The Second World War Was Not Stalin’s War
Sean McMeekin's new work is compelling, unorthodox, and wrong.
Stalin’s War: A New History of WWII, by Sean McMeekin (Basic Books: 2021), 864 pages.
The peoples of the Russian Federation—despite the imperishable cynicism that so many express on matters political—still take a romantic pride in the role their families and nation played in vanquishing Nazism.
To most of them, the Great Patriotic War (1941-1945) is not only a matter of psychological interest (in that their own family members fought, suffered, and died in that struggle), but a moral achievement. Not only did the soldiers of the Red Army overpower an uncommonly depraved enemy, but they withstood historic sufferings (approximately 30 million casualties) to do so, while their incidental Anglo-American Allies played a relatively marginal role in the fighting and dying.
This narrative is distinguished among nationalistic myths in that many historians regard it as substantially true. But the revisionist historian Sean McMeekin seeks to diminish it. He makes three core contentions in his combative and well-written Stalin’s War: that Stalin was at least as responsible for the outbreak of war as was Hitler; that the relative burden shouldered by the Red Army during the war has been exaggerated by historians who overlook the critical sacrifice of America through its Lend-Lease shipments of foodstuffs and armaments to the Soviet Union; and that the evils of the Soviet Union were equivalent to those of Nazism.
The premises McMeekin uses to defend these striking conclusions are quite pedestrian. That Stalin butchered and enslaved millions for cracked ideological reasons, or to subdue his oscillating paranoias, are hardly revisionist insights; nor is the serious reader ignorant of the Soviet invasion of Finland (1939), or the secret protocols of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, which dismembered Eastern Europe into Soviet and Nazi “spheres of influence,” to be consolidated through wars of aggression. The steady shipment of Caucasian oil from the USSR to Germany, circa 1940-1941, and its important role in supplying an oil-starved Wehrmacht, has been acknowledged by generations of military historians.
McMeekin somehow infers from these well-known facts that Stalin was principally responsible for the outbreak of war in 1939, and that he even bears considerable responsibility for Hitler’s decision to invade the USSR in 1941. A less breathless analysis of these facts reveals Stalin as a mere enabler—not the architect—of Hitler’s early conquests. Surely, Hitler also enabled Stalin, whose invasions of European nations could only be carried out under cover of the war that Hitler started, and with the assurances provided by the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. But it would be tendentious to, for example, assign Hitler primary responsibility for Stalin’s invasion of Finland.
One way in which prior revisionists have tried to demonstrate that the Second World War was Stalin’s war is by arguing that the Soviets were imminently planning an invasion of Germany at the time of Barbarossa, and that therefore Barbarossa was a preemptive war of defense by the Germans. McMeekin is agnostic on this so-called “Icebreaker” hypothesis, calling Soviet deployments of troops to the West in June 1941 “positively breathtaking,” yet acknowledging that there is no proof “that Stalin had already resolved on war” at this time, and accepting that these Soviet deployments were probably in response to “galloping reports of an impending German-led invasion of European Russia.” (In suggesting that Stalin might have been planning to attack Germany, McMeekin cites two supposed speeches from the Soviet dictator. As Professor Mark Edele observes, one of these is a patent forgery, and the other misrepresented and embellished by McMeekin.)
McMeekin’s timidity regarding the Icebreaker hypothesis is prudent, given that there is exactly zero evidence in the Soviet or German archives indicating that the Germans regarded Barbarossa as a preemptive strike. But if McMeekin is not confident that Stalin was planning to attack Germany, how can he assign the Soviet dictator responsibility for Hitler’s escalation of the Second World War in June 1941?
McMeekin would have his reader believe that diplomatic disputes over the scope of Soviet and Nazi spheres of influences—expressed in the course of late-1940 negotiations over potential Soviet entry into the Axis Powers—caused or motivated Hitler’s war of annihilation (Vernichtungskrieg) against the Soviet Union.
