Man of Steel, Re-forged

Man of Steel, Re-forged

Mini Teaser: Geoffrey Roberts treads through morally hazardous territory portraying Stalin as a great statesman.

by Author(s): Andrew J. Bacevich

Geoffrey Roberts, Stalin's Wars: From World War to Cold War, 1939-1953 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006), 496 pp., $35.00.

STALIN'S WARS by Geoffrey Roberts, a professor of history at University College Cork, is in many respects a model of scholarship. It draws on an impressive array of Russian, British and American archives as well as a large number of published documents and secondary sources. It is impeccably organized. The author writes with clarity and authority. He advances a sharply defined and well-supported argument about an important topic, challenging the conventional wisdom and offering a thoroughly substantiated alternative. His canvas is large, but his brushstrokes are precise and vigorous. Stalin's Wars is revisionism of a high order.

In brief, the story that Roberts tells goes like this: Josef Stalin, uncontested leader of the Soviet Union from 1927 until his death in 1953, deserves to be remembered as a great statesman-indeed, as the greatest of the age. Although Stalin made his share of mistakes, especially in the early phases of World War II, he learned from those mistakes and thereby grew in wisdom and stature. Among allied chieftains, he alone was irreplaceable. He, not Churchill and not Roosevelt, was the true architect of victory, "the dictator who defeated Hitler and helped save the world for democracy."

Furthermore, once Germany went down to defeat-with British and American leaders immediately turning on the Soviet Union-Stalin strove valiantly to sustain Allied unity. Time and again he exerted himself to avert the confrontation that became the Cold War. Even after his efforts failed, "He strove in the late 1940s and early 1950s to revive détente with the west." In British and American eyes, Stalin became the embodiment of the totalitarian ideologue and warmonger. This was a misperception. To the very end, "Stalin continued to struggle for the lasting peace that he saw as his legacy." In denying Stalin the reconciliation for which he devoutly worked, Western governments succeeded only in inflicting grave injury on the Soviet people. The East-West rivalry thrust upon Stalin nipped in the bud his postwar efforts to nurture within the Soviet Union a "more relaxed social and political order."

Roberts neither denies nor conceals the cruelty and ruthlessness that marked the Stalinist era. He freely admits that Stalin was "responsible for the deaths of millions of his own citizens." He concedes that in the 1930s Stalin presided over the Great Terror in which "millions were arrested and hundreds of thousands were shot." He notes that Stalin directed "a process of ethnic cleansing involving the arrest, deportation and execution of hundreds of thousands of people living in border areas" of the Soviet Union. He holds Stalin accountable for the Katyn Forest massacre of 1940, involving the liquidation of 20,000 Polish officers and government officials. Although speculating that "Stalin must have bitterly regretted the subsequent embarrassment and complications" when the events at Katyn Forest became known, Roberts makes it clear that the Soviet leader employed mass murder as an instrument of policy-and did so without compunction.

Still, Roberts leaves the distinct impression that when it comes to evaluating Stalin's standing as a statesman, such crimes qualify as incidental. He acknowledges them in order to dismiss them. Whether intentionally or not, Roberts suggests that Stalin's penchant for ordering people shot qualifies as a sort of personal quirk, akin perhaps to FDR's infidelities or Churchill's fondness for drink. For Roberts, there are only two marks on Stalin's report card that really count: The first conferred for defeating Hitler, the second for doing his level best to forestall the Cold War. In each instance, Roberts awards Stalin an A-plus.

When it comes to Hitler, moreover, the achievement is an emphatically personal one. According to Roberts, it was not the Red Army or Stalin's generals that defeated the Wehrmacht, but the individual serving as both People's Commissar for Defense and Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces. The author's account of the German failure to capture the Soviet capital in December 1941 makes the point. "Stalin Saves Moscow", it begins. Roberts is equally insistent that Stalin's well-intentioned efforts to sustain the Grand Alliance after 1945 foundered for one reason only: Britain and the United States maliciously obstructed his entirely reasonable quest "to establish friendly regimes in Eastern Europe" and to create "a united but peace-loving and democratic Germany."

