Stalin’s War

HMS Sheffield escorting an Arctic convoy, credit Wikipedia

Stalin’s War

Sean McMeekin, Stalin’s War, Allen Lane, Penguin Books, London, 2021, pp.666, + Notes, Bibliography, Maps &  Photos, Index,
ISBN 978-0-241-36643-1, review essay by Frank Ellis

  1. Western Indifference to Soviet Crimes of Genocide, Mass Terror and Deportations
  2. Soviet Exploitation of the US and the Critical Role Played by Western Aid in Soviet Survival
  3. Poland Betrayed: The Nazi-Soviet Invasion
  4. The Katyn Massacre and the Commissar Order
  5. 22nd June 1941 and Stalin’s Responsibility for the Impending Disaster
  6. In Search of a Separate Peace with Hitler
  7. The Triumph of Strategic Blood Sacrifice
  8. Stalin’s War against Ethnic Minorities and  Western Complicity
  9. The Ideological Legacy of WWII and its Impact on American Life
  10. A Note on Transliteration and Translation in Stalin’s War

1. Western Indifference to Soviet Crimes of Genocide, Mass Terror and Deportations


In any examination of Stalin’s many wars and monstrous vendettas a fundamental question is whether the ideological core and practice of Marxism-Leninism-Stalinism constituted a greater catastrophe for the world than National Socialism. McMeekin does not explicitly address this question in Stalin’s War but it is intrusive and ever present, along with the millions of Stalin’s victims, the executed, the tortured, the starved, the betrayed, the imprisoned, those deported and worked to death, and the raped, all crying out to be heard, demanding to be heard.

Referring to the genocide in Ukraine – the Holodomor – McMeekin points out that the Politburo decree on the liquidation of kulak households has, for Ukrainians and others who were targeted by it, ‘acquired the same notoriety in the history of Soviet famine as the Wannsee Protocols of January 1942 has in the history of the Holocaust’.[1] An obvious question, and one not tackled by McMeekin, is why this genocidal Politburo decree has not acquired the same notoriety in the US and the West generally as it has among Ukrainians and others. Are Ukrainians and Kazakhs wrong to impute such status to this decree or are there other reasons for this indifference? McMeekin accepts that the results of the kulak decree ‘were unquestionably genocidal’[2] but by failing to make clear whether he accepts that the intent was genocidal he provides a potential loophole for Holodomor-deniers (there was no genocide, just a few thousand deaths) and Holodomor-double-thinkers (I know what happened, but I do not want to know what happened) to claim that since there was no intent to commit genocide the Holodomor cannot be regarded as genocide.

In Ukraine, according to McMeekin, ‘at least three to four million starved to death’[3]. This is misleading on two counts. Firstly, a death toll of three to four million  – McMeekin has derived the figure from Snyder’s Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin (2010) – is the minimum number known to have died. Six million is a more realistic figure (for reasons I have set out elsewhere, and that is just for Ukraine). Secondly, Ukrainians, Kazakhs and other victims did not starve to death because of crop failures or drought: they were starved to death by agents of the Soviet regime who stole their food and aggressively denied them the means to survive. This is why, incidentally, the title of Applebaum’s book, The Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine (2017) is also thoroughly misleading. The deaths did not occur as a result of some natural disaster. In any case, as McMeekin concedes: ‘There was a double standard when it came to public exposure of the crimes of Hitler and Stalin that began in 1933 and continues on, in the historical literature, to this day’[4]. Soviet crimes were being denied and obfuscated well before Hitler became Chancellor of Germany. On just two indices, mass terror and genocide, the Soviet state terrorised and slaughtered on a scale that dwarfed anything carried out by NS-Germany. This will not be taught in most history departments in Western universities and certainly not highlighted in any US Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) or BBC documentaries, and this lack of coverage has nothing to do with any paucity of source material.

To his credit, McMeekin notes that the Nazis are always the villains never the Soviet Union and that this amounts to a grave distortion, and, given the vast amount of material from Soviet archives there is no longer any good reason to promote Hitler as enemy Nr. 1. True enough, but one did not have to await the partial opening of Soviet archives after 1991 to arrive at this conclusion. The Soviet state was the primary cause of the disasters which overwhelmed the twentieth century; it encoded the use of terror in its legal system; it resorted to genocide to exterminate millions of “enemies of the people” and carried out mass deportations, among other crimes. The basic picture was clearly emerging in 1918, obvious by the end of the 1930s, clearer still by the time of the Nürnberg War Crimes Trials, and beyond doubt by the time of Stalin’s death in 1953. There was – and remains – a conspiracy of silence and denial and the conspirators are not all affluent and duplicitous Western socialists or so-called liberals in search of some red utopia.

2. Soviet Exploitation of the US and the Critical Role Played by Western Aid in Soviet Survival

During World War II the American political establishment was riddled by Soviet agents, fellow-travellers, sympathisers and informants – Harry Hopkins was the most prominent and influential – but what emerges in more detail in Stalin’s War is the unbelievable breadth and depth of this ideological and political treachery. Such was the freedom enjoyed by Soviet officials to travel about the United States, to visit defence-related industrial factories and plant, in effect, to be able to spy openly, that one could be forgiven for thinking that Molotov and his staff were indirectly determining US foreign policy. Just one example illustrates the brazen bullying with which Soviet officials in the US abused the generosity of their hosts. After an American Airlines civilian plane accidentally struck a US military plane at Newark airport  – the plane was scheduled for delivery to the Soviet Union – Soviet officials actually demanded that American Airlines be banned from using Newark airport. But that was not enough for the Soviet air attaché, colonel Kotikov: he demanded that the US pilot be executed.[5] So much food, especially butter, was being sent to the Soviet Union that Americans were having to go without. Butter, it was claimed, would help convalescing wounded Russian soldiers. But it gets worse. To quote McMeekin: ‘Perhaps the most shocking lend-lease requisition of all was the one placed on February 1, 1943, for enriched uranium, which helped kick-start the Soviet atomic bomb program’.[6] With this kind of unfettered access to US industry and tolerance of Soviet behaviour infiltrating the Manhattan Project must have been very straightforward. Soviet ideological penetration of the US establishment ensured the survival of Stalin’s regime, making it possible for the state which had, apparently, abolished man’s exploitation of man to exploit the citizens of capitalist states. US Lend-Lease aid with significant contributions from Britain provided the basis for a Red Army revival at Stalingrad and the ensuing offensive momentum that took the Red Army to Berlin.

The portrait of Roosevelt that emerges in Stalin’s War is of a man who pined, almost begged, for Stalin’s respect and approval, and who was easily manipulated by pro-Soviet American officials. Churchill was by no means as pliable, but in his dealings with Stalin he was not always the hard-headed realist one associates with his repeated warnings about the dangers of rising German power in the 1930s. No sooner had he learned of the German invasion of the Soviet Union than Churchill pledged British support for the Soviet Union, ignoring the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, the Red Army’s invasion of Poland and the Baltic States and the undisguised gloating in the Soviet press as Britain fought for her own survival and that of the Western world in the summer of 1940. Military aid of all kinds which Britain desperately needed was shipped to the Soviet Union at great danger to Britain’s merchant fleet and Royal Navy and with heavy loss of life. Cooperation with Stalin should have been on a  ruthlessly transactional quid pro quo basis.

If Roosevelt was rattled by the Soviet claim that the British and Americans were fighting the Germans on the margins, he should not have been. Geography dictated the nature of operations. To accept the claim that the Anglo-Americans were fighting on the margins is to accept the implicit claim that the Eastern front was the centre of gravity of the war. Anglo-American forces were deployed in North Africa, the Atlantic, the Mediterranean, Iran, the Far East and waging an air war against Germany. The entire Soviet effort was concentrated in the Soviet Union. In order to identify the margins, it would be first necessary to establish the centre of gravity in these multifarious operations, and their relative impact and importance. Furthermore, the timing of any second front should have been a matter for the Western Allies not Stalin. It was undoubtedly the case, as McMeekin notes, that more Red Army soldiers were dying in 1941 than British – and the trend continued to war’s end – but the causes were nothing to do with Britain. Britain bore no responsibility for these horrendous losses and incompetent Red Army leadership: Britain owed the Soviet Union precisely nothing.

