The months that led to the end of the World War II make up one of the richest and most fascinating periods of 20th-century history. As the violence reached its crescendo, momentous events were taking place: the downfall of Nazi Germany, the rise of a communist superpower and the final collapse of imperial Japan.
This was the time that saw the death of Hitler, and also of Franklin Roosevelt; the division of Germany, and also of Europe; the violent birth of the atomic age and the creeping onset of a new, cold war.
All these events and more are described in former Washington Post reporter Michael Dobbs’ new book, Six Months in 1945. It begins with the conference at Yalta in February, where Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill met with high hopes of laying the foundations for a lasting peacetime collaboration. It ends with the next Big Three conference at Potsdam the following August, where many of those hopes began to unravel.
Along the way, it takes in dozens of related topics from around the world, everything from the founding of the United Nations to superpower meddling in the Middle East.
Given the enormous wealth of subject matter, the reader would be forgiven for expecting a rich, multilayered history of this six-month period from a variety of perspectives. In fact, however, Dobbs’ theme is quite narrow: His book is purely about the crumbling relationship between the United States and the U.S.S.R.
This is charted at every level. For example, when Soviet and American troops finally linked up on the Elbe, the inevitable round of delighted, drunken back-slapping soon gave way to mutual incomprehension. Neither side really trusted the other.
Within months, American soldiers were firing on drunken Soviets in Berlin; meanwhile, Russian diplomats accused the Americans of having more sympathy for the defeated Germans than their Soviet allies. Terms like democracy, fascism and freedom meant entirely different things to each side. The clash of culture, and of ideology, was seemingly insuperable.
Dobbs’ description of the fledgling relationship between the two superpowers is unerringly fascinating, but his tight focus comes at a price. The cornucopia of subjects promised on the opening page never quite materializes because the tangents that spring up are explored only insofar as they relate to his main theme.
So, for example, while the dismemberment of Poland and Germany is discussed endlessly, we hardly get a glimpse of what this meant to the Poles and Germans themselves because that is not the point: They are merely pawns in the cold war’s great game. Likewise the Hiroshima chapter hardly mentions the tragic and dramatic destruction of the city – it concentrates instead on the diplomatic consequences of the bomb for Truman’s negotiations with Stalin.
Dobbs’ commitment to his theme is admirable, and almost certainly necessary, but as I watched one juicy story after another whistle past untold, it was sometimes difficult not to feel slightly short-changed.
The trouble is, with such a vast array of relevant and interlinked material to choose from, Dobbs is obliged to draw the lines somewhere. One of the ways he focuses the book is to stick quite rigidly to the six months he has chosen as his period. But this again brings problems. Why just this six months? Since the theme of the book is the advent of the cold war, why not broaden it out a little?
The author can make his contention that this particular period is the root of virtually all of the watershed events of the early Cold War only by shamelessly ignoring everything that went before. The conferences at Yalta and Potsdam serve as nice, neat bookends to his story, but all the major decisions had already been made at a previous Big Three conference at Tehran at the end of 1943.
Similarly, the author’s otherwise incisive portrait of the communist coup in Romania at the end of February 1945 – which provided a template for similar seizures of power elsewhere – ignores the context in which this took place. The government of Nicolae Radescu was not the only one to be brought down by Soviet interference: Two previous Romanian governments were also toppled in part of a much more gradual and more fascinating process.
When Dobbs sticks to his main thesis, his narrative is always gripping and his observations razor-sharp. His descriptions of the tense atmosphere at the conferences, along with his portraits of Stalin, Churchill, Roosevelt and Truman are hugely evocative. But when he steps away from the negotiating table, his mastery of the details begins to slip.
For example, his claim that 2 million Germans died during their expulsion from the Czech and Polish borderlands – an event discussed at Yalta and endorsed at Potsdam – is wrong. This is in fact an exaggerated number put about by certain sections of German society with their own agenda after the war. Nor was the Communist underground the main player in overthrowing Romania’s wartime dictator, Ion Antonescu: That distinction belonged to Iuliu Maniu’s Peasant Party.
There are many such slips and inaccuracies, some great, some small. For example, the Czech word for German is not Niemiec as he claims, but Nemec. More seriously, he uses the terms Soviet and Russian interchangeably throughout, despite drawing attention to the importance of distinguishing between the two.
Despite all this, the main thrust of Dobbs’ argument remains both elegant and convincing. In the end, it is a paradoxical book: diverse yet well focused, detailed yet frustrating in its inability to follow up those details, inaccurate on specifics yet correct in its broad sweep.
It covers well-trodden ground and yet always makes it seem fresh; and even as one questions his reasoning, one cannot help being swept away by it. For all the flaws in its design, it is never less than compelling. That alone, regardless of the rest, makes this book worth reading.