Geoffrey Roberts: Interviewed about Joseph Stalin, Warlord

[Jamie Glazov is Frontpage Magazine's managing editor. He holds a Ph.D. in History with a specialty in U.S. and Canadian foreign policy.]

Frontpage Interview’s guest today is 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.

FP: Geoffrey Roberts, welcome to Frontpage Interview.

Roberts: Hello, and thank you for the opportunity to discuss my book.

FP: So what inspired you to write this book?

Roberts: I am an historian of the Soviet Union and I specialize in Stalin, Soviet foreign policy, the Great Patriotic War and the Cold War. Stalin's Wars is a follow-on to work I did in the 1980s and early 1990s on Soviet foreign policy in the 1930s. In the last 15 years or so an enormous amount of new material on Stalin during the war and early cold war has become available from Russian archives. This new material has made possible a major reassessment of Stalin as a war leader and as a postwar peacemaker. I should make clear that as a historian I have a strong orientation to telling the truth about the past, no matter how uncomfortable or unpalatable the conclusions may be.

In terms of my personal history the origins of this book date back to the 1970s when I was a communist activist. I was a Eurocommunist and one of the hallmarks of Eurocommunist politics was the democratic critique of actually existing socialism. I was heavily involved in that critique and in campaigning for democracy and human rights in the Soviet Union and the other socialist countries. In the 1980s my politics changed and I lost interest in discourses centred on the idea of a socialist transformation of society but I retained my interest in Soviet history and continue to find it fascinating and illuminating. I would add that I haven't been active in politics for nearly 20 years but I did sign the Euston Manifesto - a strong statement in defence of liberal and democratic values that many of your readers will be familiar with.

FP: What is the main argument of your book?

Roberts: I argue, firstly, that Stalin was a highly effective and successful war leader and I reject many criticisms of his leadership that I see as rooted, on the one hand, in western cold war polemics, and, on the other hand, in the de-Stalinization campaign in the USSR. I think that Stalin and the Soviets played by far the greatest role in the defeat of Hitler and the Nazis and characterize Stalin as the dictator who, ironically and paradoxically, saved the world for democracy.

Secondly, I argue in great detail - and this is the most original and most extensively researched component of the book - that Stalin was very committed to the grand alliance with Britain and the United States and wanted to see it continue after the war. While Stalin's actions contributed to the outbreak of the cold war, he strove to avert the break up of the grand alliance.

In this respect the book can be read as a vindication of those American revisionist historians (including David Horowitz!) who criticized US anti-communism and took a benign view of Stalin's postwar foreign policy. At the same time I see my narrative and analysis as a kind of post-revisionist synthesis that incorporates important elements of the neo-traditionalist view of the origins of the cold war, particularly in relation to the role of communist ideology in motivating Stalin's policy.

Thirdly, and perhaps most controversially, I see the foundations of the relatively mild authoritarianism and dictatorship of the post-Stalin Soviet regime as being laid in Stalin's time (i.e. the postwar Stalinist Soviet system was a system in transition away from the mass violence and terrorism that peaked in the mid-late 1930s).

I would caution that the research in this section of the book is not particularly original except in so far as I relate postwar Soviet domestic developments to what was going on in foreign policy terms. Here my main theme is the extent to which the patriotic identity that the Soviet communists began to adopt in the early 1930s impacted on both Stalin's postwar foreign and domestic policy.

FP: I guess the discomfort many people find in certain facts is a matter of emphasis. For instance, there are those individuals who might argue that Hitler did a great job for Germany economically when he first came to power. This naturally rubs many people the wrong way in the sense that he was an evil mass murderer -- and to make some kind of compliment regarding Hitler’s economic successes strikes some as a sort of Holocaust-denial. The fact of the matter is, obviously, that if Hitler, arguably, brought employment back to Germany, it does not negate the fact that he was an evil person who perpetrated much evil. And historians have an obligation to tell the truth.

So if Stalin was a great warlord of the Second World War, then he was a great warlord. The issue is, of course, the interest that certain people might have in emphasizing this fact in proportion to avoiding the discussion of the Gulag and what it really was. To say that Stalin saved the world for democracy is also, of course, in no way to suggest that he wanted a world of democracy.

What are your thoughts on these themes? How in your own study did you square your own responsibility to tell the truth about Stalin as a war leader with the fact that he was a vicious dictator who murdered millions of people? What are the dilemmas for a historian when he finds a positive aspect about an evil man?

