I find it indeed difficult to assess this book by Winston Churchill. I have read it with very mixed emotions. Nonetheless, I firmly believe that for any serious student of the history of World War II Winston Churchill's "Memoirs of the Second World War" is a must reading - unless he or she decides to study the full fledged, six volume, "The Second World War" itself.
However, if one is to base his entire knowledge of the war on this writing alone, treating it as the history book per se, one is likely for a big disappointment. The value of this book as a source of historical facts is questionable; its value, in my view, lies in that it is the first hand, direct, presentation of the views and ideas on the war politics by one of its biggest actors. Churchill wrote himself: "This is not history, this is my case." I agree. It is, at the same time, the best source of information one can probably get on the "state of competence" of one of the "Big Three". For in this writing Winston Churchill reveals to a large degree what he himself knew, or did not know, about various aspects of the unfolding events. However, the objectivity of his writing is to a certain degree weakened by his concerns for relations with some of the other big players in World War II. The name of Dwight Eisenhower immediately comes to mind here. At the time of this book's publication Eisenhower was the president of USA. Whatever disagreements Churchill may have had with him in 1944 and 1945, and the many he had indeed, he went long ways to smooth his criticism to not in the smallest way offend his former ally and the sitting president of the country with which he practiced the policy of "Grand Alliance". That this may have distorted the whole picture seems beyond much doubt.
I am in no position to evaluate Churchill's ideas and beliefs and confront them with the facts, in their entirety. Whether, for instance, his explanation of the fall of Singapore is correct or not is beyond my expertise. But on two subjects: Joseph Stalin and the Soviet Union and the so-called "Polish Question" I do have opinions of my own.
We now know quite well who Joseph Stalin really was and what was the true nature of the Soviet regime in those years. From that perspective Winston Churchill's assertions about Stalin himself seem rather disconcerting. Especially so, since Churchill seem to have been reasonably well versed in matters relating to the Soviet Union and its foreign policies. Unlike many left-leaning politicians both in USA and Western Europe at the time he apparently had no illusions about the character of communist experiment in Soviet Russia. This was particularly true with regard to Stalin's foreign policies. Churchill realized Stalin was "de-facto" ally of Nazi Germany all the way until the day Hitler invaded the Soviet Union.
But with the Hitler's invasion of the Soviet Union on June 21, 1941, virtually overnight, this hideous man becomes Great Britain's ally in the fight against Germany. And now that Stalin was on the same side of the barricade he became more than an ally. He, in the eyes of Churchill, seemed to have transformed into a better man. Politically and morally. Churchill spares no effort to present Stalin as an extremely intelligent man, not without sense of humor, a man with whom one can reason, negotiate and settle. On several occasions Churchill underlines importance of maintaining friendly relationship with the Soviet leader as if attempting to convince the reader, and possibly himself, that personal relationship could significantly alter the outcome of negotiations. Did he believe this or was he merely trying to justify his own conduct vis-à-vis Stalin? At any rate, I do not subscribe to a notion that just because someone finds himself on the right side of a political cause - and in the case of Stalin this was not his own choice, Hitler put him there - it makes him automatically a better being. Whoever Stalin was before German invasion he retained that character afterwards. And that simple fact demanded appropriate conclusions be drawn and remembered.
Poland, and "Polish Question", receives mixed treatment by Winston Churchill. It might even be more instructive to recognize what Churchill does not write about in the case of Poland than what subjects he dwells upon. The name of the general Wladyslaw Sikorski, Prime Minister and Commander in Chief of the Polish Government in Exile right from the Polish defeat in September 1939 until his death in the airplane accident in 1943 is not mentioned even once, not even in passing. And it is worth remembering that Poland was Great Britain's first, and for some time practically the only, ally in the war against Hitler right from the beginning till the very end. Not a single word is dedicated to the role of Polish airmen who fought with such distinction during the famous Battle of England. They were the heroes of the day then and Churchill knew perfectly well they were the best "scoring" fighters whose contribution to the victory was substantial if not decisive. More disturbing still is his complete silence on the subject of Katyn massacre. In April 1943 the Germans discovered mass graves in the forest of Katyn near Smolensk in then occupied Russian territory. Poles were inquiring with the Soviets since June 1941 about the faith of about 15,000 officers listed as Soviet prisoners of war only to be told they must have had "escaped to Manchuria". The German discovery of some 4,000 murdered and Sikorski's subsequent request for independent investigation by the International Red Cross was the pretexts for Stalin to break relations with the Poles and that was the beginning of all the subsequent troubles around the Polish Question. The truth of the Katyn massacre got swept under the carpet for years.
