Grand Delusion (Book Review).
Canadian Journal of History
By Carley, Michael Jabara

Magazine: Canadian Journal of History, August 2000


Modern Europe

    Grand Delusion: Stalin and the German Invasion of Russia, by Gabriel Gorodetsky. New
    Haven, Connecticut. Yale University Press, 1999. xvi, 408 pp. $29.95 U.S.

    Gabriel Gorodetsky is a professor of history at the Tel Aviv University and
    has written previous books on Anglo-Soviet relations between the world
    wars. Grand Delusion is an elaboration of an earlier manuscript translated
    from English into Russian and published as Mif "Ledokola" (The Icebreaker
    Myth). Gorodetsky's purpose is to refute the Russian emigre and former
    Soviet intelligence agent, Viktor Suvorov, who has asserted since the
    mid-1980s, that the real aggressor of World War II was I.V. Stalin, who
    planned a general offensive against Nazi Germany as part of a strategy to
    spread communist revolution in the west. Stalin's offensive was only
    forestalled by Adolf Hitler's invasion of the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941. As
    Gorodetsky points out, the implications of Suvorov's proposition are
    startling: " executing his foreign policy Stalin, like Hitler, was pursuing a
    master plan which sought world domination by transforming the Second
    World War into a revolutionary war" (p. x). Hitler merely acted in
    self-defence, as he claimed at the time, when he ordered the pre-emptive
    invasion of the Soviet Union. Nazi Germany is vindicated; Hitler was
    misunderstood and really stood as a bulwark of the "civilized world" against
    Bolshevism and "the abhorrent Stalinist regime" (p. xi). You can see where
    Suvorov wants to go: Hitler was not so bad. Stalin was the real devil who
    connived at the Nazi rise to power, always preferred an "alliance" with
    Hitler which he would use as an "icebreaker" to spread communism in the
    west. If Suvorov is right, the anti-communist emigres and the cold war
    historians of the United States, Igor Lukes, Adam Ulam, R.C. Tucker, and
    R.C. Raack, for example, will have found vindication. As most readers will
    know, these historical questions are also political, part of western
    ideological constructions which justified and still justify the cold war after

    But Gorodetsky doubted Suvorov's line, and, as he says in his book, set
    about to gather evidence from Soviet archives and elsewhere to disprove
    it. This he has done very well in Grand Delusion, dissecting Suvorov limb by
    limb and making a contribution to the dismantling of some of the Cold War
    canards of Ulam, Raack, and others. Thus it is, that the Nazi-Soviet
    non-aggression pact was not a "stab in the back" or the revolutionary
    "blueprint", or the "alliance" which Stalin had preferred all along. Rather the
    pact was the result of profound Soviet mistrust of Britain and France, who
    might have betrayed Poland in 1939, as they had Czechoslovakia in 1938,
    and encouraged Nazi eastward expansion against the Soviet Union. This
    latter fear was not Soviet paranoia, but a possibility contemplated or
    dreamed of by no lesser lights than British prime ministers Stanley Baldwin
    and Neville Chamberlain, and the French foreign minister Georges Bonnet,
    among other notables. The Soviet decision was not ideological in the least,
    according to Gorodetsky, but "one of level-headed Realpolitik ... Stalin
    always exploited opportunities as they appeared at a given moment.
    Throughout most of the 1930s he adhered to collective security [against
    Nazi Germany], in an attempt to protect Russia from a disastrous war, until
    he despaired of its success at the end of the decade" (p. 7).

    After dealing with these preliminaries, Gorodetsky gets to the main points
    of shis story, the lead up to the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, for this
    was not pre-emptive German self-defence, but a sweeping act of aggression
    aimed at Russian annihilation and the establishment of Nazi hegemony in
    Europe and beyond. The author reports on the enormous quantities of early
    Soviet intelligence pointing to the Nazi military build-up in eastern Europe
    which began after the fall of France in June 1940. With such advance notice
    of Nazi intentions, how could the "cautious and pragmatic" Stalin leave the
    Soviet Union unprepared to face a Nazi invasion? According to Gorodetsky,
    it happened because Stalin recognized the weaknesses of Soviet armed
    forces -- created in large measure by his own bloody purges of the Soviet
    officer corps --and sought time to rebuild. He did not believe the Red Army
    could face the Wehrmacht on equal terms until 1943. Therefore, Stalin
    delayed war as long as possible to gain time, much as prevalent historic
    interpretation holds that Britain and France sought to do in pursuing the
    appeasement of Hitler.

