- Stalin’s Wars: From World War to Cold War, 1939–1953
It is very difficult to break new ground in a vast scholarly and popular history of Josif Stalin’s policies. Yet Geoffrey Roberts—a well-known authority on Soviet military operations and diplomacy during World War II—has managed to do just that in his new book. The book is innovative in treating World War II and the early Cold War as [End Page 179] a continuum, linked by historical context and Stalin’s leadership. One advantage of this perspective is that it allows Roberts to trace the whole arc of Stalin’s strategy toward the West during the critical decade of the 1940s. Another advantage is that World War II and the early Cold War, despite the many differences, were alike in being periods of constant crises and extreme mobilization for the Soviet Union, thus providing an ideal setting for analyzing Stalin as a warlord and crisis manager. Roberts enhances this structural advantage by integrating military and diplomatic history into a thorough analysis of Stalin’s grand strategy while paying due attention to the Soviet domestic scene.
Another of Roberts’s achievements is his unsurpassed (among his colleagues in the West) use of the relevant Russian-language publications and archival material. He has unearthed everything worthwhile written on this subject in Russian from both the Soviet and the post-Soviet periods. He thereby expands the data base otherwise unavailable to most foreign historians of the period and gives a lot of credit to his Russian colleagues, treating them as equal partners in a common endeavor—something that this reviewer, for one, finds refreshing.
Roberts is straightforward about the main conclusions of his book, laying them out at the start. He depicts Stalin as “the greatest of war leaders, as a man who preferred peace to Cold War, and as a politician who presided over a process of postwar domestic reform” (p. xii). Each of those postulates is bound to be highly controversial. Roberts fully anticipates this and seems to enjoy it. He is not in the business of rehabilitating Stalin, for he clearly sees Stalin’s many crimes and blunders and occasional madness. But Roberts’s depiction of a great dictator goes against much of the recent, especially Western, historiography that treats Stalin as little more than a cruel tyrant (which he was) or inept bungler who was his own worst enemy.
The bulk of the book is devoted to Stalin’s role in World War II and is the most convincing and best-documented part. Documents from the Russian archives fully confirm the dictator’s central role in Soviet decision-making. Stalin, to a much greater degree than his Western counterparts, was the organizer-in-chief of the Soviet war effort, overseeing military strategy, defense production, diplomacy, intelligence, propaganda, and nearly everything else. In these tasks he showed great power of concentration, mastery of both grand strategy and small detail, remarkable industriousness, and organizational skills. War proved to be his milieu, and one does not have to be an admirer of Stalin to give him his due as an able and effective wartime leader who, despite some serious mistakes, performed reasonably well under life-and-death circumstances. Whether Stalin was “the most indispensable” of the Big Three, as Roberts claims, is a different question that has no definite answer, but Roberts is right in emphasizing the critical importance of Stalin’s leadership, which, after all, is only natural for any dictatorship.
Roberts’s related conclusion that Stalin’s dictatorship “was the only system that could have won the titanic struggle against Hitler” (p. 29) requires more detailed evidence and additional in-depth research to measure that system’s performance during the war more precisely. The obvious advantages of central planning and totalitarian controls for mobilizing and concentrating resources were often outweighed by the [End Page 180] lack of individual initiative, of flexibility, and of capacity for self-correction that are typical for democratic systems. Roberts’s main point, though, deals...