Did the Soviet Union win the war because of Stalin or in spite of Stalin? For all the brutality and cruelty that occurred during the Stalin years, Stalin himself proved to be an adept military leader and played an immensely significant role in the Allied victory over Nazi Germany. Dimmit Volition offered the first and most aggressively critical account of Stalin as a military leader published within the Soviet Union. L Since then, Russian military historians have tended to offer a more favorable interpretation.
Even Isaac Deutsche, who in his earlier life had been closely aligned tit Trotsky, portrays Stalin’s military leadership in a largely positive light. 2 Equally, there is no clear consensus among Western scholars on the matter with accounts ranging from the immensely critical to the extremely positive portrayal provided by Geoffrey Roberts. 3 Those accounts that praise the leadership of Stalin during the Second World War tend to meet criticism from those who cannot separate Stalin’s ability as a war leader from his undeniable cruelty and brutality as a ruler.
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There is the risk that offering Stalin credit for the role he played in the war and in preparing he Soviet Union for the conflict can be seen as an apology for the all of the atrocities of his regime. Stalin made numerous mistakes in his conducting of the Soviet war effort and he certainly cannot be credited with single-handedly winning the war. Nonetheless, his contribution was extremely significant and it is certainly possible to argue that an alternative leader or an alternative approach would have led to the Soviet Union’s defeat.
It is counter-productive to make so sweeping a statement as that the “Soviet Union won the war because of Stalin” for, as Sewer’s Bailer noted, Stalin made no real contribution to the planning and control of specific military operations. 4 Here, much of the credit lies elsewhere within the military leadership. Instead, Stalin made a crucial contribution to the administration of the war effort, was able to unify and terrorist when required, and industrialized the Soviet Union to a level whereby it was able to withstand and eventually defeat a ruthless and highly skilled German army.
The vast majority of the criticism leveled at Stalin’s wartime leadership has been directed at his failings with regard to the technical side of litany operations and at the disastrous early years of the war. Matthew Gallagher, Geoffrey Roberts, Dimmit Volition and Ronald Igor Suny have all either attacked Stalin for his failures in directing and controlling battles and military operations or accepted his shortcomings. 5 Even Stalin acknowledged in his victory toast to the Russian people that his ‘government made not a few errors. 6 Particular emphasis has been placed on Stalin’s responsibility for the disastrous events of June 1941. Beginning with a damning critique from Nikkei Khrushchev, historians have intended to criticism Stalin for allowing the German surprise attack of 22 June 1941 that enabled Hitler to take Leningrad and reach the edge of Moscow. 7 On June 21, Marshal Tombstones had informed Stalin that several German deserters reported that Hitler had planned to attack that evening.
Their claims supported a report from Winston Churchill that an attack was coming imminently, the reports of a spy who German forces would attack, military reports of the German army preparing for an invasion, and even information (treasonous) supplied by the German ambassador o the Soviet Union that the attack would indeed begin on 22 June. 8 Stalin considered it ‘disinformation’ and told his generals that he thought Hitler was trying to provoke them and that he ‘surely had not decided to make war. Beyond this failure, Stalin’s leadership has also been criticized on numerous technical grounds. Soviet military memoirs attacked his ‘ill-conceived, costly offensives; refusal to order strategic retreats in the face of enemy encirclement;… The mishandling of major battles’ in addition to his ‘excessive meddling in frontline operations, his loss of imposture during critical situations, and the scapegoat of others for his own mistakes. 9 Whilst not an exhaustive list of the criticisms leveled at Stalin’s wartime leadership these are indicative of the objections of both contemporary military leaders and historical assessments, but, as will now be discussed, these operational deficiencies provide only a narrow portrayal of Stalin’s role during the war. As Sewer’s dialer has argued, Stalin’s crucial contribution to victory came instead from ‘his ability to organize and administer the manipulation of manpower and material resources. 0 Equally, whilst the criticism of Stalin’s handling of the earlier period of the war holds some weight, it is unrepresentative of Stalin’s role over the course of the entire war. One of Stalin’s closest military associates Marshal Alexander Viselike, who was chief of the Soviet General Staff for most of the Eastern Front war, identified two distinct periods of Stalin’s war leadership.
Viselike noted that whilst during the first part of the war Stalin’s ‘inadequate operational and strategic training was apparent’, after September 1942 he gained a ‘good grasp of all questions elating to the preparation for and execution of operations’ as he began to heed the advice of his military professionals. Al Suny too has noted that Stalin was more willing to rely on his generals than Hitler, and even so fierce a critic as Volition has noted that his thinking was more global, and it was this that placed him above the others in the military leadership’. 2 Indeed, even those criticisms of Stalin’s early war leadership are not as irrefutable as the historians who place so much emphasis on them would like to believe. Whilst Stalin has been strongly criticized for his delay n dealing with the German invasion, Ernst Topics has argued that Stalin’s response was both ‘clever and responsible’. 13 In line with Stalin’s fear that he was being provoked, Topics suggests that Stalin both wanted to ensure that an attack from Germany was unprovoked and hoped to delay conflict with Germany for as long as possible in order to further prepare the Soviet Union for war.
