Rewriting the History of the Second World War

Sean McMeekin

Sean McMeekin argues that it was an allied intervention on behalf of Soviet Russia that led to the triumph of Stalin in Asia, the consequences of which we continue to see today.
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In the popular mind, World War Two endures as the ‘Good War’: a heroic struggle against evil with a happy ending. But there have always been nagging questions, not least whether any conceivable post-war world was worth the sacrifice of 50 or 60 million dead. Why did a war ostensibly waged on behalf of Poland in 1939 end with that country’s dismemberment? If ‘freedom’ triumphed over ‘totalitarianism,’ why did eastern Europe and the Balkans succumb to Communist dictatorship, followed by China, North Korea, and Vietnam? Why were the earliest freedom fighters against ‘Axis’ aggression – Chiang Kai-Shek’s Chinese nationalists, the Poles, Mihailovic’s Chetniks in Yugoslavia – abandoned by the victorious Allies, even while clients of Stalin, Hitler’s fellow totalitarian dictator and key strategic ally from 1939-41, won?  Why did the ‘Good War’ consign nearly half the human race from Berlin to Beijing, to the agonies of communism?

The morally perverse outcome of World War Two was no accident. The expansion of Soviet power westward into Europe, and eastward into Asia resulted from deliberate policy choices both by Stalin and Molotov in Moscow, carrying out an expansionist foreign policy with ruthless consistency, and by Stalin’s accidental British and American allies who were either manipulated into furthering Soviet foreign policy designs (as with Churchill abandoning Mihailovic and falling in with Stalin’s client Tito in Yugoslavia) or, in Roosevelt’s case, did so quite voluntarily.

Hitler’s genocidal ambition helped unleash Armageddon in 1939. Sources from the Soviet archives opened since 1991, however, make clear that the European war which emerged from the Moscow or ‘Molotov-Ribbentrop’ Pact of August 1939 was the one Stalin wanted, not Hitler (Britain and France declaring war on Germany was not the result desired in Berlin). The brutal partition of Poland which resulted from the German-Soviet invasion in September 1939 was Stalin’s idea, not Hitler’s – floated in 1938 in order to lure Hitler to the negotiating table. Soviet designs on the Baltic states, Finland, and Bessarabia reflected Stalinist foreign policy aims on which Soviet officials had been working for years before these came to fruition in the Moscow Pact (with the partial exception of Finland, which surprised Stalin by fighting back in winter 1939-40). Far from having any interest in ‘collective security’ to contain Hitler, as some western historians have suggested based on little more than projection, Stalin was just as adamant a territorial revisionist as Hitler and Mussolini in the 1930s; he was just better at concealing this.

US Lend-Lease to the Soviet Union during the war. Credit: Creative Commons.

The Pacific war of 1941-1945 was, too, the desired outcome of Stalin’s Pact with Tokyo of April 1941, which had the goal of unleashing the furies of war in Asia between Japan and the ‘Anglo-Saxon powers’ he viewed to be his ultimate adversary. With the USSR’s Far Eastern frontier with Japan marked by ongoing border disputes dating back to Tsarist times – disputes serious enough that Japanese and Soviet troops fought frontier battles in both 1938 and 1939 – Stalin was desperate to divert Japanese forces away from his Asian borders while he was making his moves in Europe.

By June 1941, the ‘imperialist war’ between the hostile factions of the capitalist world, as it was styled in Communist propaganda, was going Stalin’s way. France and the Netherlands had been routed. The British empire had been humiliated and almost fatally weakened. The colossal Soviet arms buildup underway since the launch of the first Five Year Plan in 1928 was nearly complete.  Following Lenin’s program to a tee, Stalin had ‘exploit[ed] the contradictions and opposition between two imperialist power groups, between two capitalist groups of states, and incite[d] them to attack each other.’ ‘As soon as we are strong enough to overthrow the entire capitalist world,’ Lenin had vowed, ‘we will take it at once by the scruff of the neck.’

The one thing Stalin had not reckoned on was that, far from bleeding the strength of each warring coalition equally as had the First World War, the Second had been so lopsided that Germany had hardly been weakened at all.  By striking in June 1941, before Russia was ready, Hitler turned the tables on Stalin, disrupted years of Soviet war preparations, and very nearly won the war.  By October, the Germans were at the gates of Moscow, and the Soviet government was evacuated east to the Ural Mountains.  On the cusp of triumph just four months prior, Communism seemed to be finished.

Stalin had one last card to play: just as his empire was crumbling, Soviet diplomats, sympathizers, and ‘agents of influence’ in the West helped open a critical Lend-Lease lifeline to Russia. Although, as it turned out, U.S. President Roosevelt, moved by the drama of the German invasion of Russia, needed little convincing.

In a story so bizarre that not even Lenin could have imagined it, Communism was rescued from the brink of defeat by Stalin’s sworn and oft-declared arch-enemy Anglo-Saxon capitalism. As Stalin’s decimated factories were rescued by vast stores of American metals, industrial components and technology transfer were sent as Lend-Lease aid. This was even as the faltering Soviet war machine was replenished with American and British materiél from warplanes, tanks, trucks, jeeps, motorcycles, fuel, guns, ammunition and explosives, to the foodstuffs which fed the Red Army, as it saw off German attacks and began its long and bloody march to Berlin.

Stalin’s most sweeping and consequential victory, however, came in Asia, where the war followed his planned scenario almost perfectly. Whereas Hitler’s Barbarossa gamble had dramatically upset Stalin’s timetable for a European war and nearly finished off Stalin’s regime in 1941 – producing a horrendous war of attrition which cost his people (if not himself) dearly, Stalin’s fidelity to the Soviet-Japanese Neutrality Pact allowed his Far Eastern armies to wait patiently, assembling millions of tons of American war materiél sent to Siberia via Vladivostok, even while Japan’s armies exhausted themselves fighting China, Britain and the United States.

By the time Stalin’s Far Eastern armies – fuelled, motored, armoured, provisioned and fed by cascading American Lend-Lease supplies – struck in “Operation August Storm,” a million Japanese troops had already been withdrawn from China to Japan’s home islands, leaving Manchuria and Korea ripe for the Soviet plucking. The Red Army was thus able to conquer an area of northern Asia larger than France and Germany combined in less than a month, sustaining only 36,000 casualties, at virtually no cost to Stalin’s treasury.  In this way Stalin’s clear-sighted strategic vision, helped along by the short-sighted and one-sided generosity of American Lend-Lease aid, allowed the Soviet dictator to plant the red flag over northern Asia, enabling Mao’s triumph in China and the standoff in Korea which continues to this day.

Sean McMeekin is the author of the highly acclaimed Stalin’s War, a new account of the Second World War.

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