Duped by the Devil

Behind Closed Doors: Stalin, the Nazis and the West by Lawrence Rees

The astonishing thing about the grand alliance that defeated Hitler was not that two Western democracies made a pact with one of the vilest tyrannies the world has ever known. It was that Churchill, Roosevelt and then Truman fell prey to their own propaganda that Stalin’s was an essentially benign regime and allowed themselves to be manipulated by the Soviet dictator into a morally indefensible and politically self-destructive position.

For 50 years after 1945, the received image of the “good war”, in which the evil Nazis were overcome by a morally superior coalition, obscured this unpleasant reality. As Laurence Rees points out, the story of this aspect of the war could not be told before the collapse of the USSR, since witnesses dared not speak and documents were inaccessible. He could have added a third reason: the denial indulged in by educated classes in the West where Communism and Russia were concerned.

Rees begins his narrative with the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact which, he points out, was the opening move of the Second World War. Without that pact, Hitler could not have risked an invasion of Poland. He also makes it clear that Stalin entered into it with the same motives as Hitler – the destruction of the Polish state, the absorption of its territory and the liquidation of its people. It follows that the war was not started by Germany alone, but by a Russo-German alliance.

Nobody was prepared to face up to this at the time. While socialist fellow-travellers in the West stood on their heads to explain and justify Stalin’s action, the British and French governments did everything to avoid treating the Russian invasion of Poland as they did the German one. This introduced an element of dishonesty into the Allies’ conduct of the war that would never go away.

Hitler’s invasion of Russia in 1941 gave Churchill what looked like a heaven-sent opportunity to right the moral list of his policy, as it appeared to place Russia on the side of the angels. He knew very well that by allying with Stalin he was making a pact with the Devil, and said so more than once in private. But he made no attempt to introduce any principle into the alliance or define its aims beyond defeating Germany, and he did not arm himself with the proverbial long spoon. Quite the contrary, he sought close personal contact with Stalin, in the conviction that he would be able to charm and talk him round to his own views. Roosevelt also favoured informal meetings, and repeatedly boasted that he could “handle” Stalin.

In the event, it was Stalin who would charm and handle them. He immediately stated his claim to the slice of Poland he had taken in 1939 and his right to exert control over the rest of it. Not wishing to upset his new friend, Churchill ducked the issue and effectively acquiesced. Roosevelt was even more brazen. In flagrant contradiction to the principles he had recently proclaimed in the Atlantic Charter, he made it clear that the wishes of populations of countries such as Poland were irrelevant. He also went behind Churchill’s back and even tried to humiliate him in order to impress Stalin. Playing the two Western leaders masterfully, Stalin encouraged them to demean themselves in pursuit of his favour. By the time the discovery of the mass graves at Katyn, in April 1943, revealed even to the most sceptical the extent of Russian genocide in Poland, neither of them was in any position to utter a word of reproof. In fact, they found themselves in the degrading position of having to cover up their Russian ally’s crime.

At the November 1943 Tehran Conference, Stalin was able to dictate his terms on the post-war settlement in Europe, and the two Western leaders agreed to his plans for the future of Poland without even informing their Polish ally. By then the grand alliance had turned into a sordid ménage à trois, with Roosevelt trying to seduce Stalin by marginalising Churchill and suggesting the two of them decide the future not only of Germany but also of Britain’s colony India. Churchill for his part sought Stalin’s favour by demonstrating, with the help of a box of matches, how borders could be shifted without regard to populations and, with the aid of a grubby piece of paper, how Europe could be divided into “spheres of influence”, suggesting in percentage terms how much of it each should have in each country. Both pandered to Stalin by putting forward a monstrous plan to destroy the entire German economy and turn the country into a “pastoral” wasteland.

By 1944, they had talked themselves into believing that “Uncle Joe” was a “regular guy” who “meant well to the world and to Poland”, as Churchill put it, and that Soviet Russia was going to become more “liberal”. The levels of delusion they had scaled were breathtaking. “Poor Neville Chamberlain believed he could trust Hitler”, Churchill told his ministers. “He was wrong. But I don’t think I’m wrong about Stalin.” This was after Stalin had forced them to agree to Russia’s dominion over Central Europe at the Yalta Conference. “I can deal with Stalin,” President Truman wrote in his journal after their first meeting at Potsdam in July 1945, describing him as “honest”.

The Western Allies could not hope to defeat Hitler without Stalin. But nor could he hope to survive without them. Yet from the start they made moral compromises that fatally undermined their position and placed them in his power.

In this wonderfully readable and sensitively balanced book, Laurence Rees tells a depressing and ugly story, but one that badly needed to be told, and his excellent use of first-hand accounts by those caught up in the events vividly captures what they meant for the millions of ordinary people who suffered the consequences.

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