REVIEW – Churchill and Stalin: comrades-in-arms during the Second World War

3 mins read
Martin Folly, Geoffrey Roberts, and Oleg Rzheshevsky 
Pen and Sword, £25 (hbk) 
ISBN 978-1781590492
Martin Folly, Geoffrey Roberts, and Oleg Rzheshevsky
Pen and Sword, £25 (hbk)
ISBN 978-1781590492

As Churchill liked to say, to defeat the Nazis the Russians gave their blood, the Americans their money, and Britain held out for the crucial year from the summer of 1940.

The ‘Grand Alliance’ between Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin came about to defeat Hitler’s Germany. Despite massive political, cultural, and ideological divisions, the alliance survived for four years, and this new book foregrounds the intense but fragile relationship between Churchill and Stalin at its core. It uses a mass of Russian archival material to provide new insights on the relationship that helped win the war.

Although he had led the fight against Bolshevism in 1919-1920, Churchill came during the war years to admire Stalin as a determined warrior-leader. He saw Stalin as a man to respect, as a ‘comrade-in-arms’.

The book is written by two leading western scholars and one prominent Russian historian, now dead. It tracks the roller-coaster of the wartime relationship. At their first meeting in August 1942, Stalin insulted Churchill by suggesting that the British Army was acting in a cowardly way, but they still parted as friends after a late-night drinking session.

Over the next year, Churchill was upset by several disagreements with Stalin, convincing himself that the ‘Kremlin gang’ were hostile to Britain, but his friendship with Stalin could keep the relationship on track.

At the first Big Three summit in Tehran, Churchill felt Roosevelt was trying to bond with Stalin behind his back, but again cheered up after personal meetings with the Soviet leader.

In the famous ‘percentages agreement’ at their October 1944 meeting, Churchill believed he and Stalin had a joint understanding of the post-war world. The Yalta Conference was less happy, and towards the end of the war he found Stalin infuriating, and was maddened at Roosevelt’s failure to stand up to the Soviet leader.

Despite these frustrations, both men continued to hold each other in high regard into the early years of the Cold War. Many, like Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden, felt that Stalin had cast a ‘spell’ over Churchill, who could be enraged by the Soviet leader at a distance but always seemed to be charmed by him face to face.

Strange structure

The book suffers from a rather strange structure that is nowhere clearly explained. After a 70-page outline of the relationship using mostly Western sources, the book then provides a 200-page commentary going back over all the key stages, quoting extensively from a collection of Soviet documents from Rzheshevsky’s previous Russian-language books. These include records of the conversations between the two leaders when they met.

From this commentary, many new insights emerge. Most fascinating is to follow the to-ing and fro-ing between the two leaders. Stalin could be blunt, coming on rude. Churchill was upset by this, but was expansive, often full of what Eden called ‘guff ’.

Stalin suggested that between themselves the Allies did not have to agree. Churchill preferred to get along and stressed that outwardly they must always present a unified front.

It must have been extraordinary to be present at these meetings. For instance, the translator at Churchill’s first meeting with Stalin found it immensely difficult to keep up with the Prime Minister and to translate into appropriate Russian Churchill’s rhetorical flourishes.

There are recurrent themes throughout their meetings. Pressure from Stalin for a Second Front in northern Europe: he never saw the Mediterranean campaigns as drawing German divisions away from the Eastern Front (although they did in a small way). Demands from Churchill for a vibrant, democratic Poland after the war: Stalin glossed over these. ‘We entered the war to defend Poland,’ Churchill tells Stalin. ‘We need reliable neighbours on our borders to ensure our security,’ Stalin tells Churchill.

Ever since Churchill made public in his wartime memoirs the ‘percentages agreement’ on dividing the Balkans between British and Soviet interests, he has been accused of cynically dividing up post-war Europe. Interestingly, while the Soviet account of the meeting stressed how Churchill wanted an off-the-record agreement with Stalin, there was no mention of a document agreed between them. Stalin made clear he would only accept formal treaties as binding.

Although Churchill defended the informal agreement by claiming it ensured Greece remained in the Western camp, the impression remains that Stalin was able to dupe the British Prime Minister into thinking he had won greater concessions than he had.

Historians usually see in the summits at Yalta and Potsdam the divisions that transformed World War into Cold War. But the Russian documents reveal Stalin’s optimism at the time that the Grand Alliance would help preserve peace in the post-war era.

At one of the endless toasts that accompanied the formal dinners, Stalin paid tribute to Churchill leading Britain alone in 1940, saying he could think of no other instance in history ‘where the future of the world depended on the courage of one man.’

Churchill and Stalin provides an intriguing and detailed insight into how two of the 20th century’s leading figures presented their cases to each other and negotiated their positions. Accounts of their face-to-face meetings are fascinating. The book’s slightly odd structure makes it a complex read, but it is a stimulating one nonetheless.

Review by Taylor Downing

This article was published in the October/November issue of Military History Matters. To find out more about the magazine and how to subscribe, click here.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.