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“This extraordinary and well-documented account of a short period in history illustrates how just a few men in a closed room can influence history in a monumental and sometimes devastating way. Six Months in 1945 is an important book to read to better understand how such negotiations influence us for decades. It illustrates that events and decisions made on the world stage affect us all, without most of us being aware of the decisions.”
“Elegantly written . . . Dobbs delivers engaging portraits of the national leaders . . . . A confident and rewarding survey of a hinge point in 20th century history.”
“Dobbs brings these ‘six months in 1945’ to life better than anyone before him. In brisk, engrossing chapters, he weaves between the Big Three decision-makers . . . and sketches their stratagems, illusions, strengths and weaknesses.”
—Military Book Club
“Dobbs is a gifted writer. His characterizations of powerful men are well judged and rounded, as are his evaluations of the fateful choices they faced.”
“Dobbs lends the subject an immediacy that will engage history readers. . . . a readily accessible presentation of the onset of the Cold War.”
“An astute narrative of the six months that changed the world.”
On April 25, 1945, First Lieutenant Albert Kotzebue led an American platoon east of the Mulde River in central Germany. The countryside was in the full bloom of spring, creating a stark contrast with the misery of the refugees they met — old men, women, and children hauling the remnants of their lives. The Americans also encountered German soldiers desperate to surrender to anyone but the Soviets, as well as Allied POWs still dazed after their release from captivity. When they reached the edge of their patrol zone, Lt. Kotzebue and his men pushed on, betting they could be the first Americans to encounter Russian soldiers. With the American and British forces closing in from the West and the Red Army advancing from the East, it was just a matter of time before they met. In the village of Leckwicz, Lt. Kotzebue got his wish, exchanging terse greetings with a Red Army cavalryman conducting a scouting mission on horseback.
Lt. Kotzebue described the Russian as "reserved, aloof, suspicious, not enthusiastic." Those same words could be used to describe the Allies in their dealings with one another as World War II came to a close. In Six Months in 1945: FDR, Stalin, Churchill, and Truman — From World War to Cold War, Michael Dobbs takes as his subject the final stretch of the war. "Few historical turning points are as rich in drama as the six months between February and August 1945, a period bookended by the Big Three conference in Yalta and the bombing of Hiroshima," he writes. Wading into the contentious debate over when the Cold War started, Dobbs argues that the Allies became adversaries during the final six months of World War II. For Dobbs, there is no point after the war when it could have worked out differently. The course was set.
Dobbs deploys a technique in Six Months in 1945 that he used in One Minute to Midnight: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and Castro on the Brink of Nuclear War. The narrative emerges from historical snapshots that capture both big dramatic events and more intimate moments. It puts historical actors and their quirks front and center, making for a novelistic read. Dobbs says in his introduction that he's writing "the story of the people — presidents and commissars, generals and foot soldiers, victors and vanquished." We meet the familiar cast of World War II — Stalin, Molotov, Zhukov, Churchill, Eden, Bevin, Roosevelt, Truman, Brynes, Stimson — along with lesser-known figures like Lt. Kotzebue and Edwin Pauley, an American member of the Allied Reparations Commission. Pauley found himself on the wrong end of a Russian rifle when he got caught filming the Soviet looting operation in Berlin. Dobbs is at his best as a storyteller when he steps away from well-known personalities — and avoids a maddening tendency to rely on block quotes.
He begins the book by throwing the reader into the Yalta Conference, observing its deliberations through the eyes of Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin. Gossipy details abound, giving the reader a feel for what it was like to be at the high-stakes house party: the bedbugs, the flowing vodka, the twenty-course dinners, the temper tantrums, and the lack of proper bathroom facilities that had generals and admirals urinating in the garden behind a statue of Lenin. To streamline his narrative, Dobbs focuses on the discussion about the reconstitution of Poland at the expense of other issues, such as the genesis of the United Nations, denazification, and Soviet entry into the war with Japan.
The middle part of the book chronicles the final weeks of the war in Europe, as Nazi Germany surrendered and the Allies' alliance became increasingly strained. Dobbs offers a compassionate account of Roosevelt's final days and relays Truman's sense of being in over his head. He shows the ruthlessness of Stalin in establishing a pro-Soviet regime in Poland. Pity the poor Polish politicians who thought they had an opportunity to launch a democratic government, only to find themselves thrown into Moscow's notorious Lubyanka prison, subjected to show trials and more prison time.
