... [an] indispensable new book ... There are new books every year that promise 'a new history' of such a well-studied subject as World War II, but McMeekin actually delivers on that promise ... The author’s extensive use of Soviet archives (the book has 100 pages of often wonderfully discursive endnotes) informs a darkly fascinating look at Stalin’s dealings with Chiang Kai-shek’s government in China ... The anger animating Stalin’s War is about Western complicity: Once the Soviet Union seemed to join the Allied cause, there was scarcely anything Stalin could ask of those allies that would be denied him ... Stalin was allowed almost total victory in a war he had largely engineered for his own benefit. Sean McMeekin has done a fantastic job telling that war’s story.
The volume is impressive even by the standard of histories of the second world war ... The book is well researched and very well written. It puts forward new ideas and revives some old ones to challenge current mainstream interpretations of the conflict ... McMeekin invites the reader to look at the history of the war from a vantage point rarely taken and appreciate the many tragedies and sad ironies of the grand alliance as it took shape and functioned during the war ... McMeekin’s criticism of the western leaders, while not entirely unjustified, sometimes reads like a reprimand for not adopting Stalin’s logic and his methods of foreign policy: dividing the world into capitalists and communists and, if needs be, allying himself with Nazi Germany or fascist Italy to achieve geopolitical goals that he shared with them ... the author is right to suggest that his is a new look at the conflict, which poses new questions and, one should add, provides new and often unexpected answers to the old ones.
McMeekin is a superb writer. There isn’t a boring page in the book. His familiarity with the archives of several countries is extraordinary. His breadth of approach, taking in events from Manchuria to Greece, as well as the main fronts, is refreshing ... When he is angry McMeekin can be magnificent ... However, McMeekin’s anger takes him to some strange places. Which provoked in me the greatest number of NOs I’ve ever scribbled on the pages of a proof ... That is indeed provocative, but strangely none of it is new. The isolationist strand of the American right from America First through McCarthyites to Pat Buchanan has always believed this version of the Second World War. Since the late 1930s their publications and their partisans have argued that this war against the Nazis was the wrong war, fought in effect to help atheist communism, and prosecuted by a president who was both unscrupulous and naive. When he wasn’t being just a dupe of the communists. And at every stage they have lost this argument. McMeekin has just reopened it.
Every once in a while a book comes along that can simultaneously educate, infuriate, and astound you as it upends everything you thought you know about a subject. Mr. McMeekin has written an astonishing recasting of World War II that truly revises some of the accepted historiography of that war ... Unlocking the secrets of Soviet, Russian, and Western archives, the author offers a harsh and overdue examination of the role Josef Stalin played in starting World War II, the brutal conquest by Stalin of his neighbors Poland and the Baltic States, and the complete duplicity of the Soviets in dealing with their erstwhile Western Allies in the fight against Hitler ... If you doubt that the American and British governments were thoroughly penetrated and influenced by Communist agents in the 1930s and 1940s, McMeekin will put those doubts to rest ... This book is revisionist history at its finest, offering a compelling narrative of the neglected factors that brought about the century’s bloodiest war, convincingly making the case that Stalin was nearly as culpable as Hitler in launching this conflict for his own reprehensible purposes.
McMeekin is a formidable researcher, working in several languages, and he is prepared to pose the big questions and make judgments. He does not spare the incompetence of Stalin as a strategist or the reckless disregard for life of the Soviet commanders. The story of the war itself is well told and impressive in its scope, ranging as it does from the domestic politics of small states such as Yugoslavia and Finland to the global context. It reminds us, too, of what Soviet 'liberation' actually meant for eastern Europe ... It is a pity therefore that we get relatively little on Stalin the man, his ideas and his world view ... When we look at the past we must always remind ourselves of what were the real choices before decision makers. McMeekin, in his eagerness to persuade the jury, relies too much on counterfactuals ... McMeekin is right that we have for too long cast the second world war as the good one. His book will, as he must hope, make us re-evaluate the war and its consequences. A warning, though. In looking at the decisions and compromises with Stalin made by the British and Americans, let us remember what they faced and consider the possible and not, like the movie, the fantastic.
So sparse is the evidence for the war-revolution hypothesis that McMeekin resorts to citing a blatant forgery: a document purporting to report on a speech Stalin supposedly made in August 1939 in which he spoke about the Sovietisation of Europe as a result of the war he intended to provoke. The document in question initially appeared in the French press shortly after the outbreak of war and was plainly propaganda designed to discredit Stalin at a time when he was collaborating with Hitler ... To his credit, McMeekin steers clear of the wilder claims of right-wing historical revisionism. He doesn’t excuse Hitler’s attack on the Soviet Union as a preventative war or claim that Stalin was preparing to attack Germany. Nor does he blame the Holocaust on Stalin ... Shorn of its polemics there is some good history in this book. McMeekin writes well and has the language skills to comb through a huge amount of archival material, though in the Russian case not always accurately. There is much interesting detail about allied supplies to Russia, the Warsaw Uprising of August 1944, the Soviet plunder of Germany in 1945, and the war with Japan ... McMeekin’s relentless anti-communism keeps him focused on the dark side of the Soviets’ war – the Katyn massacre of Polish POWs, the deportation of ethnic groups accused of collective disloyalty, and Stalin’s maltreatment of the families of Soviet POWs, including that of his son, Yakov, who died in German captivity in 1943. This is fair enough ... This book will certainly enhance Prof McMeekin’s reputation as an ideologically-driven conservative historian. His fantastical speculation that standing up to Stalin would have produced a better outcome than standing up to Hitler may appeal to those who share his fervent anti-communism. More impartial readers will recoil from the book’s distortion of the complex and multi-faceted history of the second World War.
... will probably leave many readers purple with rage. Yet the idea of focusing on Stalin, rather than Hitler, is a clever way of inviting us to rethink the traditional narrative ... As the book goes on, McMeekin the historian fades from view and McMeekin the armchair strategist takes over ... Challenging as all this is, I find it overwhelmingly unconvincing. Most readers will find the idea of dealing with Hitler a moral obscenity, although McMeekin is right to point out that Stalin was little better. However, some of his claims are little more than fantasy: the idea of an Allied intervention in Finland is surely no more realistic than a Churchill-Hitler rapprochement after Hess’s flight to Scotland. And although making Stalin the centre of the story is an intriguing exercise, McMeekin’s approach is far too one-sided to be satisfying. He seems too keen to shock, to say the unsayable. As a result, his book reads less like a serious scholarly history than a provocative thought experiment that has got completely out of hand.
McMeekin pays more attention than most military historians to the loathsome behavior of both sides to civilians and even their own soldiers. He shows less sympathy than most to Stalin’s insults and demands for aid from the Allies and none whatsoever for Soviet representatives vacuuming up America’s patents, technology, and services ... The author’s provocative suggestion that America should have allowed the two evil empires to fight it out will ruffle feathers, but it effectively kills the idea that WWII was a battle of good vs. evil. Yet another winner for McMeekin, this also serves as a worthy companion to Niall Ferguson’s The Pity of War, which argued that Britain should not have entered World War I ... Brilliantly contrarian history.
... richly detailed ... Packed with incisive character sketches and illuminating analyses of military and diplomatic maneuvers, this is a skillful and persuasive reframing of the causes, developments, and repercussions of WWII.