Sean McMeekin: The story behind “Stalin’s War”

Sean McMeekin is Francis Flournoy Professor of European History and Culture at Bard College and the author of Stalin’s War: A New History of World War II, officially published by Basic Books today. Professor McMeekin is one of the most prominent of the younger generation of historians of the Soviet Union. His first book — The Red Millionaire — is a personal favorite of mine. He graciously accepted my invitation to send us a column that would allow us to give readers a preview of his new book. Professor McMeekin writes:

Like many Americans with a love for history, I was weaned on popular chronicles of World War II, from glossy secondary works and novels to Hollywood blockbusters, from Casablanca and The Dirty Dozen to Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan. The “Good War” always gives Americans a satisfactory conclusion, with Hitler and Nazi evil defeated, Holocaust horrors brought to an end, and the USA emerging on the world stage as a righteous superpower.

Over the years, however, doubts began to creep in about just how righteous the war’s outcome was for millions of Europeans and Asians less fortunate in geography than Americans are. Coming of age in the late Cold War years, I learned to appreciate the wisdom of Churchill’s famous warning about the “Iron Curtain” which had descended on eastern Europe in 1945, not to mention the war’s unfinished business in Asia, from the Korean and Vietnam wars and the fallout resulting from them to the rise of Communist China as a strategic adversary every bit as formidable as the Soviet Union had been, if not more so.

As a young historian, I benefitted enormously from the opening of the Russian archives after the fall of the USSR in 1991, although in my first forays into Soviet history in works such as The Red Millionaire (2004) and History’s Greatest Heist (2008), I chose subjects other than World War II, about which the Russian government remains twitchy and sensitive (indeed under Putin it is growing ever more so).

When my overseas travels and research trips took me beyond popular tourist destinations such as London, Paris, and Rome into central and eastern Europe, the Balkans, Russia, Turkey, and Asia, I learned that the Second World War is not universally seen as the “Good War,” with a neat Hollywood cast of heroes and villains and a happy ending. In Vietnam and former French Indochina, the conflict emerging from the Japanese incursion in 1940 lasted until 1975, at least, and in Cambodia longer still. East of the Elbe river, the war did not end in 1945, but arguably in 1989, when Soviet troops finally began to go home. In Taiwan and Korea, questions arising from the conflict remain unresolved, and the military standoff is no less tense today than ever.

Probing more deeply, I began to see just how much messy material had been airbrushed out of our memory of the war. While German and Japanese war crimes have been endlessly discussed, and British and American excesses, such as the firebombing of Dresden and Tokyo and the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, have long since been exposed, there has always been an air of mystery about events behind Soviet lines in the war, and for good reason. Until 1991, western historians had no access to Russian war records beyond what was released by the Soviet government to promote its narrative of a morally unblemished “Great Patriotic War” against Nazi Germany.

Certain episodes, such as Stalin’s “Katyn Forest Massacre” of Polish officers in 1940, were widely suspected but officially denied – even the US government endorsed the Soviet line on Katyn until well into the Cold War. Entire eastern front battles, such as Operation Mars, a catastrophic Soviet offensive west of Moscow launched simultaneously with the Soviet counter-attack at Stalingrad, remained basically unknown to western military historians until the 1990s, because the Soviet government did not want them to know about it.

Over the years, many western historians have absorbed and passed on a sanitized Soviet version of Stalin’s war, without quite realizing this is what they were doing. This is apparent in everything from the Barbarossa invasion of June 22, 1941, which is often treated like a context-free bolt from the blue, entirely unprovoked and unexpected, to heroic tales of the evacuation of Soviet factories east of Moscow in 1941-1942, to endless paeans to the “legendary T-34 tank” and the triumph of Soviet war industry (with concomitant disparaging of inferior British, Canadian, and American Lend-Lease tanks, said by Soviet critics to be “death traps”), to a near-exclusive focus on Stalingrad in 1942 to the exclusion of events elsewhere, to wildly exaggerated tales of Kursk in July 1943 as a crushing Soviet victory in the “greatest tank battle of all time,” to the utter neglect of opportunistic Soviet invasions in the “Molotov-Ribbentrop” period of Soviet-German collaboration between 1939 to 1941 and in northern Asia in August-September 1945.

