An ability to write on unfamiliar subjects with supreme confidence seems to be a job requirement for today’s journalists.
As if to prove this point, David Aaronovitch reviews Sean McMeekin’s book Stalin’s War with avuncular condescension. Looking down on the historian’s work from the vertiginous height of his own ignorance, Aaronovitch describes McMeekin’s take on his subject as “nuts”.
Ideally a reviewer of an expert’s book should himself be an expert on the subject. Barring that, he at least ought to be an enlightened layman familiar with a broad range of current scholarship.
Even a relatively uninformed reviewer may still write a decent piece, provided he sticks to generalities. What he must never do on pain of coming across as an arrogant ignoramus is mock the author’s research and conclusions.
Aaronovitch treats this requirement with blithe disregard. He correctly identifies McMeekin’s book as “an argument” and then tries to establish his own credentials to engage it. Alas, he only establishes his lack thereof.
“For a layperson I know quite a lot about this war,” writes Aaronovitch, “but even so there was something in almost every chapter that I hadn’t seen before, whether it was the 1926 occupation by the Red Army of Tannu Tuva, …or the reliance of the young Soviet Union on the sale of artworks to finance its debt.”
I submit that no one who didn’t know those two facts, especially the second, is qualified to review a book on Soviet history. That’s not being “a layperson”; that’s being ignorant.
And, out of interest, what debts was “the young Soviet Union” trying to finance? One of the first things the victorious Bolsheviks did was repudiate all the debts incurred by the Russian Empire. The sales of artworks that started under Lenin and proceeded apace under Stalin, pursued quite different ends. Their purpose was to produce another source of hard currency, to be used as an aggressive weapon.
Lenin swore by a world revolution, with the Soviet Union acting as the catalyst of simultaneous workers’ uprisings in all ‘capitalist’ countries. The Bolsheviks didn’t believe they could hang on in Russia and were preparing to decamp to European countries, which Lenin believed to be ripe for a revolutionary outburst.
To that end, the Bolsheviks quickly robbed Russia of all her wealth accumulated over centuries – not just numerous artworks from museums, churches and private collections, but also the gold, jewels and hard currency kept in institutional and private accounts in Russian and foreign banks.
The money was supposed to grease the wheels of the impending revolution to be fomented by the Bolshevik immigrants. (McMeekin described this wholesale robbery in his earlier, brilliant, book History’s Greatest Heist.)
It was then that the Soviets developed their unmatched expertise in money laundering that still stands them in good stead. They were creating various brassplates and offshore havens for parking their loot. Yet neither did they mind eschewing laundering and using their personal accounts.
The New York Times revealed at the time that in 1920 alone 75 million Swiss francs was sent to Lenin’s account in a Swiss bank. Trotsky had $11 million in just one US bank, plus 90 million francs in his Swiss accounts. Zinoviev kept 80 million Swiss francs in Switzerland, Dzerzhinsky had 80 million francs, while Hanecki had 60 million francs and $10 million – the list went on and on.
However, by the time Stalin took over, two things had become clear. First, workers of the world didn’t wish to unite under Soviet banners: communist uprisings in Germany and Hungary were quashed with ease, while the greatly outnumbered Poles uncooperatively stopped the early Soviet thrust at the gates of Warsaw. But, on the plus side, the Bolsheviks unexpectedly got entrenched in the Soviet Union.
Hence Stalin revised Lenin’s doctrine. If Lenin believed that a communist revolution would succeed either everywhere or nowhere, Stalin came up with the theory of a communist victory in a single country, namely Russia.
Yet, contrary to what Aaronovitch thinks, he didn’t abandon the idea of a world revolution. Stalin merely switched from reliance on indigenous forces to the strategy of imposing communism by direct conquest. To that end he had to create an unstoppable military juggernaut capable of rolling over Europe.
That’s why, rather than sitting in foreign banks, the hard currency had to be used to finance history’s greatest construction project: turning Russia into a unique combination of a boot camp, concentration camp and armament factory.
The wealth flowing out of Russia now had to come back in the shape of Western technologies, turnkey factories, machinery and weapons. Rather than financing some mythical debts, the money was now used for that purpose only.
