By Robert Gellately
My interest in the Cold War has developed over many years. In fact, as I look back, I would say that it began around the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis in the early 1960s when I was still in high school. Over the years, as a college student and then as a university professor, I began to look more closely at the vast literature that developed on the topic and to examine the bitter controversies that had raged since 1945. In the process, I stumbled upon several illuminating studies, but there was no one “school” of interpretation that I found satisfying. As with my other books (on Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union), I wanted to find out for myself what really happened, what the Cold War was all about.
Why did I end up focusing on Stalin? He turned out to be the key figure at the epicenter of events when the East-West conflict began. However one might explain the motives behind his actions, it is clearly the case that his initiatives led to the Cold War. Moreover, by the time he died in March 1953, he had helped to create the communist world that seemed impervious to change, as well as the terms of engagement with the West. These configurations were all but frozen in place.
Where to begin an account of this fateful turn of events? I found that it is misleading at best to make a division, as we often do, between the end of the Second World War in May 1945 and the post-war period. Not only did the mayhem continue after VE-Day, but massive violence in the name of the communist cause occurred simultaneously with the years of the conflict against Nazism and spilled over into the post-war. There were savage retributions, multiple ethnic cleansing operations, and civil wars, which became entangled in the establishment of new communist regimes in Eastern Europe. Similarly in Asia, there is a seamless web of connections from the war against Japan to the Cold War.
As far back as August 1939, the Soviet Union, as Hitler’s ally, had begun to renew its mission, on hold since the early 1920s, to extend the communist Red Empire. According to Stalin, Hitler was unknowingly playing a revolutionary role by destroying old regimes and ruling classes. The Nazi invasion of the USSR in mid-1941 represented a setback, but Stalin still perceived possibilities for advancing the cause even when the capitalist British and Americans came forward with offers to help. What is remarkable is that his faith in the inevitability of world-wide communist revolutions never diminished. He was the master of disguise. When he spoke with his accidental allies he neither used the language of the Communist revolutionary, nor whispered of any aims for the post-war besides guarantees for the future security of the USSR. Who could argue with that?
Privately, Stalin never wavered in his hatred for all the capitalist countries, be they German, Japanese, British, or American. His strong immediate preference was to milk the wartime alliance for all it was worth. Yet he was always prepared to go over to the offensive for the Red cause, or to encourage others to do so. As he put it succinctly to Yugoslav comrades in 1948: “You strike when you can win, and avoid the battle when you cannot. We will join the fight when conditions favor us and not when they favor the enemy.”
The story that unfolded between the beginning of the Second World War and Stalin’s death exactly sixty years ago in 1953, is gripping, momentous, and tragic. The once seemingly impregnable Red Empire that he, along with millions of true believers, had created began to dissolve in 1989 and the Soviet Union itself ceased to exist in 1991. Although they all bristled with armies and their secret police forces were larger than ever, they barely fired a shot. It was as if there was nothing left to defend.
Now that the dust has settled, it turns out that political cultures, authoritarian traditions, and command economies do not change as quickly as regimes. So the nations over which Stalin and his disciples ruled for so long still carry the telltale signs of his curse. These include a penchant to tolerate a strongman at the top, fragile regard for the individual, and stunted civil societies. Although people will have to struggle for years to overcome these deficits, the indications are, in spite of setbacks, that they will succeed.
Robert Gellately is Earl Ray Beck Professor of History at Florida State University. His publications have been translated into over twenty languages and include the widely acclaimed Lenin, Stalin, and Hitler: the Age of Social Catastrophe (2007), Backing Hitler: Consent and Coercion in Nazi Germany, 1933-1945 (2001), and The Gestapo and German Society: Enforcing Racial Policy, 1933-1945 (1990). His most recent work is Stalin’s Curse: Battling for Communism in War and Cold War.
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Image credit: Yalta summit in February 1945. Photograph from the Army Signal Corps Collection in the U.S. National Archives via Wikimedia Commons.