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LAURENCE REES: To what extent can we think of Yalta as a betrayal of the ideals that the West was supposedly fighting the war for in the first place?

RICHARD OVERY:  One could see, I suppose, that the Soviet Union is going to sit in Eastern Europe as a betrayal, because, of course, the ideals of the West were anti-Soviet as much as they were anti-Fascist. Of course there was nothing you can do about it, and you hope that you’ve judged Stalin right as less of a wild card than Hitler was. But in fact most informed opinion knew in October 1939 that you were never going to get Poland back and that wasn’t why you fought the war, of course. You’d fought the war because you wanted to defend the Western world and the Western way of life.

LAURENCE REES: The trouble is you'd told everyone that you were fighting the war over the question of the integrity of Poland.

RICHARD OVERY: Well, you did, yes, but I don’t think many people took that terribly seriously except the Poles. And they very soon realised that it wasn’t the case.

LAURENCE REES: Pretty terrible for Poland though?


LAURENCE REES: And yet we consider we won the war.

RICHARD OVERY: Yes. Well, we won the war that we went to war for, which is the war for the Western world and not the war for Poland.

LAURENCE REES: But we said it was a war for Poland.

RICHARD OVERY: We said it was a war for Poland but I don’t think anybody had any illusions about that. During the run up to the outbreak of war, during September itself, we treated the Poles appallingly. That’s because we had written them off more or less. They were not people that the British or French liked very much anyway, and the idea was that this was a sticking point, where you finally said to Hitler, now you’ve got to stop because after Poland there’ll be this and there’ll be that and so on. So very quickly it becomes a war between different systems, different ideologies and different world views and not a war any longer for Poland. Although, of course, in 1945 there were many people, Churchill included, who might remember why it was that they’d gone to war formerly.

In the first place you’ve got to be realistic. You know you’re not going to be able to send forces of intervention as you’d done in 1918 to Poland to keep the Russians at bay.

LAURENCE REES: Do you think Roosevelt and Churchill genuinely believed the things they’re saying about Stalin around the time of Yalta?

RICHARD OVERY: I don’t think they trust him, but I think that Roosevelt hopes that there’ll be sufficient understanding to get some kind of post-war order in being. I think they judged that Stalin was keen on order too, because Stalin had been as worried as the others by the effect in Japan and the effect in Germany; what it actually represented. I think it is possible to argue that whatever other evils you associated with communism it would nonetheless put things in order. The big difference, I suppose, is that in the 1930s people perceived that the Stalin revolution - despite all the blood letting and the depression and so on - nonetheless stood for values that you could more or less identify with. This was in contrast to everything about the Nordic racism and imperialism and all the nonsense associated with Hitler that you couldn’t identify with and could only see as essentially destructive and irrational. So that Hitler is a wild card, someone beyond control. Stalin is a cunning politician and a cunning diplomat and I think that maybe they thought they knew where they were with someone like that. They couldn’t fathom Hitler at all.