Prior to World War II, Stalin was perceptive to the idea that a Second World War was inevitable due to the Treaty of Versailles which put stipulations against countries, especially Germany, which left their economies hamstrung. Still, Stalin was naïve about foreign affairs and stressed the importance of staying out of a war among capitalist countries. To add to his naiveté, Stalin overlooked the potential danger of Hitler and the Nazi party, instead casting the Social Democrats of Germany as the USSR’s prime enemy (384). Later, Stalin came around to accepting the importance of Lenin’s theory to spread communism throughout the world. He realized without any allies, the Soviets would be left to fend for themselves. Therefore, he put more focus on the Comintern’s mission to spread communism. Hoping to spread communism to France, he got the Soviet’s involved in the Spanish Civil War backing the Republicans against Spanish general Francisco Franco who was teamed with Hitler’s Germany and Mousilini’s Italy. It was a lost cause though, as Stalin walked away empty-handed (391). Furthermore, his attempts to build a communist party in the United States and Great Britain proved insignificant, while the communist party in Germany was put in concentration camps and killed off (397). These failures made him desperate to deal with his sworn enemy Hitler, a decision which almost cost his country everything. These errors in judgment and lack of international scope put Stalin and his country at a great disadvantage when the inevitable occurred and World War II broke out on the Soviet’s front doorstep.
Soon after Hitler began making his imperialist grab beginning with the conquest of Poland, Great Britain and France prepared to defend its own borders, while Stalin looked to join the side that offered his country the greatest safety net. With Great Britain and France seeming to only extend a half-hearted offer at an alliance, Stalin did the unthinkable. He began negotiations for a peace treaty with the communists’ archenemy and greatest threat to Soviet national security Adolf Hitler. Stalin and Hitler agreed on a ten-year non-aggression pact. The pact stipulated, “the division of the northern regions of eastern Europe into two zones of Soviet and German influence; it also laid down a scheme to increase mutually beneficial trade” (399). For putting his trust in Hitler, Stalin had been greatly criticized but in reality he was left with little alternative. Talks with Britain and France had dissipated, so Stalin figured signing the treaty would at least keep Hitler distracted in Western Europe while he built up his The Red Army. While Hitler was making his way through western Europe, Stalin was making sure his political rivals in nearby countries were captured. He plunged through Poland, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania before heading north to Finland. Finland, however, was not willing to oblige to Stalin’s demands and a war broke out. This is where Stalin received his wakeup call. Due to the Great Purge, the Red Army was left depleted. The countries fought in a bloody winter war until Finland, realizing they could not win, agreed to relinquish their territory and military bases (403). The Red Army lost 127,000 men, but even worse for Stalin, it was exposed as being weak. If the Red Army had that much trouble defeating Finland, it would stand no chance against the powerful Germans.
Before Hitler broke the Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact, Stalin seemed to be the one benefiting the most from the deal and making greater demands. Stalin not only was the victor at the bargaining table in receiving the highly sought Latvia, but a month after the deal was signed, he increased his demands to include Estonia and Lithuania under Soviet influence. In his trading with Hitler, Stalin continued to drive a hard bargain. He knew the grain and oil he supplied to Hitler during Germany’s war with France and Great Britain were crucial to the German’s success, so he demanded and received Germany’s best defense technology in return. This shrew negotiating led Hilter to comment that Stalin was a, “cold blooded blackmailer” (405).
Stalin’s miscalculation of how France’s army would hold up against the German’s was the first of his blunders. When Germany attacked France in 1940, Stalin figured Germany would be tied up in France for a long time allowing himself adequate time to build up his own army in preparation for the eventual war with the Germans (405). Stalin informed Soviet politicians they would not be militarily ready for a war with the Soviets until 1943. He banked on the idea that Hitler would balk at fighting a war on the on the western and eastern European front simultaneously. His plan hit a snag though, when Germany quickly defeated France leaving Great Britain as the only western country standing in Hitler’s way. Stalin’s actions toward Germany suddenly took a 180. Stalin attempted to appease Hitler every chance he had. In their trading, he placated Hitler by giving him commodities without the immediate transfer of technology. Stalin even had plans to shutdown the Comintern to show Hitler that Soviet expansion was not a goal (407). He was clearly in a position of mercy and could only hope Hitler would remain a man of his word.
Despite being warned by his own military intelligence along with other friendly countries, Stalin refused to accept the danger of a German attack. He dismissed his comrades’ advice to beat Hitler to the punch by initiating the attack on Germany. Instead, he waited and allowed Hitler to break the non-aggression pact in an attack named Operation Barbarossa. Stalin’s inability to see Hitler’s true intentions and failure to draw first blood put the Soviets on the defensive from the beginning and was the main reason the Soviets fared so poorly during the beginning of the World War II.