Did Churchill and Roosevelt succumb to Stalin because what they admired about him, especially Roosevelt, was that the vozhd enjoyed absolute and unfettered power and could just sign some decree and things happened? Both Western leaders, constrained by democratic accountability and the rule of law, even in wartime, craved the absolute power enjoyed by Dear Leader. Friedrich Hayek saw the threat posed to democracy by concentrations of power in conditions of total war and warned of the dangers in The Road to Serfdom (1944).

Whereas US aid to Stalin came with no strings attached and was not reciprocated with good will – the survivors of the famous Doolittle raid that crash landed in the Soviet Union were arrested and interned for a year (!)[7]  US officials imposed harsh terms on Britain.  McMeekin offers no good reason why the British were treated so differently. One plausible answer is that by insisting on the repayment of all British debts Roosevelt imposed crippling burdens on the British economy which would weaken Britain after the war and permit the US to become ever more economically and politically powerful. In the 1930s, as McMeekin demonstrates in great detail, US companies provided the expertise and equipment for Soviet industrialization. There was an expectation that the Soviet leadership would abandon its ideological obsessions about global revolution and become a huge market for US goods. Unlimited, no-strings-attached aid to Stalin during WWII can be seen in the same light. Saving the Soviet Union would be repaid with access to the Soviet Union, and as the primary aid donor, US companies not the British could expect to receive preferential treatment, or such was the hope. One additional example of US rapacious behaviour towards Britain should also be noted. During the Quebec conference in September 1944 Churchill expressed total opposition to the Morgenthau Plan. Morgenthau responded by threatening to withhold lease-lend funds for Britain unless Churchill agreed.

3. Poland Betrayed: The Nazi-Soviet Invasion

German and Soviet Army Officers meeting in occupied Poland, credit Wikipedia

McMeekin covers the landmark events on the Eastern front with varying degrees of success and detail. To his credit, he has not succumbed to the widespread view that Germany was solely responsible for WWII. Both Germany and the Soviet Union invaded Poland and both share responsibility for what ensued. The other aspect to the NS-Soviet invasion of Poland and bypassed in most accounts is that Britain and France (3rd September 1939) were quick enough to declare war on Germany for invading Poland (1st September 1939), yet just ignored Soviet aggression on 17th September 1939. While it is the case that Stalin escaped any formal or diplomatic censure for the Red Army’s part in the invasion of Poland, the famous David Low cartoon, curiously ignored by McMeekin, which was published in the London Evening Standard on 20th September 1939, three days after the Red Army’s invasion of Poland, perfectly summed up the consequences of Nazi-Soviet aggression.

Worse still was the fact that Churchill in an address broadcast by the BBC on 1st October 1939 – this is noted by McMeekin – actually defended the Soviet invasion of Poland, stating that such a move was necessary for Soviet security.[8] The speech was warmly received by the Soviet ambassador, Ivan Maiskii. Poland, invaded by both the Wehrmacht and Red Army, dismembered by both invaders and abandoned by Britain and France, now faced a long dark night. Large numbers of Poles were deported by the NKVD and when all attempts to suborn Polish prisoners of war in various NKVD camps got nowhere Beria recommended that they all be shot (rasstrel). Relying on Snyder’s Bloodlands, McMeekin cites a figure of 21,892 executed, a figure which is slightly higher than the 21,857 stated in a letter (9th March 1959) from the head of the KGB, Alexander Shelepin to Khrushchev. The executions took place in various sites across western Ukraine and western Belorussia and are generally referred to as the Katyn massacre where a mass grave was uncovered in the Katyn forest in 1943.

Did Churchill, the veteran scourge of Bolshevism, really fail to grasp the significance of what had happened and what lay ahead for the Poles in the years to come? Perhaps he was not bothered since his desire to enlist Stalin as an ally against Hitler overrode all other considerations. Nevertheless, imagine that you were a Pole, now living under Soviet occupation – your radio still not seized by the NKVD or possession of one declared counter-revolutionary – and you heard this broadcast from Britain, the country that promised its support and then abandoned you to Nazi and Soviet occupations and all its terrors.

Churchill’s approval of the Soviet role in the invasion, occupation and dismemberment of Poland expressed in 1939 made utterly insincere the claims in his correspondence with Stalin over five years later in which he told the soon-to-be ruler of Eastern Europe that Poland was the reason that Britain had gone to war; that the fate of Poland was close to British hearts. No wonder Stalin just ignored Churchill. In August 1944, according to McMeekin, Churchill followed the way Stalin stood by and allowed the Polish Home Army to fight alone ‘with incomprehension’.[9] Why incomprehension? Stalin had done this sort of thing before. In September 1939, he had stood idle while his ally invaded Poland, intervening only when victory was certain. I wonder whether the Poles fighting for survival in 1939 were likewise overcome with ‘incomprehension’ as the British and French abandoned them to the Wehrmacht and Red Army, declared war on Germany yet ignored Soviet aggression. And what about the discovery of the mass graves at Katyn in 1943?  Stalin  applauded the German victory in the West in 1940 but regretted the fact that it was so quickly concluded. Despite assurances given at Teheran that the Soviet summer offensive of 1944 (Bagration) would be co-ordinated with the Normandy landings, it was not, coming on 22nd June 1944. Anglo-Americans forces bogged down in an exhausting war of attrition in the Normandy boscage would have suited Stalin very well. Stalin’s failure to assist the Polish Home Army in its uprising is exactly what one would expect, so Churchill had no grounds at all for finding himself in a state of incomprehension. By now he surely understood the nature of the beast.

4. The Katyn Massacre and the Commissar Order

Katyn Massacre, credit Wikipedia

The Katyn massacre perfectly illustrates the double standard applied to National-Socialist and Soviet crimes and behaviour. The 21, 857 Polish prisoners of war that were executed – my own research suggests that the numbers executed may well be significantly higher – were executed not because of what they had done but because of who they were and what they might do were they to be released. Their executions were an example of prophylactic terror. The Commissar Order which provided for the summary execution of political commissars was also based on the prophylactic principle. Unfortunately, McMeekin’s treatment of the Commissar Order (Kommissarbefehl) reveals too great a willingness to accept the near unanimous view that the planning which inspired the Commissar Order was something uniquely evil and peculiar to NS-Germany, though later he comes close to conceding that it was not. The claim that the Commissar Order ‘prefigured the Holocaust’[10] is obviously wrong, since the Holocaust was a process and the process was underway well before the Commissar Order was issued (6th June 1941). The other point to be made is that in the Commissar Order there is no reference to any specific ethnic group as commissars: all commissars are regarded as a threat regardless of ethnicity (race). Therefore, the Commissar Order did not, as McMeekin asserts, have a ‘genocidal logic’[11], in striking contrast to Beria’s Katyn Memorandum where 97% of the targeted victims were ethnic Poles. The aim of the Commissar Order was not, as McMeekin claims, ‘to undermine enemy morale by driving a wedge between Red Army troops, including officers, and their political commissars’[12], though a welcome side effect no doubt. The aim was to reduce or to eliminate (to kill) the threat to German soldiers and operations posed by a unique ideological class of combatant whose personnel would not be bound by international law and who would ensure that German prisoners would be subjected to cruel and inhuman treatment. The military commissars were an integral part of the Soviet terror apparatus and had been since the founding of the Soviet state. They had a reputation for ideological fanaticism and cruelty which was known to the German planners, and the various laws and customs of war made no provision for this class of ideological functionary. German military planners took all these factors into account and concluded that shooting on the spot or execution after transfer to a rear area was justified.

The war on the Eastern front was a very different one from that being waged in North Africa and in Western Europe after 6th June 1944, though in passing it can be noted that Henry Morgenthau and his adviser Harry Dexter White (a Soviet agent in the US Treasury) proposed the mass and summary execution of all so-called “archcriminals” after Germany’s defeat. White told Henry Stimson, US Secretary of War, McMeekin records, that ‘he [White] and Morgenthau favored mass shootings of captured Germans without trial’.[13] So did Stalin.

