Friday, August 12, 2011
By Eric Trevett
Stalin’s Wars: From World War to Cold War 1939-1953. Geoffrey Roberts: Yale University Press 2008,496 pp, illus. £15.20
THE BOOK Stalin’s Wars is a valuable contribution to the discussion around getting a clearer assessment of Stalin and the Soviet Union.
The book covers the years 1939-53 and includes a detailed account of the major battles of the Great Patriotic War, which started in Russia in 1941.
Geoffrey Roberts is a bourgeois military historian who has done his research through the archive files in Moscow and is trying to be objective. He was born in Deptford, south London, and is a professor at Cork University in Ireland.
In his preface Roberts makes the case that Stalin was an effective and highly successful war leader. He made many mistakes and pursued harsh policies. Millions of people died as the Germans advanced but Stalin kept his head and without his leadership the war against Nazi Germany would probably have been lost.
Roberts does explode a slander that began with Kruschov’s “secret” speech to the 20th CPSU congress in 1956. Kruschov said: “It would be incorrect to forget that after the first severe disaster and defeats at the front, Stalin thought this was the end. In one of his speeches in those days he said: ‘All that which Lenin created we have lost forever’. After this Stalin for a very long time actually did not direct the military operations and ceased to do anything whatever. He returned to active service only when some members of the Political Bureau visited him and told him that it was necessary to take certain steps immediately in order to improve the situation at the front.”
Roberts reports that Kruschov went on to elaborate this story in his memoirs, claiming that Beria, Molotov and Mikoyan were the Politburo members in question. But, as Roberts points out, citing different accounts by Roy and Medvedev, this is was a very unlikely story because Molotov and Beria were among the most submissive of Stalin’s inner circle and would not have dared be so forthright.
Roberts quotes the direct report of Yakov Chadev, which paints a very different picture. In an interview in 1982 Chadev said: “During those days of crisis, of critical situations on the front, Stalin controlled himself very well on the whole, displaying confidence and calmness and demonstrating industriousness.”
Roberts also quotes Molotov’s account of the incident at the dacha: “Stalin was in a very agitated state. He didn’t curse but he wasn’t quite himself. I wouldn’t say that he had lost his head. He suffered but he didn’t show any signs of this. Undoubtedly he had his rough moments. It’s nonsense to say he didn’t suffer. But he is not portrayed as he really was… As usual he worked day and night and never lost his head or his gift of speech. How did he comport himself? As Stalin was supposed to, firmly.”
Then there was Zhukov’s account: “Stalin himself was strong-willed and no coward. It was only once I saw him somewhat depressed. That was the dawn of 22nd June 1841, when his belief that the war could be avoided was shattered. After 22nd June 1941, and throughout the war, Stalin firmly governed the country.”
Roberts continued: “When Lazar Kaganovich, another Politburo member, was asked if Stalin had lost his nerve when the war broke out, he replied: ‘It’s a lie!’…
“Perhaps a better guide to Stalin’s personal response to the German attack is the contemporary evidence of his actions during the first days of the war. According to his appointments diary, when war broke out Stalin held numerous meetings with members of the military and political leadership.
“The early days of the war required many decisions by Stalin. On the day war broke out he authorised 20 different decrees and orders….”
This must be contrasted to performance of western European leaders who fell apart and capitulated to the German war machine.
Churchill, Hitler, Mussolini and Roosevelt – they were all replaceable as warlords but not Stalin. In the context of the horrific war on the eastern front Stalin was indispensable to the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany.
To fully appreciate the contents of Geoffrey Roberts’ book it is essential to have some knowledge of the history of the whole of the 1930s. That decade began with capitalism in crisis; millions were out of work; in the United States one in four of the workforce was unemployed. The response of the capitalists was to turn towards fascism.
Hitler and the Nazis came to power in 1933. Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria all had fascist governments and even Britain had a strong presence of people who admired Hitler.
In the second half of the 1930s the elected government of Republican Spain was overthrown with the direct assistance of the Nazis. The town of Guernica was destroyed by Nazi bombers.
The International Brigade predicted that the bombs that dropped on Madrid would be falling on London before long if fascism was not defeated in Spain – and they were proved right.
The governments of Britain and France sought to appease Hitler, paving the way for German rearmament.
Roberts gives a fair account of the Russo-Nazi non-aggression pact. In spite of the heroic Soviet endeavours and those of the workers and peace movements of the capitalist countries, especially those of Britain and France, they were unable to prevent the collaboration of their governments. All the capitalist governments had within them pro-fascist elements who were in contact with the Nazi regime.
The pact with Ribbentrop was signed after the western powers had signed the Munich Agreement in September 1938. After that Great Britain and France claimed they could not join an anti-Nazi alliance and when Stalin invited them to do that they sent only a minor diplomat. Clearly they had had no intention of any serious response to Stalin’s call for unity against Hitler.
Stalin, through the Comintern, warned communist parties and the labour movement that the Soviet Union would have to take steps to safeguard its own future but this would be in the long-term interests of the working class.
