The Cold War Revisionists Kayoed

By Raack, Richard C. | World Affairs, Fall 1999 | Go to article overview

The Cold War Revisionists Kayoed

Raack, Richard C., World Affairs


Many books on the still-controversial history of the early cold war have recently appeared. The best reflect their authors' encounters with suddenly available documents from the former East Bloc archives. Many deal with Stalin and Europe, and above all, with Germany, the intended jewel of a Marxist-Leninist Europe. The contents of those archives, which began to open to independent scholars around 1989, are at last being used to clarify the major historical themes of this century.

The move to a more exact history of recent times will not be easy. For some years now, writers publishing without benefit of those archival documents, working from limited, most often Western, bibliographies and sources, have staked firm positions on the central historical questions of our time. Yet as our century began to wane, they had become unable to bring much new historical understanding to the period. Some, I shall complain, never had much to add, only misinformation to spread.

Documentation is what underlies all history. Absent the solid document behind it, history becomes at best informed guesswork. Now, with the availability of new factual material from the recently opened archives to underpin history's narrative firmly, we are moving tar beyond what was accomplished only yesterday in the understanding of twentieth-century diplomatic history. A great deal of what is old will be quickly upended, if it has not already been. Some professional reputations are already threatened. From that personal basis some writers will stonewall against broadcasting the new findings. Others, because the rewards are likely to go to those who can mine the newly available foreign records, will abandon what they have been doing to seek new careers. For the new history of the cold war is likely to be the opposite of what has for all too long been written in the schools of "political correctness"--terminology popular now in the ironic sense in the West, but originally, I believe, attributable to Stalin, and prescribing his view, from the Kremlin.

Possessing the foreign-language background that has helped them turn those newly available foreign archives into a bounty of information, most of the writers I discuss in this article have seized the occasion now offered. Their new books offer a splendid opportunity for a collective review for readers who want to know what is new about some centrally important fields of history, especially about the early cold war and its origins in the events of World War II.

Vojtech Mastny, one of the recent authors on Stalin's foreign adventures, has come to a conclusion that has rendered many earlier, self-blinded, American "revisionist" writers on the early cold war," and not a few others, at last hors de combat. His is hardly the first voice to be successfully raised against them, but in the end, and only after pages of Byzantine tergiversations along the way to his conclusion, Mastny at last makes his telling point. He does it almost firmly and fixes it soundly in the Kremlin's own record, even if, at the relatively recent date of his publication, he is still uncertain about whether Stalin ran an evil empire. But were he firm and unequivocal on the latter point, what unusual, and distinctly unacademic, company he might be driven to keep!

Some of the intellectual company, obviously incorrect indeed, that all but one of these recent authors meticulously avoid keeping is that of the international society--almost all members outside the North American and Western European academic pale--that has been researching and publishing on Stalin's alleged plan for carrying the war by way of yet another Red Army attack to the west. (The first three Red Army assaults had been on Poland in 1920 and 1939, and on Finland in 1939.) His intended war, so the partisans of this history argue, would have likely come in 1941 or 1942, that is, as part of the aftermath of the 23 August 1939 Non-Aggression Pact with Hitler. …

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