Winston Churchill, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin at the Yalta Conference, February 1945. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The wrong war?

Jeremy Black says McMeekin’s account provides tough reading for anybody endorsing the Guardian’s view of history


This article is taken from the April 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Criticisms of the British for livingin a Second World War past are frequent. Sean McMeekin, professor of history at Bard College and a talented scholar of the First World War, takes an alternative view by arguing that we are generally living in the wrong war. Drawing on an impressive array of international archives, McMeekin, who acknowledges his debt to Norman Stone, directs attention to Soviet activity.

Stalin’s War: A New History of the Second World War By Sean McMeekin Allen Lane £35

This, however, does not arise from some attempt to praise the Soviet Union as an ally against Germany but, instead, from a determination to present an equivalence between the two in aggression, expansionism, brutality and cynicism. McMeekin does not do this in order to extenuate Germany but rather to throw light on both by means of comparison. In some respects, for example the treatment of their own soldiers, this is very much to the detriment of the Soviets.

Roosevelt is held up as the arch-appeaser of the Soviet Union, while Churchill emerges with considerably more credit. Truman is praised for thwarting the Soviet wish to occupy Hokkaido and it is suggested that Roosevelt would have permitted this.

There is an emphasis on the value of Anglo-American military aid to the Soviet Union and a harsh view of a postwar settlement that left so many slaves in postwar communist regimes. Thus, the Americans are presented as fighting a war “to make much of Europe and Asia safe for communism”.

“Stalinophilia” in Washington and London in 1941-45 is in part attributed to Soviet agents of influence, not least in drafting the Morgenthau Plan and weakening Chiang Kai-shek. The former is seen as serving Stalin’s purposes by stiffening the German resistance to Britain and the US.

The book is pertinent because of the extent to which modern cultural wars draw on historicised identities and historical controversies. Indeed, the Cold War is in a sense still with us in these culture wars, a conflict that began in 1917 and puts, for example, Vladimir Putin and Jeremy Corbyn on the same side. McMeekin’s account provides tough reading for anybody endorsing the Guardian’s view of history, including the major historian I heard argue that Stalin was better than Hitler because he wished to kill social categories not ethnic ones.

The book is pertinent because of the extent to which modern cultural wars draw on historicised identities and historical controversies

I have reservations about this otherwise impressive book on three heads. First, I dislike the use of 150 pages for Abbreviations, Bibliography, Notes and Index. I would have preferred 150 pages more of text, and these others offered free online. Second, the book is less original than is suggested. The essential arguments can be found elsewhere although McMeekin brings them together in a helpful and vigorous fashion.

Third, he is inclined to go for argument by assertion. He underrates the problems faced by the British and French had they understood that “the time to confront Soviet aggression in Eastern Europe was in 1939-1940”, or realised that they should have liberated “the Balkans and the death camps of Eastern Europe themselves”. Strategic geography is not apparently McMeekin’s forte. He is one for moving units round the board as if in Risk. It can make for better prose than insight.

McMeekin also emphasises Soviet success prior to the war with Germany, during it, and in the peace settlement and aftermath. Stalin did expand the Soviet empire greatly. The other Allied powers might appear as losers which had to spend lives and resources to maintain at least elements of the status quo before the war. While very much the case of Britain, France and China, this was not true of the US. Instead, the US transformed the situation in Europe and East Asia by becoming a power in both, matching Soviet expansion.

The US, as the world’s only nuclear power in 1945, possessed the clear strategic advantage of being alone at the cutting edge of military technology, and thus having both a known and an unknowable capability advantage. The Americans were also the world’s leading naval power, and had an unrivalled amphibious
strength. With Britain, America had the only viable long-range bomber force. The Soviets had developed none of these capabilities.

Indeed, while the Soviets did best at benefitting from the collapse of Germany and its East European allies, it had to share with the Americans the benefit from the fall of Japan. Initially, this was to the advantage of the Americans. The Soviet Union got southern Sakhalin, the Kuriles, and the potential offered by Manchuria and North Korea, as well as clear dominance over Mongolia. The US gained control of Japan and its Pacific possessions, and its allies were able in 1945 to establish themselves in China (bar Manchuria), South Korea and their former colonies, albeit with a degree of precariousness.

This precariousness, indeed, translated into the revival of the Chinese civil war, which ended in a communist victory, as well as the developing crises of the British, French and Dutch empires in Asia. From the latter, the communists were to benefit, but the Americans even more.

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