Much is made of the failure of Stalin and the Soviet high command to resist the onslaught of the Nazi armies in the Soviet Union in 1941. But in reality even if they had been prepared they could not have repulsed the Nazi offensive. The official thinking in Britain at the time was that if the Soviet Union survived for six seeks it would be an achievement and if they lasted out for three months it would be a miracle.
Trotsky also had this view and he tried to make this a death wish by promoting acts of industrial sabotage and spreading disaffection and defeatist ideas designed to demoralise.
Roberts is critical of Stalin’s purge of senior Red Army officers in the 1930s. Many of those purged were veteran officers of the old Czarist army in which there was a culture of admiration for German militarism.
But the new Red Army nurtured and produced many fine generals from the working class to replace those who were purged. These included Marshall Zhukhov who won the Battles of Moscow, Stalingrad, Kursk and Leningrad. The battle of Kursk involved 4,000 tanks and it was where the German Panzer tanks met their match.
Roberts reports that at one of the lowest points in the war, on 7th November 1941 when German forces were advancing through Soviet territory and the Red Army was taking severe casualties, Stalin addressed troops parading through Red Square. He said: “Remember the year 1918, when we celebrated the first anniversary of the October Revolution. Three-quarters of the country was … in the hands of foreign interventionists. The Ukraine, the Caucasus, Central Asia, the Urals, Siberia and the Far East were temporarily lost to us.
“We had no allies, we had no Red Army … there was a shortage of food, or armaments … Fourteen states were pressing against our country.
“But we did not become despondent, we did not lose heart. In the fire of war we forged the Red Army and converted our country into a military camp. The spirit of the great Lenin animated us ….
“And what happened? We routed the interventionists, recovered our lost territory and achieved victory.”
Roberts sometimes refers to Stalin as a dictator but Stalin always worked in the collective and this is referenced in his daily communiqués that he gave to the armed forces. These statements were the product of the leadership collective.
In the 1930s every country in the western world, without exception had a considerable number of willing and influential people favouring an alliance between themselves and Hitler in a crusade to destroy the Soviet Union.
Indeed France and Britain had expeditionary forces ready to go to the aid of Finland, which had refused to allow the Soviet Red Army authority to occupy a part of Finland essential to ensure the defence of Leningrad.
On the issue of the shooting of the Polish officers at Katyn, Roberts comes down on the side of blaming the Soviets. He puts a lot of store on the questionable fact that a letter had been found dated after the blame was being attached to the Nazis. This issue remains unresolved but the probability is that it was a Nazi atrocity. More to the point, the ammunition used was German.
Geoffrey Roberts is good on the controversy over whether the Soviet Union should have aided the uprising in Warsaw. He argues that the uprising was authorised by the Polish government in exile in London in an attempt to establish authority before the Soviet occupation of Warsaw, which they believed to be imminent.
At that time the Red Army had already twice tried to breach the Nazi defences of Warsaw and had been repulsed. It was therefore absolutely necessary to build up the forces that would overcome the resistance of the Nazis.
He reports that the Red Army was always well led and well disciplined.
Roberts is also good on the interplay between Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill, which is quite fascinating. Churchill was always the more treacherous compared to Roosevelt – witness his letter from in the War Cabinet before the battle of Stalingrad had been won, expressing his fears that there might be a run of communism across Europe.
Again in 1945, Churchill told Montgomery to be ready to hand weapons back to the Nazis if the Red Army reached where the western liberation line had stopped.
It may surprise many readers to learn how keen Stalin was after the war to see Germany broken up. He feared that Germany would become a threat again within 30 years. And the recent alliance between Britain and France within Nato have been a reflection of this old fear of Germany – not so much on the military but on the political and economic front.
Another good feature of the book is the glossary of events from 1939 to 1953. One of the best quotes is attributed to W Averell Harriman, the US Ambassador to Moscow, describing Stalin: “He had an enormous ability to absorb and act on detail. He was very much alert to the needs of the whole war machine … In our negotiations with him we usually found him extremely well informed.
“He had a masterly knowledge of the sort of equipment that was important for him. He knew the calibre of the guns he wanted, the weight of the tanks that his roads and bridges would take and the details of the type of metal he needed to build aircraft.
“These were not characteristics of a bureaucrat but rather those of an extremely able and vigorous war leader.”
All in all, this book requires a knowledge of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union from its inception. The Bolshevik revolution in Russia inherited a country where 80 per cent of the population was illiterate, the working class was proportionately small and poverty and superstition were prevalent.
Stalin carried on from where Lenin left off. He renounced the term “Stalinist” and always claimed to be a Leninist. Under his leadership the Soviet Union changed from being the poor house of Europe to being a commonwealth of nations from which skilled and educated people of all professions emerged in great numbers.
His ability to inspire and teach remains unsurpassed and this is what has to be borne in mind when reading the revisionist Kruschov’s so-called secret speech at the CPSU 20th Congress, as well as Geoffrey Roberts’ book
Roberts says that Stalin made a lot of mistakes. But in his conclusion he says: “To make so many mistakes and arise from the depth of such defeat to win the greatest military victory in history was a triumph beyond compare.”