Roberts: I don't think there is a dilemma: you just tell the truth as you see it. In Stalin's case, the truth is that he was a mass murder and a great war leader who did humanity an immense service in helping to defeat Hitler and the Nazis.

In my book I deal with both aspects of Stalin but my focus is on his war leadership - on his "positive side" as Averell Harriman put it. For me the interesting question is how it was possible for Stalin to be a great war leader AND a mass murder.

As is apparent in my book, the answer to this question is that there was more to the Soviet system and to the Stalin regime than terror and mass repression. It was a regime that had a significant degree of popular support and was capable of evoking great public enthusiasm, not least during the war. It was a system that proved capable of mobilising its resources and population in a total war effort that demand immense personal sacrifice and which resulted in the greatest military victory in history. Stalin's leadership and central role in this whole scenario seems to me to be undeniable and that is what I try to demonstrate in the book.

FP: Well if Stalin did humanity an immense service in helping to defeat Hitler and the Nazis, all I can say is how tragic that someone didn’t do humanity an immense service during Stalin’s reign and help to defeat him and the evil empire that he ruled.

My parents were Soviet dissidents. I grew up sitting at a dinner table that was surrounded by individuals who fought Soviet tyranny and who had been barbarized by Soviet tyranny. I can tell you that none of them were inspired by Stalin’s leadership and central role during the war nor found any particular inspiration to praise it. Their concerns were with the horrid details of the Gulag Archipelago, with the continuing monstrosity that the Soviet regime represented, and with those who were languishing in Soviet prisons and psychiatric hospitals because of their love of freedom.

You state that the Stalinist regime had “a significant degree of popular support and was capable of evoking great public enthusiasm, not least during the war.” To be honest with you, I am not sure how meaningful this statement is when we all know that no Soviet citizen had a choice in whether he showed popular support to Stalin or not, and we are all well aware of the state propaganda that indoctrinated children from a young age, and what would happen to the individual that would voice anything but support for the God of the Soviet Union. Why someone would praise the Stalinist regime by referring to the “support” it enjoyed amongst a victimized and terrorized populace that was run by a totalitarian evil empire is beyond me.

Roberts: I grew up in the privileged environment of a prosperous liberal democracy and perhaps if I had had your experiences my views of the Soviet Union would be different. But from the age of 16 I studied and criticized the Soviet system and supported Soviet dissidents such as your parents. I had and have no illusions about the Soviet system and have never, ever sought to minimise its repressiveness and brutalities. But my research and my conversations with many people who lived in the Soviet Union and live in Russia today tells me that among the Soviet people there were a diversity of views and experiences of the Stalinist system, including many who were genuinely inspired by Stalin's leadership and enthusiastic supporters of his regime. Without that base of popular support the regime would not have survived the war. Violence and terror alone are not sufficient explanations for the durability of the Soviet system.

FP: Well, we will have to leave a debate about this matter of “popular support” to another time and place.

But let me ask you this: why do you think it is passable in our culture to write a book arguing that Stalin was a great war leader, when if a historian were to arguably find the same evidence about Hitler (I know in this case it doesn’t exit) and write such a book, he would be demonized, shunned and labelled a Nazi? In other words: why is finding a positive aspect about Hitler unconscionable, while finding one about Stalin remains on the playing field – a historian’s duty so to speak?

I am obviously not arguing that the same should be done for Hitler, since every one of us must be honest and admit that we cringe at even the thought of looking for some good quality about him, and that we would suspect a person who did articulate positive aspects about him to be a Nazi sympathizer. And we would most likely be right. So I’m just wondering why the double standard exists in our culture about two very evil mass murderers. Surely this is connected to the fact that when genocide is perpetrated for the agenda of racial hate, it is seen as completely evil (which it should be), but when it is perpetrated on the foundation of class hatred, for some reason in our society the genocide is held up for some kind intellectual exploration in which it needs to be put into “context” etc. Is it not because the Left controls the parameters of debate, seeing that the pursuit of full class equality is still idealized -- despite the horrifying results of its earthly incarnations? In other words, even though Stalin is regarded as evil in his final product, the ideals on which his horror was based are still seen as noble and legitimate etc.

Your thoughts?

