Book review

Stalin's War

Reviewed by Dennis Nayland Smith

Can there be any real doubt who was the prime mover in the tumultuous events of 1933-1945? From the vast majority of professional historians to Joe and Sue Sixpack glued to their boob tube, the answer is, “Hitler, of course.” According to this universally accepted view, Hitler, joined by Mussolini and the Japanese warlords, cunningly orchestrated the political and military incidents which led to the outbreak of the Second World War.

But even this truism is now coming under attack by Revisionists. Prominent among those questioning the role played by Hitler is Ernst Topitsch, whose book, Stalin's War, has just appeared in English translation in the United States, published by the respected St. Martin's Press.

Topitsch is a graduate of the University of Vienna, a member of the Paris Institute of Philosophy, and a professor at Graz University in Austria. Simply stated, his well-argued thesis is that Stalin, not Hitler, was the central figure of the war. The author summarizes the evolution of his thinking on these matters at the outset of his study:

In line with prevailing opinion, for many years I considered Hitler to be the main character in the drama of the Second World War, and held his policy of violent expansion and aggression to be the most important cause of its outbreak. Yet a more thorough analysis of the interplay of the main events has led me to the conviction that at the very least this viewpoint needed a radical modification. It became more and more apparent that Stalin was not only the real victor, but also the key figure in the war; he was, indeed, the only statesman who had at the time a clear, broadly based idea of his objectives.

Following the end of the First World War, Lenin concluded that the war had been just a prelude to further imperialist wars, which would eventually lead to the final victory of socialism world-wide. In a speech given in 1920, Lenin outlined how Germany and Japan could be used to provoke another war within the “capitalist camp.”

Stalin pursued Lenin's strategy. The Hitler-Stalin Pact of August 1939 — which granted Hitler cover by the Red Army on the Eastern Front — was intended to encourage Hitler to open hostilities. Stalin was delighted with the German invasion of France. The “imperialist war” had finally broken out in earnest; Stalin stepped up deliveries of raw materials to Germany. Topitsch observes that, “In the Kremlin it was at first expected that there would be long-drawn-out battles with a heavy rate of attrition — as in the First World War — in the course of which the two sides would go on destroying each other until general exhaustion brought about a revolutionary situation.” However, Germany's stunning victory over the Low Countries and France — within a matter of weeks — came as a real shock.

A new situation now presented itself to Stalin if the German Army were defeated, the Soviets could be masters of Europe. As the author points out, given the inaccessibility of Kremlin archives, “it cannot be stated exactly when the decision was made to embark on this strategy.” Topitsch is convinced that Stalin set out to provoke Hitler to attack the Soviet Union, just as Franklin Roosevelt maneuvered Japan into “firing the first shot.”

Topitsch contends that regardless of what Hitler did, Stalin was preparing to attack Germany, most likely in 1942. He is not alone in suggesting that Stalin was planning a military offensive against the West. Grigore Gafencu, Romania's sometime foreign minister and ambassador to the USSR during the war, felt that Stalin had secretly provoked Germany into attacking. More recently, Brian Fugate, in a revision of his University of Texas doctoral dissertation, published as Operation Barbarossa: Strategy and Tactics on the Eastern Front, 1941 (Presidio Press, 1984), makes the case that Soviet armaments production and military dispositions facing western Europe are a sure sign that the Soviets were intending to launch an offensive against the West

While “Operation Barbarossa” — as Hitler's assault on the Soviet Union was codenamed — did not catch Stalin unawares, the German military victories during the summer and fall of 1941 were unexpected and thwarted Stalin's ambitious plans for a rapid counterattack to the west. The war dragged on, and the British and Americans established themselves in Western Europe before the Red Army could reach the English Channel. If Stalin's aspirations were not fully realized, the outcome of the war does not detract from Topitsch's theory that “the Second World War was only a phase — though an important one — in the realization of Lenin's grand strategy to subjugate the capitalist or 'imperialist' nations — in other words, all those which had not yet undergone the process of Sovietization.”

Topitsch's book is not without its flaws, particularly in A. and B.E. Taylor's translation. On page 23, one encounters the odd formulation “Faced by the notorious dwindling of party funds during the war … “ in connection with Hitler's turning for donations to “nationalist, conservative, and 'capitalist' circles.” Clearly by “war” the end phase of Hitler's struggle for political power in Germany is meant, not the Second World War, as an unsuspecting reader might reasonably conclude. One also wonders if the author believes that fascism is “the most extreme form of capitalism” (p. 27). The translators' capricious usage in anglicizing German and Russian names is bothersome as well. For “Moldavia and Wallachia” we read “Moldau and Wallacheit while the Vistula and Narew Rivers are rendered as “Weichsel” (German) and “Narev” (?). Transliteration of Russian names generally straddles proper German and English usage, so that the reader encounters, instead of “Zhukov” or “Schukow,” the translators' “Schukov.” There are an irritating number of typos as well such as “Nersky” for “Nevsky” and “Frisch” for “Fritsch.”

Nevertheless, Stalin's War provides new and significant insights into our political understanding of World War II. Most followers of this journal will find it provocative reading.