One of the most fascinating aspects of Max Hastings’ book, Armageddon: The Battle for Germany, 1944-1945, is his discussion of the tension-filled relationship between Prime Minister Winston Churchill, President Franklin Roosevelt, and Premier Joseph Stalin. The so-called “Big Three” were allies committed to destroying the Thousand Year Reich of the Nazi Fuhrer, Adolf Hitler, but their perspectives on this conflict were rarely harmonious.
Operation Overlord, the massive British and American invasion of Europe in June 1944, was viewed with contempt by the Russians. In their opinion, this invasion did nothing to relieve the pressure they were dealing with on the Eastern Front. Having experienced another massive attack by foreign troops, Russian feelings of insecurity again came to the surface and with it a sense of resentment toward Europe. Stalin and his top military officers were convinced the British and Americans were in no hurry to engage Nazi forces, and preferred to let the Russians deal with Hitler.
Hastings makes the case that Roosevelt and Churchill, despite their disagreements, were basically pursuing war aims that were unselfish, with no intent to take over any nations defeated in the Second World War. This was clearly not the case with Stalin. His ambitions grew as the war progressed, and his lust for vengeance and conquest knew few bounds.
Churchill and Roosevelt
By 1944, it was very clear to Churchill that Soviet behavior was “strange and sinister,” in his words. He saw that Stalin fully intended to impose Soviet control over every country liberated by his Red Army. Churchill was convinced that Stalin believed this was his right, because of the suffering his nation had experienced since the Nazi invasion of the USSR in
Unlike Churchill, American leaders were focused primarily on the military defeat of the Nazis in Europe and Japan in the Pacific. Washington displayed a “remarkable indifference” to the political future of Eastern Europe, in Hastings’ judgment, and many of President Roosevelt’s closest advisers were dismayed by his behavior toward Stalin and his arrogant conviction that he could “do business” with Stalin if the British got out of his way.
Churchill and Stalin
The massive loss of lives and property that the Russians experienced following the Nazi attack and the delay in the Allied landings in Normandy convinced Stalin that the Western allies were content to wage war against the Nazis at their leisure. From 1941 to the present day, this is the perspective held by many Russians.
Churchill countered this viewpoint by arguing that Britain entered the war in 1939 as a matter of principle and fought alone against the Nazis for two years, while Russia “was content to play vulture on the carcasses of Hitler’s kills until Hitler came after them.” On the other hand, it was impossible to dispute the fact that the Red Army was overwhelming responsible for destroying Hitler’s armies.
As the war entered its last nine months, Stalin’s empire supplanted Hitler’s across large tracts of Central and Eastern Europe. While the Americans still perceived the war as primarily a military event, Churchill battled Stalin’s political agenda. In defiance of fierce American criticism, Churchill saved Greece from Communist takeover by landing British forces there, but the British were not able to take similar actions in Eastern Europe. For Stalin, the days were over when the Soviet Empire would be confined to its own republics. Russia’s reward for defeating the Nazis would be an empire of buffer states that would ensure that Russia would never again have to suffer another direct attack by enemy forces. Napoleon and Hitler were enough!
The Moral Ambiguity in War
For many of us, it is hard to imagine any other war that was more clearly a battle between good and evil. The defeat of the Thousand-Year Reich, with its destructive, racist leadership was surely a noble cause. That’s why General Dwight Eisenhower could entitle his wartime memoirs Crusade in Europe.
American and British leaders restrained their criticism of Soviet wartime behavior because they realized that Russian sacrifices made it possible to defeat Hitler at a relatively low cost in American and British lives. Even today many Westerners are surprised to learn that American and British forces each suffered fewer than 300,000 fatal casualties as a direct result of enemy action – about the same as Yugoslavia and approximately half of America’s battle deaths in the Civil War. Hastings points out that for every British and American citizen who died, more than thirty Russians perished (p. 509).
The Western allies concluded the Second World War having freed Western Europe from the tyranny of Hitler, while acquiescing to the subjection of Eastern Europe to Stalin’s regime. In Hastings’ expert judgment, “It is hard to see how this could have been prevented.”
The last paragraph in Hastings’ book deserves to be quoted in full: “The battle for Germany began as the largest single military event of the twentieth century, and ended as its greatest human tragedy. More than half a century later, we may be profoundly grateful that its worst consequences have been undone without another war. The men who fought and died for the freedom of Europe received their final reward with the collapse of the Soviet tyranny, two generations after the destruction of its Nazi counterpart.”