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Symposium: Stalin: The Great Warlord?

Jamie Glazov

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Geoffrey Roberts, a Professor of History at the University College Cork, Ireland, is the author of a new book, Stalin's Wars: From World War to Cold War, 1939-1953, which offers a major reassessment of Stalin as a war leader and as a postwar peacemaker. Among other things, Roberts argues that Stalin was a highly effective and successful war leader and that he saved the world for democracy.

To say the least, not everyone, including experts on Soviet history and of the Second World War, agrees with Roberts' interpretation. Today, Frontpage Symposium has assembled a distinguished panel to debate the question: Was Stalin a great warlord?

Our guests are:

Geoffrey Roberts, a Professor of History at the University College Cork, Ireland. He is a frequent contributor to British, Irish and American newspapers and to popular history journals and he has acted as a consultant for a number of TV and radio documentaries. His publications include Victory at Stalingrad and The Soviet Union in World Politics. He is the author of the new book, Stalin's Wars: From World War to Cold War, 1939-1953.

Andrew Nagorski, a senior editor at Newsweek International. An award-winning foreign correspondent who has reported from Warsaw, Rome, Hong Kong, Washington, Bonn and Berlin, he served two tours as Moscow bureau chief. After only fourteen months, his first tour was cut short in 1982 by the Soviet authorities. Angered by his enterprising reporting on a broad range of sensitive topics, they expelled him "for impermissible methods of journalistic activities." He served his second tour in the mid-1990s, and has visited Moscow regularly since then. His latest book, "The Greatest Battle: Stalin, Hitler, and the Desperate Struggle for Moscow That Changed the Course of World War II" will be published by Simon & Schuster in September. For more information, see www.andrewnagorski.com

David Satter:, a senior fellow of the Hudson Institute and a visiting scholar at the Johns Hopkins University Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). He is the author of Darkness at Dawn: The Rise of the Russian Criminal State.

Dr. Eduard Mark, a historian for the U. S. Air Force in Washington, D.C. He is currently writing a classified history of planning for nuclear war in the first decade of the Cold War. This work is a companion to a volume already completed and now undergoing declassification review. "A Glooming Peace:" American National Strategy And the Defense of Western Europe, 1946-1954." Two other works Dr. Mark has in progress relate directly to the subject of Stalin's policies during and after World War II. Several years ago he wrote for the Cold War International History Project a paper entitled "Revolution by Degrees: Stalin's National-Front Strategy for Europe, 1941-1947," which is now be prepared as a book of the same title.

Lt. Gen. Ion Mihai Pacepa, the highest ranking intelligence official ever to have defected from the Soviet bloc. In 1989, Romania's president Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife were executed at the end of a trial where most of the accusations had come word-for-word out of Pacepa's book Red Horizons, republished in 27 countries. Pacepa's newest book, Programmed to Kill: Lee Harvey Oswald, the Soviet KGB and the Kennedy Assassination is due out this November.

Front Page: Geoffrey Roberts, Andrew Nagorski, David Satter, Dr. Eduard Mark and Lt. Gen. Ion Mihai Pacepa, welcome to Frontpage Symposium.

Geoffrey Roberts, let's begin with you.

Kindly state the main thesis of your new book and some of the evidence you have gathered to substantiate it.

Roberts: My main thesis is that Stalin was a highly successful and very effective war leader. Success can be measured by the magnitude of the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany and Stalin's effectiveness by the contribution of his military and political leadership to that victory.

My book provides a fairly detailed narrative of Stalin's wartime performance, which makes possible a reasoned appreciation and assessment of his effectiveness. In terms of new evidence, most of my archive work in Russia was on Stalin as a foreign policy decision-maker and we can talk about that aspect of his war leadership as we go along.

In relation to Stalin's military leadership, I relied on a vast number of new documents published from Russian military archives as well as the traditional sources of Soviet military memoirs supplemented by the voluminous writings of Russian and western historians of the Eastern front war. The picture that emerges from this latter combination of sources is that Stalin - as we already knew - made catastrophic mistakes during the early months of the war but held his nerve and maintained the coherence of his command structure in the face of devastating blows and near defeat. He learnt from his mistakes, became a more adept supreme commander and, crucially, was a dictator who proved flexible and adaptable enough to be able construct a creative and dynamic relationship with his generals -- a group that performed outstandingly once they had gained the requisite experience and the means to wage a winning war.

In political terms, Stalin played a central role in the patriotic mobilisation of the Soviet people and held the whole Soviet war effort together, including in the economic sphere.

This is not to deny that Stalin made mistakes, took decisions, and pursued brutal policies that cost millions of lives i.e. there is a negative balance sheet to be drawn up against Stalin's war leadership as well as a positive one.

My overall positive evaluation of Stalin's war leadership is not novel. It is a view that was almost universally shared at the time, including by western observers and participants, and was subsequently adopted by many historians, not least in contemporary Russia where Stalin's reputation is currently experiencing a significant revival. One of the other themes of my book is how our view of Stalin's war leadership has been distorted by, on the one hand, western cold war polemics and, on the other, the contingencies of postwar Soviet de-Stalinization campaigns. There was much truth in the anti-Stalin critique but also much mythology, which my book seeks to dispel in order to arrive at a more balanced view of Stalin as a war leader. This is important not only for reasons of historical accuracy but also because we need to come to terms with the paradox of a dictator who played such an indispensable role in defeating a dire threat to humanity and thereby helped saved the world for democracy.

