Rewriting History for the New Cold War
Stalin’s War: A New History of World War II, by Sean McMeekin, (Basic Books: April 2021), 864 pages.
When the Russian government recently terminated a nearly quarter-century relationship between an American college and a Russian university, was a book on the history of World War II the tipping point?
On April 16, 2021, Russia’s Foreign Ministry announced its intention to “bring to an end” the activities of U.S.-funded foundations and non-governmental organizations (NGOs). One month later, Russia declared liberal arts Bard College, located in upstate New York State, an “undesirable” organization “threatening Russia’s constitutional order and security.” Russia’s step means Bard must cease all activities in Russia, notably its relationship with St. Petersburg State University. Anyone who ignores this ruling could be liable to fines or imprisonment up to six years.
Bard College president Leon Botstein said he was “heartbroken” about what he called a “blacklisting.” But Botstein, a Global Board Member along with George Soros of the Open Society Foundations advisory board, could hardly be surprised by Russia’s decision. Soros’s Open Society Foundations—banned in Russia in 2015 as an “undesirable” NGO—has been a generous Bard donor for some time. Indeed, on April 21, 2021, Bard announced it had received a Soros endowment pledge of $500 million.
Inside Higher Education reports that the state prosecutor’s office in Russia gave no reason for “criminalizing” Bard, though speculation surrounds the Soros connection. Yet the Bard-Soros partnership has been no secret for years. Why now?
Perhaps one reason is whom Bard hires to teach history. This is where historian Sean McMeekin and his book Stalin’s War: A New History of World War II come into the story.
According to University of Melbourne historian Mark Edele, Stalin’s War “will suit Vladimir Putin very well.” The truth is that it will do nothing of the sort. According to historian Richard Evans, McMeekin’s anti-Russian “bias” is “breathtaking.”
McMeekin is Bard’s Francis Flournoy Professor of European History and Culture and has been publishing books on European history since 2003. His career could be described as revisionism on steroids. In 2011, he argued that Russian statesmen mainly “unleashed” World War I. The “key to the outbreak of violence” in the summer of 1914 “lies in St. Petersburg,” he wrote, not in Berlin or Vienna or Paris.
Later, while teaching in Turkey, he drew criticism for his refusal to use the word “genocide” to describe the horrors Turks inflicted on hundreds of thousands of Armenians in 1915. During World War I, he argued, Armenian nationalists in Turkey invited Russian armed intervention onto Turkish soil but were left in the lurch by the devious Russians. In challenging the hotly controversial question of Turkey’s treatment of the Armenian minority, McMeekin was following his mentor, the late Scottish historian Norman Stone, who admitted the Turks committed massacres but denied that they qualified as genocide.
McMeekin tells me personally that for everyone at Bard, Russia’s decision “seemed to come out of nowhere, really.” That may indeed be a common perception on campus. Yet McMeekin surely knows that a book on Stalin is highly controversial in Russia, where in recent years Vladimir Putin has been quietly rehabilitating Stalin’s image and encouraging an interpretation that minimizes Soviet responsibility for World War II.
To put it mildly, Stalin’s War attacks this narrative. McMeekin contends that it’s time to move past “the roseate glow of the ‘Good War.’” He observes, “If the point was to save Poland and Eastern Europe from foreign subjugation, then [World War II] was an abysmal failure.” His thesis is that an “obsessively German-centric literature” has distracted attention from the pivotal role Soviet dictator Josef Stalin played in world events between the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931 and the Cold War.
The war that broke out in September 1939, over Hitler’s invasion of Poland, was “precisely the war that Stalin wanted” and swiftly turned out to be the war that Hitler most certainly did not desire, if we are to believe Stalin’s War.
McMeekin begins with Stalin front and center, yet as his story unfolds President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill attract most of his attention. “It was Roosevelt and Churchill themselves,” McMeekin writes, “who made the critical decisions that turned the conflict into Stalin’s war.” According to McMeekin, they played into Stalin’s brutal and cynical hands with a succession of foreign policy blunders which enabled the Soviet dictator to emerge from the war as a totalitarian ruler of vast territories stretching from Korea in the east to Berlin in the west. McMeekin argues that during the war FDR and Churchill missed tremendous opportunities to strike a blow against “totalitarian aggression” in the form of Hitlerism and Stalinism.
Roosevelt, in particular, draws McMeekin’s criticism time and time again for his admittedly bizarre belief that he could charm Stalin at the negotiating table, an approach that Stalin’s “duplicity” exploited to the hilt. It was not until shortly before his death on April 12, 1945, that Roosevelt finally realized that “Stalin was not a man of his word,” as FDR put it. This was after the American government through its Lend-Lease scheme had supplied Stalin with $11.1 billion in war materiel, industrial equipment, technology transfer, and intellectual property, without which, according to McMeekin, Stalin could never have beaten the Germans. McMeekin’s conclusion is that Churchill and Roosevelt had practised an “appeasement of the most abject kind.”
McMeekin’s insistence that World War II was mostly Stalin’s fault does not lead him to subscribe to some of the most questionable theories about World War II, such as the unfounded allegation that Hitler’s 1941 invasion of Stalin’s Russia was defensive in nature. Nor would it be fair to dismiss Stalin’s War as merely an exercise in Soros-style Russia-bashing. Like all his writings, McMeekin’s book is eminently readable, testimony to his considerable story-telling powers. His book should be required reading, if only for the way he catalogues Stalin’s many hair-raising crimes against humanity. The public relations campaign on the American home front, aided and abetted by communist fellow-travellers and outright Soviet spies, to turn Stalin and the Soviet state into freedom-loving democrats stands unquestionably as one of the most disturbing propaganda endeavors in all of history. No less than Time magazine, for example, named Stalin “Man of the Year” for 1942.
However, in the face of all the evidence of Soviet villainy, the reader may easily forget that Adolf Hitler’s name is missing in McMeekin’s book for dozens of pages at a time. Like A.J.P. Taylor, whose The Origins of the Second World War (1962) I remember reading excitedly as an undergraduate, McMeekin would have us believe that Hitler was less a driver of events than a world leader who reacted to the evolving moves of Josef Stalin or his British, French, or American counterparts. McMeekin’s success at showing Stalin’s appallingly nasty role in world affairs notwithstanding, it all comes back to Hitler. It is a bald defiance of the evidence to write a history of World War II by demoting Hitler to the historical background. Stalin stood athwart world history by 1946 not just because FDR and Churchill “appeased” him, but because Hitler shattered eastern Europe’s uneasy peace by invading Poland on September 1, 1939, and then violated his non-aggression pact with Stalin on June 22, 1941.
Stalin’s War fits comfortably into a world where it is now fashionable to hate Russia. Earlier this summer, Nick Carter, Britain’s top military commander, told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation that Putin’s Russia was “an acute threat” to European peace. The CBC’s coverage of Carter’s comment was the latest in a series of media stories in recent years about Putin’s foreign policy, his clampdown on dissent in Russia, and his alleged “meddling” in the domestic affairs of other countries. Last March, President Joe Biden even called Putin a “killer.” The twist on anti-Russianism today is that, unlike during the anti-communist years of the 1950s, it’s now the Soros-backed progressive left that demonizes Moscow.
In the final analysis, Stalin’s War hardly poses a security threat to Putin. It is not single-handedly responsible for Russia’s recent “blacklisting” of Bard. But if there is a new Cold War between Washington and Putin’s government, Sean McMeekin’s book does nothing to improve relations.
Ian Dowbiggin is a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada and teaches modern European history at the University of Prince Edward Island.