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  • Writer's pictureStephen R A'Barrow

Stalin's War(s)

There have been many good books on many different aspects of the Second World War and it is incredible that there are historians who can still, over seventy years on, add a new level of understanding to the most costly single conflict in human history. To that end I have to commend Roger Moorhouse on another excellent book in which he has taken issue with the established wisdom of comparing Hitler's crimes with Stalin's ‘mistakes.’ The Devils’ Alliance unpacks the catastrophic consequences of the August 1939 ‘Devils Pact’ between Molotov and Ribbentrop, better known as the Hitler-Stalin Pact, that not only freed Nazi Germany’s back to attack France but gave Stalin the green light to begin his conquest of Eastern Europe.

The crimes the Soviet Union committed against its own peoples and against millions of Poles, Lithuanians, Latvians, Estonians, Finns, Romanians and Ukrainians are far less well known in the West than the Nazi’s crimes against Europe’s Jews and the citizens of the countries they invaded. It is little known that the death rate in Stalin's gulags was twice that of Hitler's concentration camps, or that the suffering inflicted by means of Stalin's Purges, collectivisations, ethnic re-orderings and invasions, by numerous estimates, killed more people than the Second World War. Uncle Joe after all became the West's stalwart ally, the victor of Stalingrad and the battle for Berlin. The man whose victorious Red Army shouldered the overwhelming human cost in grinding down Nazi Germany. That meant Western propaganda glossed over the manifest atrocities committed before and during the war, just as the Nazis did during their 18 month pact with the Soviet Union. More troubling for this author have been those post war historians who have glossed over Stalin’s post war atrocities as well, believing that being murdered for your class as opposed to your race gave Stalin's crimes a less sinister edge. Suffice it to say such nuances made no difference to the victims or their families.

The only area on which I’d have liked Moorhouse to have dwelt a little longer is not only the inevitability of war between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, something which many historians of varying viewpoints believe to have been inevitable (as did many seasoned observers at the time – not least Winston Churchill) BUT ALSO on Stalin's plans for war. Chris Bellamy’s acclaimed and weighty tome Absolute War – Soviet Russia in the Second World War is perhaps the most detailed and measured account (in the English language) on the still highly contentious issue of if and when Stalin planned a preventive or pre-emptive strike against Nazi Germany. Arguing that Stalin played a double bluff in trying to appease Hitler with economic inducements with the aim of buying more time for the inevitable conflict on the one hand but outlining that there is also substantive evidence, even if often circumstantial, of the Soviets switch from a defensive to an offensive position over the course of 1941. Stalin's speech to the graduates of elite Frunze Military Academy in Moscow on 5th May 1941 called for an aggressive war with an offensive military arguing “We must shift from the defensive to the attack. If we are to defend our country we are obliged to do so offensively.” Additional evidence for the Soviet Union’s switch from a defensive to an offensive posture was the colossal military build up in which ultimately two thirds of the Soviet Union’s massive military might was moved up to the western frontier in ever larger tranches from February right through to June 1941. The lessons learned from the Spring war games conducted by the Soviet military also resulted in the very much more offensively minded Georgy Zhukov being appointed Chief of the General Staff by Stalin himself.

Soviet mobilisation plan MP1 was in full swing from April 1941 and was due for completion in July. Zhukov then went on, in his 15 May 1941 war plan, to outline detailed plans for a pre-emptive strike. By June 1941 Soviet forces were deployed well forward on their western frontier, were superior in numbers to German armour, men and material and, more importantly, in what can only be determined as offensive positions. Had they been dug in defensively, rather than being caught on the hop in transition from a defensive to an offensive posture and not yet fully formed up - and against a numerically inferior enemy - then the German Wehrmacht would undoubtedly not have inflicted such sustained and catastrophic losses on the Soviet military during the initial onslaught between June and December 1941.

Bellamy stated 'The Jury is still out' and pointed out there is as yet no smoking gun in terms of a single indisputable piece of documentary evidence for a preventive strike with a pre-planned date on it but then neither is there a written order signed by Stalin for the commencement of the Winter War against Finland in 1939, but his responsibility for it is undeniable. The Soviets were in any case (unlike their German counterparts) notoriously atrocious record keepers both for reasons of bureaucratic incompetence and the judgement of posterity. Stalin in particular always took a keen interest on how history would view his actions.

The key issue at stake here is that had the Soviets been the first to strike and had they been successful (and I fully accept we are entering into counterfactual history here), then they certainly would not have halted in Berlin or at Germany's western border but would have carried on to the channel and Atlantic coasts in the name of ‘liberating Europe from Nazi tyranny.’ This would have seen the fulfilment of the long cherished and repeatedly expressed desire by Stalin and all the Soviet hierarchy (you didn't challenge Stalin's orthodoxy and live) to throw in the Soviet Union’s weight at the crucial moment in to the battle between the capitalist imperialist states of the West and mop up their weakened militaries, thereby spreading communism throughout Europe; merely a staging post in Soviet Socialisms march to global hegemony. The USSR (the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics) at its foundation specifically chose not to name Russia, or any state, within its title for the precise reason that it’s avowed aim was for the USSR to encompass the whole world. The idea that Stalin ever abandoned this principal in favour of socialism in one country is nothing more than wartime propaganda perpetuated well past its sell by date. Stalin's actions belied his words whether Allied to Nazism, the West or during the Cold War; his Soviet Union never lost an opportunity to seek expansion on any front. Those that continue to argue this was purely done for the Soviet Union's security interests should not only be regarded as deluded but as highly suspect.

To read more on the history of Germany and its influence on modern Europe, read my latest book 'Death of a Nation', available now.

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