- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 10, 2007

For decades, the defense of the National Socialist regime— the Nazis — has been confined to ultra-rightist German nationalists. Now comes a significant shift in what should have been a long-resolved debate: a suggestion that the actual villains in World War II were the Allies, because of their indiscriminate bombing of German cities, with civilians as innocent victims.

Such is the thrust of Jorg Friedrich’s The Fire: The Bombing of Germany 1940-1945 (Columbia University Press $34.95, 532 pages, illus.), an extended whine about how Germany suffered during the last two years of the war. A sub-theme is that the bombing continued even after an Allied victory was certain. Why? Mr. Friedrich, a onetime broadcaster turned historian, suggests that one reason — beyond sheer cruelty and hatred — was that the United States and Great Britain wished to destroy Germany’s industrial base for post-war economic advantage.

Candidly, my supply of sympathetic thoughts is sorely limited these days, and not a single one of them is going to be squandered on the poor-German-victims. To be sure, Mr. Friedrich concedes that Hitler mercilessly bombed other countries at the outset of the war, and that the pounding of London went on for months.

German planes operated from bases in occupied France, in easy range of the British Isles, and they flew day and night. (I recently read the memoir of Dame Stella Rimington, first woman head of MI5, the British internal security group. The childhood trauma she suffered from German bombs troubled her for years.) Hitler called off the London Blitz not as an act of mercy, but because his planes were out-fought by an outnumbered but courageous Royal Air Force.

Mr. Friedrich’s complaint is that (a) the Allies continued bombing long after their victory over Hitler was assured; and (b) post-war studies found that the raids had no significant impact on Germany’s military capacity. Here Mr. Friedrich’s fallacy is an attempt to use ex post facto knowledge.

In May 1943, the Allies had yet to gain even a toehold on continental Europe; D-Day was more than a year distant, and to strategists, the outcome was in the balance. Further, Hitler’s propagandists kept claiming that “secret weapons” would soon appear that would bring a Nazi victory. Allied leaders dared not ignore these threats (and Hitler did launch the so-called “buzz bomb” attacks on Britain late in the war. As to the effect bombs had on industrial targets, wartime leaders did not have the benefit of Mr. Friedrich’s hindsight.

Mr. Friedrich offers pages of lurid physical descriptions of how Germans of all ages suffered under the bombing (he estimates that 600,000 civilians died, 70,000 of them children). He resembles Baedeker when he writes of some of the historical buildings destroyed. (“St. Mary’s Church [in Wismar] … was started in the fourteenth century … During subsequent two centuries, side halls, chapels, a central steeple and a spire were added …”)

Well, so what? That a nation with such a rich cultural history fell into the hands of a madman is the fault of the people who lived there. The object lesson is that nations that start wars should be prepared to live with the consequences.

I must confess that the press release alone made my eyebrows twitch. An Irish professor of history, Geoffrey Roberts, was said to have uncovered “evidence leading to the stunning conclusion that [Joseph] Stalin was both the greatest military leader of the twentieth century and a remarkable politician who sought to avoid the Cold War and establish a long-term detente with the capitalist world.” Surely the publicist over spoke? Pushing aside initial misgivings, I plunged into Mr. Roberts’ book, Stalin’s War: From World War to Cold War, 1939-1953. (Yale University Press, $35, 468 pages, illus.).

To my relief, Mr. Roberts presents his case in less hyperbolic fashion. On the very second page, he writes, “This portrait of Stalin as the greatest of war leaders, as a many who preferred peace to cold war, and as a politician who presided over a process of postwar domestic reform will not be to everyone’s taste.” (To be sure!) Then Mr. Roberts defines his mission: “not to rehabilitate Stalin but to re-vision him.”

For better or worse, Mr. Roberts makes the following case. When Stalin died in 1953, the mass of the Soviet population idolized him as the hero who saved their nation. Successors commenced a campaign of deliberate vilification intended to destroy his reputation as a wartime leader. His military commanders were encouraged to write memoirs casting him in the worst possible light.

Nikita Khrushchev’s 1956 famed “deStalinization speech” portrayed him as a murderous villain responsible for the deaths of millions of innocent persons during his years in power. Although the full text was not published in the USSR until decades later, party leaders passed along the thrust of it, and Stalin was thrust onto the ash heap.

Fine, to a point. Anyone with passing familiarity with Soviet propaganda techniques knows how effective a sustained campaign can be. Mr. Roberts argues that this campaign unjustly tarnished Stalin.

But the fact is that Khrushchev’s speech contained a good deal of truth: Stalin indeed was a murderous tyrant whose police state slaughtered millions of persons — and who personally wrecked the military high command in the 1930s, in the face of open German preparations for war. Mr. Roberts maintains that Stalin acted to put down a real attempt by the high command to oust him from power. Nonetheless, this action left the USSR essentially helpless in the first awful months of war, when the Red Army bought time through the lavish expenditure of human lives.

Nor can I accept Mr. Roberts’ praise of Stalin as a military strategist. By happenstance, I re-read Sir Winston Churchill’s six-volume “The Second World War” concurrent with the Roberts book. Churchill constantly fumed over Stalin’s demands that the Allies open a second front to take pressure off the Red Army, oblivious to the practicalities of putting a land army onto the continent.

Churchill finally gave Stalin a pointed reminder that had he not snuggled up with Hitler in 1939, Britain perhaps would not have spent the next four years fighting for its very existence. As to Stalin and the Cold War, I will simply say that Mr. Roberts spouts some of the revisionism that even left-wing American academics have seen fit to abandon.

Nonetheless, Mr. Roberts has done an enormous amount of research, and “Stalin’s War” is a remarkable historical work. Which is not to say, however, that all of it should be accepted at face value.

Joseph C. Goulden is writing a book on Cold War intelligence. His e-mail is [email protected]

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