While the war started by Hitler was knocking on his doors, the three most powerful men in the world met at Yalta from 4th February to 11th February 1945, to discuss the future of the post-war Europe, and the world. The third novel in the Churchill’s War series by Michael Dobbs, Churchill’s Triumph: A Novel of Betrayal is the story of those 8 days which plotted the course of many years to come.
While American and British forces are being held in check at the banks of Rhine, the Russian forces are “liberating” the eastern European countries. The Yalta Conference (codenamed Argonaut Conference), considered by many to be the meeting of the Trinity, reminds Churchill more of the Second Triumvirate after the death of Julius Caesar. In reality, The Big Three are not so different from the famed monkeys of the fable.
Stalin has come to the conference knowing what he wants (and indeed has scored the first victory by getting the ailing American President and the British Premier to Yalta instead of Mediterranean), and refuses to hear anything which is not in his agenda. Roosevelt wants his dream of United Nations to become reality (along with Russia’s support against the Japanese), and doesn’t want to see anything which does not fit his idealistic world. And the third old man, Churchill cannot open his mouth without “offending” Stalin and revealing the big holes in the crumbling façade of the alliance.
But Churchill is facing the possible end of the glorious British Empire and British influence in Middle East as well as Asia. At the same time, his stubborn demands of free democratic governments in east European countries (particularly Poland) is getting nowhere. So he realises that the only his words might shield Poland from complete subjugation at the hands of Russians.
Meanwhile, he meets a young Polish plumber, who is actually an officer who ran away from Katyń, and is now living under false identity. The plumber wants Churchill to take him away from Russian influence before his adopted identity is revealed, and in return gives some important information regarding Stalin’s plansand the meetings and deals between Stalin and Roosevelt behind Churchill’s back. But history is waiting to place the blame of the inevitable failure of Yalta Conference, and Churchill is determined to show where the blame truly lies, even if it means that he has to go back on his personal word of honour.
Churchill, at this time, is a man tired and tempered by the war. Unlike the man he was at the start of the War, he is far more ready to be silent and listen to others before flying off the handle. Yet he is the same stubborn old man at the core, with his belief in his words (no matter how others twist them) and inability to start a sentence without turning it into an oratory. Again we see the man behind the invincible name, a man who is tormented by his decision to betray a gentleman, and by the knowledge that his two allies (including his friend Roosevelt) do not need him or the British help going forward. But even handicapped like this, he cajoles, tricks and bullies the conference into granting him the promise of free elections in Poland, the inclusion of which in the official communique is bound to show Stalin as the liar he is later on.
Right from the starting travel, when the road is filled with ruins, the story takes a personal turn. The novel is filled with interesting touches like Stalin (on the first day) “sweeping” his hand across the map of Russian territories, and continuing west towards Germany (while remarking on the markedly different successes by Russian and British armies) in Churchill’s War Room. This picture shows far better Stalin’s mentality, than when he brags later that Russian soldiers take what they can by force. At the same time, the story of Marian Nowak, the plumber and his “family” in Poland gives a far more realistic picture of the ground conditions than any description of statistics or any discussion in the conference would have done.
All in all, this story of three old men (both Churchill and Roosevelt travelled with their daughters, “just in case”), who didn’t quite know how to finish what they started, is a worthy successor to “Never Surrender“, in all respects.
Of course, being an Indian gives you one more perspective into the happenings. While Churchill is adamant about the democracy in European countries, and is ready to go to any lengths to gain that, he is equally adamant about the continuation of British Empire (it is mentioned by Stalin and Roosevelt many times). That is a bit hypocritical, as history remarks.
Because we all know, the track record of the “most civilising empire in the history of the world” is not exactly perfect. But in all fairness, will the young people in Poland, removed by two generations from the freedom struggle, talk about Russia in the same tones, as we do about present-day England? Or, for that matter, would the Tibetans about China, if they ever get freedom?