The best books on Stalin and the Second World War

Sean McMeekin Author Of Stalin's War: A New History of World War II
By Sean McMeekin

Who am I?

In 1992, I graduated high school and although I did not then know how to read or speak Russian, I interviewed six Soviet veterans who happened to live in a nursing home in Rochester NY. I was blown away by their stories; each was missing at least one limb and had a tale to tell about it. The timing was fortuitous in that there was an exhibition at the U.S. Library of Congress that summer on “Revelations from the Russian archives,” which has just opened to researchers. Although it took me some years to master Russian, I resolved then and there to go to the source and research Soviet history in Moscow itself. I am a historian now and I have been working in Moscow archives for nearly a quarter-century now. Stalin’s War is my eighth book to date, all of which draw on this work in the Russian archives.


I wrote...

Stalin's War: A New History of World War II

By Sean McMeekin,

Book cover of Stalin's War: A New History of World War II

What is my book about?

World War II endures in the popular imagination as a heroic struggle between good and evil, with villainous Hitler driving its events. But Hitler was not in power when the conflict erupted in Asia--and he was certainly dead before it ended. His armies did not fight in multiple theaters, his empire did not span the Eurasian continent, and he did not inherit any of the spoils of war. That central role belonged to Joseph Stalin. The Second World War was not Hitler's war; it was Stalin's war.

Drawing on ambitious new research in Soviet, European, and US archives, Stalin's War revolutionizes our understanding of this global conflict by moving its epicenter to the east. Hitler's genocidal ambition may have helped unleash Armageddon, but as McMeekin shows, the war which emerged in Europe in September 1939 was the one Stalin wanted, not Hitler. So, too, did the Pacific war of 1941-1945 fulfill Stalin's goal of unleashing a devastating war of attrition between Japan and the "Anglo-Saxon" capitalist powers he viewed as his ultimate adversary.

The books I picked & why

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Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar

By Simon Sebag Montefiore,

Book cover of Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar

Why this book?

Sebag Montefiore was the first western historian to really take advantage of the opening of Russian – and Georgian – archival sources on Stalin and his career. Court of the Red Tsar offers a precious glimpse into Stalin’s inner circle and the way the USSR was governed in the 1930s and 1940s. Although gossipy at times, and written in a popular style some professional historians resent, the book is deeply researched and a treasure trove of information which is hard to find elsewhere.


Thunder in the East: The Nazi-Soviet War 1941-1945

By Evan Mawdsley,

Book cover of Thunder in the East: The Nazi-Soviet War 1941-1945

Why this book?

Like Sebag Montefiore as Stalin biographer, Mawdsley was the first western military historian truly to exploit new sources from Soviet archives in order to probe more deeply into the Nazi-Soviet war on the eastern front. While earlier histories, such as John Erickson’s two volumes published in the 1975 and 1983, remain informative, Erickson was working at a disadvantage, as he would himself have been the first to admit. David Glantz, who has written a number of specialized studies of specific battles and campaigns, has worked with numerous Soviet sources – but he still relies predominantly on ‘official’ Soviet chronicles and compendiums, whereas Mawdsley’s book uses archival information only discovered in the 1990s and early 2000s, the heyday of open access to Soviet archives (which have since begun clamping down again).


Stalin's Drive to the West, 1938-1945: The Origins of the Cold War

By R.C. Raack,

Book cover of Stalin's Drive to the West, 1938-1945: The Origins of the Cold War

Why this book?

Like Sebag Montefiore and Mawdsley, Raack was the first diplomatic historian to re-evaluate Stalin’s foreign policy in light of documents which became available after the collapse of the USSR in 1991. He exploded numerous myths about the supposed Soviet interest in “collective security” in the 1930s, showing that this was mere projection on the part of French and British and Czechoslovak statesmen who saw what they wanted to see in Stalin’s foreign policy, which was just as territorially “revisionist” as that of Italy, Germany, and Japan, just as expansionist – but better camouflaged.


Racing the Enemy: Stalin, Truman, and the Surrender of Japan

By Tsuyoshi Hasegawa,

Book cover of Racing the Enemy: Stalin, Truman, and the Surrender of Japan

Why this book?

Using newly available Soviet sources, along with Japanese and American documents, Hasegawa fills a gaping hole in the vast literature on the dropping of the atomic bombs and the conclusion of the Pacific war in August-September 1945. For too long, western historians have told this story without reference to the immense Soviet role in the drama – or if they mention the Soviets at all, it is to use the Red Army’s last-minute intervention to argue either for or against the necessity of dropping the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to break Japanese resistance. What Hasegawa shows is how central Soviet neutrality – negotiated by Stalin in 1941 and still operative in summer 1945 – was to Japanese decision-making, right up to the moment Tokyo appealed to Stalin for mediation after Hiroshima, only to learn in horror that peace in the Far East was the last thing Stalin – with his expansionist aims in Manchuria, Korea, Sakhalin, the Kurile and Habomai islands, and Hokkaido – wanted.


Stalin’s Secret War

By Nikolai Tolstoy,

Book cover of Stalin’s Secret War

Why this book?

This book is the one exception to my rule about access to Soviet documents. Writing at a time when he had no such access, Tolstoy nonetheless blew up the field with bold arguments deriving from sources to which he did have access, from Soviet dissident memoirs to a vast trove of material he discovered in the Public Record Office in Kew Gardens, London, in particular on the often-neglected “Phony War” period of WWII between the fall of Poland and Hitler’s invasion of France and the Low Countries – a period during which Britain and France nearly went to war with the USSR after Stalin’s invasion of Finland. At a time when the Soviet bloc still denied Stalin’s responsibility for the “Katyn massacre” of Polish officers and elites in 1940, Tolstoy argued not merely for Stalin’s responsibility but explained why Stalin ordered the massacre when he did, confronted as the Soviet dictator then was by the prospect of Allied military intervention and the bombing of the Baku oilfields. Soviet documents have now confirmed the entirety of Tolstoy’s brilliant argument, down to the timing of the execution orders, as I show in my own Stalin’s War.


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