‘Yalta’, like ‘Munich’, has become a synonym for the cynical betrayal of the weak by the strong. It is an oft-told, well-documented and controversial story. Diana Preston retells it fluently, perceptively and with meticulous scholarship. Her judgments are admirably sensible....There is a wider lesson. Great powers should not offer or imply guarantees unless they are sure they have both the will and the means to honour them. The supposed beneficiaries should look at the offers they get with beady eyes, lest they find themselves left in the lurch, as the Poles were in 1939. These are basic truths which Ukrainians and Kurds no doubt find themselves pondering today.
A generalist historian whose works have ranged from the Jacobite rebellion to Antony and Cleopatra, Preston is a tidy writer. Her prose is crisp and engaging and she does not indulge in weighty judgments about the significance of what was debated at Yalta. And she allows the reader to enjoy the physical discomfort of three great delegations crammed into palaces designed for altogether fewer guests.
Preston’s book is shrewd on the main personalities: Roosevelt, arrogant and Machiavellian, but a desperately ill man with only a few weeks to live; Churchill, presented here not at his best, a bit of a windbag, a poor listener, sycophantic to the American president and “ever-conscious of Britain’s decline as a Great Power”. Stalin is the most clear-sighted of the Big Three — “ruthless… but if I had to pick a team going into a conference,” said Britain’s foreign secretary Anthony Eden, “Stalin would be my first choice.”