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LAURENCE REES: What’s your view on Yalta?

SIR MAX HASTINGS: I think that Yalta has become a completely false symbol. In one sense Yalta made explicit all manner of things that actually had been implicit in the way that the Allies had conducted strategy all the way along. Nobody on the western side had any grounds to be proud of what was done at Yalta. Roosevelt, there’s no doubt, still hoped in a pretty naïve fashion that he could do business with Stalin and that it would be easier to do business with Stalin if he distanced himself from Churchill. Roosevelt also displayed a pretty cynical indifference to the fate of Eastern Europe, that Eastern Europe was to be liberated from one tyranny in ordered to be surrendered to another.

Churchill was also naïve. Churchill worked himself up into an almost emotional fever in his distress about, especially, the sacrifice of Poland and, especially, the fact that Polish freedom, for which Britain had gone into the Second World War, was to be sacrificed to the Russians. But Churchill refused to recognise the logic of his own position, that if the western Allies had been serious about wanting to see that eastern Europe was free, they would have had to have got into the war on a very big scale and they would have had to have had D Day in 1943. If they then fought like tigers and accepted casualties many times the scale of those that they did, then they might, they might, have been able to save eastern Europe and Poland from the Russians, though even then it’s pretty doubtful. But what would have happened if Roosevelt and Churchill had gone to their own electorates and said we are actually going to launch a major campaign on the continent which is going to cost hundreds of thousands of extra lives, not in order to accelerate the defeat of Hitler, but in order to make sure that all these poor Polish and Romanian and Czech and Hungarian peoples don’t fall prey to the wicked Russians?

No British or American government could have survived that, because the other thing one has to remember is the colossal popular enthusiasm for Russia especially in Britain. British people are saying that they thought Russia was absolutely wonderful. Reading people’s diaries from that period it is absolutely extraordinary, the euphoric expressions of enthusiasm for Uncle Joe Stalin and what he was doing. The man whose armies had killed 2 or 3 million - the heroic Soviet people. And all the time there was a rage towards their own government for not getting into the war more. So any notion that the British public or the American one would have supported Churchill or Roosevelt in “standing up to the Russians,” it was just never on. And yes it’s true that things were made explicit at Yalta, which looked pretty ugly, but the nature of the Yalta decisions was settled in advanced.

There’s also been a lot of sentiment about some aspects of Yalta. For instance, on one issue in particular, the repatriation of Russians who had been fighting in German uniform. Well, first of all, in that climate, at that stage, when the Russians were liberating a lot of British prisoners any idea that when the British were desperate to get their own prisoners back from all these camps in Poland we would refuse to do a reciprocal deal for repatriation with the Russians is unrealistic. Secondly, the Cossacks - because everybody thinks of them all dancing in fancy clothes and so on - the Cossacks weren’t like that. The Cossacks who fought in German uniforms had done terrible things on German orders in northern Italy and Yugoslavia. Their atrocities had become a by-word. I don’t mean that anyone for a moment could applaud the fact that these wretched people were returned to be cold bloodedly slaughtered by Stalin, but any idea that one was returning these poor innocent foes of Stalin, I don’t buy that at all, and I think those authors who have are just plain wrong and naïve.

So all that happened at Yalta was that a rubber stamp was put on a lot of ugly, ugly things which should have been bound to happen for at least 2 or 3 years because of the way that the West had planned its strategy through the 2nd World War.

LAURENCE REES: Do you think Churchill and Roosevelt genuinely believed the things they were saying at that time about Stalin?

SIR MAX HASTINGS: Roosevelt, by the time of Yalta, was a very sick man. He was a ghost of a man, and it seems quite unrealistic to believe that Roosevelt in his then physical state was likely to make much sense about anything. But Roosevelt, still in his sentient self, clung to this notion that he might be able to do business with Stalin. But the Americans cared vastly more about getting Soviet support for the war in the Far East after Germany had been defeated than they did about the fate of Eastern Europe. Churchill, well there was a schizophrenia about Churchill’s attitude, but half the time throughout the war Churchill was saying to those closest to him that Stalin was a monster, that the Russians are capable of anything, that they cannot be trusted an inch, and then Churchill was conceited about the power of his own personality to influence outcome, and he was sometimes very naïve. After meetings at which Stalin had thrown him a few kind words he’d have moments of euphoria, where he said it’s all going so well with Uncle Joe.

It always seems to me that one of the strangest aspects of the Second World War is that you’ve got two brilliant men, Roosevelt and Churchill, but how could they persuade themselves that they could forge a real alliance with a man such as Stalin and with a nation such as the Soviet Union who’s entire rational was totally at odds with the interests, purposes, beliefs and values of the United States and Britain? The best any reasonable person could ever have thought was possible was that there was going to be a very grudging partnership on very specific issues, in particular one specific issue, the destruction of the Nazis. But what more could you have expected? Some of the British were very odd. Senior British diplomats, politicians and generals would confide to their diaries that they hated the Russians, that they did not just merely not like them they loathed them, they loathed everything they stood for. But they believed that they could mask that sentiment and somehow expect to forge some sort of comradeship, so that in the British way everybody could sit down at dinner together and talk like old mates and get along together and forge some sort of real partnership.

Well, Stalin was the only one who was completely undeluded about this, Stalin all the time understood very clearly one thing, that he had grudgingly entered into an extremely limited relationship with the Western powers for one explicit purpose: to speed the defeat of Hitler. But other than that Stalin never for a moment lost sight of the fact that his purposes were utterly different from those of the United States and Britain. And it is pretty weird that two of the most brilliant men of all time, Churchill and Roosevelt, could have convinced themselves differently

LAURENCE REES: Maybe in fact they were simply conning the public?

