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Stalin’s Wars: From World War to Cold War, 1939-1953

by Geoffrey Roberts, Yale University Press, 2007, $35.

Two decades after its collapse, the Soviet Union still tends to receive a free academic pass, its crimes and failures explained in the context of its alleged humanitarian goals. The same does not hold true, however, for the Soviets’ defining personality. Since Khrushchev first denounced the “cult of personality” in the 1950s, Josef Stalin has become something of a symbol of, and scapegoat for, the USSR’s failures. Nowhere is that template applied more rigidly than to Stalin’s role as a military leader.

In Stalin’s Wars, Geoffrey Roberts, of University College Cork, makes a strong case for reconsidering this interpretation. One need not deny Stalin’s record as one of history’s chief tyrants and mass murderers, Roberts insists, to recognize him as one of Russia’s great war leaders: the architect of the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany and its corresponding rise to superpower status.

Roberts’ Stalin is an idealist whose concept of war was fueled by the struggle between capitalism and communism, as well as a perception of Russia as history’s backward loser. Roberts points to these factors as the impetus for Stalin’s massive arms outlay that so distorted the prewar Soviet economy, the purges to avert a military threat to his rule, even the Nazi-Soviet nonaggression pact of 1939.

Roberts credits Stalin with recovering quickly from the shock of the German invasion. Imposing order on a badly shaken nomenklatura, he rallied the Soviet people behind a wartime vision of a communist motherland. The Red Army that checked, rolled back and finally destroyed Hitler’s Wehrmacht was in good part the product of Stalin’s iron determination to wage and win total war against the Nazis, cost what it may.

Roberts also makes a case that Stalin’s commitment to the Grand Alliance with Britain and the U.S. was more than a relationship of convenience. His willingness to continue the relationship in peacetime, however, was increasingly shaken as the approaching end of the war highlighted structural and policy stresses in the relationship.

In the war’s final year, Stalin’s parallel commitments to Russian security and the communist revolution drove him to assert Soviet hegemony in Eastern Europe. As Western opposition mounted, his determination only hardened. He had removed the German/Fascist threat at near-unimaginable cost, and he was willing to accept a Cold War, even in a thermonuclear context.

At this point Roberts’ analysis falters—not by lapsing into a version of the crude 1960s revisionism that ascribed the Cold War to American-driven capitalism and imperialism, but simply by overidentifying with his protagonist. Roberts argues that Stalin did not perceive the developing struggle in terms of armed conflict, rather as a means of handing a political/ideological defeat to dominant Western “warmongers,” one that would lead to the West’s collapse and reconstruction on communist principles. But of course, the West was willing to risk war to avert such an unpalatable outcome.

Finally, while Roberts demonstrates Stalin’s success in preserving and extending the Soviet system, he doesn’t present anything in political, economic or social terms that makes that system a palatable alternative to democratic capitalism—or, indeed, anything but a dead end, impossible to justify in light of the comprehensive suffering its brief existence inflicted.


Originally published in the September 2007 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.