From the bookshelf: Stalin as war lord
27 Jul 2021|

There is only one hill of any consequence in the city of Volgograd (Stalingrad). It is Mamayev Kurgan, which became a critical point of battle for both the German Wehrmacht and the Soviet Red Army during the titanic struggle for the city in late 1942 to early 1943.

Today at Mamayev, the heroes of the Battle of Stalingrad from the Red Army are commemorated. The memorial is dominated by a colossal statue of a woman wielding an enormous sword; it’s titled ‘The Motherland Calls’. Around the base carved in Cyrillic script, accompanying a mosaic of the defeated German 6th Army going into captivity, are the chilling words (as translated for me): ‘They wanted to see the Volga, so we gave them the opportunity.’ But it is the faces of the Soviet soldiers which are even more remarkable. Overwhelmingly, they are Red Army troops from the Asian republics of the USSR: from Kazakhstan to Tajikistan, right across to Mongolia and Siberia. The Motherland had called, then drafted, and the Asian citizens had responded along with their Western Soviet counterparts.

This symbolises one of the astonishing realities of the Great Patriotic War, as Joseph Stalin characterised the Soviet response to the Nazi invasion of 22 June 1941. There was a total mobilisation of everyone and every institution in the Soviet Union, from the party and the government through the Orthodox Church and every element of industrial life to the peoples themselves.

There’s no doubt that the Russian front was the decisive battleground of the war against Nazi Germany. It’s estimated that some 90% of Wehrmacht casualties were suffered in the East. Now, Sean McMeekin has given us Stalin’s war: a new history of World War II, which places the USSR in the centerground globally of the war against the Axis, including Japan. At the core of this interpretation of the Soviet contribution to victory in the Second World War is the Vozhd (boss), Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin.

McMeekin is a professor of history at Bard College in New York State. He is an acclaimed author of histories of the Russian Revolution and of the Ottoman Empire. He has written an exhaustive history of Stalin’s role in the Soviet victory over the Axis, but also of the diplomatic offensive which Stalin undertook to stay out of the war with both Germany and Japan from the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact of 1939 to the Soviet–Japanese Neutrality Pact of 1941. In so doing, he sheds new light on Soviet foreign and defence policy as war erupted in Asia from 1931, with Japan’s invasion of Manchuria, through to the aggressive designs crystallising in Nazi Germany during a period of Western appeasement in the late 1930s.

McMeekin has dug deeply and revealingly into archives throughout Europe and Russia and in the United States. He has been rewarded by discovering material which causes both pre-war and Second World War confrontations to be subject to reinterpretation.

He places Soviet diplomacy in a continuum under Stalin, from his earliest Leninist views of ensuring that the USSR stayed out of capitalist wars through to securing the borders of the young Soviet state.

But Stalin was ruthless well beyond statesmanship. McMeekin characterises the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union as a ‘gangster pact’ which allowed the destruction of Poland by opening the Polish state to Nazi invasion and Soviet conquest. The Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania also fell under Soviet domination. The war in Finland, also characterised as a gangster pact by McMeekin, developed very differently. The Red Army, bled of its leadership cadres through purges, including Marshal Mikhail Tukhachevsky, suffered grievous losses against the extraordinarily courageous but hopelessly outnumbered Finnish armed forces.

A peace with Finland saved Moscow’s face, but the lessons were obvious. Despite Stalin’s massive military build-up, especially and foolishly along the USSR’s European borders, the Red Army was in no shape to fight the Axis. But McMeekin’s labours in the archives have yielded significant intellectual fruit. He argues convincingly that the success of the détente with Hitler’s Germany was already passing by May 1941. Stalin was moving to an offensive military prospect.

At a ceremony at the Frunze Military Academy in Moscow that month, before 2,000 military and governmental personnel, Stalin denounced the academy’s director, Lieutenant General M.S. Khozin, who had complimented the dictator on his ‘peace policy’ (meaning the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact).

‘Before he could finish his platitudes, Stalin leapt to his feet, cut off the poor Lieutenant General, and reproached him for pushing “an out-of-date policy” … The Red Army, Stalin told his future commanders, “must get used to the idea that the era of the peace policy is at an end and that the era of the widening of the socialist front by force has begun”.’

Stalin’s diplomacy with Japan, however, yielded great benefit for the Vozhd. A quiet Far Eastern border meant the Red Army had one primary enemy, in Berlin. And when Moscow was threatened by the Germans in December 1941, General Georgy Zhukov was able to bring 30 Siberian divisions to the defence of the capital. In this critical encounter and in other battles on the Eastern Front, McMeekin emphasises the contribution of lend-lease aid from Western allies but is critical of both London and Washington for not demanding more of Stalin in return for the sustained wave of military assistance—everything from tanks and trucks to ammunition and artillery.

Franklin Roosevelt and his emissary Harry Hopkins come in for particular criticism. But the author overlooks the reality that in 1941–42, Britain and America were desperate to keep the Soviet Union fighting. Another treaty between Stalin and Hitler would have released 150 Axis divisions for action in the West. The stakes were too high to demand anything of Moscow in those early years of the war.

The decision taken by Washington and London to defeat Adolf Hitler first was also correct, despite McMeekin’s unease. Nazi Germany was a far greater threat than Imperial Japan.

However, when Stalin kept his promise to the West to enter the Asia–Pacific War in August 1945, the consequences could not have been foreseen. The Red Army smashed the Japanese Kwantung Army in a matter of days and drove into the north of the Korean peninsula. The immense amount of Japanese war booty passed largely to Mao Zedong’s communist Eighth Route Army. In 1949, the People’s Republic of China was born.

This book is indeed a new history of World War II and is told in a persuasive narrative that builds in authority as the war progresses. Stalin as war lord was every bit as cruel and indifferent to suffering as ever. He proved that with his treatment of Soviet POWs, including in his own family. But there is no question that along with Winston Churchill and Roosevelt, and with Australia’s John Curtin, he was a leader whose strengths and capacities emerged as ultimately formidable during the Second World War.

This book offers an original approach and McMeekin succeeds in his goal. Tellingly, and justifiably, Stalin’s war is dedicated to the victims.