But Hitler and his generals had been plotting this war (codenamed Operation Otto) since July 1940, long before his dispute with Stalin over Soviet rights to occupy Bulgaria and to control the Turkish Straits. Moreover, in the course of his negotiations with the Germans, Molotov gave no indication that these territorial demands would be pursued without Hitler’s permission, which the Führer had previously given to Stalin’s annexations of Lithuania and northern Bukovina.
Whatever their parameters, the secret spheres of influence negotiated under the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact were imperial and criminal, and “violating” or revising them was no cause for war. Moreover, Hitler also encroached on the Soviet sphere of influence through German military occupation of Finland, a fact that adds an ironic tang to McMeekin’s argument.
After attempting to argue that Stalin was responsible for the outbreak of war, McMeekin devotes considerable energy to discussing Anglo-American shipments of armaments, food, and raw materials to the USSR, specifically arguing that the aid was excessive, and the policy exploitative of the United States. McMeekin’s Franklin Roosevelt is a wide-eyed American naïf whose deference to Stalin—in terms of Roosevelt’s implacable support for Lend-Lease aid, and his oily and ingratiating correspondences with the Soviet dictator—arise from his awkward admiration for the exotic foreign system Stalin ran. But McMeekin’s leading villain is Lend-Lease supervisor and Roosevelt confidante Harry Hopkins, whom he portrays essentially as a fifth column working in Washington on behalf of Moscow.
While he argues that Lend-Lease was imprudent, McMeekin simultaneously recognizes that it was essential for a Soviet victory. He shows that the Soviets were on the verge of collapse in 1941 and early 1942, suffering from “acute economic vulnerability”, a food crisis (having been deprived of its “black earth” regions of Ukraine and Southern Russia), and in desperate need of more and better armaments.
This contention—which McMeekin compellingly supports by data showing that the Axis and Soviets were fairly evenly matched in manpower and armaments, following the German conquests and Soviet catastrophes of 1941—contradicts his claim that Lend-Lease was exorbitant and unnecessary. If Lend-Lease aid “restored mobility and morale to Stalin’s armies when they most needed it,” surely the policy was justified for an American president who wanted to defeat the Nazis while minimizing U.S. casualties.
McMeekin is also unconvincing in his broader claim that the Red Army’s contribution to victory over the Nazis has been somehow overstated. It is true that Lend-Lease was critical to the Soviet War effort. But the Red Army paid for these armaments in blood, killing far more German soldiers, and enduring astronomically higher casualty rates, than the British and Americans combined.
The suffering of Soviet civilians was also bewildering. During the siege of Leningrad—a city Hitler planned to raze when captured, and whose civilian population Wehrmacht Army Group North was ordered to starve—nearly one million people died of hunger. Modern history has never recorded a larger loss of life in a single city. By setting aside such historic sufferings and deprecating Lend-Lease for the sacrifices it entailed for well-fed American civilians—who, McMeekin tells us, often had to eat margarine during the war while butter was shipped to the Soviet Union—McMeekin showcases a glib inability to handle moral priorities.
Finally, McMeekin attempts to equate the evils of Nazism and Soviet Communism. In this connection, McMeekin reminds us of Stalin’s record of aggression in Poland, Finland, the Baltic States, and the Balkans between 1939 and 1941. And he catalogues the appalling fate of mass murder, enslavement, and ethnic cleansing that befell so many Eastern Europeans following Soviet conquest of Nazi-occupied Europe.
But McMeekin fails to emphasize a core distinction between Nazi and Soviet aggression. From 1939 to 1941, Stalin’s imperial aims were basically revanchist, in that they aimed at reconsolidating the territory of the pre-World War I Russian Empire. This motive does not mitigate the wickedness or stupidity of Stalin’s conquests. But it still mattered tremendously, insofar as it meant Soviet aggression was limited to more or less precise geographic borders. (One might cite against the claim of revanchism the Soviet annexation of northern Bukovina, but it is not clear why this overwhelmingly Ukrainian, non-Romanian region should have been kept by Romania rather than being incorporated into the Ukrainian SSR.)
