Stalin’s War: A New History of World War II
New York: Basic Books, 2021.
World War II is the central historical event of our time. It’s the only historical reference point for most journalists and laymen. We constantly view every current event through its figures, battles, and atrocities. Hated politicians and leaders are always the next Hitler, everything bad in the world is always the next Holocaust, and the plucky heroes of the day are always just like the soldiers landing on Omaha Beach. It’s why Trump (and every Republican candidate) is seen as Hitler, a border wall is the new Auschwitz, and Antifa are hailed as the heirs of the D-Day heroes.
World War II solidifies the liberal worldview. It supposedly pitted democracy and tolerance against tyranny and racism. The good guys won, making the world safe for freedom and multiculturalism. The villains of the war committed the worst atrocity in mankind’s history, incomparable with any other. We must learn about it, so we never repeat Nazism ever again.
Needless to say, World War II discourse is cringe beyond endurance. It makes ordinary people loyal to the liberal regime and hostile to any alternatives. It’s imperative for the Dissident Right to challenge the common myths of WWII and reframe the conflict. As it is told to the public, it’s the one good war where good guys fought bad guys. Counter-Currents readers know there is far more to the story than that.
Bard College history professor Sean McMeekin offers a solid alternative view of the war in his latest work, Stalin’s War. McMeekin has distinguished himself with high-quality work on the Russian Revolution and the First World War. His new book does not disappoint. He argues that Adolf Hitler is not the true central figure of WWII — it’s Joseph Stalin. In his account, Stalin spurred conflict in both Asia and Europe and his actions had longer-term consequences than Hitler’s. McMeekin makes Stalin out to be the true villain who duped liberal democracies into doing his bidding and allowing half the world to be communist. McMeekin even blames Japanese and German aggression on Soviet decisions. It’s a compelling thesis that all right-wingers should listen to.
McMeekin argues Stalin played a critical role in both theaters and he, unlike Hitler, was still alive at the end of the war. Operation Barbarossa doesn’t occur until Chapter 17 in the book, indicating this is not a work dedicated solely to the Eastern Front. Soviet foreign policy from Vladimir Lenin to the beginnings of the Cold War serves as the book’s focus. The author finds the roots of Stalin’s war in Lenin’s manipulation of the western powers. Fearing an intervention that could wipe out his government, the first Soviet premier worked hard to fend off a foreign invasion. The chaos of the Civil War years left the Soviet leadership with the impression that the entire world was out to get them, and they must do everything to secure their own power.
A fundamental argument of the book is that Stalin was not content to merely stick to socialism-in-one-state. The Soviet Union was built to export global revolution. McMeekin isn’t blind enough to claim that this was an admirable trait of Stalin’s, as do other mainstream historians. Stalin didn’t want to spread communism to end global inequality; it was a weapon to secure Soviet power. Stalin spectacularly achieved this goal. He was helped in his mission by western sympathizers — both communists and liberals — who found his cause worthy.
The book’s prologue sets the tone with a Stalin speech given a few weeks before Barbarossa. The historical consensus claims that Hitler was the unprovoked aggressor, and the Soviets were completely unprepared for war. The premier’s speech tells a different story. In his perforation, Stalin warned his audience that war would come, and the Soviet Union would be prepared. He touted the latest advances in military technology and training his military had made. He called the Soviet Union a “rapacious predator” lying in wait for its prey. Outside of the speech, McMeekin notes later in the book that Stalin was preparing his army for an offensive war against Germany. This is an idea in keeping with the controversial “Icebreaker” theory. Proposed by Russian writer Viktor Suvorov, the theory claims Stalin planned a surprise attack against Nazi Germany for late summer 1941. Suvorov argued that Barbarossa was a pre-emptive strike against this expected attack. McMeekin doesn’t quite fully endorse it, even though he writes that the Soviet military was geared for offensive operations when the Germans struck. The author doesn’t conclude that Stalin was set for war, but he does persuasively conclude that he was prepared for one.
McMeekin spends the first chapters explaining how Stalin manipulated the great powers to advance his nation’s interests and pit them against each other. The man of steel wished for another great war that would bleed the capitalists dry and let the Soviets accomplish world revolution. Every player in the upcoming war tried hard to appease the Soviets at one point or another. The Americans, British, French, Japanese, the Germans, and most future Axis members all came to Moscow to play nice with Stalin, according to McMeekin’s account. All of these states got the short end of the deal.
No state probably got more hoodwinked by Stalin than America. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration was staffed with communist sympathizers. Some of them were credentialed spies and committed communists. Others were just standard New Deal liberals who saw the Soviet Union as a bulwark against fascism. This warm feeling toward the Soviets was shared by FDR himself. It led to all manners of terrible deals and subversion. One of the first raw deals was the lopsided offer that granted the rogue state recognition. A chief term of recognition was the expectation the Soviets would repay millions on defaulted state loans and expropriated property. The Soviets estimated the cost to be $600 million and Stalin authorized his Jewish diplomat Maxim Litvinov to offer $500 million in compensation. FDR’s team instead started the offering bid at $150 million, which Litvinov was able to haggle over and get the best possible deal from the duped administration.
