It turns out that Megan and I aren’t the only Atlantic folks who’ve taken note of Geoffrey Robert’s Stalin’s Wars. Ben Schwartz took it up in the course of a review essay in the May issue, where he makes the very good point that a kind of Allied egomania and preference for neat morality tales leads conventional English language histories to wildly understate the significance of the Eastern Front:
For four years, more than 400 Red Army and German divisions clashed in an unrelenting series of military operations over a front extending more than 1,000 miles. (At its most intense, the war in the West was fought between 15 Allied and 15 Wehr‑ macht divisions.) Eighty-eight percent of the German military dead fell there; in July 1943, in the decisive battle of the war, the Soviets permanently broke the Wehrmacht’s capacity for large-scale attack at Kursk, “the one name,” Davies properly asserts, “which all historians of the Second World War should remember.”
All quite right. Schwartz concludes:
To be sure, part of Stalin’s accomplishment lay in his allowing his most talented subordinates to do their job, an attribute of all great warlords. From late 1942 on, he encouraged greater initiative and flexibility within the high command, and he presided over a military organization that fostered increased operational and tactical dynamism and innovation. But the new accounts—which even draw on transcripts of telephone and telegraphic conversations with his front-line generals—all go further than that, and put Stalin at the center of the Soviets’ awesome military achievement. Davies’s conclusion, that the victory was Stalin’s, would seem inarguable. Roberts’s unpalatable one, which goes one step further, will confound those who like their history neat:
To make so many mistakes and to rise from the depths of such defeat to go on to win the greatest military victory in history was a triumph beyond compare … Stalin … saved the world for democracy.
I kind of like this ironic idea, but I imagine one could wriggle out of it. To say that Stalin “saved the world for democracy” seems to imply that had the Red Army not performed as well as it did in 1943 and ’44, that the Allies, too might have perished. But in any counterfactual of the war in Europe, the crucial period is the summer of 1945, when the United States perfected the art of the nuclear bomb. A Nazi triumph at Kursk wouldn’t have allowed the Germans to invade the British isles in time to stop the United States from commencing the nuclear destruction of German cities. Now, obviously, the world would have been a very different place in this scenario, but democracy still lives even without Stalin.