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Eastern Front1st July 1945

Stalin and the West

An American and Soviet Soldier
An American and Soviet Soldier

Stalin’s relationship with his wartime Allies – Britain and America – was dominated by two issues which were to cause almost endless conflict. One was the question of the ‘second front’ – by which Stalin meant the invasion of France via D Day – and the next was the thorny subject of the post-war boundaries of the Soviet Union, and the extent to which the Soviets could influence or control the border states nearby.

Significantly, whilst Stalin could ultimately do little to influence the first of these great questions – when was D Day going to be – he could do an immense amount to influence the second. And it was largely thanks to his understanding of the brutal way in which real power works, together with the huge sacrifice made by soldiers of the Red Army, that the Soviet Union emerged from the war with so much new territory. 

In the immediate aftermath of the German invasion of the Soviet Union neither Britain nor America were over-eager to offer assistance to Stalin. Though the British immediately considered the Soviet Union an ‘Ally’, and promised some military and other assistance, the help proposed was on nothing like the scale that Stalin thought he either needed or deserved.

There was one fundamental reason why Britain and America appeared somewhat reticent at first in their dealings with Stalin – the consensus amongst the Western Allies was that the Soviet Union would swiftly lose against the Germans. As a consequence, when it became clear that the Red Army could actually resist and even, in December 1941, fight back against the Wehrmacht, attitudes in the West began to change.

Indeed, as Andrew Roberts puts it: ‘The massive shift [in the relationship between the Western Allies and the Soviet Union] takes place solely because the Red Army starts to fight back. In the period when over 3 million Russians go into captivity - they have half of their air force knocked out in the first 48 hours after Operation Barbarossa is unleashed - when 100s and 100s of miles are lost and the Germans get within a few miles of Moscow, one can understand why the general staff in the West and certainly the politicians in the West and primarily Churchill and Roosevelt have no time for Stalin. They have something approaching contempt for a country that is being so comprehensively wiped out. By the time in December 1941, when German troops start surrendering to Zhukov on the Moscow Front, and certainly at the time of Stalingrad in late 1942 and most definitely by the time the Germans were unable to win the Battle of Kursk, it becomes clear that Stalin is not somebody who’s about to be pushed off, but instead is going to be commander of the army that finally takes Berlin. And so as a result you can you can plot the increased respect and time that Roosevelt and Churchill have for Stalin on the map of the Eastern Front.’

Stalin would never forget that it had been the blood of the Soviet people that had bought this ‘increased respect’. He saw first hand the extent to which ‘democratic’ statesmen also acted in their own interests – and so he felt it was plainly hypocritical of them to complain later on when he acted in the interests only of the Soviet Union. Stalin had also taken careful note of the way Roosevelt had promised that in 1942 there would be a ‘second front’ (a D Day invasion of France) in Western Europe, launched to take pressure off the Red Army – something that didn’t happen until 1944: ‘Stalin was very concerned about the opening of the Second Front,’ says Russian historian Kirill Anderson, ‘and it became a very sensitive issue for him. And the delay with the opening of the Second Front was one of the main reasons for Stalin’s mistrust towards the allies. It was a very serious question for him.’

Or, as Sir Max Hastings puts it, even more succinctly: ‘The British and the Americans used to talk a lot in the war and have done since about all the lies that the Russians told us and God knows the Russians did tell a great many lies, but the British and the Americans tell the Russians many lies also. They broke almost all their promises about aid deliveries to Russia in between 1941 and 1943 and most importantly they explicitly led Stalin to believe that D Day on the continent was seriously on the agenda in 1942, when it was not. They continued that deceit through 1943.’

Stalin – intensely suspicious to the point of paranoia – was probably the last person the Western leaders should have misled over such a crucial matter as the question of the date of the second front. The result was predictable – Stalin believed, as he told a French delegation after the war, that the Western Allies had been deliberately stringing him along, promising D Day in order to keep the Soviets fighting the Germans but postponing the date until the guts of the German army had been destroyed by the Red Army, thus saving the West casualties and weakening the Soviet state.

            And, as Sir Max Hastings says, it may well be that Stalin’s suspicions were not so very far from the truth: ‘In his less guarded moments Churchill was by no means unhappy to see the Russians doing the bleeding and the dying that otherwise the British would have had to do. And I think we have to recognise today that while the leaders of Britain and America served their countries very well by husbanding the lives of their young people, so that at the end of the war there was this huge disparity between the 400,000 odd British, 300,000 odd Americans and 27 million Russians who died, we could hardly expect the Russians to be immensely grateful.’

            Stalin, most certainly, was not ‘immensely grateful’ for the ‘help’ of the Western Allies over the question of the second front. Nor was he happy with the initial attitude of Churchill over the question of the future of Poland – a second key issue for the Soviet leader. Stalin wanted, at the end of the war, to keep the territory in Eastern Poland that the Soviet Union had seized in September 1939 as a consequence of the Molotov/Ribbentrop pact. He also wanted to ensure that the remaining Polish state was ‘friendly’ to the Soviet Union.

