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Saturday, August 19, 2006

Book Reviews

The Long War

1945: The War That Never Ended by Gregor Dallas. Yale University Press, New Haven, 2005, 792 pages, $40.


Courtesy Yale University Press
Reading through this doorstopper of a book, which runs to 636 pages—not counting the chronology, glossary of names and organizations, endnotes, and bibliography—is a worthwhile mission for anyone with the time to spare. But its ultimate destination seems much poorer than the journey itself. As Cavafy famously said about Ithaca, its function was to set you off on your enriching experience. By the time you got to the end, it had nothing much to offer.

This is in many ways an extraordinary book, wonderfully written, rich in poignant detail and anecdote that make it a thoroughly engrossing read. But when one eventually puts down this hefty tome, one has a sense that, oddly enough, despite the weight of the empirical material, its main thesis that 1945 was not the endpoint of the Second World War that we all think it was is not very persuasive, especially since it is based on a deterministic explanation of Joseph Stalin’s policies. While one can readily agree with the premise that 1945 was not the major turning-point it was supposed to have been, it is less easy to accept the conclusion that it enabled a process triggered by the Nazi-Soviet pact of 1939 to continue through the collapse of Soviet-style socialism in 1989.

The point of transition from war to peace is Gregor Dallas’s field of expertise. A professor of history who, following an English education, taught in the United States and then settled in France to write full time, Dallas has already written one book on the end of the Napoleonic Wars, 1815: The Roads to Peace, and another on the end of the First World War, 1918: War and Peace.

The year 1945 is, of course, when the Second World War ended, although, as Dallas urges us to consider, perhaps not conclusively. The Allies’ “Big Three”—Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin—met in Yalta in February to determine Germany’s postwar fate; they also agreed upon the Soviet Union’s participation in the United Nations and in the war against Japan. At the end of April, Hitler committed suicide as the Red Army entered Berlin (Mussolini had been executed by Italian partisans two days earlier). The following month, Victory-in-Europe Day was marked by the West on May 8 and by the Soviets on May 9. In July, the Big Three met again at Potsdam to decide the delineation of German and Polish territory, the logistics of occupying Austria and Germany, the prosecution of war criminals, and the issue of war reparations. The participants, however, were not the same as at Yalta. Franklin Roosevelt had died on April 12 and the United States was now led by Harry Truman. Even more unexpectedly, in Britain’s general elections during the conference, the Labor party defeated the conservatives, which meant that Clement Attlee replaced Churchill as Britain’s representative at Potsdam. On August 6 (four days after the conference ended), the United States dropped an atom bomb on Hiroshima; it dropped another one on Nagasaki three days later. On August 15, Japan surrendered. In October, the United Nations was formed, and the trial of Nazi war criminals opened in Nuremberg in November.

All conventional accounts of these events, and what happened afterward, draw a dividing line at the end of 1945, closing the era of the Second World War and opening that of the Cold War. Not Dallas, however, who suggests instead that what happened in 1945 was the continuation of an era and a historical process that had begun in 1939 with the outbreak of the war. He points out that there was no final peace treaty to end the Second World War, as there had been in 1815 and 1919, but, rather, a series of top-level meetings and a peace conference in 1946 that was of limited range.

But Dallas mostly bases his argument on the actions of Joseph Stalin, whom he describes as striving to achieve all the gains that had been granted to the Soviets under the Nazi-Soviet pact, a nonaggression treaty signed by Soviet foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov and his German counterpart, Joachim von Ribbentrop, in August 1939. A secret protocol of that agreement, revealed only after the war, called for dividing central Europe into German and Soviet spheres of influence, with Poland split in half. This nonaggression pact, of course, lasted only until Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941.

Most historians believe that the Nazi-Soviet pact was a tactical move on Stalin’s part, and many point to the inactivity of Britain and France during the Spanish Civil War, which had broken out in 1936, and the way both countries ignored the Soviets when they agreed to the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia in 1938. In contrast, Dallas believes that Stalin’s move to ally himself with Hitler was the first step in a plan to dominate central and eastern Europe. He writes that Stalin “never abandoned the great dream of the Nazi-Soviet Pact, even after the Nazi invasion…” (p. 38)—but he doesn’t provide a footnote at the end of that passage. Furthermore, while Dallas adds later that Stalin only realized in the summer of 1943 that he could do without Hitler, again, there is no footnote.

One does not have to be a Soviet apologist to begin feeling the strain that Dallas places on his hypothesis that the 1939 pact somehow governed all of Stalin’s decisions during the Second World War. Stalin may have been ruthless and obsessed, but he cannot be credited with the ability of standing outside the ebb and flow of what was an especially complicated historical period, requiring continual tactical and strategic repositioning by all of the major historical actors. In fact, most recent scholarship on the war suggests a day-to-day muddling-through on everyone’s part.