Front Page: Stalin saved the world for democracy. This is quite a notion.

Andrew Nagorski, your thoughts?

Nagorski: I can't disagree more with the idea that Stalin's reputation deserves a significant revival. Or that he saved the world for democracy, which, as you say, is quite a notion. Yes, the ultimate Soviet victory was crucial to the defeat of Nazi Germany and, yes, Stalin could claim to be the architect of that victory along with his top military leaders like Marshal Georgy Zhukov. But as I demonstrate in my forthcoming book "The Greatest Battle," Stalin emboldened Hitler to launch the war against Poland and then to conquer much of Europe, and he obstinately refused to recognize that the Germans were about to strike his country in 1941. The massive losses that followed, along with the near collapse of Moscow, which is the subject of my book, were a direct result of Stalin's colossal mistakes.

Stalin's wholesale purges of the officers of the Red Army in 1937 and 1938, as his biographer General Dmitri Volkogonov put it, "forged the defeats of 1941 which were to bring millions of new victims" by depriving the army of its best officers. Stalin's refusal to heed countless warnings from his own spies and Western governments that Hitler was about to invade led to the mass slaughter and surrender of staggering numbers of his troops, and the seizure of weapons supplies that should never have been stored so close to the border. As a result, many soldiers were sent into battle against the German invaders with no weapons at all -- only with orders to pick up weapons from those who were killed beside them.

It's true that the German Blitzkrieg was stopped at the outskirts of Moscow, but the price was astronomical. The combined forces of both sides involved in this biggest battle of all time totaled 7 million. Of those, approximately 2.5 million were lost -- killed outright, taken prisoner (which amounted to an almost certain death sentence at this stage of the war), missing or severely wounded. And of that total, nearly 2 million of the losses were on the Soviet side.

And the fact that Hitler suffered his first defeat was a result of his own miscalculations, brutality and blunders that finally trumped Stalin's miscalculations, brutality and blunder. Hitler sent his armies into Russia without winter clothing, since he was convinced that they would triumph before the weather turned. He might have gotten away with this if he had listened to his generals, like the famed panzer commander Heinz Guderian, who wanted to keep driving due east to Moscow after reaching Smolensk in July. But Hitler dithered, and then insisted that Guderian and the other key units take the Ukraine first, which they did but losing precious time in the process. When "Operation Typhoon" was launched against Moscow on September 30, 1941, the roads quickly turned to mud during the rainy season and then the temperatures began plummeting. Exhausted, overextended and freezing, the German troops could no longer reach their objective. And Hitler's insistence on launching an immediate reign of terror in the occupied Soviet territories dispelled any illusions that the local population and troops initially had that they might be better off by surrendering to the Germans. Hitler's terror began to trump Stalin's terror, contributing to a stiffening of Soviet resistance.

Stalin's one real moment of leadership in this pivotal period was to decide at the last moment not to follow most of his government into exile to Kuibyshev. Even as about half of Moscow's population fled and rioting and looting broke out, undermining the myth of the unity of the Soviet people, Stalin stayed on and even held a Revolution Day parade in Red Square. But none of this would have happened if Hitler hadn't let Stalin off the hook. A key reason why the battle for Moscow gets such short shrift in most Soviet accounts of the war is that any thorough examination of what happened puts Stalin's huge failures in stark relief. Which is what my book does.

Front Page: Dr. Eduard Mark?

Mark: The question of whether Stalin was a great warlord, in my judgement, admits of no simple answer. As a strategist, he seems to have grown in the course of the war; by the middle of the war he was no longer making mistakes of the kind that led to the premature and disastrous offensives of 1942. I hasten to add, however, that much Stalin's growth as a strategist may have been due to a belated willingness to follow the advice of commanders who, like Zhukov, had proved themselves in the field. But that is surely a form of talent. As for Stalin's abilities as an administrator, as an organizer of the organizers of industry and transportation, those who encountered him during the war were invariably deeply impressed by the depth of his factual knowledge and the phenomenal memory that enabled him to dispense with notes even when discussing the most complicated and fact-laden subjects. Averell Harriman, who worked closely with both Roosevelt and Churchill, later stated unequivocally that Stalin was superior to both as an organizer of victory. There, I think, his claim to a kind of greatness is strongest. In this respect, I am essentially in agreement with Geoff Roberts. I am also of the opinion that Stalin ably conducted his relations with the western allies -- after 1941, at any rate. But to this we shall surely return later.

