Stalin’s War: A New History of World War II
by Sean McMeekin
864 pp., $40.00
This massive tome is more than a new history of World War II. It is above all a depressing confirmation that the crimes against humanity committed by Stalin’s regime, including during the war, were comparable to those of Hitler. Moreover, McMeekin reveals that the Nazi regime could have been removed from power without the disastrous territorial concessions in Eastern Europe that FDR and Churchill granted to Stalin and his underlings.
McMeekin shows there were defensible limits on wartime help that American congressmen and most of the American public wished to impose on the Soviets after their former Nazi allies invaded Russia. In Congress in the summer of 1941, Hamilton Fish III, Robert M. La Follette, Jr., Robert Taft, and Harry Truman all reminded listeners of Stalin’s crimes when Lend-Lease aid to Russia came up for discussion.
Throughout the period of Soviet-Nazi cooperation between September 1939 and June 1941, the Soviets swallowed up as many onetime independent countries as did Hitler’s armies. After German and Soviet armies invaded Poland in 1939, the Soviets murdered in just two years four to five times as many civilians as did the Germans. During their accord with Nazi Germany, the Soviets grabbed even more foreign territory than Hitler appropriated. Stalin’s regime spread aggressively into Eastern European countries and threatened the mineral and fuel resources on which Nazi Germany was dependent, e.g., the Ploieşti oilfields in Romania. Although there is no conclusive indication that Stalin planned to attack Nazi Germany before being attacked on June 22, 1941, what happened should not have been shocking. The attack on the Soviet Union came after relations between the two partners in crime deteriorated into squabbling over their ill-gotten conquests.
above: Joseph Stalin at the Yalta conference in 1945 (National Archives)
The slowness and inefficiency with which the Soviets responded was more surprising, although it was they who enjoyed an initial overwhelming superiority in manpower and in many categories of weaponry. German soldiers fought better and were more capably led than their adversaries. If the German armies managed to control most of European Russia and laid siege to Leningrad for two-and-a-half years starting in September 1941, the main reason for this success was that the invaders were far better trained.
During Russia’s occupation by Germany, the rate of loss between the two sides stood at 14-to-1; even after the loss of hundreds of thousands of troops at Stalingrad in January 1943 the Germans almost managed to defeat the blundering Soviets around Prokhorovka, to the west of Stalingrad, in July. Hitler handed the Soviets an unexpected gift by transferring German divisions to southern Italy where Allied armies were then on the offensive. It allowed Stalin to turn what was an imminent disastrous defeat into a “second Stalingrad.”
Between October 1941 and the end of the War, the Americans showered Lend-Lease gifts on the Soviet regime, which demanded, not requested, aid from its “capitalist” allies. This mass of weapons, planes, trucks, and foodstuffs totaled more than $180 billion in today’s currency and enabled the Soviets to continue fighting against the Germans and their allies. At least initially this aid could have been justified, since the German invasion had devastated Soviet war production. But the assistance went on and on and became ever more extravagant.
The Lend-Lease policy had some peculiarities. The Soviets would not allow American planes to land on their soil except at designated spots like Murmansk and Arkhangelsk near the Arctic Circle and later Vladivostok in the North Pacific. Stalin entirely controlled the conditions under which American aid was to reach his armies. He made steady demands concerning his country’s putative needs, and contrary to the conditions of the agreement, almost none of the cost of the aid was ever paid back.
Worse, after the Soviets went on the offensive by the summer of 1943, they deployed American Lend-Lease supplies to aid them in, among other things, wiping out non- or anti-Communist resistance. In other words, the United States’ policy aided the imposition of Communist regimes in Eastern Europe.
These targets of Soviet brutality included the Polish Home Army resistance, which had fought valiantly against Hitler’s armies but also opposed the Soviet takeover of Poland and the imposition on their nation of the Soviet “Lublin Provisional Government.” In August 1944, when the population of Warsaw revolted against the German occupation, the Red Army—parked across the Vistula—did not offer the help that the insurgents expected. Instead, Soviet commanders waited until the German occupiers suppressed the revolt, killing more than 200,000 Poles, and then the Soviets wiped out isolated Home Army forces that were connected to the uprising. The Soviets had already murdered about 15,000 Polish officers in the Katyn Woods in White Russia during their alliance with Hitler.
above: discovery of the victims of the Soviet executions at the Russian village of Katyn (Sueddeutsche Zeitung Photo / Alamy Stock Photo)
Despite compelling evidence of Soviet misdeeds, Stalin bullied FDR and Churchill into blaming murders of the Poles improbably on the Germans. The allies went along for the sake of wartime amity. This compliance was entirely in keeping with the usual servility shown by FDR and Churchill in the face of outrageous Soviet demands. As McMeekin heavily documents, this relationship worked steadily and consistently in favor of Stalin’s interests.
There are three obvious reasons for Western leaders’ extraordinary tractability. One was their concern that the Soviets might enter a new Soviet-Nazi pact by patching up relations with the German enemy. This was also the kind of deal that Stalin and his Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov suggested that FDR and Churchill might try to negotiate with the Germans. Any perceived or imagined attempt to “deal softly” with the Germans would cause Stalin and his henchmen to complain that the Western “capitalists” were seeking a reconciliation with Hitler and planned to unite their combined forces against “socialist Russia.” While German armies were occupying large masses of Russian territory, the renewal of a Soviet-Nazi pact was certainly unlikely. Afterwards, as the Red Army was sweeping across Eastern Europe on its way to Berlin, there was no reason that Stalin would try to cut a deal with a soon-to-be-decimated enemy.