So too was the postwar intrusion of Soviet Communism into Europe limited. While freeing Eastern Europe from Nazi occupation, Stalin took the opportunity to impose Soviet domination not only on former Russian territory, but on the territories of Nazi Germany’s eastern allies Bulgaria, Hungary, and Romania, on Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia and Albania, and of course on what would become known as “East Germany.” Stalin thereby used the pretense of the aggressive war started by Nazi Germany to obscure the criminality of his own aggression in Eastern Europe.
Yet the postwar border scheme provided fixed limitations on the spread of Communism in Europe, limits that abided throughout generations of Cold War. These limitations are also reflected in Communist Yugoslavia’s independence from Soviet influence, and in Communist Albania’s successful break from the Soviet Union in 1960.
Recognizing that Soviet Imperialism was susceptible to such limitations does not constitute apologia therefor, but is essential to understanding the view of most historians, that Soviet Communism was the lesser evil compared to Nazism.
In equating Stalin’s conquests with those Hitler, McMeekin disregards how wild and intemperate the latter was. His Mein Kampf and Zweites Buch advocated Germanic racial superiority, and justified on these unappeasable grounds the conquest and ethnic cleansing of Eastern Europe. Hitler’s first conquest, Czechoslovakia in 1938, can only be seen as an expression of this racial ideology; Germany lacked a coherent military or ethnic interest in this majority-Slav, formerly Habsburg territory. And it came mere months after the notorious Munich Conference, when Great Britain granted Germany the Sudetenland after Hitler swore to Chamberlain that it would be his final territorial claim.
Herein lies a foundational difference between Hitler and Stalin: the former was not constrained in the slightest by treaties or diplomacy.
Just as Hitler’s ambitions of conquest were more extravagant than Stalin’s, so too were the cruelties he wished to inflict on the peoples of the East more unfathomable. Grim as life in the Soviet Union and its bloc states was, it was preferable to the genocidal racism most of the Slavic peoples would have faced had the Nazis prevailed. Yet—while forthrightly detailing the Holocaust of European Jewry—Stalin’s War overlooks how Nazis targeted the non-Jewish Slavic peoples of Eastern Europe.
While discussing the “Hunger Plan” and the starvation of millions of Russian POWs in German custody, McMeekin obscures the racist foundation of this genocidal policy: various Slavic populations, particularly Russians and Poles, were deemed sub-humans (“Untermenschen”) by the Nazis. Ignoring Nazi racial ideology, McMeekin goes so far as to suggest that mere “negligence”, not necessarily “deliberate intent,” might have accounted for the over three million deaths—58 percent of all Red Army POWs captured by the Nazis.
This notion is discredited, however, by the German archives. They tell us that the POWs were deliberately starved until the Germans decided, following the failure of Barbarossa to conquer the Soviet Union in 1941, to use this vast human reserve for work and military service. After German policymakers decided that the POWs would play a role in the German war effort, Hitler ordered in January 1942 that they be provided with adequate rations, and mortality rates plummeted.
The POW matter is just one instance in which McMeekin minimizes the genocidal policies the Nazis unleashed on Slavic peoples. In trivializing this legacy, McMeekin goes so far as to contend that, in Eastern Europe, “German aggression left behind much less of a trace than the Stalinist variety.” This disregards the vastly greater human and economic toll inflicted by the Nazis on the East.
To take Poland as one example: through mass murder, enslavement, ethnic cleansing, and a systematic attempt to destroy Polish ethnic identity—including the repression of education, literature, cultural life, and even the use of the Polish language—the Nazis made considerable progress in their goal of eliminating Poles as an ethnic group. During the reign of Hans Frank’s General Government, the Nazis murdered between two to three million ethnic Poles (as well as 90 percent of Polish Jewry, or three million Polish Jews), and ethnically cleansed or enslaved millions more.
Stalin’s War is useful for dialectical purposes, as a stimulant for more research. And it is an exciting read, with a dynamic style and robustly revisionist theses. However, few conscientious readers—whether Russian citizens with identities bound up in a patriotic narrative of the war, or Western historians with no psychic stake in the matter—will find in McMeekin’s provocations cause to doubt the conventional history of the Second World War.
Matthew Ghobrial Cockerill holds an M.A. from the University of Chicago, where he focused on Middle Eastern and German history.