Western historians who condemn the Commissar Order without grasping or merely ignoring the fact that the Soviet NKVD executed prisoners in very large numbers deny the nature of the war in the Eastern front, and provide a one-sided view. The Soviet state did not represent the forces of “good” merely because they fought against Hitler’s Germany. Not only did the NKVD prophylactically execute Polish prisoners of war, an obvious and flagrant violation of the rules and customs of war and the Geneva Convention (1929) but they also killed large numbers of political prisoners and other “enemies of the people” in situ when, because of the speed of the German advance, they could not be removed to the east.  Since these prisoners could not be allowed to survive and take up arms against Soviet power – the same thinking on which the Katyn memorandum was based – they had to be shot. In many cases, as Bogdan Musial reveals in Konterrevolutionäre Elemente sind zu Erschießen. Die Brutalisierung des deutsch-sowjetischen Krieges im Sommer 1941 (Counter-Revolutionary Elements are to be Shot“. The Brutalisation of the German-Soviet War in the Summer of 1941, 2000), prisoners were tortured (bones broken) and female prisoners raped, before being shot and bayoneted. The Germans certainly knew that the NKVD was arresting, deporting and killing Poles in their occupation zone. After 22nd June 1941, as they overran NKVD prisons, they discovered the mass graves of tortured and executed prisoners. By June 1941, according to McMeekin, unfortunately without any source, NKVD killings in the Soviet occupation zone of Poland had reached ‘about five hundred thousand’.[14]

It occurs to McMeekin that Beria’s ordering NKVD commanders to kill political prisoners was ‘a kind of mirroring of the Nazi Commissar Order of June 6’.[15] This is certainly reasonable but potentially misleading since it implies that Beria was emulating Nazi methods; that the mass killings of political prisoners were a reprisal response to the Commissar Order. Beria’s Katyn memorandum (5th March 1940) set the precedent for this type of killing, not the Commissar Order (6th June 1941). A relevant question here is whether the Germans knew or suspected that large numbers of Polish prisoners of war had been executed by the NKVD in 1940 and whether this played any role in inspiring and drafting the Commissar Order. After 22nd June 1941, when German units encountered these mass graves and bodies, it can only have hardened the view that killing military commissars was entirely reasonable and necessary. Bogdan Musial has estimated that in the immediate aftermath of the German invasion in eastern Poland alone the NKVD executed 30,000 prison inmates.[16] In what is to date the most comprehensive examination of the Commissar Order, Der Kommissarbefehl: Wehrmacht und NS-Verbrechen an der Ostfront 1941/42 (The Commissar Order: Wehrmacht and NS-Crimes on the Eastern Front 1941/42, 2008), Felix Römer, using the relevant war diaries and other documents of German divisions, estimated that the total number of military commissars killed over the period from 22nd June 1941 to 6th May 1942 when the order was rescinded was approximately 6,000-7,000. McMeekin would have benefited from Römer’s study, had he consulted it.

The British were also well informed about the status of military commissars in the Red Army. McMeekin reports that in February 1940 two Russian-speaking officers, Major Gatehouse and Captain Tamplin were dispatched to Finland to interview Red Army prisoners of war. They interviewed 2,075 men in all. Red Army soldiers had been told, the two officers noted, that they would be shot and tortured if captured. These prisoners also reported having seen their fellow soldiers shot and left for dead by their own commanders. Most of them did not want to be returned home, since they were fearful of being shot.[17] McMeekin cites the case of 3 Soviet soldiers who were captured and asked for a last meal. They were told that they were not going to be shot and two of them replied:  ‘Well at least you are going to shoot this one’, pointing to the third, ‘he’s a commissar [i.e., a politruk]’. When the Finns said no they said, ‘Well for heaven’s sake let us shoot him then’.[18] If Stalin was quite willing to form ‘terror battalions to machine-gun down his own soldiers if they retreated, wavered in attack, or tried to surrender to the enemy’[19], why could Germans captured by the Red Army and at the mercy of military commissars expect to be treated properly? Red Army soldiers who had been repeatedly indoctrinated with the idea that they would be tortured and shot if captured, would find it that much easier to abandon any inhibitions proscribing the summary execution and torture of enemy prisoners of war. If the British were able to acquire such detailed knowledge about military commissars in the Red Army, German planners would also have derived information about the status of military commissars from Red Army prisoners captured by their Finnish allies. They knew what awaited German soldiers.

Fears that German soldiers would be tortured were vindicated. Soon after the start of the invasion German formations encountered the bodies of Germans who had been summarily executed, especially Luftwaffe pilots and aircrew: ‘Some had been nailed to trees, some castrated; others had their eyes gouged out, their tongues cut out, or were burned alive. Almost invariably, captured German soldiers were stripped of their clothing and valuables, whether before or after they were slaughtered’.[20] Medical columns were also attacked and German wounded and medical personnel were killed. The German and Italian occupation forces in Yugoslavia also encountered scarcely believable acts of cruelty committed by the warring factions. A German intelligence officer, cited by McMeekin, recorded that the Chetniks tended to target German soldiers and Serbian collaborators whereas the communists – ‘asocial elements’ – will kill anybody, and that ‘These communist bands also commit grotesque acts of cruelty’.[21] McMeekin notes that British and American journalists ignored these reports of Red Amy atrocities, preferring not to know. Two years later they averted their gaze from the disinterred bodies of executed Polish prisoners of war.

5. 22nd June 1941 and Stalin’s Responsibility for the Impending Disaster

Graf Friedrich von der Schulenburg, credit Wikipedia

One of the least satisfactory parts of Stalin’s War is McMeekin’s attempt to mitigate Stalin’s incompetence and cowardice as the clock ran down to Sunday, 22nd June 1941. Thus, McMeekin instructs us that ‘obvious as signs of preparations for Barbarossa seem to us in retrospect, at the time no one was sure if, when and how the Germans would strike’.[22] Hindsight is not required to identify the signs of hostile German intent. They were there well before 22nd June 1941 and identified by the NKVD and other parties at the time. The vast collection of NKVD intelligence reports (intreps) published in the two volumes of 1941 god (1998) – these reports have been completely ignored by McMeekin – remove all doubt about what the NKVD (and Stalin) knew before 22nd June 1941. Clearly, the more precise the timing of any German attack the better, but once it is obvious – and it was obvious well before 22nd June 1941 – that German deployments and other behaviour were consistent with hostile intent the primary task was then to prepare to deal with the threat.

There is no good reason why the build-up of Soviet forces close to the border, known to the Germans from reconnaissance flights, would deter German aggression. On the contrary, such forward deployments were highly vulnerable to the tested and refined doctrine of Blitzkrieg, since the speed and violence of the German assault would tear open the front, enabling the armoured columns to penetrate rapidly into the Soviet rear (tyl) so spreading panic and chaos and leading to a breakdown in command and control. Red Army units deployed too far forward would be cut off, encircled and destroyed. This is indeed what happened and Stalin had no excuses. What was highly likely to happen was clear enough from what had already happened in Poland and France. Moreover, what this meant for the Soviet Union had been set out in detail by Georgii Isserson in a penetrating analysis of the Blitzkrieg published in June 1940, Novye formy bor’by (Opyt issledovaniia sovremennykh voin), New Forms of Combat (An Essay Researching Modern Wars). Stalin ignored Isserson’s warnings, among many others, and paid the price. McMeekin has also – and inexplicably – ignored Isserson.

Stalin, McMeekin speculates, ‘appears to have to thought, Hitler would not be so foolish as to take on an enemy with such massive advantages in armor and manpower’.[23] So what then was the purpose of the Soviet deployments on the border? Were they offensive, as McMeekin has implied, or were they defensive? As was demonstrated in the West, numbers are not everything: Anglo-French forces enjoyed a 2:1 advantage in tanks over the German attackers yet were completely outclassed (the convention is that the attackers should outnumber the defenders by 3:1); and the heavily outnumbered Finns inflicted horrendous losses on the Red Army before being finally overwhelmed. The real problem for the Red Army was that the institutional consequences of the Great Terror had not been remedied by June 1941. In terms of doctrine, leadership and training the Red Army was inferior to the Wehrmacht. What Red Army commanders at all levels lacked in skill they made good in blood and treasure.

Here is another example of Soviet miscalculation. Stalin interpreted the lack of orders for sheepskin clothing in Germany and cold-resistant lubricant as signs that Germany would not attack. Even if this indicated to Stalin that the Germans would not attack in 1941, this was just one set of potential indicators and Stalin was utterly irresponsible to have attached such importance to these indicators when the added weight of others indicated offensive intent. Nor does the fact that according to McMeekin, Stalin believed that the Germans had made no provision for winter clothing and cold resistant lubricants, indicated the absence of any attack in 1941. It indicated that the Germans believed that the Soviet Union could be defeated before the onset of winter. McMeekin interprets increased Soviet oil deliveries to Germany as a demonstration of Stalin’s ‘confidence in his own military preparations’.[24] On the contrary, these valuable fuel deliveries amounted to naked appeasement and the paying of tribute.

