Geoffrey Roberts. Stalin's Wars: From World War to Cold War, 1939-1953. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008. 496 pp. $25.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-300-13622-7.
Reviewed by Wolfram von Scheliha (University of Leipzig, Global and European Studies Institute)
Published on H-German (April, 2010)
Commissioned by Benita Blessing (Oregon State University)
Making Us Wise by Cutting Stalin Down to Human Size
Joseph Stalin has often been portrayed as a monster or as a bloodthirsty psychopath. Others, especially in Russia, still venerate the dictator as a genius, and have even suggested elevating him to sainthood. In the light of these extreme conceptions, Geoffrey Roberts's aim "to cut Stalin down to human size" (p. xii) appears fairly composed and reasonable. Roberts envisions himself as a judge in a courtroom with the "duty to review all the evidence, including that for the defense, and to see the whole picture. This may not make it easy to arrive at a verdict but it will enhance our historical understanding.... History can make us wiser, if we allow it to" (p. 374). Actually, Roberts seems to be acting more as a defense lawyer than as a judge (and a defense lawyer is not necessarily an apologist), but the broad and controversial debate following the release of the book's hardback copy in 2006 indicates that Roberts raised an important issue and to critically reflect on it will certainly make us a bit wiser.
Although Roberts positions his book as a revised interpretation of Stalin as a warlord, its layout is peculiarly traditional. Stalin's Wars is a conventional history of war and foreign relations, starting with the Hitler-Stalin Pact and ending with Stalin's death. The six years of the World War II period comprise three-quarters of the text, while the following eight postwar and early Cold War years receive less than a hundred pages. Roberts's main propositions are that Stalin's military and strategic skills had the most impact on the successful outcome of the war, that Stalin--unlike Franklin D. Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, Benito Mussolini, and even Adolf Hitler--was "indispensable to the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany" (p. xi), that he wanted to uphold the war alliance in the postwar era, and that he did not intend to start the Cold War. By examining newly released documents, Roberts challenges many well-established views. For instance: according to the memoirs of the generals Georgii Zhukov and Alexander Vasilevskii, both proposed to Stalin in early September 1942 the plan "Operation Uranus," the encirclement and subsequent elimination of the German 6th Army at Stalingrad. Roberts demonstrates on the basis of Stalin's appointment diary that Stalin met neither Zhukov nor Vasilevskii within the time frame in question (p. 391). Was, then, Stalin the author of this crucial operation? Roberts does not explicitly claim this, but the case reminds us to read the accounts of the reputedly "good guys" inside Stalin's regime more critically.
Although the book contains some useful observations of this kind, its basic composition is questionable. To those familiar with German television, the title probably evokes already uneasy associations with Guido Knopp's notorious ZDF-documentaries (Hitler's Helpers I , Hitler's Helpers II , Hitler's Warriors , Hitler's Women , Hitler's Managers ). Knopp has been criticized for focusing too much on Hitler as the incarnation of evil and thus absolving ordinary Germans of any responsibility for Nazi crimes. The concept behind Stalin's Wars is, despite different circumstances, similar: Roberts attributes the Soviet achievements during the war mainly to Stalin, although the dictator himself took up a different position. In his famous toast after the victory parade in June 1945, Stalin praised the "little screws of the great state-mechanism, ... without whom we, Marshals, commanders of the fronts and armies, to say it rudely, wouldn't be worth a devil" (p. 267). Reflecting on how this matches up with Roberts's conclusion "that the contemporaneous perception of Stalin's war leadership was closer to the truth of the matter than many of the layers of historical interpretation that followed" (p. 373), some readers might ask themselves who is actually right: the distinguished historian or contemporary Stalin at the peak of his dictatorship.
Yet, to stick with the title, the general idea behind it remains rather nebulous, since Stalin, as Roberts points out, intended neither the German-Soviet war, nor the Cold War, at least not in the way both took place. Thus, these conflicts do not seem to have been particularly "his." Also, from glancing over Stalin's biography, one receives the impression that Stalin was at war almost his entire life: he fought the Tsarist regime, took part in the Bolshevik revolution, was engaged in the civil war, and was at war with Trotsky, the Kulaks, alleged spies, counterrevolutionaries and saboteurs in the 1920s and 1930s. These various campaigns are more likely to have carried Stalin's signature than those discussed in the book.