SIR MAX HASTINGS: I think it’s true that Churchill felt that he had to pretend with the United States much more than the Soviet Union. Eden, for example, wrote in his diary at times, almost despairingly, that he felt that Churchill had entirely succumbed to Roosevelt and that he put the Anglo American relationship so far above all other interests that he was prepared to sacrifice anything to it. But I don’t buy that. I think what Churchill merely recognised was the supreme wisdom that making the Anglo American relationship work was absolutely fundamental, not only to winning the war, but to Britain’s future, and I don’t think that you could accuse Churchill of naivety in the context of the Anglo American relationship. I do think that he sometimes displayed immense realism, but he was sometimes tired and exhausted. Especially in the last year of the war he allowed himself to be persuaded that by force of personality he could do some serious business with Stalin.

LAURENCE REES: If it was a genuine feeling Churchill had that he could trust Stalin, then the subsequent let down must have been terrible for him.

SIR MAX HASTINGS: Well, in a way, the most staggering aftermath of Yalta didn’t come until May 1945 with Operation Unthinkable when, within weeks of the German’s surrender, Churchill stunned the chiefs of staff by asking them to prepare a plan for expelling the Russians from Poland by force of arms, and the chiefs of staff duly got their planners to do it and the resulting document seems to me one of the most amazing documents of the Second World War. This is a plan for 47 divisions to advance on 2 axes into Eastern Europe. Now the chiefs of staff always knew that this was beyond madness. They used the words hazardous 8 times in the draft of Operation Unthinkable plan, but they had to go through the motion to please the Prime Minister. They made an absolutely key point, namely they said if we were to undertake such an operation in the eyes of ourselves and the Americans, it might be for the solely limited purpose of imposing our will on the Russians for the future of Poland. On the other hand it would not be our privilege to maintain that, but if the Russians wanted total war the Russians could have it, and they say in the Operation Unthinkable draft that they think the Russians certainly have the capability to do it.

The bottom line on all this was that the chiefs of staff made it pretty plain that even if it existed, the British and American peoples…. well, most of Churchill’s Government, would resign rather than have anything to do with it. Even if the British and the American Governments were willing to undertake such an operation it would almost certainly have failed, the Red Army would almost certainly have defeated the British and the Americans, which would have been a catastrophe. But that really seems to me the final nemesis of any tiny particle of faith that Churchill might have had in Yalta, that within 4 months of Yalta he is asking his own chiefs of staff to draw up a plan to expel the Russians from Poland by force.

LAURENCE REES: Churchill never seems to blame himself for his misjudgement about Stalin.

SIR MAX HASTINGS: My own thesis about Churchill and the Second World War is that all the time, certainly after 1940, there was a mismatch between Churchill’s ambitions and the ability of his own nation to fulfill them, and especially of its armed forces to fulfill them. But Churchill was himself a hero and a Titan and he wanted his nation to behave like heroes and he was successful in 1940 in rousing the British during an extraordinary effort of defiance that changed the course of history. But after 1940 it seems to me that most of the history of Britain in the Second World War is of Churchill wanting more from Britain and its armies than they were capable of delivering, and he was always frustrated. There’s a very vivid moment in August 1942 when he was visiting the Middle East and he wrote to Clementine, his wife, and he says I’m going to visit all the units of the army in the desert and I’m going to tell them what glorious laurels and what wonderful honours can be theirs if they now do their part on the battlefield.

Churchill was never very good at understanding that most of the men out there in the desert, like most soldiers of democracies in modern wars, were willing to do the job, willing to do the business, but they don’t want to win Victoria Crosses, they don’t want to win medals of honour. What they want is to come home and have a life afterwards, and what they really wanted to hear from Churchill and what he was quite uninterested in delivering to them, and was why the British people so sensibly expelled him from power in 1945, was that the only way a lot of people in the democracy stayed sane during the Second World War was by dreaming of a future beyond war. 95% of the men in Montgomery’s army in the desert were perfectly willing to do the job. They knew that they couldn’t go home until they’d beaten the Germans, but they didn’t really care if they got Military Crosses or DSO’s or this that and the other, all that they really wanted was to have a home and a family and a life and a future to come back to. And Churchill never really understood this.

So all the time through the war, here is Churchill the hero drawing his sword, metaphorically welding it aloft and calling from the British people and from the west for great, great things, and most of the time it was rather like that story of Lord Uxbridge at Waterloo when he ordered the Dutch-Belgian Cavalry to charge and he started charging himself at the head and then turned back after 100 yards and found that nobody was following him. Well, in rather the same way, again and again you feel with Churchill, all the way through, this colossal frustration, that he couldn’t carry the western alliance with him through the war to anything like the achievements that he wanted.

This frustration didn’t just apply to his dealings with the Russians, it applied to almost everything that the British and the Americans did in the course of the war after 1940. But you can’t expect democracies to be tremendously patient. There is some amazing stuff in some of the diaries of ordinary citizens and soldiers from 1941, when soldiers were already writing saying they’re terribly bored with the war, they want it to be over, 1 or 2 even saying they don’t mind how it comes out as long as we can just get all this nonsense over with and be allowed to go home. So the challenge for the leader of the democracy is so enormous to keep the momentum going.

Churchill found it fantastically difficult to keep that momentum going. All the time he’s trying to drag this nation along which occasionally will do quite good things and did something very wonderful by defying Hitler in 1940, but after that he could never get anything like what he, the hero, wanted out of them.