Roberts: I think the existence of a literature about Stalin's 'positive side' reflects the reality that he was a contradictory historical figure who did good as well as much bad. This view of Stalin is not confined to left-wingers but is prevalent across the political spectrum and was a very common view among western politicians, diplomats and political leaders during the war. The interesting point about the Hitler literature is that those writers who defend or exculpate him and the Nazi regime tend to engage in denial, whether of the Holocaust or other varieties. Neo-Stalinist writers also have this tendency but in general the Stalin literature - my book for example - is of the warts and all variety, which, I hope makes it more compelling as well as more truthful than neo-Nazi apologetics about Hitler.

FP: Fair enough, all I can say is that throughout my entire life, the individuals I ran into who praised Stalin as a war leader were not those who lost sleep at night worrying about the fates of individuals such as Vladimir Bukovsky, Anatoly Sharansky, Andrei Sakharov and Alexander Ginsburg. They didn’t spend much time talking about, and fighting, the evil of the Soviet regime and the pernicious and vile Marxist ideology on which it was based. They weren’t spending their time and energy confronting and exposing the leftist ideals that had made Stalinism possible so as to try to prevent further experiments of socialist engineering on more members of the human race. In fact, they were often engaged in the exact opposite. So when they discussed Stalin’s great leadership during the war, it was very clear to me what was in their hearts and minds. And I am not saying that you are one of these individuals. I’m just relating my own personal experience in academia and what I observed.

Roberts: I can't say I lost any sleep but I did spend time and energy defending the rights of all the people you name, and of many others.

When the Gorbachev revolution came I welcomed it as a vindication of my young Eurocommunist ideals, although by that time my own politics had changed and I considered myself a liberal social democrat. I do not regret the passing of the Soviet system although I do think the manner of the transition from communism to capitalism has been very damaging and I would have preferred a more controlled and incremental process of change in the former USSR (I'm a conservative at heart!).

But as a historian my prime task is to try to fully understand the Soviet system in all its complexity and contradiction. If that means there are some positive things to say about even Stalin, then so be it.

FP: Ok, well, let’s discuss some of the things you found out as a historian about Stalin then, since that is why we gathered here today.

In the context of your thesis, what is the angle you take on the Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact in 1939?

Roberts: I have written extensively about the Nazi-Soviet pact, beginning with my book The Unholy Alliance: Stalin's Pact with Hitler (1989). In Stalin's Wars, I devote two chapters to Soviet-German relations after the pact was signed. These chapters update my previous research and record two important developments in my view of the pact.

Firstly, I'm more inclined to agree that Stalin contemplated the possibility of a long-term alliance with Hitler, at least until summer 1940 when Nazi-Soviet relations entered a crisis period that climaxed with the German attack in June 1941. Secondly, I highlight the importance of new evidence from Soviet military archives about the Red Army's plans for an offensive war against Germany. This does not mean Stalin was preparing or planning to initiate hostilities with Germany but it does mean that when war broke out the Red Army would counter-attack and counter-invade. The great surprise of 22 June 1941 was not the fact of the German attack itself but the failure of Soviet defences to hold while the Red Army prepared its own offensive action. This disastrous miscalculation was certainly Stalin's but the responsibility was shared by the members of his High Command who did not believe that the Germans could surprise them the way in which they did.

FP: If it is possible to do so briefly, can you give us an insight into who Stalin was a person? What made him tick? Are there any popular character traits that have been attributed to him that you find false?

Roberts: Stalin's personality remains the greatest mystery of all. For all the new evidence from Russian archives we still don't know very much about his inner life. In the book I don't give a systematic presentation and analysis of his personality, allowing instead the different aspects of his character to emerge incrementally in the detailed narrative. I also used participant observations by Harriman and others to sketch his personality.

The indexer of my book took a different view, however, and drew together all these different elements together under the heading of "character", including such descriptors as bully, charm, modesty, paranoia, rages, realism, sadism, humour, shrewdness, simplicity, toughness, vengefulness, will to power and wit. This listing neatly captures the complexity and contradictions of Stalin as a person but it also misses the main point I make in the book: that what defined and explained Stalin as a personality was his politics and ideology, particularly concepts of class conflict and class struggle (which I prefer to the notion of class hatred that you use above, which exaggerates the emotional content of Stalin's personal beliefs and of Soviet discourse). What made Stalin's paranoia, for example, so dangerous, extreme and murderous was its class ideological content.

