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Yalta and East/West relations

LAURENCE REES: To what extent do you think that Yalta was a betrayal of the values that the West was fighting the war for?

ANTONY BEEVOR: I think everybody acknowledges that Yalta was in many ways just the extension of Tehran. Once Stalin had managed to establish the strategy that was to be followed, there was basically almost no hope for Central Europe at all, assuming that the Red Army continued to advance. And one thing which Russian historians never liked to accept was the fact that if it hadn’t been for all the American trucks, the Studebakers and the Dodges, the Americans would certainly have got beyond Berlin long before the Soviets got there. And the other thing they also refuse to acknowledge is that if it hadn’t been for the RAF strategic - and US Airforce strategic - bombing campaign which brought all of the Luftwaffe fighter squadrons back from the Eastern Front, then operations like Bagration and others would not have achieved surprise, because the Germans would have had proper air reconnaissance.

Those are side issues in a way, but all important contributions to the fact that once the strategy was established at Tehran, and there was the rapidity of the Soviet advances in 1943 and 1944, then it was clear that at Yalta Stalin was in the driving seat. The point was, though, that although we know how ill Roosevelt was, he basically only had one interest in his mind which was the United Nations and was perfectly prepared to agree on Poland and almost anything else.  The trouble was that Churchill, according to Brooke and others, was actually only taking in about 50 percent of what was going on. Stalin was making quite clear signals when he was talking about Poland, basically saying I haven’t made any trouble in Greece, I haven’t caused any trouble in France, Poland is my rear area and I must be allowed to exert security there. And it was very, very hard for the Allies to say no. All they could insist on were the agreements about free elections. Well, obviously Stalin’s idea of free elections and the West’s idea of free elections were very, very different things. So he was perfectly prepared to give them some sops to take with them because he felt, well, that’s part of the democratic game, you know, talking to the House of Commons, or whatever it might be, but he did not take that seriously for a moment. And Churchill, who often had his mood swings, ups and downs, actually came away from Yalta tremendously optimistic, irrationally so, because he was severely disabused only a very short time later when the Polish representatives, despite receiving safe conducts, were then automatically arrested by the NKVD.

LAURENCE REES: To what extent is Stalin’s decision to push forward on Berlin influenced by his concerns about the way the relationship is going with his western allies?

ANTONY BEEVOR: I think the most significant date is the 7th of March, the bridge at Remagen was captured, and Stalin immediately sees the significance of that, because the very next day he summons Zhukov back to Moscow to start planning the Berlin operation. And the Berlin operation, which is basically going to consist of three army groups, three Fronts, was going to be the biggest operation really of the whole of the Second World War. Interestingly Stalin then managed to pull the wool over the eyes of the West time and time again; Eisenhower was extremely naïve - he sent a signal without consulting either Tedder or any of the British. I mean, that was his own deputy, but he then sent a signal to Stalin telling him exactly what his plans were and that he wasn’t really interested and didn’t think that Berlin was important, that it had lost its strategic significance, and that he felt that he should head more for the centre of Germany and towards the south where they might be an Alpenfestung, a last redoubt. Now, Stalin was thrilled when he heard that and he played this one up. At a meeting with Harriman, and later with Harriman and General Dean in Moscow, he said, 'yes, I think this is what’s going to happen, I think this analysis of the situation is absolutely right, we’re only going to send second rate troops towards Berlin'.  Then even on the 16th of April, when he launches the Berlin operation with two million shells fired on the Oder Front on the first day, he actually says 'we’re just sending some reconnaissance troops towards Berlin'.

So there was no doubt about it, it was completely pulling the wool over the West’s eyes. And despite Churchill’s horror at Eisenhower’s desire to push further south, there was no doubt that the Allies were not going to get to Berlin as a result.

LAURENCE REES: But it had always been agreed that the Red Army would take Berlin hadn’t it?

ANTONY BEEVOR: It had been agreed that Berlin was going to be within the Soviet’s own occupation, but it would be jointly occupied later with separate sectors. The other thing, though, was that in many cases there were going to be advances into the other side’s areas, and then they were going to pull back afterwards. Churchill, as we know, was pushing hard saying 'the more land we occupy the better position we’ll be in to bargain to get a square deal for Poland'. But the key time really came just before the Berlin operation on the 16th of April, just a couple of days before. The Americans were across the Elbe, and the 9th Army was starting to push troops across and was determined to shove forward and the whole question was: would they be able to break through? Well, they were only opposed by the German 12th Army which was very weak indeed; it only had young boys who had been who had just been doing their Reich’s labour service, Reichsarbeitsdienst, and they had no tanks.

In fact, I interviewed the Chief of Staff who happened to be still alive at the time, and the Chief Operations Officer of the 12th Army, and they both said 'we could not have held out even for 24 hours, there was no doubt about it'. So the Americans could have got to Berlin first, but Eisenhower and Bradley thought that it was worthless because they would suffer too many casualties and anyway they would have to give back the territory afterwards to the Russians. I think they would have got through but at the same time. I’m sure they would have easily have reached Berlin within 48 hours.

Now, if they had launched their attack as would have been the case, say on the morning of the 16th or the 17th of April when all the SS formations, all the most effective formations, were involved in fighting on the Oder and the Neisse Fronts, they couldn’t have been pulled out of the battle so the Americans would have got through very quickly. But Stalin was so determined to capture Berlin with his encirclement, and it’s interesting that he ordered an encirclement. He told Zhukov to come in from the east and to go round the northern side while Konev was to come up from the south and then to go round the western side to seal off the city so the Americans couldn’t get there. Now, Stalin wanted Berlin for two reasons, one, because it was the great symbol of the 'lair of the fascist beast', it was the trophy that the Soviet Union demanded for having won the war in the east, fair enough. But on the other hand though the other thing was the nuclear materials; certainly in the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute and the various other establishments; he wanted the uranium. By then he knew about the Manhattan project and they were actually short of uranium.

In fact there wasn’t that much uranium in Berlin, most of it had actually been sent down to the Black Forest and the Americans had picked up another lot just before, that was later used in the bombs on Japan. But that was his intention. We actually came across the documents ordering Beria to provide all of these NKVD rifle divisions ready to seal the city, and to get all of the scientists, all of the equipment, and any uranium and other materials back to the Soviet Union in record time.