It is not until the summer of 1944 when the Soviets advanced to the territories of the pre-war Poland that this subject starts looming high on the agenda. Churchill apparently then realized that Stalin had his own plans concerning Poland where creation of a subservient government toped the list. To be fair Winston Churchill deserves credit for writing (and acting at the time) extensively about the Warsaw Rising of 1944. For two months the 50,000 Home Army soldiers armed with ammunition to last for just a few days fought valiantly inflicting great casualties on the Germans while the Red Army stood on the east bank of Vistula River doing practically nothing. Churchill was sincerely horrified at Stalin's refusal not only to come to military assistance himself but even to allow the Allies' planes attempting to drop supplies to land on the Soviet airfields. Churchill desperately tried to help. But Stalin had a much different agenda and for this purpose he didn't mind to allow almost a quarter million of Varsovians to perish. Roosevelt meanwhile apparently did not care. Churchill's exasperation over this issue is clearly visible and the pages dedicated to Warsaw Rising are some of the most emotionally charged in the entire book.
But it is Churchill's position on the question of new Poland's frontiers that causes most of my dismay. He openly agreed that the Soviet Union deserved additional territory at their Western frontier to boost their external security against any future threat from Germany. This was agreed in principle right from the start. It is true that in those territories ethnic Poles never constituted a majority. But that's a very poor argument. Neither Russians were a majority there. These were Belo-Russians, Ukrainians, Ormians, Jews, in short a multitude of ethnic groups who for centuries lived under the Polish-Lithuanian rule. The Russian rule they knew only since the partitions of Poland at the end of XVIII century. If anything, there would be a legitimate "border dispute", if you will, between Poland and Ukraine or Poland and Belarus. But there was not even a hypothetical question of national independence for these two nations. As it turned out, therefore, a double standard was employed: Poland was to be a one-nation, one ethnic group state while it was all right for (Soviet) Russia to be a multinational "federation". In the end Winston Churchill agreed to legalize Soviet annexation of Polish territories invaded on September 17, 1939 the basis of which was (now infamous) Molotov- Ribbentrop Secret Protocol of August 23, 1939.
With everything in the book read and digested the final impression of this, no doubt very remarkable, statesman I get, is one of a man visionary at times, perseverant, man often times of principle and yet also of a man who for the purpose of "higher good" would bend or re-interpret the facts falling victim to illusions. The same man who so forcefully condemned policies of appeasement towards Germany up until Munich agreements of 1938 would practice his own appeasement policies towards Stalin later on, clearly as a result of his own fallacies about the character of Joseph Stalin and the nature of the Soviet system. But this very same man retained the ability to disillusion himself and change own stands thus proving quite remarkable degree of intellectual and political flexibility. Unfortunately for him, as well as for the world, it is rarely sufficient to change ones mind. For if the circumstances have also changed it is usually too late. It was another matter to exact certain commitments from Stalin when the outcome of the struggle with Hitler's Germany was up in the air, quite another when Stalin's armies were approaching Vistula river. There clearly was a chance to block aggressiveness of the Soviet Union and prevent Iron Curtain from descending upon Central Europe and spare the Europe and the world Cold War - if both Churchill and Roosevelt acted firmly early on. But the many illusions about the man and the system they dealt with and lack of sufficient foresight, prevented them from achieving desirable political arrangements, namely independence of Poland and other Central European countries, something that soon afterwards became to haunt the Western Democracies for nearly half the century.
While Churchill as a politician remains controversial, Churchill as a writer, and his book, fall very close to being a masterpiece. Rich, eloquent language, clarity of point, all-in-all good balance between detail and generality and, above all, passion with which he writes about subjects he was so intimately involved with - make for terrific reading experience. If not for the certain obstructions in his "pursuit of truth", the want not to offend then still living former allies and the apparent want to justify own conduct, that all resulted in certain distortion of the picture, I would give the book highest score of 5 stars.