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

Then there is the question of whether Stalin deserves to be included in the pantheon of great statesmen. In making his case for the affirmative, Roberts devotes well over 300 pages to the period from 1939 to 1947 followed by a mere 24 pages for the period 1948 to 1953, when his account abruptly ends. Yet gauging Stalin's achievements requires consideration of the years following his death.

Statecraft is not a charitable pursuit. The measure of merit is clear: Success entails advancing the interests of the state. Based on that criterion, Stalin's legacy was almost entirely negative. The victory he engineered over Hitler cost the Soviet people dearly both in human costs and resources. Beyond survival, it yielded few tangible benefits. Moscow gained an empire, but it proved almost worthless. Certainly, it never turned a profit. Moreover, because Stalin had ruled by terror and intimidation, the system he bequeathed to his successors possessed limited legitimacy and almost no dynamism. Hoping to rejuvenate the Soviet economy, his successors almost immediately embarked upon a campaign of de-Stalinization. Although reform efforts continued sporadically from the era of Khrushchev to the era of Gorbachev, Soviet leaders never succeeded in eliminating the pathologies left over from the Stalinist era. The collapse of the Soviet empire and of the Soviet Union itself-drab, stagnant and soulless-stands as the ultimate verdict on Stalin's achievements as a statesman.

If World War II produced a master of statecraft, then surely it was Roosevelt. He won the most at the least cost. Alone among great powers, only the United States emerged from the war stronger than when the war had begun. Fate dealt Roosevelt a strong hand-far stronger than Churchill's-and he played it well. As a consequence of victory, Washington too acquired an empire of sorts, but this empire helped sustain American prosperity and bolstered American security. Hardly less significantly, FDR succeeded by 1945 in restoring popular confidence in basic institutions, muting the impact of the Great Depression. To his successors Roosevelt bequeathed widely shared expectations that the "American Century" was meant to continue indefinitely, as it has, despite periodically ill-advised policies and reckless misadventures. The contrast with Stalin's legacy could hardly be greater. (Whether or not the American Century can survive the folly of George W. Bush remains to be seen.)

Finally, there is the question of Stalin's crimes and how they should figure in reckoning with his place in history. As Roberts embarks upon his effort to re-evaluate the Soviet leader, he assures his readers that "we can undertake that task without fear of moral hazard." This strikes me as not only misguided but even dangerous.

Although insisting that his intent is "not to rehabilitate Stalin but to re-vision him", Roberts shows negligible interest in considering whether Stalin's record passes muster with respect to any commonly accepted standards of right and wrong. His dispassion amounts to a form of ethical narcosis. The effect, even if inadvertent, is to subvert the moral consensus informing our understanding of the twentieth century. That consensus rests in no small part on the conviction that the Stalinist regime cannot be regarded as other than patently evil. Geoffrey Roberts now encourages us to think otherwise.

Furthermore, Stalin's Wars appears at a moment when such encouragement to think otherwise is ongoing in other, even more sensitive quarters. The inclination to do so is especially apparent in connection with the suffering endured by citizens of the Third Reich. Matters once quietly ignored or viewed as off-limits are now receiving sympathetic consideration: The indiscriminate killing of German noncombatants as a result of the Combined Bomber Offensive of 1943-1945; the tens or hundreds of thousands of German women raped and assaulted by soldiers of the victorious Red Army entering Berlin; the forced expulsion of millions of ethnic Germans caught on the wrong side of borders when the war ended. Admitting these victims into the narrative of World War II is both justified and unavoidable. But to pretend that the process of doing so is not fraught with hazard is foolishness: If the victims of violence are all innocent, does it follow that the perpetrators of that violence are equally culpable?

The answer to that question must be an unequivocal no. Here political historians have a particular obligation to render unambiguous judgments, discriminating right from wrong. By tacitly issuing Stalin a moral waiver, Roberts shirks that obligation. In doing so, he opens the door to further revisionism of the most pernicious sort. If Stalin gets a pass, then perhaps Mao deserves similar reassessment: Is it not likely that he too believed his own propaganda? Perhaps too the events of the 1930s and 1940s might look different if considered from Hitler's point of view. Not unlike Stalin, Hitler yearned for the peace that derives from absolute dominion.

Stalin's Wars concludes with this strange injunction: "History can make us wiser, if we allow it to" (emphasis in the original)-seemingly suggesting that "we" are to sit quietly at History's feet receiving instruction. I prefer T. S. Eliot's warning about history's "cunning passages [and] contrived corridors." Stalin's Wars is such a contrived corridor. The unwary will enter at their peril.

Andrew J. Bacevich is a professor of history and international relations at Boston University. He is the editor of The Long War: A New History of U.S. National Security Policy Since World War II (Columbia University Press, 2007).

Essay Types: Book Review