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Stalin as War Leader

Clive Pearson assesses the Soviet dictator’s war record.

As leader of a highly centralised dictatorship Josef Stalin inevitably played a pivotal part in every area of the Soviet war effort during the Great Patriotic War (1941-45). Hence he bore direct responsibility for the course of the war and its outcome. At the end of the titanic struggle he paraded himself as Generalissimus and war hero. Yet the truth is rather mixed. Why, for example, did Stalin allow himself to be ‘surprised’ by Hitler in June 1941 when it was clear what German plans were? Why did the Soviet leader continue with failed military policies for so long? On the other hand, what were the decisions taken by Stalin, particularly after 1941, that steered Russia away from catastrophe to triumphant victory?

The collapse of the old Soviet Union in 1991 has allowed historians to gain access to archives and to better answer these questions. Richard Overy’s Russia’s War, published in the 1990s, was ground-breaking. Other books written more recently such as Thunder in the East by Evan Mawdseley and biographies by Simon Sebag Montefiore and Robert Service give us a greater understanding of Stalin’s real thought processes and enable us to appreciate more clearly why certain decisions were made.

The Pre-war Period

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