the Red Army storming into Berlin. Furthermore, Stalin would not have received the military equipment, supplies, and technology that would enable the Soviet regime to subjugate the eastern European nations that fell behind the Iron Curtain. History is full of unknowns. Stalin’s War uncovers a lot of previous unknowns. In doing so, it raises a lot more “what ifs.”
Additional Reading and Resources:
Britain pays off World War II debt in 2006: Link
Ronald Reagan’s great speeches:
How Wars End Podcast interview