Stalin’s War, by Sean McMeekin

Michael Arnold

A revisionist history that looks at the Second World War in a new way and argues Stalin as true victor.
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Most general histories of the Second World War written in the English language tend to take a broad view across the Washington/London/Berlin/Moscow/Tokyo centres of power and do not focus especially on the Soviet element of the conflict. Of course, this is in part due to the relative shortage of Russian language skills of Western historians and the approach of Soviet authorities to the disclosure of historical records.

Sean McMeekin’s latest work, Stalin’s War, deliberately sets out to narrate and interpret the Second World War from the standpoint of the USSR. McMeekin’s extraordinary range of linguistic skills (French, German, Russian, Bulgarian and Turkish) have contributed greatly to this extraordinarily appealing work.

McMeekin contends that the Second World War (which was in reality an amalgamation of conflicts) was a war that Stalin wanted. He initially envisaged that the two capitalist blocks (France and the British Empire on the one hand and Germany and Italy on the other) would fight each other to exhaustion, leaving the way clear for Soviet Communism to expand both its influence and its physical presence westwards. The fact that Stalin under-estimated the power of the German military in 1940 in the west and over-estimated the actual fighting strength of the Soviet forces in 1941 does not detract from that assessment.

Fascinating aspects of the narrative are plentiful. The machinations of Stalin during the period of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, particularly in Poland and the Balkans;  the approach of Roosevelt to arming the USSR and the contrast between the hard-nosed terms imposed upon Britain under lend lease compared with the extremely soft terms offered to Stalin notwithstanding the desperate plight of the USSR in late 1941; the existence in Washington of well-placed NKVD agents; the uncomfortable contrasting morality of the approaches of Hitler and Stalin to their own repatriated prisoners of war; the duplicity of Stalin in Manchuria in his dealings with Chiang Kai-shek; and the efforts that were made by Soviet agents to ensure that a US-Japanese conflict took place, are outlined in persuasive detail.

An illustration of the level of scholarship and detail within the work is the section dealing with the spoils of war which the Germans gained during Barbarossa and the Herculean efforts made by the Soviets to move whole factories farther east in the USSR to try to enable wartime production to continue.

In the sense that the Soviet state emerged from the Second World War in a more powerful position than it had been beforehand, controlling Eastern Europe, spreading Communism in Asia and replete with technological gains, this was indeed Stalin’s war. That it came at a cost of the lives of many millions of Soviet and other nationals and unfathomable misery for countless others was not it seems of concern to Stalin.

McMeekin acknowledges the great contribution that the late Norman Stone made to his career. There is little doubt that this superb work is a fitting tribute.

Michael Arnold is a retired solicitor and Secretary of the Nuneaton Historical Association.