    But Gorodetsky points out that there was more to the story than Stalin's
    funk, for he profoundly mistrusted Britain and suspected that the British
    government was attempting to drag the Soviet Union into the war, allowing
    the British to escape the main burdens of fighting. In the worst case
    scenario, Britain might attempt to conclude a separate peace with Nazi
    Germany. Stalin's suspicions were not lessened by Winston Churchill's
    appointment as prime minister in May 1940, for whatever Churchill said
    about fighting to the finish, there were advocates of appeasement still in
    government who might displace him. And Stalin feared that Churchill would
    be content to let the Soviet Union do most of the fighting, a suspicion
    justified in large measure by subsequent actual events. While Britain did
    seek to embroil the Soviet Union in the war, it could not offer the real
    support which might have swayed the always calculating Stalin into
    changing directions. For the British were barely able to avert defeat in the
    summer and autumn of 1940, and the British army was repeatedly beaten by
    the Wehrmacht in north Africa and the Balkans in 1941. From the Soviet
    point of view Britain was a poor and unreliable partner, certainly not worth
    the risk of war with Germany. So when the British government sent
    warnings of a Nazi military build-up in the spring of 1941 -- something
    Soviet intelligence knew early on anyway -- Stalin, ever suspicious, thought
    it a ruse to drag the Soviet Union into war. And Nazi disinformation was
    designed to increase Stalin's suspicions. As Gorodetsky stresses, the worst of
    situations developed, for Britain and the Soviet Union needed one another,
    however much each side disliked the other, and yet in spite of the
    enormous dangers, mutual suspicions kept them apart. Stalin wanted to
    avoid war at all costs and therefore denied the obvious message of his own
    well-informed intelligence services, quite apart from the information
    provided by Britain. When his generals, increasingly alarmed, wanted to
    mobilize, Stalin held them back, ridiculing their anxieties and accusing them
    of wanting war. When Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union in the early
    morning of 22 June 1941, the Red Army was therefore caught in the worst
    possible position of late or half-measures of mobilization.

    This unhappy story of Soviet failure to prepare for the Nazi invasion is
    marred only by Gorodetsky's determination to crush Suvorov once and for
    all. He thus gives more detail and more evidence than he needs to
    accomplish his main objective. The reader may be tempted to skip ahead
    having read already many times about the details of the Nazi military build
    up on Soviet frontiers. The author might also have illuminated a little more
    his experiences in obtaining access to Russian archives (pp. xiii-xiv). A pity
    Gorodetsky does not say more, for readers may have missed an interesting
    sub-plot on the ways and whimsies of work in Russian archives.

    As for Suvorov, he is slain. Gorodetsky shows that there was no Nazi-Soviet
    "alliance" between 1939 and 1941, only a marriage of convenience based on
    short term territorial advantages and security. There was no sweeping
    Stalinist plan for world communist domination, only limited, traditional
    Russian foreign policy objectives in eastern Europe. Instead of hungering
    after war at the opportune moment, Stalin wanted to stay out of it at
    almost any cost, just like Chamberlain and Bonnet. Gorodetsky lays a heavy
    responsibility on Stalin for Soviet vulnerability in June 1941. He is not the
    first to do so. The Russian historian Roy A. Medvedev likened Stalin to a sea
    captain who did everything he could to run his ship on the rocks, but
    somehow failed to do so. Gorodetsky only adds the rejoinder that Soviet
    options were limited in 1941; as he says, it is difficult now to see what
    alternatives Stalin might have pursued to avert catastrophe (p. 323).


    By Michael Jabara Carley, University of Akron

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