[April 22, 2021] Like so many Americans, I learned about the righteousness of the Allied fight against Hitler’s and Mussolini’s fascism and Japan’s imperialism during World War II. Yet, there was plenty of unfinished business of the war that would plague the world for decades – a new book by Sean McMeekin challenge’s that view.
In his book, Stalin’s War: A New History of World War II (officially published two days ago), McKeekin admits to the same biases I also suffered in understanding the war.
“Like many Americans with a love for history, I was weaned on popular chronicles of World War II, from glossy secondary works and novels to Hollywood blockbusters, from Casablanca and The Dirty Dozen to Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan. The “Good War” always gives Americans a satisfactory conclusion, with Hitler and Nazi evil defeated, Holocaust horrors brought to an end, and the USA emerging on the world stage as a righteous superpower.”
What about the millions of Europeans and Asians who suffered greatly in the aftermath of WWII? We never really appreciated Winston Churchill’s famous warning about the “Iron Curtain” that fell over Eastern Europe in 1945 and resulted in the unfinished business in Asia, Korea, and Vietnam.
“Over the years, however, doubts began to creep in about just how righteous the war’s outcome was for millions of Europeans and Asians less fortunate in geography than Americans are. Coming of age in the late Cold War years, I learned to appreciate the wisdom of Churchill’s warning [about the Iron Curtain]. I learned from the fallout resulting from them to the rise of Communist China as a strategic adversary every bit as formidable as the Soviet Union had been, if not more so.”
Apparently, WWII was not as clean as we would have liked. The war did not free all peoples; they were not all liberated but were to be enslaved by a much more insidious force that went by the name of Communism.1
“When my overseas travels and research trips took me beyond popular tourist destinations such as London, Paris, and Rome into central and eastern Europe, the Balkans, Russia, Turkey, and Asia, I learned that the Second World War is not universally seen as the “Good War,” with a neat Hollywood cast of heroes and villains and a happy ending. In Vietnam and former French Indochina, the conflict emerging from the Japanese incursion in 1940 lasted until 1975, at least, and in Cambodia longer still. East of the Elbe river, the war did not end in 1945, but arguably in 1989, when Soviet troops finally began to go home. In Taiwan and Korea, questions arising from the conflict remain unresolved, and the military standoff is no less tense today than ever.”
Were we suckered into accepting Stalin’s version of the war? Were we biased in favor of an ally? Or were we drawn to the communism of the Soviet Union that persists to this day?
“Over the years, many western historians have absorbed and passed on a sanitized Soviet version of Stalin’s war, without quite realizing this is what they were doing. Some of this neglect reflects Stalin’s own cunning. At least one reason so few western accounts have challenged Stalin’s preferred narrative of the war is that, until recently, they did not have the sources to do so. In some areas, we had almost no information at all.”
McMeekin’s book is fascinating reading and should be on your desk for reading. Sean McMeekin is a professor of European History and Culture at Bard College. His foray into the details and aftermath is something from which all historians can learn.
“In the end, it is up to historians to do the legwork and investigate the questions governments such as Russia’s – or that of the United States, for that matter – do not want them to ask. This is what I have tried to do in Stalin’s War, and I hope that interested readers will learn to see the Second World War in a new way.”