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Stalin’s Wars: An Interview with Professor Geoffrey Roberts

In 2006 Professor Geoffrey Roberts published Stalin’s Wars: From World War to Cold War, 1939-1953. In this work he challenges a good chunk of the received wisdom about Soviet leader Joseph Stalin: the longevity of the pre-war Stalin-Ribbentrop pact, Stalin’s role as war leader in World War II, and his culpability for the onset of the Cold War. Roberts argues -- that for better or ill -- Stalin is among the most important figures of the last century. The following interview was conducted by telephone.

Aaron Leonard: Why are you interested in Stalin or perhaps better put, why is a correct understanding of Stalin’s role in history important?

Geoffrey Roberts: My primary interest is in the history of the Soviet Union. I’m interested in Stalin because of his central role in shaping the Soviet system. I’m interested in the Soviet system because I’m interested in the failed experiment in socialism, that in a nutshell is my interest. More generally my interest in Stalin is shaped by the idea that Stalin was the most important figure in 20th Century history primarily because of the role that he played in the defeat of Hitler. I think Stalin is the pivotal historical figure in the mid-20th Century.

AL: In discussing the pre-WW2, Stalin-Ribbentrop pact in “Stalin’s Wars” you make the observation that before the war, “Germany could barely have attacked the Soviet Union, let alone come close to victory. Germany’s stockpiles of oil, manganese, and grain would have been completely exhausted....” Why did Stalin pursue this pact, even though it ultimately allowed Germany to strengthen itself for its coming war with the Soviet Union?

GR: The benefits of the Nazi-Soviet pact went both ways, it wasn’t just Hitler that gained. Stalin also gained as well including economically. Stalin’s calculation was that the Soviet Union had more to gain from the pact including the economic relationship than the Germans did. Now after the event we can go back and say it was a miscalculation but that’s a rough, easy judgement to render after the event. The basic calculation was that it was better for the Soviet Union to stay out of the war as long as possible. In that context it makes sense to actually develop a collaborative relationship with Hitler which could have mutual benefits.

One of the other things I argue in my work which is not such a universally accepted view is that for a certain period of time Stalin considered the possibility of some kind of long-term relationship or partnership with Hitler. What happens, it is my interpretation, is that Stalin attempts, or probes that possibility, and the key event here is the famous conference in Berlin in November 1940 between Molotov and Hitler. Before Molotov goes to Berlin Stalin gives him instructions. The instructions generally indicate that Stalin is interested in the possibility of new Nazi-Soviet pact which will establish, re-establish Soviet-Germany relations for the long term, or at least for the immediate term. There’s a genuine attempt--in my reading of it--in Berlin by Molotov to arrive at some kind of agreement. When that proves impossible, that’s the moment in which Stalin (and Molotov as well), conclude that the Nazi-Soviet pact is over and the scenario that is emerging is a war scenario. The issue then becomes when that war scenario going to materialize and how long can conflict with Hitler be put off.

AL: Conventional wisdom says that Stalin and Hitler--if not equal monsters--were at least in the same league. It is common to hear that Stalin murdered tens of millions of people--with consideration of his role as head of a Party and state put aside—as if everything that did or didn’t happen in the Soviet Union, Stalin did personally. All this is usually put forward in a way that preempts debate and further exploration of the actual situation and the deeper factors in play. Meanwhile the historian, J. Arch Getty, puts the figure of Stalin-era deaths as result of political repression at around 2 million . This is a staggering number, but arguably not of the scope or scale of what Hitler did. What do you see as the difference -- if you do see a difference -- between the state violence and the willful extermination policies of the Nazis compared to those of the Soviet Union?

GR: In this particular debate I would support the Arch Getty position. You are talking about a lot lower numbers, and also most of the deaths Stalin is responsible for are inadvertent, in the sense that they are a byproduct of the policy he pursues, rather than part of a deliberate scheme. There’s a colleague of mine in the UK, Mark Harrison, he makes a distinction between Stalin as a mass murderer, and Stalin as a man-slaughterer. The difference is Stalin is a mass man-slaughterer. He is responsible for the deaths of millions of people, but most of that casualty toll is an indirect result of policy, rather than a part of deliberate design.

For me the bottom line, Stalin, unlike Hitler, is not genocidal. He’s not a racist. Stalin has people killed for political and ideological reasons because he sees them as a threat to the Soviet system and also to his regime, which he sees as being equivalent to the Soviet system.

I also think that, unlike Hitler, Stalin was a utopian and idealist. The mass violence he pursued was directed toward a utopian end, i.e. he saw it as being part of the necessary historical process leading to the perfect society. So I think there are fundamental differences between Hitler and Stalin in terms of their aims and intent, but also in practical terms in what is it that they actually do.

