Adolf Hitler looms largest in the pantheon of evildoers. As Sean McMeekin notes in his massive and indispensable new book “Stalin’s War: A New History of World War II,” “Hitler still haunts our nightmares as an all-purpose bogeyman, with remembrance of the horrors he unleashed uniting us in denunciation of Fascism, anti-Semitism, racism, and the other evils of Nazism.” In the West, Hitler and the Nazis occupy the farthest reaches of human depravity: You’re bad, you’re really bad, and then, finally, you’re Hitler.
As McMeekin points out, the farther East the focus shifts, the more Joseph Stalin and Soviet Russia dominate the picture. McMeekin is absolutely right when he writes that the Allied victory in World War II brought only more pain – in the form of conquest and civil war – in Eastern Europe and northern Asia. In those areas, Stalin’s “postwar wars” netted millions of new forced laborers for Soviet industries from Poland, Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, Finland, Romania, Ukraine, and Hungary – plus, after 1945, nearly a million Japanese, Mongolians, and Koreans. “Thus began,” McMeekin writes, “a renewed period of Soviet terror, fed by increasing paranoia about Jews and other pro-Western cosmopolitans, that would last until Stalin’s death in 1953.”
By any accounting, the number of innocent people Stalin caused to be murdered, particularly in the decade after the war, dwarfs that of Hitler’s victims, military or civilian. And as so many books have done before it, “Stalin’s War” makes abundantly clear that the dictator was, if anything, even more coldly reptilian than Hitler. Stalin's duplicity and rapacity were exercised on a scale not seen in the world since Genghis Khan, and yet for an entire generation subsisting on Western-produced wartime propaganda, he was stern-but-kindly “Uncle Joe,” sending millions of his people to the fight.
If any vestige of this propaganda still exists, “Stalin’s War” should see it soundly off the stage. There are new books every year that promise “a new history” of such a well-studied subject as World War II, but McMeekin actually delivers on that promise. The war, he asserts, had a protagonist whose armies fought in both Asia and Europe on an epic scale that spanned the whole Eurasian continent, who participated in the conquest of the Axis powers and enormously enlarged his own empire in the process. “In all these ways,” he writes, “it was not Hitler’s, but Stalin’s war.”
The inclusion of the key battlegrounds of Asia lends an added element of heft to McMeekin’s thesis. The author’s extensive use of Soviet archives (the book has 100 pages of often wonderfully discursive endnotes) informs a darkly fascinating look at Stalin’s dealings with Chiang Kai-shek’s government in China, leading to the Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship and Alliance signed in August of 1945 and encompassing the West’s increased awareness of Soviet atrocities in Manchuria. Stalin’s machinations in the Far East – largely hidden from his titular allies U.S. President Harry Truman and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill – lay bare an agenda entirely characterized by tyranny and conquest, an agenda in which fighting Hitler was a means to gain territory and plunder, a wolf fighting a wolf not for a world free of wolves but for unimpeded preying on the sheep.
The anger animating “Stalin’s War” is about Western complicity: Once the Soviet Union seemed to join the Allied cause, there was scarcely anything Stalin could ask of those allies that would be denied him. As McMeekin writes, in the last 14 months of the Pacific war the Soviets received more than 4 million long (metric) tons of war matériel for Stalin’s Far Eastern armies, including 870,000 long tons of petroleum – roughly equal to the entire amount shipped to Russia for help in fighting the Nazis.
And as McMeekin notes, Stalin’s nature was clear all along. “If there were any lingering doubts in London and Washington about Stalin’s intentions for the soon-to-be-conquered peoples of Europe,” McMeekin writes, “these should have been dispelled by his behavior as the Red Army, riding on the trucks and rubber tires of lend-lease, powered into formerly (and soon again) occupied Poland in the second half of 1944.”
At the end of the war, Churchill instructed his chiefs of staff to prepare a plan for attacking Soviet forces in Eastern Europe (his generals called it “Operation Unthinkable”), but of course nothing like it was ever done. Instead, Stalin was allowed almost total victory in a war he had largely engineered for his own benefit. Sean McMeekin has done a fantastic job telling that war’s story.