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.

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The books I picked & why

Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar

By Simon Sebag Montefiore,

Book cover of Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar

Why did I love 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.

By Simon Sebag Montefiore,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Stalin as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Winner of the British Book Awards History Book of the Year

Longlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize

This thrilling biography of Stalin and his entourage during the terrifying decades of his supreme power transforms our understanding of Stalin as Soviet dictator, Marxist leader and Russian tsar.

Based on groundbreaking research, Simon Sebag Montefiore reveals in captivating detail the fear and betrayal, privilege and debauchery, family life and murderous cruelty of this secret world. Written with extraordinary narrative verve, this magnificent feat of scholarly research has become a classic of modern history writing. Showing how Stalin's triumphs and crimes were the…

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

Why did I love 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).

By Evan Mawdsley,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Thunder in the East as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The battles in Russia played the decisive part in Hitler's defeat. Gigantic, prolonged, and bloody, they contrasted with the general nature of the fighting on other fronts. The Russians fought on their own in "their" theater of war and with an indepedent strategy. Stalinist Russia was a country radically different from its liberal democratic allies. Hitler and the German high command, for their part, conceived and carried out the Russian campaign as a singular "war of annihilation." This riveting new book is a penetrating, broad-ranging, yet concise overview of this vast conflict. It investigates the Wehrmacht and the Red Army…

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

Why did I love 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.

By R.C. Raack,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Stalin's Drive to the West, 1938-1945 as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Exploiting new findings from former East Bloc archives and from long-ignored Western sources, this book presents a wholly new picture of the coming of World War II, Allied wartime diplomacy, and the origins of the Cold War. The author reveals that the story - widely believed by historians and Western wartime leaders alike - that Stalin's purposes in European diplomacy from 1938 on were mainly defensive is a fantasy. Indeed, this is one of the longest enduring products of Stalin's propaganda, of long-term political control of archival materials, and of the gullibility of Western observers.

The author argues that Stalin…

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

Why did I love 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.

By Tsuyoshi Hasegawa,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Racing the Enemy as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

With startling revelations, Tsuyoshi Hasegawa rewrites the standard history of the end of World War II in the Pacific. By fully integrating the three key actors in the story--the United States, the Soviet Union, and Japan--Hasegawa for the first time puts the last months of the war into international perspective.

From April 1945, when Stalin broke the Soviet-Japanese Neutrality Pact and Harry Truman assumed the presidency, to the final Soviet military actions against Japan, Hasegawa brings to light the real reasons Japan surrendered. From Washington to Moscow to Tokyo and back again, he shows us a high-stakes diplomatic game as…

Stalin’s Secret War

By Nikolai Tolstoy,

Book cover of Stalin’s Secret War

Why did I love 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.

By Nikolai Tolstoy,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Stalin’s Secret War as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?


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