The impression that this is rather a conventional history of war arises from the almost total neglect of social and economic issues. Given that Stalin led a "total war" that affected all parts of the country, and demanded the mobilization of the entire population, Roberts pretermits important aspects of this period that would have rounded out the image of the warlord. Thus, he mentions the word "Gulag" only once in his entire study (p. 344). But it has been well established that Gulag prisoners largely contributed to the Soviet armament and other economic sectors during the war, while many of them paid with their lives. Roberts does not conceal Stalin's crimes and terror and he repeatedly expresses his disapproval of these aspects of the dictator's reign. But Roberts fails to relate Stalin's crimes to his role as a warlord. For this reason, the book occasionally comes across as apologetic, although this might not have been the author's primary intention. Two other instances illustrate this problem: When the narrative comes to the Soviet invasion of Poland and the Baltic states following the Hitler-Stalin pact, Roberts gives the figure of twenty-five thousand "undesirables" deported in June/July 1940 from Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia (p. 45). But by July 1941, when Germany attacked the Soviet Union, the deportees from the Baltic states numbered some forty-five thousand, not including those who had been shot or imprisoned. In the context of the repressions carried out in the occupied territories in Poland, Roberts mentions the massacre of twenty-two thousand Polish officers and members of the ruling classes only in a sub-clause. He returns to the issue when he discusses the abolition of the Comintern in May 1943. As a reason for this measure, Roberts identifies the "Katyn crisis," which ensued when the Wehrmacht excavated mass graves containing the victims of the NKVD (People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs) shootings and used it for propaganda purposes (pp. 171-172). Roberts then explains that the executions had taken place following a resolution of the Politburo on March 5, 1940. This is formally correct. Yet, while Roberts tries to attribute Soviet achievements during the war to Stalin himself, he refers in this particular incident to the rather anonymous body of the Politburo. The documents, however, reveal clearly that Lavrentii Beriia proposed the killing explicitly to Stalin, who expressed his consent with his large signature on the letter. Therefore, the image of Stalin as a warlord remains incomplete and distorted, if the war crimes he initiated or endorsed are not sufficiently exposed and if the interrelations of crimes and Soviet success in the war are not discussed.
Additionally, Roberts's handling of the issues of nation and nationality is partial. He only casually mentions deportations of entire ethnic groups (Crimean Tatars, Chechens, Volga Germans) for allegedly supporting the Nazis (p. 326). Moreover, he adopts a specific "Russian" perspective as his own, not taking into account that other nations like the Ukraine, Belorussia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, etc. might have conflicting, but nevertheless legitimate national interests. As for the Soviet invasion of Poland in 1939, Roberts acknowledges that the Soviet Union was following a "patriotic rationale" and pursuing a "Russian national interest," whereas he characterizes Ukrainians campaigning for an independent state as "nationalists" (p. 38). It is never clear what qualifies the Russians for patriotism and the Ukranians for nationalism. Roberts also explains that the Polish territories the Red Army occupied in 1939 "were, in fact, the western regions of the Ukraine and Belorussia" (p. 37), arguing that both ethnic groups made up the majorities in the respective territories. This claim implies that the Soviet attack on Poland was legitimate. Galicia, however, which comprised a large portion of the territories Stalin invaded, had been from the twelfth century onward politically separated from the territories that later became Muscovy and the Russian empire. By the mid-fourteenth century, Galicia was part of Poland; by the end of the eighteenth century, it was part of the Hapsburg Empire. It is noteworthy that many Ukrainians adhered to the Greek Catholic Church (Orthodox rite, communion with the Pope) and were, therefore, persecuted under the tsars' regimes and after 1918 by the Soviets. Although severe conflicts existed between the Polish and Ukrainian populations as well, it is not at all certain that the Ukrainian population welcomed what Roberts calls "the reunification" (p. 44) of Ukraine under Soviet rule, not to mention that the Soviet attack on Poland was, like the German attack, a clear breach of international law.
Like the "reunification of Ukraine," Roberts embraces without further reflection terms designed for Soviet propaganda. He occasionally uses the phrase "Great Patriotic War" without quotation marks (p. 372). This term, however, intentionally refers only to the years 1941-45 and, thus, omits the Soviet invasion of Poland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Bessarabia as well as the "Winter War" against Finland. Roberts also uncritically recounts stories aimed at maintaining the Soviet hero cult. As for the battle for Stalingrad, Roberts depicts how the 13th Guards division of General A. I. Rodimtsev on September 14, 1942 crossed the Volga River to support General Vasilii Chuikov's 62nd army defending the last blocks of the city center that remained in Soviet hands. However, Rodimtsev's division was poorly equipped and lacked ammunition. Consequently, approximately 3,000 men (30 percent) were killed in action within the first twenty-four hours. By the end of the battle, the division counted only 320 survivors. Roberts then quotes General Chuikov's memoirs, stating that without Rodimtsev's troops, the center of Stalingrad would have fallen into German hands by mid-September (p. 258). In a study that aims to revise traditional views, one would expect some consideration about how these soldiers without sufficient ammunition--as many as a thousand soldiers did not even have a rifle--could fight the then still well-equipped Wehrmacht. Did their dead really, as the Soviet hero cult makes us believe, have an important impact on the outcome of the battle? What does it tell us about the warlord who sent tens of thousands of young men to certain death, in order to prevent the enemy from taking the last blocks of a completely destroyed city, one which above all bears the warlord's name? It may be worth exploring, whether this instance should not be called more appropriately a war crime against the soldiers entrusted to Stalin's leadership, a war crime that Soviet propaganda camouflaged by creating a hero cult.
