Review of “Stalin’s War: A New History of World War II” by Sean McMeekin

In Stalin’s War, distinguished historian Sean McMeekin has produced a decidedly revisionist history of World War II. He argues convincingly that Stalin wanted WWII at least as much as Hitler did. Moreover, Stalin was far more successful than Hitler was in that war, hence, the title of the book.

McMeekin analyzes the war from Stalin’s perspective. The Soviet Union was the world’s first communist country and it considered all capitalist countries as enemies. A primary goal of Russian diplomacy was to infiltrate capitalist governments with the goal of providing support Russia’s interests and to foment animosity among capitalist states. There were literally hundreds of Russian paid agents in the Roosevelt administration. Indeed, Harry Hopkins, FDR’s most trusted advisor, although not directly paid by the U.S.S.R., was certainly what Lenin would call a “useful idiot.”

Importantly, before World War II, Stalin encountered the same risk of a two-front war that Germany had in 1914. In 1938, not only were the Germans aggressive to his west, but Japan was busily grabbing large chunks of China to his east. In fact, the Japanese Army in Manchuko (today’s Manchuria) was fighting several hundred thousand soldiers of the Red Army and threatening Vladivostok, Russia’s only port on the Pacific. Still, Germany posed a greater threat, being much closer to the bulk of Russia’s population.

To secure his eastern flank, Stalin executed a non-aggression pact that granted terms very favorable to Japan. In fact, he honored that agreement throughout the coming world war. One aspect of that treaty affected American airmen who had attacked Japan and had to bail out or crash-land in Russia to avoid capture by the Japanese. Russia treated them as hostile prisoners of war even though they were fighting for a country that was supplying the Russians with vital supplies. On the other hand, American merchant marine seamen fared much better — the Japanese navy did not attack American commercial ships bound for Vladivostok, which allowed safe passage for enormous amounts of war materiel to be supplied for Russia’s war with Germany.

Stalin did not feel not fully prepared for war with Germany despite the fact that the principal thrust of the Soviet Union’s Five Year Plans of the 1930s was the “mass manufacture of modern military hardware.” Consequently, he jumped at the chance of a non-aggression pact with Germany, which resulted in the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact in 1939. During the negotiations for the pact, Stalin suggested to Hitler the partition of Poland.

Via Wikimedia Commons

Hitler attacked Poland in September 1939 and quickly conquered the western half of the country. Stalin waited only a few days after Hitler’s invasion to launch his own invasion of Poland which ended up with the Russians controlling more of Poland that Germany did.

Stalin’s fondest hope was that Germany would star a war with France and England, and that Russia could watch from the sidelines as the capitalists mauled each other. Russia would then find itself the dominant power in Europe without having to expend blood or treasure. Unfortunately for him, Germany did start such a war, but won it so quickly and at such low cost that the Soviet Union found itself in great peril from Hitler.

After the successful attack on Poland, Hitler turned west and attacked and occupied France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Norway. Meanwhile, the Russians quickly conquered Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, and Moldavia. The Russians also tried to take Finland, but met effective and heroic resistance and had to settle for a small slice of the southeastern part of the country.

A Red Army tank rolls in Finland. This and other great photos from the Winter War at https://www.rferl.org/a/finlands-winter-war-with-the-soviet-union/30280490.html

The stage was now set for Germany’s massive invasion of Russia. Here McMeekin tells a story quite different from what has come down from most western historians. The Russians may have been surprised by the timing of the attack, but they had been preparing for it for years. Contrary to popular opinion, the Germans did not have an advantage in tanks and artillery — the Russians had far more. Moreover, they greatly outnumbered the invaders.

McMeekin argues that the Russians maintained its advantage in armor and number of soldiers throughout the war, even in the early stages when they were clearly losing. In fact, the Germans were not as thoroughly mechanized as many western historians described — they relied on millions of horses rather than trucks for much movement of materiel. Ultimately, the Russians were able to out-maneuver and surround the Germans because they had enormous supplies of trucks and fighter planes that had been furnished at no charge by the United States.

Another myth that McMeekin counters is that the Germans had the vast majority of their troops on the Eastern Front. In fact, once Hitler had redeployed many divisions to the west for the famed Battle of the Bulge, there were more German soldiers in France and Italy than there were on the Eastern Front.

McMeekin is highly critical of Roosevelt and, to a lesser extent, Churchill regarding their dealings with Stalin. If the point of the war was to save Poland and Eastern Europe from foreign subjugation, then the war was an abysmal failure for the West. Churchill gets particularly low marks for abandoning Mikhailovich and the Chetniks in Yugoslavia so that Tito’s Communists could prevail there. The end of the war found Stalin in charge of all of Eastern Europe.

Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin at the Yalta conference, February 1945. Universal Images Group/Getty Images

McMeekin argues that “the most lasting consequence of Stalin’s victories in 1945 was the impetus they had given to Communist expansion in Asia, above all in China.” Russia did not enter the war against Japan until the final weeks when the results were clear. However, Stalin was able to position many divisions in East Asia. From there, they could supply Mao’s communist forces with tanks, artillery, and other materiel. At the same time, the western powers soured on Chiang Kai-shek (the Chinese Nationalist politician, revolutionary and military leader who served as the leader of the Mainland Republic of China from 1928 until 1949, and then in Taiwan) and ceased helping him against Mao. McMeekin says, “the mystery is not that Mao won the Chinese Civil War, but that it took him three more years to do so.”

McMeekin concludes with several acerbic observations:

“By objective measures of territory conquered and war booty seized, Stalin was the victor in both Europe an Asia, and no one else came close.”

“The notion that a great American victory was achieved in 1945 is hard to square with the strategic reality of the Cold War, which required a gargantuan expenditure over decades merely to hold the line at the Fulda Gap before the USSR finally collapsed in 1991.”

“The ultimate price of victory was paid by the tens of millions of involuntary subjects of Stalin’s satellite regimes in Europe and Asia, including Maoist China, along with the millions of Soviet dissidents, returned Soviet POWs, and captured war prisoners who were herded into Gulag camps. . . . For subjects of his expanding slave empire, Stalin’s war did not end in 1945. Decades of oppression and new forms of terror were still to come.”

Evaluation: This is an unnerving book, beautifully written and forcefully argued.

Rating: 5/5

Published by Basic Books, an imprint of Perseus Books, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, 2021

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