The German army thrashed its way through the Soviet territory. With an impressive amount of soldiers and arsenal, the Nazis overcame the brave but outmatched Soviet defense (416-417). Hundreds of thousands Red Army soldiers were taken as prisoners of war and the entire Soviet air force in the west was destroyed. Stalin again went with his gut instinct to make decisions rather than follow the advice of his military officers. Knowing Ukraine would inevitably be taken by the Germans, military commanders Georgy Zhukov advised Stalin to give up the capital, Kiev. Stalin, however, was stubborn and would not listen to such defeatist notions. He ordered an all out attack, but the superior German army conquered Ukraine just as it conquered Poland, Lithuania, and Belorussia, Latvia, and Estonia before it. The Nazis appeared to be an unstoppable force and with Moscow as the next likely target even Stalin began making plans to abandon Moscow and reestablish the Russian capital in Kuibyshev. The Soviet army, though, succeeded in holding its ground for a while, giving Stalin time to rethink his plan. He chose to stay in the Kremlin which inspired the rest of the country and gave them hope that victory was possible (420-421).
Despite Stalin’s poor military sense and decision-making, The Soviet Union’s position began to change. The Soviets put all their labor efforts into industry, while ignoring the agricultural sect, and all their output went toward the military. “Soviet economic might was so successfully dedicated to the war effort that in the last six months of 1942 it reached a level of production which the Germans attained only across the entire year…In that half-year the USSR acquired fifteen thousand aircraft and thirteen thousand tanks” (422). These upgrades gave the Soviet army the might to hold off the Nazis outside of Moscow and Leningrad. As the battle moved into the dead of winter, the Nazi army did not have the supplies or equipment to handle such treacherous conditions. Due to Stalin’s willingness to sacrifice the welfare of a large segment of the Soviet population to supply his army and thanks to a bout of good fortune with the unusually harsh Russian winter, against all odds the tide had turned in the direction of the Soviets (423).
With renewed good fortunes, Stalin was not content to play defense. His instincts told him he held the advantage, so he chose to go on the attack. He again did not take heed to any of his military specialists’ advice and wound up marching his troops right into the mouth of disaster. With the win, Hitler chose to set his sights on Stalingrad rather than Moscow. A win for the Germans in Stalingrad would cut the Soviet Union from its oil supplies and reduce its availability of grain (425). Stalin prepared his battered army to hold down Stalingrad at all costs. Stalin issued an order to all soldiers that retreat equaled treason which would be punishable by death (427). Stalin then turned to his better judgment and reached out to military specialist Zhukov for the next strategic maneuver. Zhukov called for the counter offensive known as operation Uranus which sent reserves to Stalingrad. After the German’s initial destruction of Stalingrad, the Soviets regrouped. Being better supplied and taking advantage of the Germans’ broken line of communication, the Soviets regained the upper hand. They suffered from frostbite and subsisted off rats, but in the end they succeeded in forcing the Germans to surrender of February 2, 1943 (428). The major significance of the battle was the realization that the German’s weren’t invincible, and that Hitler was not in complete control. This marked the turning point in the war, giving the Soviets and allied forces confidence they would win the war. This confidence became a reality when the “Big Three” met at the Tehran Conference and formed an alliance putting an end to the Axis Powers chances of victory.
After the war, there was a decisive pecking order among the big three with the United States emerging as the strongest country in the world with its nuclear weaponry. The Soviet Union had some say in matters; After all, its army was the first to succeed in turning away the Nazis. Great Britain was included in the discussions but had the least say in matters. Though the three formed an alliance during World War II, it was more a partnership out of necessity in an effort to oppose a common enemy, than a true diplomatic friendship. Roosevelt and Churchill held little trust in Stalin. The US was the first to show they disagreed with Soviet ideals and was not interested in a long-term friendship when they withdrew support of the Soviets immediately after their defeat of the Nazis. The US continued to create a wedge in the alliance after the war when it established anti-communist support in western European countries (502). The race was then on between the US and the USSR to establish governments and social economies in countries throughout the world that aligned with their own. Ever since the Bolsheviks succeeded in the Russian Revolution, capitalists and communists were at odds, while many went a step further by predicting a great war between the two was imminent. There was no reason to think the alliance would continue after World War II; therefore it is unfair to place the blame in Stalin’s hands for the countries’ falling out; the cold war was inevitable.
The US made another move to infuriate the Soviets when they established the Marshall Plan which offered financial aid to European countries that were decimated by the Nazi forces during the war. The Soviets were included in this, but the catch was this money was only available to open markets. The American’s intention was to aid European countries to prevent the Soviets from overtaking them (504). This event, provoked by the Americans, is what most consider the beginning of the Cold War. Stalin did his part to frustrate the Americans by getting neighboring countries to withdrawal from the Marshall Plan. Stalin could have reached out for negotiations, but his actions proved a slap in President Truman’s face, ending diplomatic communications between the two (506). The Americans chose not to push the Soviets any further, for the country anticipated peace after the defeat of the Nazis and Japanese and would surely not take kindly to a prolonged war with the Soviet Union.
In 1949 the Soviets successfully detonated their test atomic bomb, putting them more or less on equal military ground with the United States (508). The rival countries scoured the globe attempting to spread their political ideology. Neither country can be blamed for wanting to promote their beliefs and suppress what they believed was a dangerous and oppressive system. The facts are the Soviets and Americans required each other’s help during World War II, but needed to look out for their own best interests for national security when the war was over. Stalin could have rocked the boat a little less by not trying to grab up additional neighboring territory, but in his view this occupation was a means to defend his own county. Both leaders should, at least, be praised for conciliating each other to the point of not entering into a third World War. Although there were some uneasy times in the 45 years of the Cold War, the absence of all out war between the two countries should be something celebrated.
Service, Robert. Stalin. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard Universityu