These observations hardly exhaust the subject, however. I am of the opinion that if Stalin's diplomacy had been more astute in 1939-41, he need not have fought a war, at least not when he did, in conditions less favorable than those that would have obtained several years later. While Stalin was too clever by half in signing with Hitler rather than the British and French in 1939, as Mr. Nagorski stresses, his greatest error, in my judgment, was the his series of provocative moves in late 1939 and the summer of 1940 -- the attack on Finland, the conquest of the Baltic States, and, especially, the annexation of Bessarabia and Bukovina that brought Soviet armored divisions with 100 miles of the Romanian oil fields upon Germany depended almost entirely at that time. None of this had been contemplated in the agreements of August 1939, and Hitler felt betrayed and worse, threatened. While there is little doubt that Hitler contemplated war ultimately with the USSR, Stalin's actions in 1939-40 appear to have persuaded him that he had to attack in 1941, as Germany was all but certain to grow weaker vis-à-vis the USSR because of the war in the west and the developing American support of Great Britain. Hitler's attack on the USSR was miscalculated, but it was not irrational. That Stalin should have acted so menacingly toward Germany and yet have allowed himself to be surprised by the German attack of 1941 indicates, in my view, flawed qualities of judgement that he was to exhibit through the rest of his life.

Pacepa: Anybody who believes that Stalin was a great military strategist must also believe that the moon is made of green cheese. In reality, Stalin always stood on the wrong side of military history.

In 1939, when the leaders of Europe were working together on trying to stop Germany's military machine, Stalin placed his bets on Hitler and signed the infamous Nazi-Soviet Pact partitioning much of Europe between Nazism and Communism. When I was at the top of the Soviet bloc intelligence community, I saw some of the voluminous intelligence Moscow had received reporting Germany's preparations to invade the Soviet Union. Some, precisely dotting the i's and crossing the t's, came in from Richard Sorge, a Soviet intelligence officer documented as a German journalist who had wormed his way into the German Embassy in Tokyo. Two of his radio reports from May 1941 -- which I saw -- accurately stated that Hitler had decided to invade at the end of the month, and that the Germans would start their attack with 150 divisions. But Stalin chose to trust Hitler, his new ally.

After the war, the United States and its wartime allies started an unprecedented technological offensive that threw open the doors on an era of television, automation and computerization. What did Stalin do? He reacted with a war of disinformation against the West. We called it the Cold War. He called it World War III.

Stalin was a mass murderer who loathed the military. He grew up as the son of a poor, drunken cobbler in the far reaches of the Transcaucasus, where people trembled before the imperial army. After becoming leader of the Soviet Union, Stalin's natural reaction was therefore to decimate the army. In June 1937 he framed as spies the Red Army's chief of staff, Marshal Tukhachevsky, together with seven other top military commanders. After their hasty execution, Stalin liquidated 70 out of the 80 members of the Supreme Military Council and an estimated 35,000 other highly qualified Red Army officers. Then Stalin installed himself as commander in chief.

Four years later, Stalin had no dependable army to face Hitler's invasion. That cost the Soviet Union the lives of 10.7 million soldiers and 11.9 million civilians.[1] Over two million soldiers were taken prisoner by the Wehrmacht.[2] To whitewash over his own mismanagement of the war, Stalin created a special unit, named Smersh (acronym from SMERt SHpionam, Death to Spies), whose task was to frame the repatriated war prisoners as "traitors," so that they could not talk freely about their drama. In June 1945 Averell Harriman, the U.S. ambassador in Moscow, reported: "The Embassy knows of only a single instance in which a repatriated prisoner has returned to his home and family."[3] Washington would later learn that most of these repatriates were executed by Smersh or sent to prison camps above the Arctic Circle, where many died.[4]

Stalin distrusted his military to the end of his life. When he died in 1954, the Soviet Union's nuclear weapons were -- and still are -- in the custody of his intelligence services, not of the army. Chelyabinsk-40, a city of 40,000 people located in the Urals, where 27 tons of weapons-grade plutonium were stockpiled, and Stalin's other secret nuclear cities were not shown on even the most highly-classified military maps. They were all managed by Stalin's trusted NKVD.

Stalin should rightfully be remembered as the father of the modern police state, and as one of Russia's most unsuccessful military commanders. The condition of today's Russia is Stalin's legacy.

Satter:: I don't see how it is possible to regard anyone as a great warlord who achieves his victories at the cost of 23 million lives. This is all the more so if millions of those lives could have been saved if the "great warlord" had listened to accurate intelligence that Hitler was preparing for an invasion of the Soviet Union.

Nonetheless, the fact remains that the Red Army crushed the Wehrmacht rather than the reverse and this could not have happened by accident. Once he had recovered from the catastrophe of the early stages of the war, Stalin, in fact, proved an able and even brilliant commander and organizer. General Petro Grigorenko, one of the leading Soviet dissidents in the 1970s, wrote that he hated Stalin with "all the fibers of my soul" but "I cannot help seeing that the brilliant offensive operations of Soviet troops are models of military art. Many generations of military men... are going to study these operations and no one will ever imagine that they were prepared and carried out without Stalin's participation or against his will."

We have a deep and understandable desire not to want to believe that great evildoers were also men of great talent. Unfortunately, the most murderous of the men who ran the Soviet Union, not only Stalin but also Beria and Kaganovich were extremely effective organizers. Khrushchev tried to attribute the Soviet Union's wartime successes to Zhukov but this flies in the face of everything we know about Stalin, in particular, his refusal to tolerate anyone superior to him. At the same time, Zhukov was a commander but not the commander in chief. He did not coordinate the fronts, obtain the arms, and conduct relations with the allies. All of this was carried out by Stalin and, as Grigorenko notes, the operational and strategic moves were "beyond serious criticism."

