Wednesday, 6 August 2014

The Guardian review of my "Devils' Alliance" - a response

I've not really had a bad review before, so this was a new experience.  The Guardian today published a review by Richard Evans of my new book "The Devils' Alliance", on the Nazi-Soviet Pact, and it was a rather predictable response.

I had expected that the left would cry foul about any book that draws attention to this most egregious chapter in Soviet history.  T'was ever thus.  As I write in the book, the Pact of 1939 should rank alongside 1956 and 1968 as one of the most horrific, embarrassing years in the history of communism.  The fact that it doesn't is tribute to the skill of the USSR's post-war propagandists in burying the story as best they could. The story of the Pact might not be unknown to academics like Professor Evans, but - he can take my word for it - away from the groves of academe it barely registers...  My primary argument is that it really should.

Professor Evans is generous is describing parts of the book as "masterly"... praise indeed.  But he takes issue with what he describes as the book's "bias".  Actually, his review is to a large degree guilty of tilting at windmills.  Its subtitle asks "Was Stalinism really worse than Nazism?", thereby suggesting - wholly incorrectly - that this is a comparison that I make.  I do not.  I do not make this argument at any time in the book.  My position, which I think comes across loud and clear, is one of "A plague on both their houses", and is made blatantly obvious by the title of the book.

So, rather than expressing a bias, I would argue that I am actually trying to combat one.  Namely the bias on the left that persists in whitewashing Soviet crimes, in seeing Stalin's Soviet Union in some way as "a noble idea gone awry", indeed in seeing Stalin himself as the wartime "Uncle Joe", rather than the murderous psychopath that he was. It is the same bias - or "asymmetry of tolerance" - that I have written about before, in which the Nazis and the Soviets are viewed in some way as opposites - rather as twin purveyors of evil - the twin "Devils" of my book's title.

Strangely, Professor Evans praises much of what I do write, but criticises what I don't.  He seems to have wanted a wider discussion of the early phase of the war, suggesting that I should have covered the Nazi occupation of Greece, for instance, or their depredations in Yugoslavia - in some way, one imagines, as a counterbalance for Stalin's hideous treatment of the Poles, the Baltic peoples, the Finns and the Bessarabians.

In response, I would say that I did not set out to write a history of the opening two years of the war in Europe.  Others can do that.  I set out to write an account of the Nazi-Soviet Pact - about its sordid politics and its hideous effects on the ground - on the unfortunate peoples upon whom its paragraphs had the most direct effect.  Thus, I give ample coverage to German actions in their zone of occupied Poland, and to the growing tendency towards ethnic cleansing that Berlin is groping towards prior to summer 1941, but Greece is beyond the remit that I set for myself, and Yugoslavia only imposes upon my narrative as the cockpit of conflicting and increasing Nazi-Soviet ambitions.

The uncomfortable fact for Professor Evans and others on the left is that in those opening two years of World War Two, the Soviet Union was much more practiced than Germany in the sifting, persecution and deportation of subject populations.  We forget perhaps, but at this point the Holocaust had not yet begun. Hitler may have been an eager student of such matters, but Stalin was very definitely the master.  If there is an "imbalance" in the book therefore, it reflects a historical imbalance, and one with which many on the left are uncomfortable.

So, there is much here to unpack of course - and, as ever, much to constructively criticise - but blanket, blinkered rejection of the sort expressed in this review, I think, says rather more about the reviewer's prejudices than it does about my own.  Naturally, I would urge those interested in this subject to read the book and make their own minds up.


Keir said...

Curious if you followed the Burleigh-Evans saga. Have to say, I agreed with much of what Burleigh had to say- Evans rehashes the same info, the sources he uses are found in every account, and he takes three books to squeeze money out of the publishers instead of having a focus.
Still, I have my students read Evans's intro to his Coming of the Third Reich for a good summary of historiography and the nature of history

Steven Buck said...

I think Timothy Snyder had a similar experience with 'Bloodlands' where a broadly similar charge of bias was laid, again inferring comparisons which the author did not make.

Bill Niven said...

Just read the Evans' review, it doesn't seem THAT bad - his review of Snyder was in a different category to this! OK, the last sentence ratchets things up a bit, and clearly he has a different take on the relevance of Greece and western Europe to the book's remit, as well as on the relative savagery of the two regimes. But I would set more store by his use of the word 'masterly' than you do, Roger. He disagrees, but acknowledges.