Having thus established his ignorance, Aaronovitch forged right ahead to prove his effrontery as well. Here he invoked the authority of popular TV comedies to take issue with McMeekin’s version of events:
“The Second World War is usually characterised as being Hitler’s war, because as we and Basil Fawlty all know the Führer started it by invading Poland. Sean McMeekin’s contention … is that in fact it was Stalin’s war. The murderous Soviet dictator wanted there to be a conflict between Germany and the other capitalist powers, connived to bring it about and succeeded; planned to invade Germany before Germany invaded him…”
This notion “provoked in me the greatest number of NOs I’ve ever scribbled on the pages of a proof. The first of which came on p50 with McMeekin’s assertion that by 1938 ‘the ultimate aim of Soviet foreign policy – the weakening of capitalist regimes by any means necessary and the concomitant global expansion of Communism – remained the same’ as in the revolutionary days of Lenin.
“This is questionable, to say the least. I am reasonably certain that a consensus of historians of the Soviet Union in this period would argue that Stalin’s doctrine of socialism in one country subordinated everything – world revolution included – to the survival of the Soviet Union, with him at its helm…”
Aaronovitch knows next to nothing about the subject on which he is enlarging with his reasonable certainty. In fact, McMeekin is supported by all historians who have no vested interest in peddling Stalin’s version of the war.
This was that of a Soviet Union quietly going about its peaceful business, only to be treacherously attacked by the Nazis. In their naivety the Soviets didn’t even prepare for the war properly, which explains their initial setbacks. However, the heroism of the Soviet people and their devotion to the cause of Lenin and Stalin eventually prevailed, if at a great cost.
In reality, the Soviet Union was militarised to an extent never before seen in history. It wasn’t for peaceful – nor indeed merely defensive – purposes that by 1941 Russia could field a greater force than the rest of the world combined: 303 divisions, 23,000 tanks (some without analogues anywhere), 17,000 warplanes, 220 submarines, 40,000 artillery pieces plus mobile rocket launchers kept in strict secrecy.
It wasn’t for defensive purposes that the entire Soviet industry had been working in a wartime three-shift mode since the early 1930s, something Nazi Germany began to do only three years into the war.
It wasn’t for defence that Stalin pushed through his 1939 Non-Aggression Pact with Hitler, effectively an alliance dividing Europe between two totalitarian dictatorships. It wasn’t for defence that the Soviets pounced on the former Russian territories of Finland, East Poland, the Baltics and Bessarabia – and also Bukovina that had never belonged to the Russian Empire.
It wasn’t for defensive purposes that Stalin supplied Hitler with all the raw materials without which Germany wouldn’t even have been able to defeat Poland. Nor was it for defence that Stalin replenished the dwindling Nazi supply of bombs raining on London.
As to Stalin’s intention to attack Germany once she got bogged down in a European war, ideally after landing a force in the British Isles, this is amply documented in current histories, those produced after the Soviet archives were opened ajar. On this a consensus of historians, even such conventional ones as John Erickson, does exist – irrespective of Aaronovitch’s ignorance of it.
Historians only argue about the planned timing of the Soviet onslaught and the length of time by which the Nazi strike beat the Soviets to the punch. The range varies from one day (Mel’tuhov) to a couple of weeks (Suvorov, Hoffmann, Bunich) to a month (Solonin) to several months (Erickson et al.).
In the past few weeks the Russians have reclassified all the war archives, barring historians’ access to tens of millions of documents. What does Aaronovitch think they have to hide? If those documents proved Stalin’s – and Aaronovitch’s – mendacious version, the Russians would be advertising them in every media.
As an ex-communist, Aaronovitch must feel some residual affection for his former spiritual beacon. He refuses to accept that Stalin’s role in history’s most devastating war was at least as pernicious as Hitler’s – and nor is he familiar with the scholarship proving this fact.
However, his reservoir of youthful communist aggression hasn’t been depleted. Hence he has the effrontery to describe as “nuts” a historian who has forgotten more about that war than Aaranovitch will ever know.
I’m surprised he used such a restrained term. How about “hireling of Wall Street”, “jackal”, “parasite”, “scum” and other terms of scholarly debate straight out of the communist lexicon? I’ll be pleased to provide a full list.