Nonetheless, in evaluating Stalin's role, I think there are two things we need to bear in mind. First, Stalin could squander the lives of Soviet soldiers in a way that was not possible for the Germans who, barbaric as they were in their treatment of Jews and Slavs, treated the lives of German soldiers as having some value. The Soviets lost three times as many men as the Germans even in battles where they were victorious. Second, Stalin was the head of a system that, although inefficient in peacetime, functioned superbly under conditions of war because of its ability to concentrate all of its resources toward the achievement of a single goal -- in this case, victory over the German invader. Stalin was an effective organizer because he was a master of an irrational machine.

In the end, Stalin deserves credit for the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany. But that credit needs to be tempered by the realization that it was precisely someone like Stalin, with his combination of great ability and total amorality, who could function best in a situation where the world sank to a level of depravity that had not previously been imagined.

Roberts: Let me say first that all the points raised by the commentators are dealt with in my book Stalin's Wars: From World War to Cold War, 19291-53. Agree or disagree, love it or loathe it, no one can say I dodge difficult issues or ignore evidence that doesn't suit my arguments.

I would have differences of emphasis with Mark and Satter: but I am in broad agreement with their contributions, which add important nuance to what I am trying to get across. I also agree with Pacepa when he says that "anybody who believes that Stalin was a great military strategist must also believe that the moon is made of green cheese". Only devotees of the Stalin cult would make such a claim. What is at issue here is whether Stalin was a great warlord or great supreme commander - or, rather, became one during the course of the war, notwithstanding colossal and costly mistakes that led to catastrophe in the early months of the war.

Both Nagorski and Pacepa raise the issue of the Nazi-Soviet pact and Stalin's refusal to believe intelligence of the coming German attack. I have written two books and innumerable articles on this topic and in Stalin's Wars I update my writings with the latest research and historiography. What this new material shows - and I detail it in the book - is that the mistake was not Stalin's refusal to believe or heed the intelligence but his belief that it didn't matter if the Germans launched a surprise attack. He believed that in the event of such an attack Soviet defences would hold and then the Red Army would launch its own offensive actions against the Germans. This perspective was shared by members of Stalin's high command, as was the commitment to the doctrine of large-scale offensive action in the event of war. Such over-confidence contributed greatly to the catastrophe of 22 June 1941. Stalin was supreme commander and the blame for this disaster is primarily his, but that doesn't excuse the errors and miscalculations of his generals.

One of the themes of my book is: don't believe the self-serving accounts of Stalin's generals which have a tendency to blame the Soviet dictator for all the defeats and claim credit for all the successes. The same point applies to Hitler's generals and in his contribution Andrew Nagorski repeats the myth that Germany lost the war on the Eastern Front, and specifically, the battle for Moscow because of Hitler's mistakes. As myself and many other historians have pointed out, there were good reasons for Hitler to divert his forces in summer 1941 from the central sector to Leningrad in the north and Kiev in the south: the Soviets had held up the German advance in the centre in fierce battles in and around Smolensk and Soviet forces on the flanks, especially in the south, threatened the German position in the centre.

One should also note that Hitler's actions led to the surrounding of Leningrad and the capture of Kiev - the single greatest German military success of the Eastern Front campaign. The Germans failed to capture Moscow not because of Hitler's mistakes - or the weather - but because of Soviet resistance and Stalin played an important role in rallying, organising and solidifying that resistance, not least when the Germans were a few miles from the centre of Moscow. One should also remember that the crucial thing about the battle of Moscow was not the successful defence but the Soviet counter-offensive of early December that secured the city and signalled the final failure of Operation Barbarossa.

Nagorski says that the "key reason why the battle of Moscow gets such short shrift in most Soviet accounts of the war is that any thorough examination of what happened puts Stalin's failure in stark relief." Actually, there is an enormous Soviet (and Russian) literature on the battle of Moscow dating back to the war itself, not surprisingly give that it was seen as the first great turning point of the Eastern Front war. True, this literature tends to highlight Stalin's success in winning the battle rather than his failure in letting the Germans get so close to the city. Presumably, that is what Andrew doesn't like about this literature, and understandably so since as Satter: says "we have a deep and understandable desire not to want to believe that great evildoers were also men of great talent."

Nagorski: It's curious that Roberts goes to such lengths to try to minimize Stalin's failures. He argues that it wasn't Stalin's failure to believe that the Germans would attack that was the problem, only his overconfidence that his forces could repel any attack. Why then was Stalin so insistent on discrediting the reports of both his own agents and Western leaders pointing to a huge accumulation of evidence that the Germans were preparing to strike? Why did he keep insisting that his troops not go on alert or take any actions that might be seen as anticipating such a strike? Why did he order the execution of German deserter Alfred Liskov, a young communist from Berlin, who crossed over to the Soviet side on the night of June 21, 1941 to warn of the impending attack? All of these actions made it possible for the Germans to score quick initial successes against Soviet forces that were deliberately kept off-guard and unprepared for the invasion. After the Germans took Minsk on June 28, Stalin famously told his entourage: "Lenin left us a great inheritance and we, his heirs, have fucked it all up!"

