March 28, 2015

Finest Hour 131, Summer 2006

Page 39

By Richard M. Langworth

Churchill’s Triumph, by Michael Dobbs. London: Headline Publishing, 2005, 342 pages, $45, member price $36


The fourth and latest of Michael Dobbs’s Churchill series is his best yet: well grounded historically, with the depth of narration and brilliant character studies that have made his previous Churchill novels famous. “Dobbs is an author who can bring historical happenings so vitally back to life,” wrote Anthony Howard, “made all the more impressive by being historically accurate in every respect.”

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The novel centers around the 1945 Yalta Conference between Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin—as seen in retrospect by Churchill and a fictitious protagonist, a Pole named Marion Nowak, who joins him on a 1963 cruise aboard the Onassis yacht Christina. They had first met at Yalta, where Nowak begged to be spirited out of Russia to search for his daughter in the ruins of Warsaw. WSC had left Yalta without him, but Nowak escaped with the help of WSCs valet Frank Sawyers—a sub-plot in itself. Now a servant aboard Christina, Nowak confronts Churchill with a gun, accusing WSC of selling out his country.

There is nary a misstep over historical fact. Dobbs makes the point, for example, that the fire-bombing of Dresden, long blamed on Churchill, was demanded by Stalin—as Sir Martin Gilbert has long established. But some historians may take issue with his portrait of Roosevelt, chairing the conference as the only head of state, yet hardly able to focus on the vital business at hand:

Churchill studied his friend the President.. .There seemed to be empty spaces in the American’s suit, as though he’d shrunk Roosevelt, the presiding officer at this conference, didn’t know where he wanted to go….He had a hacking cough and the skin of his face behind his pince-nez was sticky….and he leant on such weak reeds— Stettinius and the ailing Hopkins, seated behind, who had his head bent as though in prayer, but probably in sleep.

Throughout these pages Churchill is the realist, Roosevelt the dreamer, unlike the characterization of one of my favorite historians, but very much like many reports of Yalta. Opposite is the implacable Stalin, masterfully playing off the Anglo-Americans against each other, determined to dominate Eastern Europe and to dismember Germany, breaking her with reparations, like last time.

Churchill argues for Polish independence; all he gets is the promise, soon to be broken, of unfettered elections. This easily satisfies Roosevelt, but not Marion Nowak, who gets into Churchill’s headquarters. WSC says he will do his best, but Nowak mockingly tells him that Poland is lost.

Stalin is convincingly ruthless, a cunning negotiator playing on Churchill’s weaknesses, while always giving the anxious Roosevelt a way out, a simple solution to every impasse. The Anglo-Americans are setting up a provisional government in France; surely they cannot object to the Russians setting one up in Poland? “We are agreed that these countries must be ruled by their own people, not some foreign power,” Stalin says— then, slyly turning to face Churchill: “Although not quite every country, it seems. Not some colonies. At least, not for a while.”

Churchill is apoplectic at this, but it plays to Roosevelt’s prejudices. Today it seems almost impossible that an American president could think in 1945 that the greatest threat to world peace was the British Empire:

Churchill sobbed as, little by little, he lost the battle with himself.. ..A few years earlier, when the Wehrmacht stood within hours of total victory, through stubbornness so profound it had bordered on dementia, he had saved the world, yet now it seemed that nothing he might do or say would make the smallest difference. The game was as good as over, decided by the boot of the Red Army. So Roosevelt ignored him, Stalin insulted him, and even a young Pole kicked him around. This old donkey was fit for nothing but the knacker’s yard.

Here and there we read snatches of actual Churchill dialogue, skillfully paraphrased by Dobbs to fit his scenes. Musing over still-enslaved Poland in 1963, Churchill promises Nowak that the game is not over: Freedom, he says, “does not cease or surrender because tyranny casts its dark shadow across large parts of our planet. Liberty is no harlot to be picked up by any bully and cast aside.” (Actual quotation: “Democracy is no harlot to be picked up in the street by a man with a tommy gun,” 8Dec44.) But Poland’s fate is certain. “Walls won’t be pulled down by words,” Nowak replies.

Churchill himself wrote similarly of this period in his Triumph and Tragedy. In later years he mused that he had “accomplished a great deal, only to accomplish little in the end.” He did not, it seems, believe he had achieved his last driving goals: a special relationship between Britain and America, a settlement with the Soviets, peace in the world. As early as 1949 Churchill had predicted the fall of communism—but in 1963 the Soviet grip seems as solid as ever.

What then was Churchill’s Triumph? How did it emerge from tragedy at Yalta (And in Dobbs’s book it definitely did emerge at Yalta, not after the liberation of Eastern Europe a quarter century on.) Ah! To understand how Churchill triumphed, you will have to read the book.

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