This is my review of World War Two: Behind Closed Doors: Stalin, the Nazis and the West by Laurence Rees.
This is a fascinating examination of the relations between Churchill, Stalin and Roosevelt. I had always assumed that after the defeat of Hitler it was too much hassle for the Allies to press on and drive the Soviet Communists out of Eastern Europe, particularly since they had shown themselves to be such resilient and determined fighters. It was a shock to realise how readily Churchill accepted the USSR’s retention of eastern Poland which it had overrun during its notorious pact with the Nazis in 1939-41. His glib rationalisation that Poland would simply be taking “two steps westward” was all the more ironical since it was the German occupation of western Poland which had “necessitated” the Second World War in the first place.
Churchill was also devious in appeasing Stalin by implying that he was about to launch a Second Front in France – thereby taking some of the pressure off the Soviets fighting in Eastern Europe – when he clearly had no intention of doing so. Despite his many faults and atrocities, Stalin was justified in resenting how the Soviets ended up bearing the brunt of the bloody battles with Germany, as indicated by the shocking disparity between the Russian and Allied death tolls.
In yet another ironic twist, Churchill and Roosevelt both failed to see how much they were being manipulated by the wily Stalin. They even harboured the illusion that Stalin’s hands were tied by some shadowy Politburo in the background. To observers, Stalin’s mastery was often all too evident. As Eden commented, “If I had to pick a team to go into a conference room, Stalin would be my first choice.” Although the author reminds us of the Kafkaesque repression of free speech in the USSR and punishment of able people who might pose some kind of threat to Stalin, Western leaders turned a blind eye to, for instance, the evidence that it was the Soviets who had massacred Poles in the Katyn area. On the other hand, what else could the West do when faced by the need to stop the Nazis? It is possible that, without Russia as any ally, Hitler would have conquered Britain.
Churchill’s ruthlessness is evident in his political decision to order the despatch of convoys to supply the Russians once they had become allies, even though he knew of the high risk of German attacks in Arctic waters: for him, a 50% or more success rate made it worthwhile. Even more pitiless, Stalin ordered the wholesale and undiscriminating deportation of the Crimean Tatars to the hostile arid wastes of Uzbekistan, because some of them had collaborated with Germans but it was too much effort to identify them accurately.
Although this is an unsystematic and therefore only partial account of World War 2, it is a book well worth reading both for those who thought they knew about the War and for others too young to remember it. The only caveat is whether time would be better spent trying to understand the terrible wars which are still raging at present.