Some of this neglect reflects Stalin’s own cunning. Aside from the Soviet invasion of Finland in November 1939, which did at least warrant condemnation at the time (though it was largely forgotten later), many key Soviet moves were camouflaged by high-profile German actions, from Stalin’s invasion of Poland on September 17, 1939 piggybacking on Hitler’s invasion two weeks earlier, to the Soviet invasion of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania launched on June 17, 1940 – the very day a beaten France sued Germany for peace. Few people outside Romania even remember that the Red Army invaded that country, too, on June 28, 1940, giving Bucharest cause to join Barbarossa in 1941.

A less obvious, but no less revealing example, is Stalin’s pledge at the Teheran conference of November 1943 to launch a diversionary offensive on the eastern front simultaneously with Overlord – the planned US-British amphibious assault on the French Channel coast. Since Roosevelt and Churchill themselves forgot to remind Stalin about this in the lead-up to Overlord, allowing the Soviet dictator to betray his promise (the Soviet offensive “Bagration” was launched only 16 days after D-Day, which allowed the Germans to transfer armored divisions westward, opening the field for “Bagration” and ensuring the western Allies were badly bloodied in France), historians can perhaps be forgiven for forgetting all about it, too.

Perhaps the most amazing memory trick of all is the way Stalin’s loud bellyaching between 1942 and 1944 about his Allies’ alleged refusal to open a “Second Front” in Europe against Hitler (even though they actually did open one in Italy in 1943!) is still accepted at face value – notwithstanding the fact that Stalin refused to lift a finger to help the U.S. against Japan for nearly four years after Pearl Harbor: he even had hundreds of US pilots, forced to bail out over Soviet territory after bombing raids on Japan, arrested and interned as prisoners of war.

Even more bizarre is the story of how the U.S. shipped 8.244 million tons of war materiél, including a million tons of motor and aviation fuel, to Stalin’s Far Eastern armies between 1941 and 1945, right through Japanese territorial waters – Japan’s admirals apparently not minding that the U.S. was wasting its precious resources on neutral Stalin rather than using them itself or to aid China. They did not mind, that is, until Stalin ripped up his Neutrality Pact with Japan after Hiroshima and rushed to conquer a north Asian empire larger than Britain and France combined in several weeks, with mechanized Soviet armies generously supplied and fueled by American Lend-Lease.

At least one reason so few western accounts have challenged Stalin’s preferred narrative of the war is that, until recently, they did not have the sources to do so. In some areas, we had almost no information at all. Stalin did not permit the Red Cross to investigate Soviet prisoner of war camps – the USSR, unlike Nazi Germany, was not even a signatory to the Hague or Geneva Conventions.

Even seemingly positive stories, such as the role of American Lend-Lease aid in reviving Stalin’s factories and equipping his armies, could only really be guessed at, as Stalin did not permit American observers, during the war, to see how US war materiél was being used in factories or at the front (aside from U.S. engineers flown in to troubleshoot, who were all sworn to secrecy).

Many US files on Lend-Lease, too, remained classified until the 1970s because of sensitive technology transfers and the sharing of atomic secrets with Stalin, not to mention the unheralded role of those 8-plus million tons of gifted American war materiél and fuel which Stalin’s Far Eastern armies used to spread Communism into Asia, along with the role of Soviet spies and agents of influence in Washington DC in formulating and bolstering these policies – all matters the Roosevelt and Truman administrations wanted hushed up after the war for good reason.

In the end, it is up to historians to do the legwork and investigate the questions governments such as Russia’s – or that of the United States, for that matter – do not want them to ask. This is what I have tried to do in Stalin’s War, and I hope that interested readers will learn to see the Second World War in a new way.

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