The Soviets gained more from American recognition than the U.S., but the Americans played the desperate suitor. Litvinov agreed to a paltry sum in debt compensation, along with a promise to stop supporting communist subversion in the U.S. Despite gaining recognition, the Soviets never paid the debt and continued to support domestic interference. The Communist Party continued to receive subsidies and the Soviets placed hundreds of agents throughout the U.S. government.
The lopsided relationship continued throughout FDR’s presidency. In the late thirties, Roosevelt replaced the skeptical Ambassador to Russia William Bullitt with the Soviet sycophant Joseph Davies. Roosevelt purged the embassy of Soviet skeptics and ordered the destruction of its library, which documented the terror and show trials of the rogue state. This handicapped America’s insight into the country, but that may have been the whole point.
McMeekin argues that American industry — the epitome of capitalism — helped Russia survive the war. The Lend-Lease program was eagerly demanded by the Soviets, but little gratitude was paid for it. Soviet officials would demand more hardware and it be shipped to some of the most inconvenient locations as well. Americans dutifully accepted these conditions and shipped supplies that kept the Soviet war machine rolling. Much of the technology deployed on the Eastern Front was American-made. Without it, the Germans would’ve crushed the Soviet Union. American (and British) war material played a crucial role in the Battles of Stalingrad and Kursk.
Stalin would offer the barest of thanks for this role, and the Lend-Lease program turned out to be another debt that the Soviets never repaid. America forgave the debt during the Cold War as an act of goodwill. But even during the War, America placed no conditions on the aid it delivered. This contrasts with the conditions Roosevelt extracted from Winston Churchill for the aid he provided Great Britain. Churchill was forced to give up critical naval bases and other facets of the British Empire, which ultimately led to its dissolution in the post-war era. The Brits also paid back their debts. Roosevelt didn’t seem to mind the prospect that Stalin would never fulfill his obligations.
Much of the administration’s pro-Soviet stance was driven by two liberal sympathizers: senior Treasury Harry Dexter White and FDR’s chief foreign policy adviser Harry Hopkins. White was an actual Soviet agent (despite his WASPish name, he was a Lithuanian Jew); Hopkins was not. Both were not in any way communists. White helped set up the reign of global capitalism at the Bretton Woods conference, for instance. But both felt the Soviets were necessary to fend off the facsist threat and create a more egalitarian world. Both served the communists well. White drew up plans suggested to him by Soviet agents to make America serve the communists, and Hopkins as a diplomat prioritized Soviet interests.
The most egregious example of Soviet interference is the Morgenthau plan. Named after White’s boss, Henry Morgenthau Jr., the White-crafted plan would have sent Germany back to the dark ages. The plan called for the permanent deindustrialization of the Axis power, the elimination of all of its defenses, and its division into multiple parts. Germany would be relegated to an agricultural state at the complete mercy of other powers. The plan was approved by FDR and even public backlash only slightly diminished its influence over occupation policy. The only reasons the Morgenthau plan weren’t fully carried out was due to FDR’s death and the Cold War.
If FDR had lived longer, Stalin may have even gobbled more territory, and the Allies exacted a more punitive toll on the Germans. Roosevelt was open to Stalin’s suggestions that the victors liquidate 50,000 German officers after the war. The idea horrified Churchill but didn’t bother American leaders at all. It’s one of the many examples of Roosevelt giving everything Stalin wanted. The book makes a good case why FDR was one of the worst presidents ever.
Roosevelt’s pro-Stalin stance may have led to this death. He begged Stalin to pick the 1945 conference somewhere in the Mediterranean to accommodate his poor health and travel. Stalin instead picked Yalta in Crimea, forcing the sick president to weather awful travel in winter conditions. The strain may have well led to his death just a few weeks after Yalta. Stalin, as always, didn’t reciprocate the good feelings of his admirers.
The UK and the US share equal blame for the sellout of Eastern European nationalists. Soviet agents working within the British government undermined support for the Serbian Chetniks and convinced their superiors to back Marshall Tito’s Yugoslav partisans instead. Tito made Yugoslavia communist after the war. He wouldn’t have come out as the superior player without British and American support. Similar scenarios played throughout the region, with the Western allies retreating in the face of Soviet intractability and communist subversion.
Liberals weren’t the only defenders of Soviet malfeasance. Churchill defended the Soviet invasion of Poland because it secured “its own safety” and halted German expansion. He even claimed that the territory grabbed was rightfully Soviet because it was taken from Russia after World War I. He further claimed that the Soviets had the right to conquer the Baltic states and Finland to shore up its defenses. These expected aggressions were apparently in Britain’s interests. And this was all said before the UK and the USSR were formally allies.
Churchill didn’t maintain this rosy-eyed view of Stalin throughout the war. He came to regard the Soviets as a threat and was usually the lone voice to oppose Stalin’s suggestions as the great power conferences. But his protests didn’t matter; he was outvoted two-to-one. Churchill obsessed over Germany as the great threat to the British Empire. He helped defeat Germany but lost the Empire in the process.
