David Price Jones
National Review, May 27, 2021
“Signed at the end of August 1939, the Hitler–Stalin pact of nonaggression has claims to be the most extreme example of cynicism in the whole history of Europe.”
This book makes the case that Adolf Hitler was within a whisker of winning the Second World War and failed to do so only because President Roosevelt came to the rescue of Joseph Stalin, Hitler’s nemesis. Roosevelt and his adviser, the enigmatic Harry Hopkins, set up in 1941 the Lend-Lease Administration, whose purpose was to provide the Soviets with whatever they asked for to pursue the war. The United States was still neutral at the time, and Lend-Lease may well have provoked Hitler’s foolish decision to declare war against it. Hitler had intended to incorporate Eastern and Central Europe into the Third Reich, but in the event, Stalin was enabled to incorporate all this territory into a Soviet bloc. Once the two gangsters had gone to war with each other, the obvious American interest would have been to leave them to fight it out.
Signed at the end of August 1939, the Hitler–Stalin pact of nonaggression has claims to be the most extreme example of cynicism in the whole history of Europe. Hitler and Stalin were granting mutual permission to invade and occupy Poland and pick up whatever spoils there were. In what Sean McMeekin calls “one of the ugliest episodes in modern diplomatic history,” the Polish ambassador was summoned to the Kremlin at 3 in the morning and told that Poland was about to be invaded; he was then arrested on the grounds that he no longer had diplomatic immunity. But Stalin also had an interest in letting potential enemies fight it out. A few days after the pact was signed, he told Georgi Dimitrov, general secretary of the Comintern, in charge of international communism, “It would be fine if at the hands of Germany the position of the richest capitalist countries (especially England) were shaken. Hitler, without understanding it or desiring it, is shaking and undermining the capitalist system.”
Under the terms of the pact, Hitler and Stalin were free to do their ideological worst. Symmetrically, both of them invaded seven friendly neighboring sovereign states. In their part of occupied Poland, the Soviets murdered about 500,000 victims, which according to McMeekin is three or four times higher than the number killed by the Nazis. Katyn is the name of the forest where 25,700 murdered Polish officers, aristocrats, and officials were buried, a crime the Soviets made still more sinister by accusing the Nazis of it. (When president, Boris Yeltsin admitted Soviet guilt, and even then the commander of the murder squad could boast on television of what he had done.) In June 1940, the Wehrmacht marched unopposed into Paris at the very same time that Stalin was sending for the foreign ministers of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia to give each of them notice that in the next 24 hours their countries would become provinces forcibly incorporated into the Soviet Union.
In a remarkable burst of moral outrage, the hero of Evelyn Waugh’s novel Sword of Honor took it for granted that both signatories of the pact deserved the same deserts. “The enemy at last was plain in view, huge and hateful, all disguise cast off. It was the Modern Age in arms. Whatever the outcome there was a place for him in that battle.” This fictional character might have been speaking for Sean McMeekin. A history professor at Bard, he is already well known for original research that relates the past to the present. He evidently knows German and Russian well enough to support his views with evidence from the archives in those languages. Russians used to call Stalin the “Vozhd” (boss and even Führer), and it is a touch of courtroom sarcasm to keep the nickname going throughout the book.
Stalin’s War is really a charge sheet. Pre-war treaties obliged Britain and France to come to the defense of Poland. Hypocrites that they were, they took no action in the face of equivalent Nazi and Soviet crimes ranging from expropriation to deportation and mass murder but sat on their hands for the entire six months of the so-called Phony War. In the winter of 1939, the Finns beat back the Soviet invasion of their country. McMeekin sees this unlikely outcome as an opportunity for Britain and France to join with the Finns and fight “a principled war against armed aggression by both totalitarian regimes.” The only way to bring this about, apparently, was to bomb to destruction the Soviet oil installations at Baku that fueled Stalin’s and Hitler’s tanks alike. The Luftwaffe flew in the Battle of Britain on aviation gasoline from Baku provided by the pact. Hugh MacPhail was a daredevil pilot who took off from Iraq with a photographer who had to dangle through a panel in the plane’s floorboards to take the necessary pictures of the oil targets in Baku. In any case, Stalin, for once frustrated, came to terms with the Finns. The idea of an international anti-totalitarian campaign was more fanciful than realistic, though McMeekin still cannot quite let go of it.