McMeekin eagerly, though not explicitly and without direct reference to, or citation of, Viktor Suvorov, follows the line pursued by the author of Ledokol: Kto nachal vtoruiu mirovuiu voinu? (Icebreaker: Who started the Second World War?,1992) that Stalin was preparing to attack Hitler. For example, McMeekin makes much – far too much – of Stalin’s address to Red Army graduates on 5th May 1941, which is, he states, to be interpreted as marking a new offensive doctrine. Stalin’s address of 5th May 1941 is an ad hoc speech prompted by fear of German arms and its successes and is intended to reassure his audience. The speech contains lots of self-congratulatory statements about the Red Army but contains nothing indicating a new offensive doctrine or even the beginnings of one. Were Timoshenko and Zhukov updating the mobilization plan they would have required something far more substantial and doctrinally specific and coherent than this rambling speech. The other problem is whether in its present state the Red Army would be capable of any kind of successful implementation of this new plan (15th May 1941), a plan which had yet to be tested in field exercises or in any kind of realistic simulation. This is important since the Red Army performed very badly in Finland and was still grappling with all kinds of unresolved institutional problems which had been set out in great detail in a report prepared by Timoshenko and Voroshilov (7th December 1940). This is another valuable document inexplicably ignored by McMeekin. Again, it is all well and good that the Zhukov-Timoshenko plan has been drawn up and that it provided for ‘a sudden blow’[25] but this ignored the present state of the Red Army.

Yet none of the measures being taken – the 15th May 1941 war plan and moves towards the western border – means, insists McMeekin, that ‘Stalin had already resolved on war, whether preemptive, defensive or otherwise’.[26] So what, pray tell, was the point?  Deployments to the border region on this scale without a clear set of intentions were an administratively exhausting and physically risky enterprise. Without a clear and well defined aim being given to Red Army commanders, these deployments caused confusion. If the intention was to impress or to deter the Germans, it failed. The lack of a clear purpose – Stalin is demonstrably to blame  – paralysed decision-making at the front and had catastrophic consequences since when the German attack came it very quickly broke into the rear of the Red Army formations the deployment posture of which was neither offensive nor defensive, whose commanders lacked specific orders and so were left to their own uncoordinated devices, a state of affairs for which the majority were unprepared by training and who were psychologically and ideologically fearful of initiative. Stalin was at fault. Pavlov and other senior officers were shot as scapegoats to hide his incompetence.

The TASS communiqué of 13th June 1941 in which rumours of an impending war between Germany and the Soviet Union were denied was wishful thinking. Where McMeekin detects signs of Soviet cunning, I smell visceral fear and alarm. Even if the rumours were baseless, they would be potentially damaging to Soviet-German relations and bad for Red Army morale. It can be noted that a similar TASS communiqué, specifically the one dated 23rd June 1940, also sought to counter foreign speculation that the Non-Aggression Pact was under stress. This set an obvious pattern for 13th June 1941. The 13th June 1941 TASS communiqué was an act of desperation, an attempt to secure official denials from Germany that all the rumours of war were unfounded. It can be noted that when Graf Friedrich von der Schulenburg, the German ambassador in Moscow, met Vyskinskii on the 14th June 1941, the day the text of the TASS communiqué was published in Izvestiia, the Soviet record shows that von Schulenburg said nothing about the communiqué. Molotov also raised the matter with von Schulenburg, drawing his attention to the fact that the text had not been published in Germany. The German ambassador offered no explanation. Among foreigners living in Berlin the lack of any clarification of Hitler’s intentions in response to the TASS communiqué was regarded as sensational.[27]

Alluding to Politburo Special Files which were declassified in the El’tsyn years, McMeekin states that they demonstrate ‘a positively breathtaking ramp-up in Soviet military preparations from April to June 1941’ and from this he concludes that ‘Any lingering notion, which one still sometimes encounters in general histories of the Second World War, that Stalin and his generals were asleep at the wheel as Hitler’s generals prepared for Barbarossa must now be dismissed as absurd’.[28]  Not quite: the point here is that a clear distinction must be made between Stalin and his intelligence-gathering agencies. The generals, the NKVD and NKGB engaged in collecting, collating and analyzing the data, were wide awake and doing an excellent job. Reports from the outstanding Soviet military attaché in Berlin, General-major Vasilii Ivanovich Tupikov, show that he was hyper-alert and knew what was coming. His memorandum to Golikov, dated 25th/26th April 1941 – yet another important landmark document ignored by McMeekin – is especially impressive.

The problem was Stalin, who, confronted with imminent invasion, ‘was still disbelieving’.[29] Stalin’s dithering and indecision prevented any kind of effective response: deploying vast numbers of troops to the border region without, as McMeekin concedes, clear orders is hardly evidence of effective and decisive military leadership at such a critical moment. The English ditty about the Duke of York comes to mind: Stalin deceives, falters and fails. If, as McMeekin notes, German troops ‘were armed, primed, and ready to attack’[30] why were Red Army formations not armed, primed, and ready to defend and counter attack? McMeekin also claims – correctly – that the Germans were ‘far better at offensive planning and logistics’.[31] Why this was so? This lack of readiness is all the more perplexing since, if Soviet commanders were well aware of the part played by suddenness (vnezapnost’) in military operations, why were they so suddenly, so comprehensively and so disastrously overwhelmed? Zhukov and Timoshenko assumed that the Soviet side would have a period of 10-15 days to prepare any counter offensive in the south west. They were obviously and horribly wrong to make any such assumption and no hindsight is required to see their error. The Polish general staff failed to identify the concentration of German forces on their borders and Poland was attacked without warning. The Red Army attacked Finland without warning, so there were no grounds to believe that Germany would abandon the principle of an Überraschungsangriff  were they to attack the Soviet Union.

That the Germans struck first offers no mitigation. Their attack pattern was well established and known and Stalin conceded the advantage. (Isserson’s forensic analysis was a dire warning). McMeekin obviously does not realise the significance of what he writes when, in mitigation of Red Army failure, he notes that ‘the Red Army of 1941 was not designed for defensive operations’.[32] Well, judging by its abysmal performance against the outnumbered Finns the Red Army’s offensive doctrine was also somewhat lacking. That, according to McMeekin, the Red Army was not designed for defensive operations reveals either that Soviet claims made after the end of the Civil War that the Soviet state was at risk from Western aggression were false, otherwise defence would have been accorded a high priority, or that Soviet military planners were negligent. A well trained army will prepare for defensive and offensive operations, an exceptionally well trained and led army will excel at both. Faced with the mass of Red Army men and equipment in the second half of the war, German commanders executed a series of masterful defensive operations (the damage inflicted on Sokolovskii’s Western Front over the winter 1943/1944, despite huge Soviet manpower and equipment advantages is just one example). The Red Army ignored defence because it had succumbed to Stalinist agitprop about spreading revolution to capitalist states by force of arms.

The excessive reliance on agitprop instead of military leadership and training raised the profile and status of the military commissar with predictably dire results. To quote McMeekin: ‘The men were bullied by their officers, who were cowed by their superior officers, who were themselves terrorized by politruks answering to the party’.[33] That being so, it makes no sense for McMeekin to point out that Stalin had vast reserves of men and equipment to oppose the Germans – true enough – but that they could only be effective, ‘if and when his officers and politruks figured out how to get the men to fight’.[34] Commissars were part of the problem: one solution would have been to get them well away from the front. Given, however, that politruks and military commissars pervaded the Red Army from top to bottom – training and teaching establishments, hospitals, academies and front-line units – their damaging influence was even worse than McMeekin suggests. The stresses of war soon exposed the propaganda fantasy that commissars and politruks were linked with the Red Army and masses by unbreakable bonds of class solidarity. Red Army officers captured by the Germans ‘railed against the tyranny of Stalin’s political commissars, suggesting that the Commissar Order was doing real damage’ and Red Army soldiers would sometimes kill commissars so as to surrender.[35] In Kharkov, McMeekin notes, people ‘turned over Soviet commissars and partisans to the Germans’.[36]

On its face, the appointment of 3,700 new commissars on the 17th June 1941, five days before the start of Barbarossa, at a moment of imminent danger, suggests complete lack of awareness of just how serious things have become. There were, one would surmise, far more important things to worry about. These measures were, however, indicative of Stalin’s fears and paranoia. Even at this moment of extreme danger, ideological considerations have not been abandoned, if anything ideological control is being tightened. This move suggests that Stalin and his ideological apparatus lack complete confidence in the effectiveness and reliability of the Red Army – a situation they have created – and that ideological control is being strengthened in anticipation of the Red Army’s not being able to meet the challenge. One month later, as the Red Army was disintegrating, the institution of military commissars was formally reintroduced (16th July 1941), though their influence on the Red Army had never been removed.