Harry S. Truman did not share FDR’s adoration of Stalin, but he still kept on Hopkins and other Soviet sympathizers. This continuity ensured China and other countries turned red after the war. But, to his credit, President Truman didn’t desire the complete ruination of Germany and didn’t let the Soviets bully him around. We can only imagine what would have happened if Roosevelt lived to finish out his fourth term.
McMeekin’s coverage of Nazi-Soviet relations is particularly interesting. Most histories portray Hitler as the conniving aggressor who took advantage of Russian generosity. Stalin’s War presents a different side. Stalin is shown as the clear winner in Nazi-Soviet relations and the stronger partner. Stalin only invaded Poland when Germany had nearly finished Polish resistance in 1939. The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact gave the Russians tremendous economic power over the Germans. Before Barbarossa, Stalin was able to force the Nazis to concede multiple times in foreign disputes. The Germans couldn’t stop the Soviets from taking Romanian territory, even though it threatened their oil supply. The Germans were also well-aware that the Soviets were preparing for war.
The author is clearly not a fan of the Nazis. He admires the conservative officer corps that tried to topple Hitler. He claims they had wide support and a serious chance of taking over Germany, which is doubtful. Most new research shows that younger military officers were fervent National Socialists, and the SS and other institutions would’ve opposed it. Civil war was a more likely scenario than a clean coup.
McMeekin distinguishes himself from other historians in not excusing Stalin’s atrocities. He doesn’t claim they were not as bad as Hitler’s because he believed in “equality” or he only killed adult men. McMeekin offers no equivocations or justifications — he lays out that Stalin was a brute. The one time he compares Nazi and Soviet crimes, he implies the Nazis were better. McMeekin admits that at least Hitler and his government cared about their own soldiers; Stalin did not. It didn’t matter to Stalin what happened to captured Soviet troops, or even to his living troops. He was willing to throw millions of his own men to their own deaths in risky attacks and poorly planned operations. (The book is quite persuasive in deflating myths of Soviet military ability. His coverage of Kursk is particularly devastating in this regard.) The Nazis, on the other hand, cared deeply about their men and tried to get them out of captivity. You won’t ever find this opinion in any other mainstream history text.
Stalin’s atrocities, mostly ignored, are put front and center in the book. From the man-made famines to the systematic extermination of Polish elites, Stalin comes across as the bloodthirsty tyrant he was in real life. McMeekin reminds readers that these atrocities (at least the ones that occurred in the war) were abetted by the Western allies. They would even lie for Stalin, as in the case of the Katyn massacre. The millions Stalin killed were the price to save “freedom.”
Stalin’s War makes a compelling case for Stalin as the main character of World War II. It disabuses normie readers of their illusions about the conflict and dispenses with many of the myths perpetuated by the system. It’s a surprisingly conservative work, with the author defending the U.S. and the U.K.’s role in the war’s conclusion — in contrast to the many who claim the Soviets won it by themselves. The Soviets would have folded without the Lend-Lease program and many of their key victories were due to the Brits and Americans holding down the Germans. Kursk, according to McMeekin, was only a Soviet success because Hitler had to divert troops to Italy. McMeekin’s conclusion is that the war made the world safe for communism, not democracy. He also doesn’t view the war as inevitable and believes it only resulted in such massive devastation due to the appeasement of Stalin. The mainstream consensus is that the war was only terrible because western leaders appeased Hitler.
Many liberal readers will scoff at the conclusion and argue communism was better than fascism. They can’t comprehend any world where communism was worse. In their minds, communism was just a bad hiccup we got over. They speak of the Iron Curtain in the way older folks speak of poor actions as kids. “We may have done crazy things in our youth, but we turned out alright.” That same opinion is applied to the entirety of Eastern Europe. This opinion wouldn’t be so grating if we weren’t constantly lectured on how Nazi crimes were the worst thing to ever happen, and we must never forget them. No one speaks glibly of Nazi occupation, and no amount of blood was too much to vanquish this menace.
McMeekin’s work would have been very popular with conservatives during the Cold War, even though some of them may have winced at the suggestion that it wasn’t the “Good War.” Now with the Soviet Union dead and communism considered a harmless anachronism, the book may not be a hit with mainstream conservatives. There’s no burgeoning desire to demonize Stalin in the same way Hitler is treated. National Socialism is treated as the ultimate enemy that could pop out any moment because it makes for a much better foil to liberalism than communism. Communism is relegated to the dustbin as a well-intentioned mistake; fascism is an ever-present demonic force.
Stalin’s War is an important work that right-wingers should read. Some may find it imperfect, and many will quibble with its conclusions and theories. But no other recent mainstream history book shatters the mythology around World War II than Stalin’s War. It can appeal to normies and convince them that Stalin was the ultimate victor in the war. Was it all worth it to make the red flag fly over half the world? How noble and just was our war effort when it was guided by communist agents and directed to help a murderous tyranny? Was the war actually wrong?
Ordinary people need to be shaken out of their faith in the fairy tales surrounding World War II. Stalin’s War is a good start for curious friends and family.
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