By Jonathan Power*
Who won the Second World War? If you go to the United Kingdom people will answer, we did, led by Winston Churchill. If you visit the USA people will say, we did, led by Franklin Roosevelt. If you go to Russia, people will say the Soviet Union did, led by Stalin.
They can’t all be right. All three did to an extent, in as much as all three went flat out to defeat Hitler’s Germany.
But it’s fair to say that most historians in all three countries will say that the Red Army was the toppling force. The Soviet Union was also the one that by far suffered the most casualties, both military and civilian, and gave Germany the worst trouble and inflicted on it the worst blows.
Russians know that rank and file British and Americans, ignore the historians, and think their country did the winning. That irritates them profoundly.
For their part, the Americans and British are still angry that Stalin and Hitler made a non-aggression pact on the eve of the war not to go to war with each other. Only later when hubris led Hitler over the cliff did Stalin decide to tear that agreement up and fight a war with Germany. Hitler was convinced that war on his eastern flank was easily doable. What he not counted on was that Stalin—aka “the man of steel”—was a brilliant strategist, an inspiring leader and the Soviet people were prepared to work 24/7 and lay down their lives en masse for the sake of the motherland.
For his part, Stalin never acknowledged publically but once or twice that if it hadn’t been for British and mostly American supplies to the Soviet Union the war to save the Soviet Union and defeat Hitler in Europe would never have been won. (Likewise, later in the Far East against Japan.)
American and British ships poured into Russia’s northern ports, after having made a perilous crossing of the North Sea in winter, planes, tanks, armoured vehicles and ammunition. Often the Soviets were given priority in the American and British production lines. They also provided immense amounts of food year after year. Every Soviet soldier ended up eating American spam!
Stalin didn’t tell his people about this. Such slights and provocations got under the allies’ skin but for the sake of harmony they kept quiet about them. If allied airmen (nearly all American) came down on Soviet soil, Stalin had them arrested and put in prisoner-of-war camps. All efforts to win their release failed except towards the end of the war. To call this both unbelievable and ungrateful is to put it very mildly. That the allies put up with this is to be wondered at.
The British and Americans kept their mouths shut when Stalin needled them. They needed him. Without Stalin’s massive military tying down German forces and forcing them into retreat when they had almost reached Moscow and then pushing them back all the way to Berlin the allies could not have won the war.
One big myth is that war could not have been avoided. That’s baloney. In fact, at the beginning, Hitler was not intent on a European-wide war. This isn’t just my thinking. Basil Liddell Hart who was widely considered in Britain to be its foremost military strategist and was knighted by the king to mark his service to military thinking argued this. So did A.J.P Taylor, the Oxford don, who was the most read historian in America with his intimately researched “Origins of the Second World War”, which hardly any politician or journalist practising today has in all likelihood read.
It was Hitler’s decision to invade Poland that started the war. At first, all Hitler wanted from Poland was that she hand back the German-populated port of Danzig, awarded Poland in the Treaty of Versailles at the end of the First World War. Germans’ incorporation of Danzig was a territorial claim that every government since the Weimer Republic had put on its agenda.
But the government in Poland would not negotiate the compromise that the Germans offered. As late as March 1939 Hitler told his army commander-in-chief that he “did not wish to solve the Danzig problem by the use of force”. But the Poles were obstinate, regarding themselves as one of the great powers. Chamberlain, the British prime minister, burnt by Munich, was also obstinate and Winston Churchill used his masterful oratory to whip up public opinion. The government decided to stand by Poland’s side and when Hitler, after a long period of calm, did decide to invade Poland Chamberlain and a unified cabinet declared war on Germany. Ironically, very ironically, the war led to the division of Poland, to it not gaining the great power status it craved, and to the murder of five million Poles including three million Jews who were sent to concentration camps.
It then became a vassal state of the Soviet Union. What was it all for? What did Poland gain? What did Britain gain?
Liddell Hart, Taylor and other critics are ignored, not because their scholarship has been proved wrong, but because public opinion among the three allies could never accept such an interpretation.
A new book joins the fray this week. “Stalin’s War” by Sean McMeekin. It picks up where my writing leaves off. He is a professor of history at Bard College in the US and has won numerous prizes for his previous books including a book on the Russian Revolution. It is an 800-word, well-written, book and is the product of massive research involving every detail of the war. Stalin is intimately painted in all his colours. The book was published by Penguin in the UK last week and will be in the US by Basic Books on April 20. On the phone McMeekin told me he supported Liddell Hart’s and Taylor’s interpretation. He also said he agreed with what I wrote in a column last year about how the war could have been avoided if a compromise over Danzig had been negotiated.
It’s McMeekin’s final chapter that intrigues me most.
In Asia, if the Pacific conflict was about anything it was about Manchuria and north China which had been invaded by Japan. With Roosevelt’s backing Stalin sent his troops in to take them over. The US approved, funded and armed the Soviet invasion that led Korea, Manchuria and China to come under communist rule. “This was a perverse outcome of a war fought to free these areas from oppression”, writes McMeekin.
At home, McMeekin points out that an indirect result of the war and Stalin’s victory—the spread of communism in Europe and China—was the rise of McCarthyism which had a profound effect in restricting American’s civil liberties. America’s image both at home and abroad has been tarnished irredeemably by the first and only use of two atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
As for Europe, France was crushed utterly, became a withered wreck and soon lost its empire. The US was certainly not untouched by its consequence—the Soviet take-over of Eastern Europe. The Soviet Union was re-born, transformed into a superpower with far greater global reach and influence than Germany ever had.
Britain ended up losing “an empire but not yet found a role”, as Dean Acheson, the American secretary of state observed. It could no longer afford to maintain an empire or a navy to police it. It owed a mind-boggling pile of debt to the US which the US insisted on it paying down until 2006. (All Soviet debts to the US were written off for a song in 1951, at two pennies on the dollar.)
Not least the Jews were decimated. Doubtless, without war, Hitler would have made their lives difficult. They would have been discriminated against. But it was only when the war was well underway that the “Final Solution” was conceived. If there had been no war the Jews might well have been settled in Argentina, as the Nazi leadership discussed, an idea also promoted by important Jewish leaders.
So, what does all this add up to? If the Danzig dispute had been settled amicably, as it could have been, the war’s massive death and destruction would not have occurred.
Stalin with his territorial gains—largely approved at their meeting in Yalta by both Churchill and Roosevelt—was the victor both in Europe and Asia. You could say that Hitler and the allies between them precipitated the big growth in the Soviet empire.
The main aim of the war, to rescue Poland from Hitler’s invasion, backfired.
That is Professor McMeekin’s conclusion, and he has made it stand up.
* About the author: The writer was for 17 years a foreign affairs columnist and commentator for the International Herald Tribune, now the New York Times. He has also written many dozens of columns for the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Boston Globe and the Los Angeles Times. He is the European who has appeared most on the opinion pages of these papers. Visit his website: www.jonathanpowerjournalist.com