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The Red Army

LAURENCE REES: The Red Army essentially managed to turn themselves round in 1942, and part of the reason they managed to do this is because Stalin changes his attitude towards his Generals doesn’t he?

ROBERT SERVICE: Yes. Stalin was a great learner, he wasn’t a very good forgiver but he was a great learner when his personal interests were at stake. And he came to the conclusion that he was running the army too brutally and that he had to trust the professional judgement of his own high command. That high command had to prove itself as having superior professional judgement, so he kept on at them to tell him why, for example, they had to make tactical retreats. He didn’t like retreats of any kind, but he came to admire the professional expertise of Zhukov, Vasilievsky and others, people whom previously he wouldn’t have given much time to. So there was a change in Stalin’s attitude. That’s not to say that the commanders didn’t still fear for their lives in his presence; they did. So he kept this severe, suspicious demeanour right the way through to the end while taking seriously the purely professional questions that came up in planning the campaign.

LAURENCE REES: How great a contribution to the overall victory in Europe did the Red Army make?

ROBERT SERVICE: I think the Red Army was the crucial force in the defeat of Hitler. It couldn’t have been done so easily if the British and the Americans had not been allies and had not supplied diversions elsewhere in Europe and North Africa and had not supplied jeeps, spam, sugar and explosives. But most of the fighting went on in the Eastern Front, and it was there that the Third Reich was defeated. And once the Third Reich had failed to win at Stalingrad and then at Kursk in 1943 this remorseless, military, industrial and human machine that was the Soviet Union was bound to win. And on the way into Europe it was bound to behave badly, because Stalin was as vengeful as the soldiers felt. The Germans had behaved atrociously in Eastern Europe and Stalin did not seek to hold them [ie his own soldiers] back from looting, pillaging and raping their way through to Berlin.

LAURENCE REES: But they’re also doing that in Poland. And Poland was an ally of the Soviet Union's.

ROBERT SERVICE: Yes. There’s a national discrimination here between the Soviet Union and its supposed allies. Stalin behaves as if the only interests that are worth considering in the march across Europe are Soviet interests, and that the peoples of Eastern Europe and East Central Europe are lucky to be liberated and they should accept their liberation from the Red Army with grateful hands and allow the Red Army to do virtually as it wanted. So the future history of Eastern Europe is already there in 1944 and in 1945, that there was going to be one superior state that’s going to have rights to act as it wants in Eastern Europe at the end of the Second World War. And it has won that right by all of the sacrifices of Soviet people in the so-called great patriotic war. At the same time as communising these people, the Poles, the Czechs, the Hungarians and all the rest, it’s robbing them of their national resources. It’s an impossible project to turn people into voluntary communists while at the same time saying that internationally there’s only one state that has unconditional rights of decision and command and that’s the Soviet people, the Soviet state and the Soviet political leadership.

LAURENCE REES: But we can’t see it as an absolute decision Stalin has taken before the war ends that these countries will all be communist. So what’s in his mind?

ROBERT SERVICE: We don’t yet know quite what was in Stalin’s mind, and we’ll never know because he didn’t keep a diary, but we can look at what he did in 1945 or earlier in 1944. He plans for an Eastern Europe that is subject to Soviet influence. That’s not the same as an Eastern Europe that’s fully communised, but it does mean that communist political influence is going to be very strong in those countries. He plays his cards very carefully in 1945 and in 1946, turning those countries into countries that cannot say no to the Soviet Union, but they’re not yet communist. It’s only when the Marshall Plan is introduced by the Americans in 1947 that he takes this enormous gamble of fully communising all of those countries. He feels he’s got nothing to lose. And the Americans don’t respond because the Soviet presence in Eastern Europe is by then fairly consolidated and they would have had to have said to American people now there has to be a Third World War. And it’s very unlikely that an American President, far less a British Prime Minister, could have gone to an electorate with that kind of demand for a mandate. It was too late by 1947.