This is again only a snapshot of Stalin’s contribution in purely military terms, but nonetheless dispels some of the myths with which critics of Stalin’s wartime leadership have sought to attack him. Stalin was an extremely able administrator with an exceptional eye for detail and he played a significant role in the Soviet Union’s eventual victory in the war. Stalin has also received criticism for being ‘profligate with men and materiel and that the Soviet victory over Germany was achieved at too high a cost’, and even some military memoirs have forward this accusation. 4 The tens of millions of military and civilian casualties are indisputably vast, but, as Stalin’s Deputy Supreme Commander Marshal Georgia Chekhov has noted, it is easy to argue that fewer casualties could have employ and unpredictable. ’15 Roberts has noted that the vast majority of the Red Army’s casualties can be attributed to two factors. Firstly, the huge number of lives which were lost during the early period of the war when millions were killed or captured as the Nazi’s encircled the Soviet forces.
Secondly, the large scale offensives of the second half of the war against ferocious and highly skilled’ German forces which were able to inflict 800,000 fatalities as late as the battle of Berlin in April 1945. 16 The first of these factors is certainly more open for criticism that the second, however, rather than being a disregard for casualties this was the result of poor military decisions and an attitude hostile towards retreat that would ultimately play a major part in the Soviet victory.
Stalin’s domestic policies of the sass and sass are a source of on-going and heated discussion amongst historians. The overwhelming emphasis on heavy industries and the brutal implementation of collectivists have created much debate and, whilst the effectiveness and necessity of the way these policies were undertaken is not our focus here, their results and the overarching decision to prepare the Soviet Union for war are crucial to understanding Stalin’s contribution to the war victory.
Isaac Deutsche tellingly notes that the core of Stalin’s achievement ‘lies in the fact that he found Russia working with the wooden plough and left her equipped with atomic piles’. 17 In addition to Deutsche, Richard Every, Michael Howard, Mark Harrison and Ronald Igor Suny have all highlighted the significance of preparing the Soviet Union for a victory that would have seemed impossible Just two decades before. 18 Stalin’s understanding of odder technology and warfare highlighted to him the importance of the weapons, supplies and transportation that he placed so much emphasis on throughout the sass and sass. 9 Suny has described the economy of the sass as a War economy, and there can be little doubt that such foresight played a pivotal role in winning the war. 20 Whilst a more ‘balanced and gradualist’ approach to industrialization would have provided more consumer goods and a better quality of life for the Soviet population during the preceding decade, those industries which were essential for victory in the war would have invariably suffered.
It should be noted that Stalin’s approach to industrialization was by no means perfect – the concentration of armaments manufacturing in the most vulnerable part of the USSR which was quickly seized by the Nazis provides an obvious example – but arguably such setbacks go even further to demonstrate Just how significant the industrialization drive was in light of the Soviet Union’s ultimate victory. 21 Stalin’s contribution to the Soviet victory must again be extended beyond merely an examination of military tactics to highlight his role in creating a unified nation and military command.
Overall Harriman, the American ambassador in Moscow from 1943 to 1945 who dealt with Stalin perhaps more than any other foreigner during the war, identified Stalin as popular and was in ‘no doubt that he was the one who held the Soviet Union together’ and that nobody else could have filled this role. 22 Richard Every too believes that Stalin was unique in being able to generate such efforts from the population and that, whilst the Stalin years were unquestionably brutal, Stalin ‘brought a powerful will to bear on the Soviet war effort that motivated those around him and directed their energies. 3 Stalin’s strong grip on the population and the troubling aspects of the Stalin years. Yet it would appear that such powers indeed helped rather than hindered the Soviet war effort. Despite the hardships of the sass and sass, the majority of the Soviet population were willing to fight and die for Stalin and for the Soviet Union. MIT Could, a nineteen-year old soldier who’s family had suffered greatly at the hands of the Bolshevik regime, wrote that he was ‘ready to give [his] life for [his] country and for Stalin’. 24 Deutsche too offers some credit to Stalin for his regeneration of the army, its morale and its commanding staff.
He had achieved’, argues Deutsche, ‘absolute unity of command, the dream of the modern strategist. ’25 The Stalin cult and his fostering of the military command were necessary for the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany. Suny has rightly observed that a successful war effort required more than materials, and Stalin adeptly played the role of unifier and terrorist that was required to push the population into making unbearable sacrifices in the name of victory. 26 A portrayal of Josef Stalin as a crucial factor in the Soviet war victory runs the inherent risk of being associated with an apology for his many shortcomings and barbaric actions.
However, if we are to successfully account for the Allied victory over Nazi Germany it is essential that we put aside such emotions and dispassionately assess the numerous ways in which Stalin played a defining role. Stalin, as with Hitler and all other leaders in the war, made mistakes, some of which were extremely costly. Indeed, the gravity of some of these mistakes makes the eventual victory even more astounding. Stalin too was no expert in the intricacies of planning and executing military operations, although he improved considerably on his particularly disastrous showing in the early years of the war.
Stalin’s great strength lied in his ability as an administrator, a unifier and a terrorist when necessary. He had the foresight and stomach for the relentless struggle required to industrialist the Soviet Union to a position whereby it was able to withstand and eventually defeat Nazi Germany. Although it is dangerous to step into the realm of counter-factual history and assert that the war was won because of Stalin or even that he was the only leader capable of winning the war, it is clear that he Soviet Union’s victory was certainly not in spite of him.