Roberts also credits Stalin with the defense of Moscow, arguing that Hitler's mistakes and the weather weren't to blame. True, Stalin did eventually rally his forces for the counter-offensive of early December, but things would have looked very different if Hitler hadn't made the mistakes I mentioned earlier and that I describe in detail in my book "The Greatest Battle."

For the sake of argument, assume for a moment that Hitler had not sent his troops south to take Kiev first -- an action that Roberts describes as a great military success. In mid-July, German forces were already in the Smolensk region, which meant they had about 230 miles more to go to Moscow. If they had kept driving due east, they wouldn't have faced the autumn mud season and the early freezing weather before their attempted assault on the capital. They also wouldn't have had to face the "Siberians" -- the troops that had been kept in the Soviet Far East until Stalin finally became convinced that Japan wouldn't attack the Soviet Union that year. About 400,000 Siberian troops were rushed back to defend Moscow and other key points in the fall, and they were exceptionally well equipped to deal with the brutal cold. As Albert Axell wrote in his book "Marshall Zhukov: The Man Who Beat Hitler," Stalin told Averell Harriman about "the great mistake" the Germans made by not going straight for Moscow. According to Harriman, "Stalin said that if they had concentrated on the drive towards Moscow they could have taken Moscow." In other words, it was Hitler's mistakes that saved the Soviet capital.

Finally, of course there have been many official Soviet accounts, which were carefully sanitized especially when it came to Stalin's role, about the battle for Moscow. My point is that there have been very few honest accounts, and almost nothing that could claim to be a fair and full description of what happened. It's no accident that most people know far more about Stalingrad or the siege of Leningrad than they do about the battle for Moscow. But the battle for Moscow was about twice as big as Stalingrad, both in terms of the numbers of troops involved and the total losses. Which makes it the biggest battle of all time. The fact that the Soviet Union eventually won doesn't excuse the whitewashing of that history or justify the minimizing of Stalin's blunders. And it doesn't do justice to those who died defending the Soviet capital -- in all too many cases, paying the price for those blunders.

Mark: I have at this point little to add to my previous remarks beyond my general caution that in attempting to assess Stalin's stature as a warlord, one must make many distinctions -- of one role from another, of one occasion from others. His record, if I am not much mistaken, was decidedly mixed.

I should like to second David Satter:'s point that "we have a deep and understandable desire not to want to believe that great evildoers were also men of great talent."

Thus historians mock Hitler's early artistic endeavors and indulge the banal and poorly rendered paintings of Churchill and Eisenhower, though I should say that it is perfectly obvious that Hitler's abilities in that regard, while not great, were much better than those of Churchill and Eisenhower.

Stalin has suffered from this general syndrome, which has been made more pronounced in his case by specific factors. This is a large subject in its own right, but two things are worthy of mention. One, surely, has been Trotsky's portrayal of Stalin as a grey bureaucratic mediocrity, a man of no qualities but vindictiveness, a low cunning, and an ability to appeal to what was worst in men. Trotsky's portrayal of Stalin has had a long life because it plays into the second factor, the desire of many leftish intellectuals to find an excuse for the failure of socialism in Russia. It is convenient for them to assign to Stalin the role of "gravedigger of the revolution." It would be truer to say that the revolution survived as long as it did only because of Stalin.

Pacepa: I agree with David Satter: -- I usually do: Stalin deserves credit for the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany. But that does not make him "The Great Warlord" against Nazism. In reality, Stalin epitomized the organic connection between Communism and Nazism. No wonder that after World War II he purged the word "Nazism" from the Russian vocabulary, replacing it with "Fascism."

Let me explain. On August 23, 1939 Stalin's prime-minister, Vyacheslav Molotov, and Hitler's foreign minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop, signed the Treaty of Non-aggression between Germany and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the secret protocol of which partitioned Poland between the two signatories and gave the Soviets free hand over Estonia, Latvia, Finland, Bessarabia and Northern Bukovina. German archive documents state that Stalin was euphoric that day. He told Ribbentrop: "I can guarantee, on my word of honor, that the Soviet Union will not betray its partner."[5] On September 27, 1940, Hitler concluded the Tripartite Pact with Italy and Japan. A week later Stalin's spy chief, Vladimir Dekanozov, was in Berlin, and during a walk in the woods he let von Ribbentrop know that Stalin was ready to join the Axis.

On November 12, 1940, Stalin sent a Soviet delegation to Berlin to discuss the details of his future cooperation with the Berlin-Rome-Tokyo Axis. There was not a single military man in that delegation--Stalin distrusted the army. Except for Molotov, all the other envoys were intelligence officers: Lavrenty Beria, the NKVD chief; his deputy, General Vsevolod Merkulov; and the pygmy Dekanozov. Stalin believed those talks were successful, and on November 20 he appointed Dekanozov as ambassador to Germany. Dekanozov presented his letters of accreditation to Hitler on December 19, 1940, without knowing that on the previous day the Führer had approved Operation "Barbarossa" for the invasion of the Soviet Union, and that he had ordered his troops to be ready by May 15, 1941.