I am not, in distinguishing between Hitler and Stalin, saying that I see Stalin as the lesser evil, so to speak. I am not making excuses for Stalin. I am not saying there isn’t a critique that can be made of his politics and his ideology and its consequences--which are quite devastating particularly as far as the number of people who died as a result. Having said that, I think it’s a different critique and of a different order than the critique one would make of Hitler and the Nazis.

AL: You quote Stalin talking to US diplomat Averill Harriman as saying, "We know that the people won’t fight for world revolution and they won’t fight for Soviet Power, but perhaps they will fight for Russia." How much of World War II did the Red Army fight as a “red” (i.e. socialist) army and how much of it did it fight as a “national army"?

GR: The short answer to that question is that they fought the war as a Soviet army and for the defense of the Soviet system. If you look at Stalin’s wartime speeches, obviously they are very patriotic, and that is their main theme, patriotic mobilization against the foreign invader. You won’t find a lot of talk, if any, about communism and the communist ideology. What you do find is a call for a patriotic defense of the Soviet system because the Soviet system is projected as the system that represents the interests of the multinational Soviet state and constitutes a fundamental defense of the people as a whole against the foreign invader. What’s going on there is defense of the Soviet system and patriotic defense is the same thing. They’re conterminous.

The whole picture is complicated by the role that Russian nationalism plays because there is also a specifically Russian nationalistic aspect to the Soviet wartime mobilization.

It is a patriotic mobilization, but of a particular kind. It encompasses the concept of the Soviet system as it developed historically; that defending this was the best way to defend the patriotic interests of not just the Russian nation, but all the different nations that made up the Soviet Union.

AL: You quote General Zhukov remarking on Stalin, “He had a knack of grasping the main link in the strategic situation so as to organize opposition to the enemy and conduct a major offensive operation.” What were the sharpest examples of that?

Well the first point is that in the first year, the early period of the war, Stalin made a lot of mistakes; he didn’t display the knack of grasping the main link in the strategic situation. He begins to grasp the knack during the Battle of Moscow, in October, November, December 1941. The Battle of Moscow is the first great turning point of the war on the Eastern Front.

When Zhukov makes this point, it is to say that Stalin got this knack from people like himself, from his generals. Stalin learns as the war progresses, and particularly he learns to take the advice of people like Zhukov. When Zhukov makes this statement, it’s a self-serving statement. But the other thing going on in the war, is that Soviet Generals themselves are learning as they go along. They’re learning the knack of grasping what the main link in the strategic situation is. They learn as they get that out of their job, then the advice that they offer to Stalin actually becomes much more valuable. My point is that Stalin actually takes their advice when it gets better. When they, like him, actually learn how to fight the war.

In direct answer to the question, what’s the clearest example of that, the clearest example of that is the Battle of Stalingrad. When Stalin sees the need to conduct a prolonged defense of the city in order to draw the Germans into a trap, at the same time preparing a major counter-offensive, to actually close the trap around the German forces fighting in Stalingrad. After Stalingrad there are many other examples. I think the Battle of Kursk, Operation Bagration, the operation that liberates Belorussia and destroys most of Army Group Centre, and then the operation in relation to Berlin.

As the Soviets more and more win the war, it becomes a lot easier to display this knack Zhukov talks about. I would almost be inclined to argue that really, the real credit to Stalin, and Zhukov for that matter, is not the great victories that they begin to win from Stalingrad onwards. The real credit goes to them surviving the defeats they suffered in the first 18 months of the war. In a way you see Stalin, and also Zukov and the other Soviet generals are at their best not when they’re winning, not when they are victorious, but actually when they’re losing in 1941-1942.

AL: If I read your analysis correctly you lay the blame for the onset of the Cold War, as it developed, on the West. Is that a correct reading?

I am not sure you are reading my analysis correctly, but you are not the only one to arrive at that conclusion. What I am trying to say is that both sides were responsible for the Cold War. That the Cold War was a matter of misunderstanding, misperception and in fact could have been avoided had both sides seen things differently and acted differently. One of the things I argue in the book, and many other places, is that Stalin didn’t want the Cold War. He wanted the Grand Alliance, the alliance with the United States and Britain, to continue after the war for quite a long time, I think he was quite sincere in that aim. What actually happens after the war --for various reasons that I won’t get all into here -- Stalin behaves in such way to provoke suspicion and anxieties of his partners in the Grand Alliance. He is behaving that way because he has his own apprehensions about the future of the Grand Alliance, but the way he behaves provokes a response on the part of the West and that response in turn prompts Stalin to embrace the kind of policies that lead to the Cold War. For me in a way, the Cold War is the greatest tragedy of the Second World War. There was a possibility of continuing the Grand Alliance of the war into the post-war period with all kinds of positive benefits. This failure of the Grand Alliance after the war and the onset of the Cold War to me is one of the central tragedies and failings and consequences of the Second World War.

