BOOKS: by Michael Daniel (reviewer)News Weekly
WORLD WAR II: BEHIND CLOSED DOORS: Stalin, the Nazis and the West, by Laurence Rees
, May 16, 2009
Soviet war crimes in WW2WORLD WAR II: BEHIND CLOSED DOORS:
Stalin, the Nazis and the West
by Laurence Rees
(London: BBC Books)
Hardcover: 448 pages
Rec. price: AUD$59.95At first glance, one may be tempted to ask how many more books on World War II need to be written. Renowned historian of the period Laurence Rees's latest book focuses on an aspect of that war that has been largely overlooked.
As the title suggests, this account is written primarily from the perspective of the dealings - many of them secret - which Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin and his agents had, first, with Nazi Germany and, later, with Britain and the United States.
The book is so named, since many of the key decisions that affected the lives of millions of people, both during the war years and in the almost half century following, were made in private meetings between leaders such as Stalin, Winston Churchill and F.D. Roosevelt.Molotov-Ribbentrop pact
Rees treats his subject material chronologically, commencing with the 1939 alliance between the Stalin's Soviet Union and Hitler's Third Reich - the notorious Molotov-Rippentrop pact - which enabled the Nazis to invade Poland without fear of Soviet opposition.
This was, of course, the catalyst for Britain's and France's declaration of war against Germany, but ironically not against the Soviet Union which two weeks later occupied what was then eastern Poland, an occupation that was a violation of a 1932 non-aggression pact between the Soviet Union and Poland.
Rees then focuses on the brutal Soviet occupation of the Baltic states, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, and its brief war against Finland.
However, a particular focus, both at this point in the narrative and throughout the work, is the Soviet treatment of Poland. Rees parallels Soviet actions there to those of the Nazis.
The Soviet-occupied eastern zone saw hundreds of thousands of Poles, who were considered by the Communists as "enemies of the people", arrested and deported to remote locations such as Siberia.
Just like the Nazis, the Soviets sought to wipe out the Polish leadership and intelligentsia by systematic imprisonment or execution. Their most infamous crime against the Poles was the massacre in 1940 in Katyn forest, western Russia - as well as at other killing sites in the USSR - of thousands of Polish officers whom they had captured.
Rees argues that the Nazis' brutal extermination program in Poland - by then well underway - emboldened the Soviets to perpetrate this deed.
Despite Stalin's best efforts to maintain his pact with his Nazi allies - such as providing Hitler's war machine with valuable raw materials and fuel - by late 1940, Hitler had made the decision to invade the Soviet Union, which, owing to his ideological hatred of Communism, he had envisaged from the very start. The final catalyst was Hitler's lack of faith that the Soviet Union could provide him with adequate supplies.
The Germans, after the launch of its Operation Barbarossa on June 22, 1941, expected a swift victory over the USSR, a view widely shared by informed circles in western countries such as Britain.
Churchill, however, welcomed the Soviet Union's switch from collaborating with to fighting against Hitler. The USSR's continued involvement in the war, by tying down German forces on the eastern front, would take pressure off the western front and be greatly to the advantage of besieged Britain.
Churchill was indeed prepared to make "a pact with the devil", as he described his new alliance with Stalin. He sent aid to the Soviet Union, as did the United States upon her entry into the war after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.
Rees examines in detail the three monumental meetings of the Allied leaders at Tehran, Yalta and Potsdam, and argues that the crucial decisions that would determine the fate of the postwar world, particularly of Poland, were decided at Tehran.
Paradoxically, Britain and France had gone to war in 1939 to guarantee Poland's independence; yet at the end of World War II, Poland was still not liberated. The country had simply exchanged German occupation for Soviet occupation.
Stalin had repeatedly insisted that the western Allies open a second front in 1942. However, the Allies were unable to open a full second front until 1944, a deferral which aggrieved Stalin, particularly as Soviet forces were bearing the brunt of the battle with the Germans.
Even after the Allies landed in northern France on D-Day (June 6, 1944), Soviet forces were still suffering a disproportionate number of casualties on the eastern front. For example, the Soviet Union's Operation Bagration, launched on June 22, 1944 - only two weeks after D-Day - is a campaign largely forgotten in the west; yet it effectively broke the German Army in the east and resulted in Soviet losses that dwarfed those of the western Allies in the aftermath of D-Day.
However, the Soviet entry into Poland as part of Operation Bagration did not result in the liberation of Poland. As the Soviets advanced, they started rounding up those whom they regarded as dissidents and established a puppet Communist government in Lublin.
When Soviet forces reached the outskirts of Poland's capital Warsaw, the Polish Home Army on August 1, 1944, commenced an uprising against the German oppressor. However, the Soviet Army halted its advance and refused to aid the Poles, whom they suspected would be hostile to Communist rule. Only after the Germans had crushed the uprising did Soviet forces resume their advance and capture Warsaw.
In subsequent months, Moscow insisted repeatedly that the western powers recognise the Lublin puppet regime as the sole legitimate government of Poland, rather than the Polish government-in-exile in London. One of the most shameful aspects of World War II was the western allies' abandonment of the Polish government-in-exile.
It is true that Britain and the United States had no desire to risk direct conflict with the Soviets by supporting an alternative Polish government when Soviet forces clearly controlled Polish territory.
Ironically, thousands of Poles who had either escaped from their homeland or who had been allowed to leave captivity in the Soviet Union ended up serving in the British Army. Most of them chose not to return to Poland after the war.
Rees also examines war atrocities committed by Soviet soldiers in the wake of their invasion of Germany and its allied states. Rape and pillage were commonplace. Rees estimates that as many as 30 per cent of Soviet soldiers may have committed the crime of rape. None of them was ever brought to justice.
During the war, Stalin ordered the deportation to eastern Siberia of minority groups such as Kalmyks and Tartars for fear that they might be sympathetic to the Germans. Paradoxically, it was largely the women and children of these small nations who suffered deportation because their menfolk were away in the Soviet army, fighting the Germans.
Rees also discusses Stalin's ruthless treatment of Soviet soldiers captured by the Germans. Those who survived, instead of being welcomed back at the war's end, were in most cases arrested as traitors (for having surrendered to the Germans) and sent straight to Siberia.
As with Rees's other works, the strength of Behind Closed Doors
is that the author presents his material in an engaging manner, making it accessible to the average reader. Of particular note are the book's human-interest stories in which readers can see how the momentous events decided by political and military leaders impinged upon and affected the lives of ordinary people.
In view of Soviet wartime actions, Rees suggests that World War II needs to be viewed more as a conventional war than as a great moral crusade to liberate Europe from oppression and dictatorship.
The reality is that Stalin, like Hitler, was a mass-murderer and brutal oppressor, not the benign and smiling leader that wartime allied propaganda - reflected in films such as Mission to Moscow
(1943), which was aimed to win public support for the alliance with the Soviets - portrayed him to be.