Stalin’s cruelty becomes a leitmotif of this account, not because Dallas is an egregious Stalin-basher but because he needs to make the case that the Soviet leader’s actions reflected a determination to implement the 1939 accord with Hitler. But even a ferocious figure such as Stalin can be treated unfairly from a historian’s point of view. Dallas argues, for example, that the Holocaust was merely Hitler’s imitation of Stalin’s policies toward the Soviet Union’s own ethnic minorities. Moreover, for Dallas, no other major figure at the time seems to be able to approach Stalin in terms of interest-driven ruthlessness—which might be so, but it hardly makes many of Stalin’s contemporaries any less Machiavellian.

President Harry Truman, for example, comes off extremely lightly in Dallas’s account. Those two atomic bombs are passed over relatively swiftly. In discussing why Truman decided to play his part in what became known as the Cold War, Dallas suggests that it suddenly occurred to the American president that Stalin had a different definition of “democracy.” Such a benign explanation flies in the face of much of what we know about Truman’s motivations, however (see “Truman Toppled,” my review of Another Such Victory: President Truman and the Cold War, 1945-1953 by Arnold A. Offner, greekworks.com, November 17, 2003). Further on, Dallas dismisses McCarthyism by comparing it to what happened during the postwar purges in the Soviet Union and Soviet bloc.

Yet reading through Dallas’s narrative is an enriching experience. The first thing one notices is his tendency not only to focus on individuals, and make them interesting by discussing their personalities, but also to add small details about their lives. Whether or not it reinforces his argument, this narrative strategy offers a refreshing reappraisal of the lives of persons who, after all, have been covered extensively in a multitude of studies. We learn, for instance, that Churchill liked having hot baths as a way of relaxing before making major speeches and that Jean-Paul Sartre acquired a taste for whiskey on the rocks in New York. (Dallas also mentions the thickness of the protective concrete along the bottom of Roosevelt’s train carriage.)

But events as well as people are set out with an eye for detail that provides a close, eyewitness-like perspective. These events include the heavy bombing of Berlin, an Allied operation that troubles the author less than the brutal Soviet entry into the German capital, and Britain’s repatriation of 25,000 Cossacks and other Russians to the Soviet Union—and, ultimately, to forced-labor camps in the Gulag—which is treated vividly and severely.

Aside from incorporating detail into his narrative, Dallas also innovates by informing the reader of things that were going on at the same time. Writing history always presents the problem of balancing the diachronic telling of the story with a broader narrative that encompasses other events occurring concurrently. Dallas’s solution is to engage in a synchronic account whenever he wants to make a point. For example, he breaks off his account of the Potsdam conference to describe the successful testing of the atom bomb in the desert of New Mexico.

Dallas’s most dramatic diachronic-synchronic juxtaposition is the concurrent description of the liberation of Paris and the collapse of the Warsaw uprising in August 1944. The implications of this contrast are obvious. The Soviet failure to come to the aid of the Poles as they rose against the Germans in Warsaw is proof in Dallas’s eyes of Soviet resolve to implement the terms of the Nazi-Soviet pact, and it haunts him and his book. He mentions Warsaw more than London throughout his account, and he refers to Poland more times than he does to all the other central and eastern European countries—with the exception of Germany and Russia—put together.

Indeed, this book is really about Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and Poland. Italy and Japan are barely mentioned, and when other small countries—Greece, for example—are discussed, the author is not very reliable. To say that EAM/ELAS barely showed its head before the Germans left is stretching the facts. But then again, with Greece assigned to Britain as a result of the so-called percentages agreement between Churchill and Stalin in October 1944, Greece points to Allied treachery beyond the Kremlin. Ironically, Greece does fit the more general version of Dallas’s thesis that 1945 was not a terminus post ante at which a new era began in the war-torn country. Rather, debts opened in 1943 (and before) were not settled until 1949—or even, one could argue, until the transition to democracy and the legalization of the communist party in 1974.

Perhaps if Dallas had not used the Nazi-Soviet pact of 1939 (in which Greece was not included) as some kind of master-key to unlock all the problems raised in 1945 he would have come up with a less forceful but more persuasive thesis. Because, in the end, it does seem that, after managing their interests as best they could throughout the war, none of the viable (or surviving) political actors paused in 1945.

Alexander Kitroeff teaches history at Haverford College and is a contributing editor to greekworks.com, which published his most recent book, Wrestling With the Ancients: Modern Greek Identity and the Olympics.
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