The lack of clear orders and the vast amount of men, equipment, fuel et al heading towards the Germans at the moment when the attack was imminent manifestly contributed to the disaster that was about to unfold: and Stalin bears sole responsibility. Stalin may not have been asleep at the wheel but the man who had some of his best military leaders and thousands of others put to death four years previously was now confronted with a real and deadly enemy – not phantom Trotskyite conspirators –  and he was paralysed by fear and indecision. But not according to Khrushchev, cited by McMeekin: ‘No one with an ounce of political sense should buy the idea that we were fooled, that we were caught flat-footed by a treacherous surprise assault’.[37] But that is exactly what did happen: Stalin had all the information yet could not bring himself to act decisively before the Germans attacked. If the Soviet Union was not caught flat-footed on 22nd June 1941, what exactly caused the ensuing catastrophe which enabled the Germans to reach the Volga in August 1942?

Nor is McMeekin convincing in his attempt to argue that Stalin did not suffer some major failure of leadership after the German invasion. The  Kremlin log books do not decisively undermine the claim that Stalin had been psychologically traumatised by the German invasion, they merely show that Stalin received visitors (and no record of any visitors on 29th and 30th June 1941). That Stalin failed to address the Soviet people and the world on 22nd June 1941, delegating this task to Molotov, and that he did not make his first major address until 3rd July 1941, 11 days later – in the circumstances a staggering and unforgivable delay – are also evidence of dereliction of duty and weakness, and tantamount to desertion in the face of the enemy (and this is the same leader who would later issue Orders № 270 and № 227). McMeekin concedes that Stalin ‘steeled himself to address the nation on July 3’[38] but does not explain why the man of steel was so ominously silent in the first 11 days. Stalin’s prolonged spell of silence is even more puzzling when one considers that  just weeks before, Stalin had appointed himself as head of the Council of People’s Commissars, interpreted by Suvorov and McMeekin to mean that Stalin was concentrating still more power in his hands in anticipation of war, yet the task of addressing the Soviet people on the 22nd June 1941 was delegated to Molotov. In any case, the question whether Stalin was sufficiently traumatised so as to be unable to discharge his duties or not is in some ways irrelevant. The damage had been inflicted by Stalin well before 22nd June 1941.

McMeekin maintains that ‘catastrophic errors of pre-war diplomacy and strategy compounded by Stalin’s insistence on counterattacking according to reigning Red Army offensive doctrine, and not Stalin’s alleged emotional collapse after the German invasion’ led to the disaster.[39] To begin with, it is by no means clear that Stalin’s pre-war diplomacy can be considered a series of ‘catastrophic errors’. The real catastrophe was the one that ensued after 22nd June 1941 and which was caused by Stalin’s complete failure to take the necessary countermeasures when, confronted with the mass of evidence, from various sources, which overwhelmingly pointed to German hostile intent. The critical pre-war event that contributed so much to the Red Army collapse in the summer of 1941 and which continued to blight Red Army performance throughout the war was the purge of the Red Army. McMeekin observes that ‘Stalin’s purging of the Soviet armed forces in 1937-1938 had seriously hampered Soviet military credibility in the short run…’[40] The damage, however, was far more destructive, pervasive and enduring. Red Army commanders at all levels who were fearful of independent action and initiative and whose decisions were subject to veto on the part of Stalin’s ideological bodyguards, the military commissars, were no match for the German army in which, in accordance with the doctrine of Auftragstaktik, aggressive initiative and leadership were encouraged at all levels. This difference between the two armies was especially marked in the junior leader stratum. Even where one army – in this case the Red Army – enjoyed a massive advantage in manpower and equipment, doctrine and leadership are decisive. This was especially evident in the way the two sides deployed armour. Any advantages the T-34 had were wasted by their piecemeal deployment which meant that they were easily destroyed and the advantages of mass did not accrue. At this stage in the war the majority of T-34s had no radios (all German tanks were equipped with radios). So once the Soviet command tank, which was equipped with radio, identified by an antenna, was destroyed, Soviet tank units were leaderless, coordinated action was impossible and panic ensued.

Two replies are prompted by McMeekin’s claim that ‘The shocking part, for Stalin, was not that Hitler attacked – that was what Hitler did’.[41] Firstly, Stalin also attacked: Poland, Finland, Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, Northern Bukovina and Bessarabia. There were also offensive operations against the Japanese in the Far East. Secondly, Stalin had no right, no grounds to be shocked. The intelligence data were clear enough. According to McMeekin, the real shock was that Stalin’s ‘vaunted war machine, which he had spent the last thirteen years assembling and arming with all the latest foreign and domestic technology, proved so brittle when it was finally put to the test against a first-rate military opponent’.[42] Once again this inexplicably discounts the impact of the Great Terror, which dramatically weakened the combat performance of the Red Army. If Stalin was shocked by the collapse of the Red Army, then one is dismayed by McMeekin’s hopelessly optimistic claim that: ‘Whoever struck first in the titanic game of chicken being played out at the German-Soviet frontier, Stalin had ensured that the Red Army would be prepared for European war’.[43]

‘The terrible truth’, McMeekin claims, ‘which dawned on Stalin in that first week of war, was that his soldiers either did not know how to or did not want to fight’.[44] Why was this a surprise? Peasants provided the bulk of the rank and file in the Red Army and they had not forgotten the collectivization drive and genocide in Ukraine: the collective farms were detested; factory workers were treated as slave labour; the 1936 Soviet Constitution was an utter sham; and the Great Terror inflicted untold misery, death and suffering on Soviet society. Had the German invaders exploited this widespread hatred of Stalin’s regime in that first summer, encouraging revolt, it would have been the end of Stalin.

6. In Search of a Separate Peace with Hitler

The question whether Stalin was overwhelmed by the shock of the German invasion is linked to claims that he sought to appease Hitler and to conclude a separate peace. One of the main sources for this story is the memoir of Pavel Sudoplatov who in 1941 was deputy head of the First Directorate of the NKGB (not the NKVD as cited by McMeekin). In a deposition to the Soviet Council of Minister (7th August 1953), Sudoplatov stated that just after 22nd June 1941 he was summoned by Beria and instructed to sound out Ivan Stamenov, the Bulgarian ambassador to Moscow, who was known to enjoy good relations with the Germans, and to ascertain whether the Germans would accept a peace settlement. McMeekin’s position is that since Sudoplatov’s testimony was part of an attempt to discredit Beria after Stalin’s death it is unreliable. Beria had done more than enough to discredit himself. That nothing has so far been found in any German or Bulgarian archive is not decisive. Firstly, it would seem highly unlikely that Beria put anything in writing though the fact that Sudoplatov was ordered to explain what had happened in June 1941 means that the Soviet Council of Ministers must have known of Sudoplatov’s role and this strongly implies the existence of documentary evidence. In any case, Sudoplatov records that when he reported to Beria after the meeting Beria made notes. Secondly, archives only contain what is placed in them and, thirdly, there is the matter of access to archival material.

Set against McMeekin’s objections is the fact that the Non-Aggression Pact shows that both Hitler and Stalin were quite capable of the most stunning about turns when it suited them. Why not another one? If it was the case that Soviet and German officials were discussing a separate peace in 1943, something that cannot just be dismissed out of hand – see, for example, Heinz Höhne, Canaris. Patriot im Zwielicht (Canaris: Patriot in the Shadows, 1976) and Reinhard Spitzy, So haben wir das Reich verspielt: Bekenntnisse eines Illegalen (And this is how we gambled away the State: Confessions of an Illegal, 1986) – then it is likewise plausible that Sudoplatov, acting on Beria’s orders, did indeed sound out the Bulgarian ambassador about a peace deal with Hitler immediately after 22nd June 1941. Any reliable information indicating that Stalin had sought a separate peace with Hitler in either 1941 or 1943 would, naturally, destroy one of the essential Soviet myths of the Great Patriotic War – one that is just as strong in the Russian Federation today – of implacable, monolithic resistance to the so-called “fascist invaders”. For that reason, any surviving archival material that endangers this belief is likely to remain off limits for a very long time.