The final section opens with the Potsdam Conference, where Stalin, Truman, and Churchill argued over the fate of Germany, the extent of reparations, and how to feed a devastated Europe — along with who could provide the best musical entertainment at the evening soirées. After accompanying Churchill on a tour of devastated Berlin, watching him poke through the rubble of the Reich Chancellery, Dobbs follows him back to London, where the prime minister receives the crushing news that his services are no longer required. The war with Japan finally makes an appearance in the form of discussions about a Soviet invasion and the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Dobbs nicely renders the pile-up of events that marked the final months of the war and reminds the reader of the fallible human beings who later became frozen in memory as stock World War II figures. But he stumbles when it comes to policymaking. The focus on grand milestones and personal eccentricities frequently comes at the expense of the issues under debate, issues that affected the lives of millions of people.
In opening chapters about Yalta, Dobbs pays more attention to Roosevelt's poor health than the reasons for the conference being called in the first place. There's little indication that the policies advocated by Churchill and Roosevelt, and later Truman, were sources of debate within their own governments. (Of course, one did not disagree with Stalin.) The dropping of the atomic bomb was and remains a hugely controversial issue, with Yalta and Potsdam not far behind, but those debates don't inform the narrative in a meaningful way. Historical actors making decisions are most compelling when they're seen in the context of actual outcomes — after all, that's what makes history dramatic.
One odd, and somewhat unnecessary choice: Dobbs pins part of his argument around Alexis de Tocqueville's assertion that the United States and Russia were destined to dominate the world stage and fulfill "the will of Heaven." There are plenty of big ideas driving World War II — capitalism, communism, fascism, totalitarianism — without having to invoke a long- deceased Frenchman as a framing device.
That said, Dobbs delivers a propulsive read, replete with the sort of telling details that bring his subjects into high resolution. There are stretches of Six Months in 1945 that read like a taut World War II thriller, and the reader walks away convinced that the final days of the war were among the most formative of the twentieth century. But if you like your character studies leavened by a nuanced consideration of policy and consequences, you might find yourself as frustrated as a Yalta attendee looking for the W.C.
Meredith Hindley is a historian living in Washington, D.C. She is a senior writer for Humanities, the magazine of the National Endowment for the Humanities, and her work also appears in Salon, Lapham's Quarterly, and The New York Times.
Reviewer: Meredith Hindley
Stalin was not at Saki airport to greet Roosevelt. Instead, he had sent his foreign minister, Vyacheslav Molotov, who was pacing up and down on the tarmac in a heavy overcoat and fur hat, surrounded by Allied officials. Through the window of the president’s cabin, FDR and Anna could see knots of Russian women sweeping snow from the runway with brooms made out of birch twigs. They waited inside the warm plane until Churchill’s C-54 Skymaster, a gift from the United States, landed twenty minutes later, accompanied by its own escort of six P-38 fighters.
Originally, Roosevelt and Churchill had planned to take only modest entourages with them to Yalta, consisting of thirty to thirty-five key aides. But the delegations grew in size as more and more officials deemed themselves “indispensable” to either the president or the prime minister, until they reached a combined total of some seven hundred people, support staff included. The Russians had erected large army tents, heated with wood-fired stoves, to provide hospitality to the throng of field marshals, ministers, generals, ambassadors, and assorted aides-de-camp. New arrivals were invited inside for their first Russian breakfast, consisting of giant dollops of caviar, assorted garlic-heavy cold cuts, smoked salmon, eggs, curd cake with a sour cream sauce, sweet champagne, Georgian white wine, vodka, and Crimean brandy, all washed down by tumblers of boiling tea.
Eventually, everybody shuffled into place for the arrival ceremony. After lowering the president to the ground in his elevator, Secret Service agents lifted him into an open lend-lease jeep covered with rugs. A Red Army band played “The Star-Spangled Banner,” “God Save the King,” and the new Soviet national anthem (“The Great Lenin lit our way / Stalin brought us up to serve the people”). Seated in the jeep in his dark navy cape, Roosevelt reviewed a goose-stepping honor guard, flanked by Churchill and Molotov on foot. FDR seemed “frail and ill” to the prime minister. “He was a tragic figure.” His face was the color of parchment, waxlike and drained of energy. His right arm rested on the side of the jeep, the hand hanging limply downward. Churchill’s doctor, Lord Moran, described the scene:
The PM walked by the side of the President, as in her old age an Indian attendant accompanied Queen Victoria’s phaeton. They were preceded by a crowd of camera-men, walking backwards as they took snapshots. The President looked old and thin and drawn; he had a cape or shawl over his shoulders and appeared shrunken; he sat looking straight ahead with his mouth open, as if he were not taking things in. Everyone was shocked by his appearance and gabbed about it afterwards.
Posted February 21, 2014
If you are a student of WWII and the beginning of the Cold War, this is a fascinating, "inside baseball" book. I found it well written and insightful. There were a few sections where the "action" slowed down but overall it has added to my historical understanding of the major players and the seeds of the Cold War.
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