AL: Wouldn’t it be the case that even had the Grand Alliance continued it would have continued mainly as a vehicle for both of these blocs, the Western, U.S.-dominated bloc and the Soviet bloc to pursue their own interests? In other words, at some point it would have ended because they were both trying to essentially recreate and propagate their own world view, and political, economic and social systems as the dominant ones.

GR: Of course all states are self-interested--pursue self interest. I don’t think that precludes the possibility of compromise and collaboration. The interesting thing is of course that at the end of the Second World War the common perspective in the Soviet Union, the United States, Great Britain and other countries in fact, popular opinion generally, was--notwithstanding the different interests, different ideologies, different world views--that policies of cooperation and collaboration in terms of common interests was actually possible. What people shared in common across the ideological and political divide--across state interests--would be, with sufficient willpower, sufficient to actually carry forward the collaboration of the Grand Alliance.

Now that didn’t happen. The Cold War happened, and that reenforces the opinion that it was always going to happen, because as you just said, they had these competing interests, they’re always going to come to conflict, there’s going to be a breakup. I don’t see things that way. I see what happened as being driven not just by self-interest--I accept that it’s there, that’s there that’s the reality-- but also being driven by the choices people make, the key decision makers make. And the choices they make, are choices, and the choices are shaped by their ideologies and perceptions, and they exercise control over those ideologies and perceptions, or at least to a certain extent.

It does come down to, "what’s your basic philosophy of history?" How do you see the world working. What possibilities do you see in human relationships and in politics and I tend to have a more optimistic view, a more voluntaristic view of what’s possible. Although I’m frequently disappointed in my optimism. I keep hoping.

AL: How has your thinking about the Soviet Union and Stalin transformed since writing this work?

GR: As far as the Soviet Union is concerned I learned to appreciate the power and resilience of the Soviet Union. I know eventually the Soviet system collapses under Gorbachev, as a result of the attempt by Gorbachev to revive the system, to reform the system. People’s views of the Soviet system have been overly influenced by that rapid collapse under Gorbachev and have come to the conclusion that it was always a weak and fragile system prone to collapse. I think that’s a distorted view. The Soviet system, including under Stalin, was a lot stronger than that kind of perspective would lead one to believe. In fact I would say if it hadn’t been for Gorbachev the Soviet system could still continue to exist to this very day. If that’s a good thing or bad thing is another discussion. So that’s the first point. It changed my view about how powerful, resilient, how deep rooted in lots of ways, the Soviet system was.

As far as Stalin is concerned. I became more and more impressed by Stalin’s performance as a political leader. Particularly his performance as a war leader. A lot of people have confused my being impressed by Stalin with my being some kind of admirer of Stalin or someone who approved of Stalin. Personally and politically I detest the kind of policies and ideology that Stalin stood for. Had I been a citizen of the Soviet Union in Stalin’s time the chances are, given my own dissident tendencies, I would have ended up in the gulag. Don’t confuse the story I tell about this powerful and impressive system and this powerful and impressive leader with my own point of view. I’m just telling the story as I see it. I see it as my duty as a historian to tell that story, even though that story might make a lot of people uncomfortable. It might not want to be the story that a lot of people want to hear. It might be the story that offends a lot of people’s own politics. I can’t help that. That’s the history and as a historian I’m committed to telling the truth as I see it.

About Geoffrey Roberts

Geoffrey Roberts is a Professor History, University Cork College, Ireland. He is a fellow of the Royal Historical Society, a Senior Fellow at the Norwegian Nobel Institute and has been awarded numerous awards; including a Fulbright Scholarship to Harvard and a Government of Ireland Senior Research Fellowship.

He is a frequent contributor the British, Irish and American newspapers and to popular history journals, and has acted as a consultant for a number of television and radio documentaries. He has written widely on the Soviet Union. Among his works are: The Unholy Alliance: Stalin’s Pact with Hitler; The Soviet Union and the Origins of the Second World War; The Soviet Union in World Politics, 1945-1991; and Victory at Stalingrad: The Battle That Changed History. His current book, Stalin’s Wars: From World War to Cold War, 1939-1953 was released in paper back in 2008.

He has just finished writing a book about Stalin’s foreign minister, Vyacheslav Molotov, to be published by Potomac Books in 2010, and is completing a book on Georgii K. Zukhov, the Deputy Supreme Commander of Soviet forces during World War II, to be published by Random House.