7. The Triumph of Strategic Blood Sacrifice

The battles of Moscow, Stalingrad, Operations Citadel (Kursk) and Bagration (1944 Soviet summer offensive) mark the route of the Red Army to Berlin. These battles may well have been Red Army victories but they were achieved at horrendous cost. No Western army could have afforded such losses. On Red Army losses at Moscow, McMeekin cites only those which were incurred in the offensive operation, citing a figure of ‘140,000 dead and 230,000 wounded’.[45] Soviet and Russian historians divided the Moscow battle into two phases: defensive and offensive. In the defensive phase which lasted 67 days (30th September 1941- 5th December 1941) Red Army losses were 514,338 (killed and missing) and 143,941 wounded, a total of 658,279.  In the offensive phase which lasted 34 days (5th December 1941 – 7th January 1942) Red Army losses were 139,586 (killed and missing) and 231,368 wounded, a total of 370,955. Thus total Red Army losses for both phases of the Moscow operation, lasting 101 days, amounted to 1,029,234, a daily average of 10,190.  This was no stunning victory.

The following year as German 6th Army closed in on Stalingrad, Stalin, faced with another desperate situation, issued Order № 227 (28th July 1942), a brutal sequel to Order № 270 (16th August 1941). In the Order Stalin claimed that the Soviet Union no longer enjoyed a superiority in manpower and bread and that if the retreat continued the loss of factories and plant and food production would mean disaster. Taking Stalin at face value, McMeekin concludes that ‘many historians’ [who exactly?] who claimed that ‘superior Russian (sic) resources and reserves would inevitably turn the tide of the war’ were wrong.[46]

Stalin’s wailing obscures the point that the reason the Soviet Union is, at least according to him, short of manpower and available grain, is because the Red Army has been comprehensively outmatched and chased all the way to the Volga, and along the way has incurred huge losses in men, killed, wounded and captured. If Stalin had discharged his duties in a minimally competent fashion before 22nd June 1941 and had not butchered large numbers of Red Amy officers in 1937-1938, then perhaps German 6th Army would not have reached the Volga and other German formations would not have penetrated so deeply into the Caucasus. Stalin’s claim that the Soviet Union is short of manpower would also imply a greater concern for saving the lives of Red Army soldiers. Yet one finds no such concern for Soviet soldiers on or away from the battlefield. On the contrary, we find nothing but contempt and disdain for those unfortunates, cruelly abandoned, who were encircled and captured by the Germans and now stigmatised as “traitors”. If Stalin was concerned about not wasting the lives of Red Army soldiers he would not have fed so many men into the Stalingrad meat grinder in pointless attacks in order to wear down the Germans. Total losses in the defensive phase alone amounted to 643,842 (killed and wounded). In both phases of the battle Red Army losses, killed and wounded, were 1,129,619. History records that Stalingrad was a victory for the Red Army: only the Red Army could afford such victories.

Other aspects of McMeekin’s coverage of Stalingrad are also inadequate. He is silent on the executions of Red Army soldiers, many sanctioned by Vasilii Chuikov, commander of the 62nd Army, and dismisses the sniper duel between Vasilii Zaitsev (who is bizarrely described as a ‘proletarian shepherd’)[47], and a top German sniper as a myth, without explaining why it was a myth. There is no doubt, however, that this duel was a myth. {Editorial note; see Frank Ellis, The Stalingrad Cauldron, Inside the Encirclement and Destruction of the 6th Army, University of Kansas, 2013, pages 275-280} McMeekin also presents the encirclement of German 6th Army as ‘a triumph of strategic thinking’[48] when, following the example of Moscow, it was really another triumph of strategic blood sacrifice. No advanced strategic insight was required to note that the German flanks were dangerously vulnerable against which can be set the German belief that the Red Army was on its last legs and not able to mount a set-piece encirclement on such a scale. The German miscalculation stemmed from the failure to grasp that Stalin and Zhukov were quite willing to sacrifice men on a monstrous scale in order to keep German attention focused on the city and not their exposed flanks. Just one example of their cavalier disregard for the lives of Red Army soldiers was the Volga river crossing and disastrous landing at Latashanka between 31st October and 3rd November 1942, almost certainly intended to be a diversionary raid.  Nearly all the 900 Red Army soldiers that took part in the operation were casualties (killed, wounded and captured), and very large numbers were the despised Soviet ethnic minorities who were sacrificed in a suicide mission.

The static conditions in the Stalingrad battle negated the German superiority in mobile warfare since it provided Stalin and his generals with time to prepare a set-piece attack.  McMeekin concedes these points, so undermining his earlier assessment of Operation Uranus: by fall 1943, it should have  been clear to any objective British or American observer – had Stalin allowed any such observers near the front – that the Red Army was hopelessly outclassed in open battle against the Wehrmacht, unless the Germans made an obvious error such as the overextension of the Sixth Army in Stalingrad, for which Paulus had paid dearly.[49]

This explains why the Germans reached Stalingrad, why the Soviet Union lost so much of its productive agricultural and industrial capacity and consequently why Anglo-US aid was so critical. It also explains why, post-Stalingrad, von Manstein urged Hitler to abandon territory to shorten the front, build reserves and keep operations mobile. The aim was to retain the initiative and to compel the Red Army to fight on German terms in order to exploit Red Army doctrinal and leadership weaknesses in fast-moving operations.

Concentrations of Red Army manpower and equipment reached staggering levels in the battle of Kursk. Data provided by David Glantz and Jonathan House in When Titans Clashed: How the Red Army Stopped Hitler (2015), which McMeekin cites, show that the Red Army enjoyed a massive superiority in all areas. In fact, the data cited by Glantz and House understate the Red Army superiority. Total Red Army manpower is given as 1,337,166[50], whereas Karl-Heinz Frieser in Das Deutsche Reich und der Zweite Weltkrieg provides a figure of 1,987,463.[51] Glantz and House cite 777,000 for total German manpower, whereas Frieser cites 625,271. Large cited differences are also evident in the numbers of guns, aircraft and tanks available to both sides. For example, Red Army tank and self-propelled gun strength is given as 3,533 in When Titans Clashed but as 8,200 by Frieser. Bearing in mind that the Germans were attacking one of, possibly the most, heavily fortified defensive positions ever constructed on the Eastern front, their manpower losses were much lower, remarkably so: 54,182 killed, wounded and missing as against a minimum of 177,847 Red Army (unofficially estimated to be 319,000). German tank losses were 252 against Red Army losses of 1,614 (unofficially estimated to be 1,956). In the gallery of Stalin’s War there is a photo of American Stuart M-3 tanks described as being in action at Kursk. Compared with the German Mark IVs, they appear as toys. Pitted against Panthers and Tigers, armoured predators, they would have been devoured in short order.

Russland, Panzer IV und Schützenpanzer, credit Wikipedia

High noon in the battle of Kursk was the hellacious armoured clash just south of Prokhorovka on 12th July 1943. McMeekin’s account of the battle contains inaccuracies and an important omission. Only Das Reich and Leibstandarte, two of the three divisions comprising II SS Panzerkorps, were deployed against 5th Guards Tank Army, the third SS division, Totenkopf,  played no part in the battle. The total number of armoured platforms available to the two SS divisions was 186 of which 117 were tanks the rest being Sturmgeschütze (assault guns) and Panzerjäger (tank hunters/destroyers).[52] The battle was an absolute catastrophe for 5th Guards Tank Army. It lost 235 tanks destroyed on the battlefield and allowing for tanks that subsequently had to be written off total losses rose to about 500. The two SS divisions lost a mere three tanks. A decisive factor in the outcome of the battle was the presence of a substantial Red Army anti-tank ditch, overrun by the Germans the day before the battle, which was incorporated into the German defence. The ditch ran right across the Red Army line of attack. On 12th July Red Army tanks hurtled down the slope towards the German defenders either unaware of the ditch or attempting to clear it at speed. Either way the result was disaster as tanks collapsed into the ditch or, their vulnerable side armour exposed, as they moved parallel to the ditch, attempting to escape, were shot up at close range by the German anti-tank guns and tanks on the other side. McMeekin omits any mention of this ditch and the part it played in the Prokhorovka massacre, though he is not the first historian to have missed or ignored its importance.

