I love to read espionage thrillers, but there's definitely a place for nonfiction in my reading list as well. Not only is nonfiction an excellent change of pace, but history provides an inspiration and an essential element in understanding ourselves. This new history book highlighting three important World War II-era women by Catherine Grace Katz struck me as particularly interesting. It's a valuable contribution, whether you're just getting into the subject or you're an old history buff, so I’m offering it up as my first review of 2021:
Catherine Grace Katz’s new history book, “Daughters of Yalta – The Churchills, Roosevelts, and Harrimans: A Story of Love and War,” is a fascinating take on the historic Yalta conference (February 1945) through the eyes of three daughters who attended alongside their powerful fathers (Anna Roosevelt, daughter of U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt; Kathleen Harriman, daughter of railroad tycoon/U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union Averell Harriman; and Sarah Churchill, daughter of U.K. Prime Minister Winston Churchill). The reader learns not only about these three fascinating women, who were talented professionals in their own right (Kathleen was a war correspondent; Sarah, an actress and RAF officer; and Anna, a writer and editor), and their activities and duties during the conference – now seen as the turning point between World War and Cold War – but also about aspects of the meeting that could only be known through the women’s letters and commentaries. Katz adeptly lends perspective on the role of women in society at the time, what the daughters’ relationships were like with their fathers, and how the women interacted with one another (including their families’ romantic entanglements).
Given that the conference was a negotiation with Soviet leader Joseph Stalin regarding the future of Europe in a post-WWII world, Katz reveals how the women influenced their fathers, and in turn, the talks, directly and indirectly. “Each of the three women had come to Yalta conscious of the history she was about to witness. No three women in recent history had acquired such a seat at the table alongside the most powerful leaders in the world at a major international summit. Now Stalin walked around the table and touched glasses with each of the three women in turn, recognizing each of them and the place they had earned,” Katz writes.
Other notable points touched upon include: Kathleen’s participation (prior to Yalta) in a delegation examining the site of the horrific Katyn Forest massacre, Anna’s seat across from Stalin’s ruthless Secret Police Chief Lavrentiy Beria (who was responsible for that massacre) at a dinner at the conference, Stalin’s sophisticated use of spies in Britain pre- and post-Yalta, and the anti-Semitism of the elite in general at the time. In her wrap-up, Katz explains how views on the conference shifted over time, as Stalin reneged on various aspects of the Yalta agreement. Finally, Katz makes clear that these three daughters went far beyond the hostess jobs they are typically thought to have undertaken to play key advisory roles at one of the pivotal events of the twentieth century. This well-researched extensively footnoted work is an enjoyable read that will definitely add new material to anyone's background on World War II.