FP: Can you give us an example of one or two of the battles on the Eastern Front in which Stalin can really take credit for playing a decisive role?

Roberts: The obvious example is Moscow in October-November 1941. As the Germans approached the city gates Stalin held his nerve and maintained the coherence of his command structure; made a good decision when he called in Zhukov to lead the defence of the city; inspired popular confidence and enthusiasm by remaining in Moscow himself and by making some classic patriotic speeches; and did not get panicked into deploying all available forces for defence and allowed the Red Army to build up its forces in the rear in preparation for the successful counter-offensive in early December 1941.

The battle of Moscow was the first of the great turning points of the Eastern Front war; it marked the failure of Operation Barbarossa and meant that the Germans now faced a long war of attrition - a struggle that they could only win by a bold stroke - which they tried and failed to execute at Stalingrad in 1942 - another battle in which Stalin displayed the aforementioned qualities, although the pressure of Stalingrad seems to have got to him more than Moscow - perhaps because he, like most Soviet people, did not expect to have to fight such a decisive battle again.

FP: If Hitler had been a war leader like Stalin and Stalin had been a warlord like Hitler, is there a chance the Second World War might have been won by the Nazis?

Roberts: Philosophically I'm an individualist and a voluntarist. I believe that people make history and that particular individuals can play a critical role at decisive turning points. Stalin's war leadership is one such example - which, I argue in the book , was indispensable to the Soviet victory over the Nazis. So, yes, had Hitler been as effective a war lord as Stalin and Stalin as dysfunctional as Hitler then the Germans would have won the war on the Eastern Front and, by extension, the Second World War as a whole.

At the same time I don't go along with all the criticisms of Hitler's military leadership spawned by the mythmaking of his surviving generals making excuses for their own failings and failures. Stalin was a better warlord than Hitler because of the efficiency with which he ran the Soviet war machine, because of his ability and willingness to learn from his mistakes and because of the good relations he maintained with his High Command - even at moments of dire crisis.

FP: Let me get back for a moment to Stalin the war leader. I am just trying to figure out what kind of a great warlord is himself responsible for decimating his own population, including his military and civilian leadership. For instance, how many of the 20 million Soviet citizens killed in the war were victims of Stalin's policies leading up to the war (the purges, the massacre of the Soviet general staff, the appeasement of Hitler etc.)? Was not the Soviet census of 1939 suppressed because it showed a catastrophic decline in population – which was the tragic result of the terror? What I’m getting to here is how you place the casualties of Stalin's terror, which were included in the WWII losses, into your thesis.

Roberts: The accepted figure for Soviet war dead is about 25 million, two-thirds of them civilians. The mistakes of Stalin and his High Command cost many millions of lives and the Soviets executed or punished to death millions more who were seen as actual or potetial traitors. But the great majority of Soviet war deaths were the direct or indirect responsibility of the Germans, including at least a million Soviet Jews executed in 1941-1942 - the event that initiated the Holocaust. In the book I deal with Stalin's terror, purges, massacres etc to a certain extent and have written about these issues elsewhere, including in a study of the Katyn murders, but that really is a discussion for another day. My description of Stalin as "the greatest of war leaders" is a comment on Stalin's ultimate effectiveness as Supreme Commander and a recognition of the triumph and magnitude of the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany. Stalin was a deeply flawed and repugnant war leader, but I'm sure glad he won and not Hitler.

FP: Well, we are talking about a warlord who massacred his most able commanders of the armed forces and who never bothered to count losses, which led to the Soviets losing 3-4 times more people than the Germans. I think those are pertinent -- and tragic -- facts to keep in mind in the context of considering Stalin's war leadership.

Well, before we go, let me ask you: you have mentioned that at one time you entertained Eurocommunist ideals. Do you still believe in a Socialist transformation?

Roberts: No. If I did I would still be a socialist and I would still be struggling for socialism. I believe in a liberal, democratic, humane and socially responsible capitalism. I do not consider myself on the left but I have the greatest of respect for many socialists and left-wingers and believe it is possible to make common cause with them on many issues. The same applies to conservatives and people on the right. One of the lessons I learnt in my communist days was the need to cooperate and discourse with people of a variety of political views, including those you have fundamental disagreements with. That's why I agreed to do this interview.

FP: Geoffrey Roberts, thank you for joining Frontpage Interview.

Roberts: Thank you, for giving me the space to talk about my book.

comments powered by Disqus
History News Network