We cannot define Stalin's role in World War II without even considering his lugubrious pact with Hitler, which is still one of the most embarrassing moments in the history of Soviet Russia. It is significant that Khrushchev framed its three main NKVD protagonists, Beria, Merkulov and Dekanozov, as spies and had them shot. "Dead men don't have memories," Gen. Sakharovsky, Khrushchev's spy chief, told me at that time.

We should also take into account the role played by Moscow's dezinformatsiya machinery in making Stalin into "The Great Warlord." I applaud Jamie Glazov's idea of vivisecting Stalin's military stature, but I also suggest a Symposium on the Russian "science of dezinformatsiya." We'll be surprised to see how much myth and how little meat there is in the public image of a Soviet/Russian leader.

Satter:: We are evaluating Stalin as a warlord. But in doing so we are confronted with the question: "Can we call him 'great'?" There is a feeling that the title "great" has to be denied him. One reason is the ambiguity of his military achievements. But there is another reason. Success in politics is the result of a favorable interaction between a person and his times. A political leader who rose to the top in one period could not have done so at a different time even in the same society. It is unimaginable that an unemployed wallpaper hanger and ex-corporal in the German army could have risen to a position of leadership in the Wilhelmine Reich. Similarly, it is ludicrous to imagine Stalin rising to power in Tsarist Russia or, for that matter, in an even remotely democratic society. The fearsome dictators of the twentieth century exercised their enormous power because each was the expression of a deranged society. These societies were guided by anti-values that Hitler and Stalin, each in his own way, exemplified. The product of a deranged society and exemplar of anti-values, however, cannot be "great."

Stalin's war role can probably be understood best as a reflection of his dedication and faith in the communist ideology. Because of the mental limits the ideology imposed, he could not imagine that Germany would desist from invading England - postponing the obligatory fight to the death between capitalist powers -- before attacking the Soviet Union. This is probably the core reason why he ignored the overwhelming evidence that Germany was preparing to attack. At the same time, however, once the titanic clash was well underway on the Eastern Front, Stalin was better able than perhaps others would have been to exploit the inherent wartime advantages of the Soviet totalitarian system, the ability to concentrate resources and mobilize the entire population in the pursuit of a single goal.

Hitler was also both driven and limited by his ideology. But for purposes of war Stalin's ideology was better. Hitler could exterminate Jews and Slavs but Germans were the "Master Race." They had to be treated with at least a modicum of respect. The Germans did not sacrifice their soldiers in massed suicide attacks and they did not demand the sacrifices from the home front that in the Soviet Union were a matter of course.

Stalin operated on the basis of an ideology that took it for granted that the individual has no value compared to the objectives of the state. If victory required the loss of millions of lives, this was no more remarkable than the fact that it required the loss of machinery, weapons, and fuel.

In the end, Stalin proved to be a master of the deranged world in which he operated. He understood its requirements and he epitomized its values. This allowed him to play an important role in the ultimate Soviet victory. But such a creature cannot be called "great."

Roberts: I don't want to get into a definitional debate. I use the term "great" merely to indicate that Stalin was a highly effective and successful warlord, and crucially important to the defeat of Nazi Germany. I don't seek to minimise Stalin's failures but - on the basis of new evidence -- to question criticisms of his warlordship that I see as wrong or misconceived. In fact, my book contains an alternative critique of Stalin, but those wedded to old views of Stalin just don't get it.

In relation to the Nazi-Soviet pact, for example, I argue in the book that Stalin did entertain the possibility of a long-term alliance with Hitler in the context of the fundamental reorientation of power relations in the capitalist world brought about by the German defeat of France. That was the purpose of Molotov's trip to Berlin in November 1940 - to find out if Hitler was interested in a new Nazi-Soviet pact based on a division of the Balkans into spheres of influence. While the results of the Berlin negotiations were negative Stalin persisted in exploring an agreement with Germany by offering to join the tripartite pact if Hitler would satisfy Soviet security demands and by sending Dekanozov to Berlin as the new ambassador.

By the early 1941 it was obvious that the Soviet-German relationship had broken down and that war was only a matter of time. It was the timing of the German attack that Stalin got wrong in his assessment of the intelligence picture - and with disastrous results. There were many reasons for this misassessment by Stalin but - I repeat - the main one was Stalin's belief that Soviet defences would hold whenever the Germans attacked and that it would be possible to implement Red Army plans for counter-offensive action. Indeed, the Red Army suffered its greatest damage in the few days after 22 June 1941 during the course of a series of ill-conceived counter-offensives. If you want to criticise Stalin that is what you focus on - not his misreading of the intelligence picture - which is always much easier to read after the event on the basis of post hoc assumptions and rationales.

Nagorski: The problem in 1941 wasn't a misreading of the intelligence picture, as Roberts puts it. The picture was all too clear at the time, not just with the benefit of hindsight. A steady stream of reports from Soviet military intelligence agents provided more than ample warning of the impending German attack. On April 17, for instance, the Prague station reported that "Hitler will attack the U.S.S.R. in the second half of June." Stalin sent the report back to the head of military intelligence with a note he wrote in red ink: "English provocation! Investigate!"

