Warlords: An Extraordinary Recreation of World War II Through the Eyes and Minds of Hitler, Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin
By Simon Berthon and Joanna Potts. 358 pp. Da Capo Press, 2007. $16.95.
The action movie would not exist without crosscutting—going back and forth among characters to create excitement, suspense, and narrative movement. Authors have dabbled with this technique for a long time, but Simon Berthon and Joanna Potts, who are primarily documentary filmmakers, do nothing but cross-cut in Warlords. And why not? They’re writing about the greatest action sequence in modern time.
Warlords is not, however, about battles and campaigns. It’s not even, as the title implies, the whole shebang of World War II, but strictly the European theater as experienced by the four Great Men of the subtitle. Their (nearly) day-to-day perspectives are presented mostly by the official and semi-official communications of these leaders.
So the book offers a rather strange view of World War II, a kind of four-way tunnel vision. Benito Mussolini, for example, only counts because his relationship with Adolf Hitler helps to prove how delusional the führer was. The siege of Stalingrad comes in disconnected bulletins, because the authors are less concerned with how that struggle evolved and more concerned with how Russia’s desperate need for munitions created tensions among Stalin, Churchill, and FDR. The details can be fascinating, though. The central conflict between Churchill and Roosevelt flares during their first meeting, in August 1941. “Mr. President,” said WSC, “England does not propose for a minute to lose its favored position among the British dominions.” FDR replied, “You see, it is along in here somewhere that there is likely to be some disagreement between you, Winston, and me.”
In fact, the most fascinating part of Warlords is the weird, shifting love triangle among the Allied leaders— Churchill pitches woo after woo at Roosevelt, before and after the Americans enter the fray. FDR is charmed, but reluctant to support what he sees as the imperialist motive behind WSC’s seduction. They disagree over “UJ” (their abbreviation for “Uncle Joe” Stalin). FDR thinks UJ can be swayed in democratic ways, while WSC sees him as a mirror image of his territory-conscious self.
While these three dance around each other, Hitler is doing a slow death spiral, telling his generals how to win (read: lose) the war and taking his hatred of Jews to horrifying extremes.
At times, this book reads like a timeline with quotes— or perhaps an early draft of a screenplay for one of Berthon’s and Potts’s TV documentaries. The research is impressive, but paragraphs follow a sentence-quote-sentence-quote pattern. The relentless cross-cutting makes for choppy reading. But Warlords is less interested in the flow than in the moments—and many of the moments are Oscar worthy.
Originally published in the October 2007 issue of World War II Magazine. To subscribe, click here.