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Churchill’s attitude to Poland

LAURENCE REES: So Churchill writes this extraordinary defence of Poland’s right to keep its Eastern territory in 1942, and yet - very shortly afterwards at the Tehran Conference in 1943 - he’s actually volunteering to Stalin that the Soviets can now have this self same territory. Why?

ANITA PRAŻMOWSKA: British dependence on the Soviet Union. That dependence is actually something that I think successive British governments have been very reluctant to accept. What always strikes me is that I started teaching in 1980 and when I first taught the history of the Second World War my students were incapable of accepting any discussion of the role of the Soviet Union in the war. Now in those circumstances the only historian of any standing who actually stressed the importance of the Soviet Union was AJP Taylor. Now we’ve got a number of extremely good books in which the Soviet contribution and the degree of dependence on the Soviet defeat of the Nazi power is discussed in terms of how and when rather than whether, and it’s difficult to go back to the fact that history could be to such an extent treated as a political tool. I think until very recently the feeling was that the war was an Anglo-American one, and what happened in the West is what we talk about. I mean just think of Margaret Thatcher’s celebration, I think was it of the 45th Anniversary of the Normandy landing, in which there was no place for any Soviet representative because, in the end, did they do anything? And there was no outcry about it.

In recent celebrations again there’s that element of political use, whereas in fact if you look at Churchill’s own diaries or memoirs, or even any calendar of the war, you can see that although Churchill does appreciate the contribution made by the Poles, there’s no doubt about it, because Sikorski’s offering troops, and troops are very much needed in the Middle East, what the Soviet Union is doing is by far more important. And [also important is] the British degree of dependence on the continuation of the war, that the Russians should not just defeat Germany on their own territory but pursue Germany right through to Berlin, and then of course what matters is the promise made that Soviet troops are going to be moved to fight Japanese troops on the Chinese mainland.