Doing Business With Stalin and Hitler

The play 'Three days in May' explores the more human traits of history's lager than life figures.

Tom Segev
Tom Segev
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Tom Segev
Tom Segev

On the morning of March 11, 1940, the telephone rang in the home of Russian writer Mikhail Bulgakov. On the line was someone from Stalin’s bureau: “Is it true that Comrade Bulgakov has died?” the caller asked. Bulgakov had died 24 hours earlier. Two-and-a-half months later, a drama of tremendous historical significance played out in London: British Prime Minister Winston Churchill considered the possibility of aiming for a peace agreement with Hitler.

Stalin and Churchill were recently seen in London and they looked so real it was hard to believe that they were appearing on stage, in two different theaters. Both of the plays in question are surprising.

Churchill and Stalin.

Bulgakov is known mainly thanks to his anti-Stalinist novel “The Master and Margarita”; in reality, he was a collaborator with Stalin. Churchill expended quite a lot of energy on his historical image as a bold lion leading his people amid all the blood, sweat and tears, until its finest hour. But for three days in May 1940, he was more like Israel’s Prime Minister Levi Eshkol on the eve of the Six-Day War: He vacillated.

Bulgakov, one of the title characters of “Collaborators,” by John Hodges, did not like the Communist regime and the regime did not like him; the plays he wrote were shelved. In 1930 Bulgakov wrote a protest letter to the authorities: If they don’t allow the staging of the plays he has written, he demanded, at least they should let him be a producer, and if not a producer, maybe an actor and if not an actor at least a stagehand. Something!

Two weeks later, Bulgakov had a phone call from Stalin in person, and from then on he was one of the most influential people in the Russian theater. He enjoyed the bear hug, but it came with a price: Bulgakov was required to sell his soul. In September 1938, he wrote in his diary that he had started to work on a play depicting Stalin’s life, and maybe it would be an opera.

Hodge’s play is still running in London. And the star is Stalin himself.

A few months after Bulgakov began working on his drama about the Soviet ruler’s life story, Stalin sent his foreign minister to sign the nonaggression agreement with Hitler’s foreign minister. The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was among the developments that prompted Churchill to consider a peace agreement with Hitler.

According to a public opinion poll conducted by the BBC 10 years ago, most inhabitants of Great Britain put Churchill at the top of the list of the 100 greatest Britons of all time. Along with the books documenting his life and his actions, there are also innumerable films and plays, some of them very critical. It seemed as though nothing new could be said. However, Ben Brown, in his play “Three Days in May,” manages to shock many viewers: This is not what they learned about Churchill in school.

Churchill became prime minister of Great Britain on May 10, 1940; his was a national unity government. The German army was then advancing swiftly toward France; more than 300,000 British soldiers who had been sent to defend France were cut off, and the chances of the United States joining the war seemed slim. And then the foreign secretary, Lord Halifax, suggested using Benito Mussolini as an intermediary between Britain and Germany in order to reach an agreement to end the war. Neville Chamberlain supported the idea. Both men, like Churchill himself, were from the Conservative Party. Both Labor Party ministers in the cabinet opposed the idea.

Churchill the politician allowed for serious discussion of the idea, probably for the most part so the two Conservatives would not resign. On stage, Churchill looks the way apparently he really was: a great statesman with some rather childish traits.

“Three Days in May,” which has ended its run for the moment, makes a point of stressing the difference between Churchill and Chamberlain, who had apparently not learned a thing from his attempt to appease the Fuehrer. But the proposal is on the cabinet table. The prime minister of France hastens to London to persuade the Brits that an agreement with Hitler would be preferable to a war against him. While there is still no concrete German proposal, Churchill and his people try to guess what the price would be: maybe giving up their positions in Malta and Suez. Who knows, this could have been a first concession; Hitler was also liable to demand Jerusalem. Today a large question mark and a play remain both of which fire the imagination.



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