So I find it hard to fathom how a more critical view of Stalin's role in this period can be dismissed as "wrong or misconceived" and a product of "old views." I certainly agree with Pacepa that a far more prevalent old view was the one manufactured by the Kremlin's disinformation campaigns, which depicted Stalin as "The Great Warlord."

Of course the word "great" can be used in many ways. If "the great man of history" is anyone who had a major impact on history, then both Stalin and Hitler qualify. And, yes, in the end, Stalin proved to be a more effective military leader than Hitler. But as Satter: eloquently points out, neither man can be called "great" in the broader sense of the term. And in purely military terms, the period that I cover in "The Greatest Battle," starting with the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and then focusing on the critical battle for Moscow, offers overwhelming evidence of Stalin's failures as a political and military leader. Those were hardly a few snafus or minor misjudgements; they were huge, immensely costly failures. In the context of this discussion, maybe we should call them "great" failures, although Hitler's even greater failures would soon catch up with him, tipping the balance in Stalin's favor.

Mark: Stalin's reaction to BARBAROSSA has been a recurrent point. Professor Roberts is correct, in my view, to stress that Stalin was confident that the Red Army could fend off the attack. One need only look at the stenograms of his telephonic exchanges with the commander of the western front, General Pavlov, to see that. Still, his reaction to much of the excellent intelligence he received is, to say the least, puzzling. All intelligence has to be received critically, but why the abrupt and apparently confident dismissal of the report from Prague, which Mr. Nagorski notes?

All the explanations offered revolve around Stalin's personal failings, his lack of "greatness," or his confidence in the Red Army. I find the first lacking because it fails to account for one of Stalin's most obvious traits -- suspiciousness. He was, as it were, programmed by both his personality and his ideology to expect treachery on Hitler's part. But in fact he dismissed the evidence of treachery. And while he undoubtedly had an excess of confidence in the Red Army's ability to stem the German onslaught, I do not think that quite suffices to explain Stalin's failure to prepare his forces better. There is of course he argument that he did not wish to give Hitler a casus belli or wanted responsibility for the war to be clear to the world.

Given what was at stake, and given the fact that not only the GRU but other nations (including the United States and Britain) were also warning Stalin of the German attack, I do not think that too much weight can be attached to the argument from public relations. And while I am sure that David Satter: is correct to stress that ideological preconceptions led Stalin to believe that Hitler would finish with England before turning east, by about May 1941 there was an abundance of evidence that something else was underway. It was, after all, Stalin who said that the logic of facts is the strongest kind of logic.

I have long suspected that a piece of the puzzle is missing. On purely deductive grounds, I wonder if Stalin had not received assurances of some kind from Hitler, the evidence for which is now lost, of such a kind that he accepted them and dismissed the reports from the GRU and from abroad on the ground that he knew better. That might explain the fact that Molotov was so thunderstruck when Graf von der Schulenberg delivered the declaration of war to him. Evidence for this hypothesis is totally lacking, and I do not insist upon it. But I am quite certain that the available evidence does not suffice to explain fully Stalin's actions in June 1941.

A final point: General Pacepa's observations that historians have neglected Soviet disinformation and that the subject is much in need of investigation is astute. During the war the Soviets subscribed to hundreds of American newspapers and magazines -- popular publications, not technical ones. Much space was devoted to their delivery on the Alaska-Siberia air route. When queried about the resulting loss of vital transport space, Soviet officials replied that the publications were needed by the propagandists in Moscow. One cannot, I think, fully understand the public face of Soviet diplomacy during the war without taking account of "dezinformatsiya."

Pacepa: I am glad to have participated in this Symposium, which I believe has removed another layer from the cloying adulation of Stalin fabricated by the traditionally Russian "science of dezinformatsiya." That colossal intelligence swindle filled oceans of shameful newsprint and encouraged hordes of well-meaning liberals in the West to help Stalin expand his real estate across a third of the world. After World War II, the statues of the new Generalissimo sprang up like mushrooms all around the Soviet Union. Stalin was the "Great Warlord" who had saved mankind. Thousands of "military documents," both published and classified, were produced to support that lie.

Stalin was never a "Great Warlord." He was a coward who helped the Allies fight the Nazis to save his own skin. Twenty million Soviet people paid for that with their lives and 5.7 million were taken prisoners because they were led by an incompetent commander-in-chief. To hide his military ineptitude, Stalin killed most of the 2.2 million repatriated prisoners of war. In June 1944 he created a special intelligence unit, the Smersh (acronym from SMERt SHpionam meaning Death to Spies), and charged it with framing as spies the prisoners of war. In June 1945 the American ambassador in Moscow, Averell Harriman, reported to the State Department: "The Embassy knows of only a single instance in which a repatriated prisoner has returned to his home and family in Moscow."[6] Washington would later learn that the Smersh executed most of the repatriated prisoners of war or sent them to Soviet prison camps above the Arctic Circle, where many died.[7]

