Of the two dictators who began the second world war as allied partners in crime but ended it in combat to the death, there is no doubt who has received more attention from historians and in the popular imagination. So much so, indeed, that the conflict is often labelled ‘Hitler’s War’.
In this unashamedly revisionist account, the American academic historian Sean McMeekin asserts that we have been looking at the war through the wrong end of the telescope. The tyrant who, while not launching the conflict, took advantage of the circumstances that it presented at every turn, and certainly ended up by winning it, he says, was the man he constantly calls the Vozhd (the boss): Joseph Stalin.
McMeekin backs up his claim with a mountain of evidence culled from Russian, German and English-language sources. Stalin, he suggests, aided by communist agents such as Alger Hiss and Henry Dexter White in the US, and the Cambridge spies in Britain, who had penetrated the upper echelons of the Allied administrations, ran the war as the master manipulator that he was, pulling the strings of Washington and London like a well-practised puppeteer. As a result, he bamboozled the western Allies into supplying him with the sinews of war. Vast quantities of tanks, trucks and warplanes, sorely needed on the western fronts, were shipped to the Soviet Union, along with war-winning technology including the secrets of the atomic bomb, helpfully delivered to Moscow by Stalin’s spies.
So desperate was the West for Soviet support that they let Stalin get away with mass murder. As McMeekin rightly underlines, there was no moral difference between the two totalitarian regimes. Stalin and Hitler invaded and occupied the same number of countries (seven) and while the Nazis had their concentration camps, Stalin had his Gulag.