Turning to the postwar era, Roberts embraces a rather nineteenth-century concept of Great Power foreign policy. Accordingly, he holds the United States and Britain responsible for the first breaches in the anti-Hitler alliance, since they did not recognize the new governments of Romania and Bulgaria loyal to Stalin, but demanded free elections, although according to the "percentage agreement" of October 1944 the Balkans (except Greece) had been assigned to the Soviet sphere of influence (p. 222). Roberts regards the Marshall Plan as a "breaking point in postwar relations with the United States," arguing that "co-operation with the Americans was no longer possible without putting in jeopardy the Soviet sphere of influence in Eastern Europe" (p. 317). By conceiving the concept of "spheres of influence" as a somehow legitimate Soviet approach, Roberts ignores the right of self-determination of nations that even the Soviet Union had acknowledged by signing the United Nations charter in 1945 (p. 43). Bulgarians and Romanians probably would have been quite happy to take their fate in their own hands and many of the devastated East European states would have welcomed financial aid for their economic recovery, if Stalin had not interdicted acceptance of the U.S. propositions. Roberts, however, identifies "warmongers" (without quotation marks in the text) in the West and claims that Stalin "even at the height of the cold war ... continued to struggle for the lasting peace that he saw as his legacy" (p. 320).
Roberts's version of the Soviet blockade of Berlin in 1948/49 is also enlightening: "Although termed a 'blockade' by the west," he explains, "the Soviet action consisted of a limited set of restrictions on land access to the western sectors of Berlin from West Germany. It did not preclude supplies to West Berlin from the Soviet zone of occupation" (pp. 354-355). A limited set? To cut off 1.9 million people from electric power supply and to stop all freight traffic on roads, rails, and waterways was, in the severe postwar scarcity of all goods, quite a drastic measure. Additionally, the offer of Soviet food provisions was not as generous as Soviet propaganda implied. The Soviets delivered no food at all to the western sectors. Instead, West Berliners had to go to the Soviet sector in order to register there with their food ration card (and, of course, the Soviet secret police was well prepared to arrest all "suspicious elements"). This was an extortion intended to force West Berliners to "defect" to the Soviet side. It turned out to be a futile attempt: Only 6 percent of West Berlin's population went eastwards to register. It is also interesting what Roberts reckons to be the political background of the blockade: "Stalin's goal," we read, "was rather mundane: to force western powers to resume negotiations with the Soviet Union about the future of Germany" (p. 350). But if the Soviets only wanted to talk, why did they leave the Allied Control Council in March 1948 in the first place and never return to it again? Roberts's contention is not at all convincing and the sources available so far suggest that Stalin's objective by imposing the blockade was to prompt the western Allies to leave Berlin and take the entire city.
Roberts, in order to prove Stalin's supposed peace-loving disposition, glosses over all those incidents that otherwise appear as aggressive acts on the part of the Soviet Union. This tendency leads to some severe distortions. Moreover, Roberts's opinion that, after the war, repressions in the Soviet Union were "relatively limited" (p. 344) is cynical in view of the fact that the total number of Gulag prisoners reached its peak in 1949/50. Still, the most disturbing, but at the same time revealing proposition in the book is that Roberts names Stalin, among all the leading personalities of World War II, as the only one indispensable to the Soviet victory. This claim is highly speculative, and many arguments come up against it: Would not Leon Trotsky, the organizer of the Bolshevik victory in the civil war, have been as successful as Stalin? If the Communist Party had disposed of Stalin sometime in the 1920s or 1930s and had not allowed him to shoot the military elite, could the disastrous losses in 1941/42 of the Red Army and the civilian population been avoided? Had the Bolshevik revolution not been successful, would a democratic Russia not have been much more powerful in terms of its economy, military, and societal structures than was the Soviet Union? There are too many variables that make it impossible to know whether Stalin was historically indispensable or not. The underlying moral behind Roberts's speculation is, however, highly dangerous, since it seems to legitimize an individual's crimes against humanity in order to achieve a higher goal.
. See for instance the round table review on H-Diplo at: http://www.h-net.org/~diplo/roundtables/PDF/StalinsWars-Roundtable.pdf.
. Galina Mikhailovna Ivanovna, Labour Camp Socialism: The Gulag in the Soviet Totalitarian System (Armonk-London: M. E. Sharpe, 2000), 95; Edwin Bacon The Gulag at War: Stalin's Forced Labour System in the Light of the Archives (Basingtoke: Macmillan, 1994); and V. I. Triakhov Gulag i Voina: Zhetokaia pravda dokumentov (Perm: Pushka, 2005).
. Pavel Polian, Ne po svoei vole. Istoriia i geografiia prinuditel'nykh migratsii v SSSR (Moscow: OGI-Memorial, 2001), Annex 1, 246.
. Photos of the documents can be found at: http://www.katyn.ru/index.php?go=Pages&in=view&id=6.
. Anatolii Vishenvskii, "Vspominaja 37-j," Demoskop weekly: Elektronicheskaia versiia biulletenia Naselenie I obshchestvo no. 313-314 (December 2007): 10-31.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-german.
Wolfram von Scheliha. Review of Roberts, Geoffrey, Stalin's Wars: From World War to Cold War, 1939-1953.
H-German, H-Net Reviews.
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