T34, battle of Kursk, credit Wikipedia

In the 23-day operation to take Berlin (April-May 1945) total Red Army losses were 361,367 (killed and wounded), a daily average of 15,711. Citing When Titans Clashed, McMeekin notes the total of 361,367. Contra McMeekin it is not based on any estimate of Glantz and House but derived from the standard Russian statistical analysis of Soviet combat casualties prepared by Colonel-general Krivosheev (1993 & 2001). Proceeding to make a comparison between American dead in the Ardennes offensive and Red Army dead in the Berlin operation, McMeekin states that Red Army dead were 100,000. However, the total official figure of killed in action Red Army casualties incurred during the Berlin operation cited by Krivosheev is 81,116 not 100,000. If the total of Soviet dead is 100,000, though McMeekin provides no obvious source, then the official figure of Red Army losses in the Berlin operation 361,367 is too low.

8. Stalin’s War against Ethnic Minorities and  Western Complicity

Stalin at war is not just a story of battles at the front but one of Stalin’s war crimes, and one of the worst has been largely discounted by McMeekin, specifically the mass deportation of Soviet national minorities (natsmeny). Deportations from border regions had started before the war. After the German invasion they assumed staggering proportions and continued after war’s end. The first major deportation was of Volga Germans in September 1941, a total of 479,841 which included all Germans from the Saratov and Stalingrad districts for good measure. McMeekin fails to expose the criminal nature of this deportation which set the standard for all subsequent deportations. In a decree issued by the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet (28th August 1941), the Stalin regime justified the mass deportation of the Volga Germans by claiming that they were harbouring tens of thousands of German agents. McMeekin is either unaware of this preposterous claim either because he has not read the decree or because he has chosen to ignore it. Further, McMeekin directs the reader to one of the first major post-Soviet studies of the deportations, written by Nikolai Bugai, Beria – I. Stalinu: “Soglasno Vashemu ukazaniiu…” (Beria to I. Stalin: “In Accordance with Your Instruction…”, 1995), but without realising that Bugai endorses the reasons cited in the wartime decree to justify the deportation of the Volga Germans.[53]

Once the threat of defeat had been averted in mid-July 1943, deportations resumed with a vengeance. The NKVD and seconded Red Army detachments were able to put all those American Lend-Lease trucks to good use, total deliveries of which in 1944 had reached 300,000.[54] Kalmyks, Karachaev, Chechen-Ingush, Crimean Tatars suffered the biggest deportations but many other Soviet ethnic groups were targeted as well, among them, Finns, Poles, Greeks, Turks and Iranians. The significance of these deportations is not merely that they provide still more evidence of Soviet criminal brutality and genocide (the deportations were formally acknowledged as genocide in the Soviet Union, as of April 1991) but that they provided a template for the mass expulsion of ethnic Germans from Poland, Czechoslovakia, Romania, Hungary and Yugoslavia at the end of WWII, the single biggest forced population transfer in recorded history, when approximately 20 million ethnic Germans were expelled from traditional homelands and about 2.8 to 3 million perished in the process. Moreover, the Western Allies, by supporting the mass expulsion of ethnic Germans tacitly and retrospectively supported Stalin’s deportations of Soviet national minorities. Why were deportations carried out by the Germans deemed to be war crimes at Nürnberg, whereas Allied-approved expulsions and deportations of ethnic Germans were not? To make matters worse, Roosevelt, as McMeekin points out, by approving the Morgenthau Plan, ‘had endorsed Stalin’s policy of industrial looting and the trafficking in slave labor as “restitution” and  “reparation”, as he planned to do after the Red Army occupied Eastern Europe and Germany’.[55]

Another black mark was the forced transfer of Cossack and White Russian émigrés to the Soviet state. McMeekin notes these were people ‘who had never been Soviet subjects’, but ‘were sent home to certain imprisonment and forced labor’.[56] If these people had never been Soviet subjects and the place they once called home had ceased to exist in 1917, they were not being sent home in 1945: the Allies were knowingly sending them to be punished in a giant concentration camp. In view of the pernicious influence exercised by Soviet agents in both the US and British establishments – the Morgenthau plan being the best example – one wonders whether these Soviet agents played any role in ensuring that Cossacks and White Russian émigrés were sacrificed to propitiate Stalin’s lust for vengeance.

9. The Ideological Legacy of WWII and its Impact on American Life

The strong point of Stalin’s War is the vast amount of information pertaining to American military and economic aid to the Soviet state. Without it, Stalin’s empire would have been overrun. For those countries fortunate enough to have been invaded and briefly occupied by the Western Allies there was hope, to begin with, and then the substance of real prosperity and stability. For those states occupied and in some cases reoccupied by the Red Army and NKVD another nightmare was upon them, and one that lasted until 1991.

Yet towards the end of Stalin’s War there is a sense of unease when McMeekin, reflecting on the consequences of WWII for contemporary America, makes what is possibly his most important observation:

At home, the price Americans paid for this victory was the erosion of their own civil liberties, with an ever-expanding security state contrary to the country’s founding principles and stated ideals, which bears increasing resemblance to the Soviet version they struggled against.[57]

Thirty years after the Soviet collapse this Sovietization of the USA and the censorship that accompanies it is well advanced and nowhere more so than in American universities. Ronald Reagan, in the 1980s, described them as islands of totalitarianism in a sea of freedom. In 2021, the attacks on free speech and academic freedom in American universities (and their wretched and cowardly British counterparts) – just two examples – show how far these institutions have abandoned the legacy of Plato and Aristotle and cast aside the Founding Fathers to become instruments of totalitarian oppression. The Soviet experiment which exercised complete control over the lives of its citizens – precisely for that reason – excites the ideological lust of people who define themselves as “liberals” and who seek to rule over us, naturally, as always, for the “common good” (during the Cold War) and today (post Cold War), for the “common global good” (and their definition of the “common good” or “common global good” is non-negotiable). Early pilgrims to the Soviet state, such as Sidney and Beatrice Webb, and any number of Sovietophile historians, such as Eric Hobsbawm, actively and selectively lauded the Soviet state as something to be emulated when any decent observer or undeceived visitor would have shuddered and recoiled in horror and disgust.  This mattered throughout the existence of the Soviet imperium and the Cold War, and it still matters today, since to paraphrase Brecht, die rote Hündin ist wieder läufig.

 10. A Note on Transliteration and Translation in Stalin’s War

 Transliteration of Russian throughout this book is very poor. More important, many of McMeekin’s Russian translations are also thoroughly inadequate indicating a very low level of Russian-language competence. Thus in the transliterated Russian – chem khuzhe, chem luchshe (‘the worse, the better’) – the second use of chem is wrong: it should be tem (p.26). Referring to Viacheslav Molotov, McMeekin states Molotov means hammer (p.76). What McMeekin means to say is that Molotov’s name implies “hammer”, molot in Russian, whereas molotov is the Russian genitive plural. A politruk is not the same as a commissar. It is a portmanteau contraction of politicheskii rukovoditel’. Not only is kontrol’no-zagraditel’nyie otryadyi (sic) incorrectly transliterated but also incorrectly translated as ‘control detachments’ (p.129). The correct transliteration is kontrol’no-zagraditel’nye otriady and the correct translation is ‘supervision-blocking detachments’. Pomeshchiki in the Beria memorandum is translated as ‘freeloaders’ (p.149). The correct translation is ‘landowners’, especially of an estate.  Kotel is incorrectly translated as pocket (p.429). The correct translation is ‘cauldron’. Lend-Lease spam is tushonka not tusonka (p.416).  Kontrpodgotovka is translated as ‘disruptive fire’ (p.468). With the appropriate adjective it means “counter battery fire”. Without the necessary adjective, typically, maskirovochnaia or zashchitnaia, okraska (not okrasku which mistakenly retains the Russian accusative case in English transliteration) means paint or painting not ‘masking’ (p.282). A ubiquitous error is the use of ‘war prisoner (s)’ instead of ‘prisoner (s) of war’.  The relevant Geneva Convention was Convention Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War, with Annex (1929) not the ‘Geneva Convention on war prisoners’ (p.314).  The use of ‘war prisoners’ instead of the standard ‘prisoners of war suggests a copy-editor or translator who is not a native-English speaker.

