How Stalin started the Cold War

Here's our review of Robert Gellately's 'Stalin's Curse'

Stalin's curse: Battling for Communism in war and cold war

For decades, Cold War scholarship focused on a single question: whodunit? In the ’40s and ’50s, historians blamed the Soviets. In the ’60s, however, a wave of revisionism washed ashore. New scholars argued that the postwar East-West escalation was, in fact, a product of American bullishness—rooted either in America’s “foreign policy idealism” or its “military-industrial complex,” depending on the interpretation.

In his masterful new account of the early Cold War period, historian Robert Gellately takes us back to square one. Whodunit? Stalin. “Moscow made all the first moves,” writes Gellately, a proud Newfoundlander who teaches at Florida State University. The West’s main crime was complacency. Gellately takes aim at FDR, who believed for too long that he could soften Soviet ambition with kindness. In meetings of the “Big Three,” Roosevelt often sided with Stalin, at Churchill’s expense. Gellately recounts a famous episode at the 1943 Tehran conference. At dinner one evening, Stalin joked that the Allies should execute 50,000-100,000 German Army leaders outright. Roosevelt joked back that the number should be set at 49,000. Churchill rose from the table and stormed away

Still, Churchill does not get away unscathed. Both Britain and the U.S., increasing fearful of Germany, ignored Soviet acts of barbarity—like the 1941 Katyn massacre, which saw some 22,000 Poles slaughtered by Russians. Soon after news of the massacre broke, British officials instructed the BBC to praise the Kremlin for its wartime “co-operation.”

But Gellately’s account does not get lost in high-level diplomatic machinations. It is also noteworthy for its grim rendering of life in Stalin’s backyard. Gellately uses a mass of archival material, released from Soviet archives in 1992, to account for the estimated 25 million Soviet lives lost to the Communist experiment—and to the exporting of Stalin’s revolution. The book ends in 1953: when Stalin died, “in circumstances that are still subject to controversy.” For four cold decades, his war lived on.

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