It is a rare book season when two such dissimilar authors as Michael Dobbs and Cita Stelzer write about overlapping topics, and unbeknownst to each other, create a pair of unusual matched pieces.
Dobbs’ “Six Months in 1945” is a riveting human account of the monumental period when four of the 20th century’s best-remembered leaders demonstrated what they could – or more precisely could not – accomplish face to face across the table. Descriptive words that spring to mind are: intelligent, dramatic and insightful.
In Stelzer’s “Dinner With Churchill,” we learn what three of these men ate and drank together and how they acted once the petty bickering and tough negotiations were over for the day. The result: pure entertainment.
Dobb’s book deals with that brief snapshot in 1945 – hardly a moment in history – when Franklin Roosevelt, Joseph Stalin, Winston Churchill, and in the end Harry Truman, carved up the spoils of Europe, unknowingly setting the table for nearly a half century of Cold War.
His story begins in Yalta, the site of the second of three Big Three summits, continues through Potsdam, where Stalin and Truman fired the opening shots of the Cold War, and concludes with Hiroshima, the ostensible if not the official end of World War II.
What an earth-shaking six months it was. In quick succession, the Russians crossed into Germany from Poland, hell-bent on Berlin, where they would loot, murder and rape under the guise of just reparation for Leningrad, Stalingrad and a Mother Russia in ruin.
The western Allies crossed the Rhine and met up with the Russians in a small town south of the German capital within 24 hours of the opening session of the United Nations.
Stalin, the one-time Georgian seminarian, born Iosif Dzhugashvili, moved Poland some 200 miles west. Yes, he just changed the lines on his map. Then he stonewalled as Roosevelt, Churchill, and later, Truman, protested in vain.
The American president, who had steered his nation so deftly for 13 years, suffered a cerebral hemorrhage at Warm Springs, Ga., and died within two months of returning from Yalta.
A plain-speaking Missouri politician took the oath of office, and was told for the first time that America was about to test a new weapon of unimaginable power.
Eighteen days after FDR’s death, Adolf Hitler ended his own life in a Berlin bunker, deep below the ruined city he had predicted would lead the world for a millennium.
Churchill had premonitions of losing a parliamentary vote of no confidence, and in fact would step down as prime minister within three months of the fall of Nazi Germany, his greatest triumph.
Hiroshima, which would shift the balance of world power, was two weeks later. All this in six months. What a year to be a news correspondent!
Dobbs, a native Brit who lived in Moscow as a child in the ‘50s, and who has written highly acclaimed books on the Cuban missile crisis and the fall of the Soviet Union, has the uncanny ability to include the perfect amount of detail, just the right measure of vivid color, into these momentous international events.
His description of the dying FDR at the former palace of Czar Nicholas II overlooking the Black Sea at Yalta, his account of the chaos of a ravaged Berlin, and his detailed report of the intrigue at Potsdam offer the reader a taste of an era that has too soon passed into history.
As the world leaders argued over the shape of the map of Europe, Russian soldiers looted Berlin of anything of value before the arrival of their Western allies. Heavy industrial equipment, kitchen stoves and bathroom plumbing, even 60,000 pianos and a million hats, were stuffed into railroad wagons headed to Moscow.
Earlier at Yalta, Dobbs describes how Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill danced around each other. It was Roosevelt’s way not to argue the piddling details. And it was Stalin’s way to agree and then do precisely as he wished.
Dobbs relies heavily for the personal details on letters, diaries and notes made public in recent years. They include letters and memoirs of the three sisters, Anna Roosevelt, Sarah Churchill and Kathleen Harriman (daughter of Ambassador Averell Harriman), all of whom accompanied their fathers to Yalta, which up to that point was best known as the home of Anton Chekhov.
When Churchill ended one night’s festivities with brandy and a song, FDR chortled to Stalin that his singing was Britain’s secret weapon.
Four months later, when Truman at Potsdam revealed to Stalin the existence of the atom bomb, a sly “Uncle Joe” pretended not to care. We know now that the cobbler’s son turned revolutionary knew a great deal about the bomb from Russian spies in Washington and New Mexico.
This is a period often misunderstood by Americans. Revisionists have decried the failure of Roosevelt and Truman to deal adequately with Stalin. Dobbs reminds the reader that the massive Russian army was firmly in control of Eastern Europe and a major part of Germany by war’s end.
He further reminds us that an estimated 20 million Russians had died in the war, and its western cities were rubble. The Americans had lost a half million men and women, and its mainland was unscathed. Stalin, it turns out, held a pretty strong hand.
For a complete change of pace, the reader might look to the delightful little book by freelance journalist Cita Stelzer called “Dinner With Churchill.”
And yes, that is precisely what the book is all about: Dinner with the master of the dinner party, the man who could regale his guests into the wee hours of the morning with stories and spirits.
He dined in great halls with royalty, and ate from specially prepared picnic baskets with the troops “somewhere in the north-northwest of Europe.”
Stelzer weaves the Churchill menus so tightly with the guest lists and his wartime tales of intrigue that if you hesitate for a whiff of the broth – clear, not creamed, please – you find yourself sipping the history of an era, along with the gastronomy of a time.
Churchill’s favorite stage was the dinner table, whether it was at Chequers or in a cold – and bugged – dacha at Yalta.
“If we had spent ten years, we could not have found a worse place,” quipped Churchill of his accommodations at Yalta. But a bucket of caviar and dozens of fresh eggs at a time when rationing allowed the Brits one egg a week, all compliments of host Stalin, made his stay somewhat more digestible.
Those close to Churchill insisted that while he was a regular consumer of wine, whiskey and brandy, his propensity for drink was “greatly exaggerated,” a myth he did little to dispel.
His favorites? Wine: He favored champagne. He usually served Pol Roger, but in a pinch at Tehran, he toasted FDR and Stalin with Caucasian sparkling wine. Brandy: Jean Fremicourt. Whiskey: Johnnie Walker Black Label, with plenty of water.
When dining with FDR, Churchill was more tolerant of notorious White House chef Henrietta Nesbitt’s homespun concoctions than was fellow patrician Roosevelt.
He was less polite with Stalin. Partly to show his unhappiness with the way Stalin was carving up Europe and partly to show his distaste for Russian table manners, when served a ham sandwich with French mayonnaise, Churchill was heard to exclaim: “No gentleman eats ham sandwiches without mustard.”
Churchill once told his guests that “it is well to remember that the stomach governs the world.” And in end, Churchill, the giant of his age, had a giant’s appetite, and a giant’s zest for life. He loved living and wished to the end there would be lots more of it.
Six Months in 1945: From World War to Cold War
By Michael Dobbs
418 pages, $28.95
Dinner With Churchill: Policy-Making at the Dinner Table
By Cita Stelzer
332 pages, $26.95
Edward Cuddihy is a retired Buffalo News managing editor.