In essence, Roberts takes Stalin at his word as a man who sought only peace. Once having embraced this view, he finds nothing in Soviet policy at odds with Stalin's professed aspiration. "Time and again during the war", he writes, "Stalin denied that his aim was revolution or the imposition of communism." For Roberts, such denials affirm the benign nature of Stalin's wartime aims. In public remarks offered on the occasion of Germany's surrender, "Stalin emphasized that the defeat of Hitler meant freedom and peace between peoples." This, Roberts suggests, accurately represents Stalin's fondest hope.

Roberts credits the Soviet dictator with a self-induced sincerity. He finds "no reason to suppose that Stalin and the Soviet leadership did not believe their own propaganda about the essentially peace-loving policy of the USSR." In this sense, Stalin's commitment to "freedom and peace between peoples" bears comparison with President Bush's post-9/11 commitment to eliminating tyranny. For Roberts, such high-minded professions mean everything.

THERE ARE at least three problems with this depiction of Stalin as great statesman and man of peace. The first problem relates to the nature of the Grand Alliance, which Roberts misinterprets. The second relates to the nature of statecraft, which Roberts misunderstands. The third relates to the moral obligation inherent in the craft of history, which Roberts abdicates. The misinterpretation, the misunderstanding and the abdication all work to Stalin's advantage, adding luster to his reputation. Yet none of the three is persuasive or acceptable.

The Grand Alliance existed for one purpose only, which was not to nurture "freedom and peace between peoples", but to defeat Nazi Germany. Absent the shared perception that Hitler posed an intolerable threat, Great Britain, the United States and the Soviet Union would never have forged their compact in the first place. With Hitler's removal from the scene, the unraveling of that partnership became all but inevitable. Hopeful sentiments expressed by Stalin-or for that matter, by Churchill and Roosevelt-do not change that essential reality.

Moreover, even during its heyday, the alliance was as much a competitive enterprise as it was a collaborative one. Even as the Big Three professed their common devotion to freedom and peace, they simultaneously maneuvered against one another for advantage on matters of far more immediate concern. This was true whether the issue at hand involved the opening of the second front, the disposition of the Balkans, the occupation of Germany or the future of the Far East.

For any great power, the essential prerequisite of "peace" is that others should accede to the aspiring hegemon's own requirements. Certainly, this is how Stalin understood the term, whether during World War II or after. Note, for example, that sixty years before 9/11, Stalin promulgated a variant of what we today call the Bush Doctrine. "Defending our country", he told a graduating class of Red Army officers in May 1941, "we must act offensively." Stalin was anticipating the Bush Administration's rationale for invading Iraq: Peace tomorrow requires the initiation of war today against those who stubbornly resist our legitimate demands.

To assign to the Soviet Union then (or to the United States today) a defensive orientation is to open up a rich vein of interpretive possibilities, which Roberts is quick to tap on Stalin's behalf. At first glance, the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939 and the subsequent Soviet complicity in dismembering Poland might seem reprehensible. Roberts sees these actions as entirely justifiable: the first an effort to avert war, the second a prudential attempt to acquire additional strategic depth. On the surface, the Soviet invasion of Finland that same year might look like naked aggression. Upon reconsideration, however, Roberts faults the Finns for bringing the conflict on themselves. "The ‘Winter War' with Finland was not of Stalin's choosing", he writes. When the Finns refused to grant the Soviet Union territorial concessions needed to mount a proper defense of Leningrad, however, they left Stalin with no recourse. Besides, Roberts explains, Soviet leaders genuinely expected the Finns to welcome the Red Army as liberators.

This pattern continued through the war and into the postwar period. To enhance Soviet power and influence, Stalin took whatever he could-or more accurately, whatever his legions enabled him to take. As long as the Red Army bore the brunt of the fighting against a common foe, Stalin's allies granted him considerable leeway to do as he wished, especially in Eastern Europe. Once Germany collapsed (and the successful testing of the atomic bomb rendered Soviet participation in the war against Japan less important), their attitude became less permissive. Hence, rather than fulfilling his vision of "a united but peace-loving and democratic Germany"-that is, one dominated by the Soviet Union-Stalin had to settle for a divided Germany partly occupied by Soviet troops. To attribute this outcome-and the Cold War that ensued-to British and American leaders obstructing or undermining Stalin's efforts to build a lasting peace is to wildly misconstrue the nature of international politics.

Essay Types: Book Review