Becoming prime minister in 1940, Winston Churchill like almost everyone else did not see how the war could be won. No other public personality had criticized both communism and Nazism so strongly and consistently. Germans and the small peace party at home blackened him as a warmonger, and communists wrote him off altogether. Britain was barely holding its own against assorted defeatists when Barbarossa, the German surprise attack on the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, overnight turned Churchill into a supporter of Stalin. “If Hitler invaded hell,” he said, “I would make a favorable reference to the devil in the House of Commons.” More than once, McMeekin considers Churchill to have turned “soft” on communism, which from him is not a compliment.
Stalin had chosen to disregard advance warnings of Barbarossa on the grounds that Britain and France were inciting him duplicitously to fight Hitler. Realizing that he had been his own dupe, he was supposed to have suffered an emotional collapse and hidden himself away in the Kremlin and his dacha for fear that mobs might want his head. Kremlin logbooks show that he was at his desk as usual, giving commands to his generals, more angry than despairing. (For what it is worth, Svetlana, his daughter, was with him at the time, and in an interview with me she stuck to the collapse story.) Confusion arises, McMeekin thinks, because the Soviets developed a false version of events, a myth that they were innocent victims of the Nazis and liberated themselves by their own endeavors, good old Uncle Joe directing the Great Patriotic War. The Germans in 1943 had more or less won the big and decisive tank battle of Kursk, but, anticipating an Allied invasion, Hitler sent his best units to the western front. In the future, in another example of mythmaking, the Soviets liked to flatter themselves that they had beaten the Nazis without Allied help.
The largesse of Lend-Lease was unconditional. Nothing was demanded in return. Refusing to reciprocate in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor when it would have made a difference, the Soviet Union maintained neutrality towards Japan. Roosevelt opened a $2 billion credit line for Stalin. The Lend-Lease inventories are astonishing. The first shipment, dated August 31, 1941, was taken from U.S. Army stocks and consisted of 1,200 warplanes, 20,000 submachine guns, 2,194 transport trucks, 729 light and 795 medium tanks, 991 anti-tank guns, 1,135 mortars, 152 heavy guns, 155,341 miles of field telegraph wire, and much else besides.
Stalin was not in the least grateful. The more he was given, the more he wanted. In an outstanding illustration of the Modern Age in arms, he forced the Allies to live with the lie that Katyn was a Nazi crime and to stand by helplessly while the Nazis crushed the Warsaw uprising. The foundations of the Cold War were being laid. When Churchill complained about the arrest of 15 Polish democrats, Stalin replied that there were 16. The contempt is almost palpable. Roosevelt seems to have believed that Stalin could be charmed and Churchill could be teased whenever there were disagreements. As for Harry Hopkins, he had found his vocation. On his first visit to Moscow, he met Colonel Ivan Yeaton, the U.S. military attaché, who did not favor Stalin or Lend-Lease. Hopkins convinced Roosevelt to cashier him and appoint in his place Colonel Raymond Faymonville, a known asset of the NKVD, then the abbreviation of the Soviet secret police. A footnote has the information that Yeaton was demoted to a field-artillery unit in Fort Ord, Calif.
Washington at the time was full of spies and Soviet assets, and McMeekin goes so far as to say that Hopkins, “if not an NKVD asset,” contributed more than any of Stalin’s generals to Soviet victory. This brilliantly inquisitive book is not sure whether to attribute naïvety, miscalculation, or moral emptiness to Roosevelt and Hopkins, but does throw out a final suggestion that somehow they had intoxicated themselves with a belief in their virtue. It is as good an explanation as any.
DAVID PRYCE-JONES is a British author and commentator and a senior editor of National Review.