Other strange uses of English stand out. Thus, the Poles were apparently asked whether they would permit ‘Stalin to invade Poland if Germany attacked’ (p.81).  I suspect they were actually asked whether they would permit Soviet troops to transit Polish territory. McMeekin notes the effective use made of Molotov cocktails by the Finns and then gets carried away: ‘In fits of derring-do, Finnish soldiers on skis would drop these into the turrets of advancing tanks…’ (p.127).  So Finnish soldiers clambered up Soviet tanks still on skis? On  the German invasion of the Soviet Union: ‘Just as in France, the Germans were able to bypass what remained of the Molotov and Stalin lines without too much difficulty’ (endnote 17, p.706).  The Molotov and Stalin lines were not in France. In France the Germans bypassed the Maginot Line.

Citing a Soviet report, he notes the ‘income and distribution of foreign tanks’ (p.430).  Income should be replaced by ‘arrival’. Parts of Stalin’s Order № 270 are incorrectly translated, viz: ‘Those who prefer to surrender are to be destroyed by any available means while their families are to be deprived of all existence’ (pp.317-318). The full and correct translation of this sentence should read: ‘If such a commander or a unit of Red Army soldiers, instead of making an attempt to repulse the enemy, prefers to surrender, they are to be destroyed with all means, both on the ground and from the air, and the families of Red Army soldiers who have surrendered shall be deprived of state benefits and assistance.’


[1] Stalin’s War, p.26
[2] Stalin’s War, p.27
[3] Stalin’s War, p.27
[4] Stalin’s War, p.4
[5] Stalin’s War, p.52
[6] Stalin’s War, p.53
[7] Stalin’s War, p.438
[8] Stalin’s War, p.112
[9] Stalin’s War, p.557
[10] Stalin’s War, p.297
[11] Stalin’s War, p.322
[12] Stalin’s War, p.297
[13] Stalin’s War, p.574
[14] Stalin’s War, p.11
[15] Stalin’s War, p.309
[16] Bogdan Musial, »Konterrevolutionäre Elemente sind zu Erschießen«. Die Brutalisierung des deutsch-sowjetischen Krieges im Sommer 1941(2000), Propyläen Verlag, Berlin-München, 2 Auflage, 2001, p.138
[17] Stalin’s War, p.140
[18] Stalin’s War, p.130
[19] Stalin’s War, p.132
[20] Stalin’s War, p.318
[21] Stalin’s War, p.476
[22] Stalin’s War, p.266
[23] Stalin’s War, p.267
[24] Stalin’s War, p.267
[25] Stalin’s War, p.269
[26] Stalin’s War, p.278
[27] № 585, ‘Spravki dlia ministra inostrannykh del Germanii I. fon Ribbentropa, sostavlennye po doneseniiam nemetskoi agentury, 14-19 iiunia 1941 g.’, 1941 god/2/p.395
[28] Stalin’s War, p.279
[29] Stalin’s War, p.281
[30] Stalin’s War, p.277
[31] Stalin’s War, p.281
[32] Stalin’s War, p.297
[33] Stalin’s War, p.297
[34] Stalin’s War, p.299
[35] Stalin’s War, p.309
[36] Stalin’s War, p.335
[37] Stalin’s War, p.289
[38] Stalin’s War, 299
[39] Stalin’s War, p.295
[40] Stalin’s War, p.59
[41] Stalin’s War, p.296
[42] Stalin’s War, p.296
[43] Stalin’s War, p.264
[44] Stalin’s War, p.296
[45] Stalin’s War, p.384
[46] Stalin’s War, pp.413-414
[47] Stalin’s War, p.427
[48] Stalin’s War, p.430
[49] Stalin’s War, p.486
[50] When Titans Clashed, p.217
[51] Das Deutsche Reich und der Zweite Weltkrieg (DRZW), Band 8, p.156
[52] DRZW, Band 8, pp.121-122
[53] Stalin’s War, endnote8, p.718
[54] Stalin’s War, p.535
[55] Stalin’s War, p.583
[56] Stalin’s War, p.652
[57] Stalin’s War, p.665

Dr Frank Ellis is a military historian

© Frank Ellis, 2021

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2 Responses to Stalin’s War

  1. David Ashton says:

    This review, like the previous article by Frank Ellis, deserves wide publicity and deep consideration.
    On the question of the disparity in public attention given to Nazi and Soviet criminality, there is the fact that liberal democrat, social democrat and christian democrat “values” chime in with the sloganised “ideals” of communist propaganda: equality, peace, progress, anti-racism, &c. There was also the influence of communists on western policy, and of anti-Hitler Jews in the media, from 1933 onwards. There was a change in postwar years with the development of Soviet-Israel hostilities; and some of the sharpest critics of communism in theory and practice have been Jews (Lyons, Dallin, Bober, Beloff, Popper, Aron, Romerstein, Levine, Josten, Naimark &c), notwithstanding the prevalence of individuals of Jewish background in communist organizations which was tragically misread by “fascist intellectuals”.
    It needs to be said that what disturbs some people today is the scale of commemoration and education devoted to the Jewish Shoah, compared to that accorded what Professor Rosefielde called the “red holocaust”; for instance, the additional £1oo million tax-funded Holocaust Centre, planned for the gardens near Parliament, contrasted with the new modest little Tufton Street Museum of Communist Terror. While those who assert that deaths from Marxist-Leninism run into many millions have been accused of “detracting” from the specific uniqueness of Nazi genocide, and therefore promoting hatred of Jews, a wise observer might feel that the continual growth of Holocaust museums, films, books and TV documentaries could reach a point of cementing rather than reducing certain antisemitic tropes.

  2. Jimmy Williams says:

    There is always some risk of a statement like the one ending David Ashton’s comment itself prompting the accusation or suspicion of “antisemitism” which, despite the comprehensive vagueness of its current “definitions”, is usually damaging, even to the extent of toppling the leader of HM Opposition from his party-political perch.
    However, the expensive Westminster Holocaust Centre, which he mentions, is in fact strongly opposed on various grounds by a substantial number of highly qualified Jewish folk. The “moral blackmail” that the discomfort from losing a few pleasant gardens is hardly as bad the “discomfort” of inmates in German concentration-camps, who then lost their lives, is irrelevant in view of other available sites, not to mention Holocaust “centres” already existing in the UK alone, plus the fact that this is the only compulsory subject in our school history curriculum, and given regular TV time in complete contrast, incidentally, to the Soviet camps and execution-pits before, during and after WW2.
    There is actually more to the choice of location than the hideous above-ground architecture that meets the eye. It is placed “right next to Parliament” for a political purpose, easily gleaned from all the UK.GOV references, and uttterances of its chief enthusiasts like Baron “Porky” Pickles (HM Special Envoy for Post-Holocaust Issues), Robert Jenrick [see Wikipedia on him & Gerald Ronson] and Ed Balls. It exists to record our past national misbehaviour and to warn our elected representative against any repetition in future. Readers can check all this out for themselves with discerning research.
    The Director of this National Holocaust Centre & Museum asserts that the Nazis acted on perceptions distributed by “British writers, policy makers and opinion leaders”, that we played the biggest and longest role in spreading negative “assumptions” about Judaism and Jews, that our government actively decided to be a bystander over genocide during WW2, that Christianity was responsible for murdering Jews in England and for the Holocaust in Europe, and that our Empire maltreated the Jews by Anglo-Christian cultural supremacy and stoking “Arab-Jewish (and now Muslim-Jewish) conflict” (Marc Cave, “The Jewish Chronicle,” 28 May 2021, p.29).
    As the Prayer Book of the dwindling “Church” of disappearing “England” puts it, “We have done those things we ought not to have done, and there is no health in us.” But instead of the Lord having mercy on us, some self- chosen people are going to record our sins in detail in our former capital city for the perpetual “edification” of millions of pilgrims.
    To be sure, several other post-WW2 genocides are promised for inclusion, though not of course the Palestinian Nabka, but the overall purpose is clearly to enshrine the new western woke pseudo-religion of (selectively managed) “diversity, inclusion & equality”, and ensure that immigration,multiculturalisation, education and legislation increasingly follow suit. For ever, and ever, Amen.

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