Churchill, in January 1942, wrote a stinging attack on the suggestion that Stalin could keep Eastern Poland, saying that this territory was ‘acquired by acts of aggression in shameful collusion with Hitler’[1]. And yet, in November 1943 at the Tehran conference, Churchill discussed a deal with Stalin to give the Soviets just what they wanted.

That turn around in policy, together with the intense efforts both Roosevelt and Churchill made to build a personal relationship with Stalin at Tehran, demonstrated the growing power the Soviet leader had within the ‘Big Three’. Roosevelt in particular realized that if the Americans could not reach a positive working relationship with Stalin then the whole future of post-war politics looked bleak. The trouble was that both Churchill and Roosevelt were, in the words of the British Commander, Sir Alan Brooke, appealing to ‘sentiments in Stalin which I do not think exist there[2].’

What Brooke saw was that ‘facts only count with him [ie Stalin[3]’]. Stalin was possibly the least sentimental leader in history. He was not interested – as democratic politicians are – in people ‘liking’ him. He was not interested in forming ‘personal relationships’ with other world statesmen. He saw the world as a brutal place in which individuals did not really matter. What mattered was ‘geo-politics’ and the protection of the interests of the Soviet Union as he saw them.

All of this meant that he could take a somewhat sanguine view of what he took to be the posturing of Churchill and Roosevelt. Stalin, at the great conferences of Tehran and then Yalta, spoke little. But he spoke to the point. And he was always consistent in his aims – to keep Eastern Poland (and the Baltic States) within the Soviet Union and to ensure ‘friendly’ nations on the border of the Soviet Union. As a result of this focus – and the fact that the Red Army by the end of the war occupied this territory – he got what he wanted. It didn’t matter to him that he ‘broke’ ‘promises’ made at Yalta about free elections in Poland after the war. In fact, he was probably surprised when Western leaders protested at his actions. He would have thought that as great leaders they would have understood that his ‘promises’ were mere rhetoric.  

And we should have some small sympathy for Stalin’s view, since both Churchill – in his notorious ‘percentages’ conversation in Moscow in October 1944 – and Roosevelt – by his obvious desire at Yalta and Tehran not to discuss in detail the borders of Eastern Europe – had shown that they were not averse to talking about ‘spheres of influence’ in post-war Europe (this despite Roosevelt’s attempt to tell Congress after Yalta that the conference had seen an end to such talk).

‘In the Tehran and Yalta conferences, the spheres of interests were divided between the allies,’ says Russian historian Dr Kirill Anderson, ‘and what was later called Eastern Europe became part of the Soviet sphere of interests. Of course, there had to be regimes [there] that were close to the Soviet Union. But that happened gradually.’

Contrary to popular belief, Stalin did not immediately try to ‘Communise’ the countries of Eastern Europe occupied by the Red Army at the end of the war – he was playing a much more sophisticated game. ‘Stalin plans for an Eastern Europe that is subject to Soviet influence,’ says Professor Robert Service. ‘That’s not the same as an Eastern Europe that’s fully Communised, but it does mean that Communist political influence is going to be very strong in those countries. He plays his cards very carefully in 1945 and 1946, turning those countries into countries that cannot say no to the Soviet Union, but they’re not yet Communist… It’s only when the Marshall Plan is introduced by the Americans in 1947 that he takes this enormous gamble of fully Communising all of those countries. He feels he’s got nothing to lose. And the Americans don’t respond. Because the Soviet presence in Eastern Europe is by then fairly consolidated and they would have had to have said to American people: now there has to be a Third World War.’

All of which leaves us with the perennial question – what was Stalin’s role in the chain of causation which lead to the Cold War? And the answer Dr Kirill Anderson gives is clear: ‘A Cold War is like an argument in a communal flat. Everybody is guilty. To an extent the situation became more difficult when Roosevelt died. If he hadn’t died, perhaps the Cold War as we knew it wouldn’t have taken place. Truman had a completely different personality, he had an open conflict with the Soviet Union, and Churchill sided with him. American Generals thought that with the end of the war there would be a different relationship with the Soviets – well everybody had his own piece of guilt in the origin of the Cold War - Stalin himself, Truman and Churchill too.’

Stalin died in March 1953 – at the height of the Cold War he had helped create. And he died as he had lived. Friendless, paranoid and possessed of the bleakest view of the human condition imaginable.

[1] Public Record Office, London: FO 371/32864 Churchill to Anthony Eden 7 January 1942

[2] Lord Alanbrooke ‘War Diaries’ 1939-1945 (Phoenix 2002) pp299-300 entry for 13 August 1942

[3] Ibid