Monday, February 2, 2009

Triumph and Tragedy

This is the last of Churchill's volumes on WWII. This one had a different tone than the other ones. Perhaps because the issues in this volume had not been resolved at the time of writing, or perhaps because Churchill himself was disappointed at how things ultimately turned out (apart from winning the war that is). The theme of this volume is telling:
How the great democracies triumphed, and so were able to resume the follies which had so nearly cost them their life.
Not bitter about being kicked out of office as soon as the war was over, is he?
Because this book opened with D-Day, Hitler was soon reduced to a paper villain, unimportant because his fall was inevitable. The real evil of the time was Stalin. Even if you add all the fatalities of WWII at Hitler's feet, Stalin still killed more people. He was shrewd, cunning and a virtuoso at public appearances. He could lie to your face and smile. He openly called for the underground of Warsaw to rebel against the Germans, then left his armies 10 miles away until they had all been slaughtered to enter the city. Though it trivializes the war a bit, the image that keeps coming to mind is Hitler's Count Dooku to Stalin's Darth Sidious.
The present ineffectual design of the United Nations is the result of maneuvering to get Russia to join it. Field Marshall Smuts, who was tasked with finding a compromise that Russia would accept in forming the UN, optimistically wrote to Churchill,
The principle of unanimity will at the worse only have the effect of a veto, or stopping action where it may be wise, or even necessary. Its effect will be negative; it will retard action. But it will also render it impossible for Russia to embark on courses not approved of by the USA and the United Kingdom.
Russia soon proved that it would do as it liked and operated through its proxy states, even as early as before the Germans capitulated. Marshall Tito nearly got into open combat with Allied soldiers over the Italian port of Trieste, even though they were supposedly on the same side. When Churchill asked Stalin to reign in his underling, Stalin denied he had any influence over Tito at all.
It didn't help that France was actively empire-building and resisting all calls to free Syria and other held possessions and Greece was close to anarchy, with only British troops able to keep the peace. I think Churchill felt the war had only been paused and forsaw a rapid decline into anarchy with Russia a vulture, eager to devour the spoils.
Though the death of Roosevelt and Churchill's loss of political power enabled Stalin to set up puppet states all through eastern Europe, the Iron Curtain (Churchill coined the phrase) did not result in another world war. I think Churchill would have been surprised that the ideological conflict between democracy and communism never erupted into more than regional conflicts.
Through all of his distrust of Stalin, he was still as swayed by the dictator's personal magnetism as any. At the meeting where Truman told Stalin of the atomic bomb, Churchill reports, "I was certain that at that date Stalin had no special knowledge of the vast process of research upon which the united States and Britain had been engaged for so long." We know now that Stalin knew all about it. He had a spy at Los Alamos for years.
It is intriguing to think what would have happened if during the post-war negotiations, the Conservative party had stayed in office. The animosity between the US and USSR that developed would have been shared more equally by Great Britain it is almost certain.

Triumph and Tragedy. Winston Churchill. Houghton Mifflin. 1953

1 comment:

jendoop said...

Thanks for sharing some of the history from this book. I honestly had no idea about Stalin killing so many during the war as well. I guess it's easier to keep a people under your thumb when their numbers are down.
Loved the Star Wars reference and the paper/scissors button :)