Another reason for American compliance with Stalin was the pervasiveness of Soviet assets within the Roosevelt administration. FDR’s rabidly anti-German Secretary of the Treasury, Henry Morgenthau, Jr., who was relentless in advocating a vindictive, even genocidal campaign against the Germans, was a natural target for Stalin’s agents. Although Morgenthau’s Germanophobia was a reaction to evidence that the Nazis were engaged in the mass killing of European Jewry, those around him who encouraged him were working for the Soviets and merely serving Stalin’s purposes. Morgenthau repeatedly allowed himself to be duped by Soviet agents such as his chief adviser, Harry Dexter White, who took orders from NKVD agent Vitaly Pavlov.
Even more useful to the Soviet regime was FDR’s closest confidant Harry Hopkins, who virtually never left the president’s side. Hopkins, as McMeekin documents, was exuberantly pro-Soviet. He not only took Stalin’s side in every major war conference. He also persuaded his boss to remove from the presidential cabinet anyone known to be even slightly critical of Soviet intentions, starting with the only mildly anti-Stalinist Secretary of State Cordell Hull, who was replaced by the more amenable Edward Stettinius, Jr. The pro-Soviet presence within the American government helps explain its willingness to give Stalin just about anything he demanded in Eastern Europe without even the threat of reducing aid.
The pro-Soviet infiltration of American government also clarifies why a postwar program for Germany as lunatic as the Morgenthau Plan was presented as something definitive and doable at the Second Quebec Conference in September 1944. Morgenthau’s misconceived plan called for the almost total deindustrialization of a defeated Germany, the removal of at least part of its population, and the reduction of German agriculture to a bare subsistence level. Other ideas that Morgenthau tried to get FDR to accept were the shooting of 50,000 German officers—a proposal that Stalin was then pushing on allied leaders—and even the castration of German males.
To his credit, Churchill was appalled by such final solutions for the German problem but at the Second Quebec Conference he lacked the military independence to make much of a stink. The Soviet agents, who regarded Morgenthau and Hopkins as useful idiots, were not really interested in depopulating Germany, let alone castrating its males. But they would have been delighted to have German industry relocated to the Soviet Union and to other areas under Soviet control. Further, Stalin was obviously eager to remove any German obstacle to Soviet expansion into Eastern Europe. Mercifully, due to how the war ended and the rapid deterioration of Western-Soviet relations, only pieces of the Morgenthau Plan were ever put into operation.
Another reason the Western allies were willing to give the Soviets as much as they took, even at the expense of those nations they claimed to be liberating from Nazi control, was the desire to see Germany totally wrecked. Both Churchill and FDR had been strong anti-German interventionists in World War I, and FDR complained that the Germans had been let off too lightly after losing that war. The demand for Germany’s unconditional surrender, the Anglo-American use of saturation bombing against defenseless German civilians during the last year of World War II, and the consideration given to even the most vindictive elements of Morgenthau’s plan were all indicative of the vengeful mood that substituted for statecraft in the closing period of the war.
But one shouldn’t rule out other factors in trying to explain why “Stalin’s war” yielded certain unfortunate results, like placing Eastern and Central Europe under oppressive Soviet domination, advanced by a Red Army that had murdered and raped its way across the continent. The British government, for example, made an inexcusably stupid decision to support Stalin’s agent Tito and his Communist partisans against the leader of the Chetnik royalist resistance, Draza Mihailovic, in German-occupied Yugoslavia. This disastrous decision did not follow from any attempt to appease the Soviet tyrant; the British government just didn’t care for Mihailovic and ignored or falsified the effectiveness of his resistance forces in destabilizing the German occupation.
By March 1943, Tito announced to his Communist partisans that exterminating the Chetniks rather than driving out the German armies would be their most important task. By war’s end, the Titoists succeeded in wiping out hundreds of thousands of non-Communist resistance fighters. The obliging Western press would present this achievement as the rooting out of Nazi collaborators and treated Tito almost as obsequiously as it did his boss in the Kremlin.
Another moral outrage was the action of the Anglo-Americans in returning to Soviet lands millions of people who had fled West to escape from Stalin’s clutches immediately after the war. These unfortunate refugees were destined to be killed or dragged off to labor camps. Not a few of them committed or attempted suicide to avoid that fate. But this despicable act of appeasement, as far as I can tell, was not driven by Communist agents. It was simply one more cringing effort to appease Stalin.
One should also not leave out of the picture the near-death condition of FDR, by the time he won his fourth term as U.S. president in November 1944. The president who made a 21-hour flight from Washington to Yalta to confer with Stalin in February 1945 showed a blood pressure reading of 250 over 100 after his arrival. It was remarkable that he could be kept alive and sentient, but hardly surprising that the Soviet leader, who insisted on meeting in his own backyard, easily dominated him at the conference.
This reader is grateful to Sean McMeekin for having produced his exhaustively researched study. It richly confirms what I long suspected about Soviet treachery and brutality, characteristics that Stalin did not abandon to fight “fascism.” The book also strengthened my conviction that the post-World War II reaction against Communists in the American government was totally justified and long overdue.
Finally, the work has made me furious in remembering my many hours spent as a graduate student in the mid-1960s listening to my Sovietophile professors and fashionably radical classmates defend Stalin as a postwar victim of American anti-Communism. There is a veritable gulf between the factual truth and what these arrogantly pro-Communist intellectuals wished me and many other Americans to believe.
Some critics of McMeekin’s book have falsely alleged that in detailing Stalin’s crime, he has somehow whitewashed Hitler’s role as an aggressor or murderer. This is nonsense. McMeekin is merely shining a light on aspects of World War II that many of its panegyrists and certainly its Soviet apologists chose to ignore.
(Correction: The ninth paragraph of an earlier version of this article incorrectly dated the beginning of the Warsaw Uprising in August 1943. The correct date is August 1944.)