Stalin should not be honored for helping to free the world from tyranny, but treated as a mass killer who, after World War II, created a new tyranny that caused the death of well over a hundred million -- in Eastern Europe and Red China alone. Stalin pretended that these new proletarian dictatorships were created by domestic revolutions carried out by the indigenous Communist parties. This is another disinformation of equal historical proportion as that portraying Stalin as a "Great Warlord." In reality, those countries' Stalinization was accomplished through subversive NKVD operations stamped with an outwardly political cachet. Their political, economic, military, cultural and religious leaders were not politically purged; they were systematically shot or imprisoned by Stalin's NKVD. Over 50,000 were killed in Romania alone. Not a single Bulgarian participated in Hitler's war against the Allies, but Stalin portrayed Bulgaria's leaders as Nazi war criminals anyway. On February 2, 1945, his NKVD executed 3 regents, 22 ministers, 68 members of parliament and 8 advisers to King Boris under the pretext that they committed war crimes. During the following months, another 2,680 members of Bulgaria's allegedly "fascist" government were executed as Nazi war criminals and 6,870 were imprisoned, although most of those leaders had been instrumental in eventually bringing Bulgaria over to the Allied side.

Stalin should also be remembered as the man who used communism to transform the Soviet bloc into a monument to himself. Today, few people admit they worshiped Stalin. Not many Nazi admirers could be found in Europe after World War II, either. But on March 6, 1953, four million people wept in Red Square for Stalin's funeral. Sirens wailed, bells tolled, cars blew their horns, and work stopped all around the country. Most of Romania grieved, too. At that time I was already an intelligence officer, but I had not yet discovered how the hysterical adulation of Stalin as a "Great Warlord" and a "Great International Leader" had been created out of whole cloth. Twenty years later I would be running an enormous machinery designed to portray Ceausescu to the world as a great, Westernized leader, and I would discover the lengths to which the powerful would go to craft a leader's image -- to rewrite history, lie, cheat, steal, frame, jail, torment, and murder, all in an effort to make people believe his lies. This is Stalin's real legacy.

Satter:: Dr. Mark is right to suspect that there was something afoot in the pre-invasion period that clouded Stalin's judgment even more than faith in the ideology. This may have been a personal letter from Hitler on May 14, 1941 in which Hitler, on his "honor as a chief of state," explained that the German troop buildup on the Eastern front was an attempt to move troops out of range of English bombers so that they could be secretly reorganized and rearmed. In 1966, Zhukov, in an interview with Lev Bezymensky, a Soviet historian, said that, in response to his attempts to convince Stalin of the growing danger of a German invasion, Stalin showed him Hitler's letter. Zhukov did not remember the exact wording but on June 14, 1941 he read a TASS communiqué in Pravda denying that the Soviet Union and Germany were close to war where the exact language of Hitler's letter was reproduced.

This episode is described in David E. Murphy's fascinating book, "What Stalin Knew: the Enigma of Barbarossa." Murphy is the retired chief of Soviet operations for the CIA. In his book, Murphy provides a text of Hitler's letter. No archival material has been found to authenticate the document that may only mean that the letters on both sides may have been destroyed. Murphy also does not make clear where he acquired the text. What Murphy nonetheless provides the most plausible explanation I have heard of why Stalin proved so blind to the German preparations of war. In a word, he was conned by Hitler.

I take away a few impressions from our symposium. First of all, although it seems to me that Professor Roberts underestimates Stalin's blindness in the weeks before the outbreak of war, I think he is right to emphasize Stalin's skill as a wartime leader once the initial shock of the invasion was overcome. This is an aspect of history that is all too often overlooked and deserves attention. At the same time, however, none of us should lose sight of the fact that there are broader questions involved. Stalin was skillful because he was the head of a system in which human life had no meaning. The Russians lost three times as many men as the Germans even in battles they were winning. Neither the Western allies nor the Germans were able to fight like that and any assessment of Stalin's role must take this into account. Putting Stalin's performance in an appropriate context serves the cause of historical truth and actually makes it more understandable. It also serves the cause of modern Russia where, according to the latest Levada poll, half of Russians between the ages of 16 and 19 believe that Stalin was a wise leader and 54 per cent think he did more good than bad.

Front Page: Geoffrey Roberts, Andrew Nagorski, David Satter:, Dr. Eduard Mark and Lt. Gen. Ion Mihai Pacepa, thank you for joining Frontpage Symposium.


[1] Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_War_II_casualties, June 1, 2007.
[2] Robert W. Stephan, Death to Spies: The Story of SMERSH, doctoral thesis, American University, Washington D.C., 1984, pp. 61-64.
[3] Andrew and Gordievsky, KGB, p. 343.
[4] Huge Thomas, Armed Truce: The Beginnings of the Cold War (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1986), pp. 220-221.
[5] John Toland, Adolf Hitler (New York: Doubleday, 1976), p. 548.
[6] Christopher Andrew and Oleg Gordievsky, KGB: The Inside Story of Its Foreign Operations from Lenin to Gorbachev (New York: HarperCollins, 1990) p. 343.
[7] Huge Thomas, Armed Truce: The Beginnings of the Cold War (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1986), pp. 220-221.

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Posted: 07-Aug-07

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