Even those who are familiar with Second World War History, and with Stalin, will find a huge amount in this book. It's a complete take-down of the usual western-centric perspective of both the war and its background diplomacy.
It's hard to comprehend the degree of duplicity displayed by Stalin, other than as an utterly ruthless and unswerving devotion to both the short- and long-term benefits of any agreement to the USSR. No lie is too brazen, and no-one remains un-betrayed. It renders the war in the West unavoidably morally compromised, as Britain and France fight Germany over its treatment of its neighbours while not fighting the USSR which has invaded just as many of its neighbours. Having said that, it's clearly rather fantastical of McMeekin to suggest that this could have been rectified by the Allies fighting the Russians too in defence of free peoples: no matter that it would have been an unsaleable proposition at the time, it's hard to see how it would have enormously altered the broad strokes of what followed had the Nazis still knocked-out France.
The Western leaders come out very badly: Churchill, but especially Roosevelt. The former is too romantic and too old-world to cope with the diminished nature of Britain's place in the world; the latter is clearly entirely taken in by his belief in his own ability to charm and manage anyone, with this belief being fed by a collection of NKVD assets and Communist fell0w-travellers embedded in the US foreign services. Both are comprehensively outclassed. It's shocking to read of Roosevelt's treatment of Churchill in the wider context of the Lend-Lease programme, from which Russia receives a cascade of material for free while the British receive substantially less and are required to pay exorbitantly for it. It's also shocking in this context to read that the Red Army's supply base from Lend-Lease left it so overwhelmingly superior in men and machinery to the Wehrmacht – and yet still took almost unimaginable casualties in almost every encounter.
McMeekin's overall view of the war is that the Russians won in terms of their final positioning in the world, and that both Lend-Lease and the looting of German and the other countries of Eastern Europe positioned them as a superpower ready for the Cold War. It's a hard diagnosis, but one that's also hard to counter.
5/5. Finished 28 June 2021.
(Originally published on Goodreads.)
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