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Eastern FrontJuly 1945

Stalin and the Cold War

What was Stalin’s role in causing the Cold War?
Was the Cold War – the conflict between the West and the Soviets that came to dominate much of the second half of the 20th century – born out of the Second World War and out of Stalin’s decision making?

Video Transcript

Commentary: It’s April 1945 and Soviet forces meet up with American soldiers at Torgau, south west of Berlin. The two fronts – East and West – finally converge. It was a deeply symbolic event. The war in Europe would be over in days and these pictures seem to suggest that the future relationship between the Western powers and Stalin’s Soviet Union would be one of partnership and trust. But there was a problem. The leader of the Soviet Union, Joseph Stalin, didn’t necessarily believe a long term, close partnership with the West was possible.

Sir Max Hastings: 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.

Commentary: The fractures in the alliance were clear by the time of this conference here at Potsdam outside Berlin in July 1945. The other Allied leaders struggled to do deals with Stalin. They even struggled to fully understand Stalin’s complex personality.

Simon Sebag Montefiore: He was never an Idi Amin character, he was never a Suddam Hussein sort of tyrant. He was always, despite his very small town beginnings - his Georgian background, son of a cobbler - he was also always a sophisticated player. All through his life he’s wheedled, he’s made people trust him. It’s just that he always has the ability to walk away and destroy them too. 

Commentary: And by the time of Potsdam, Stalin was full of resentment towards the West. Because the Red Army had suffered much, much more on the eastern front – facing the bulk of German forces – than the British and American armies had suffered in the west.

Andrew Roberts: The Western strategy wasn’t particularly brave, but it was the right one for us.

Laurence Rees: And the only downside being Eastern Europe.

Andrew Roberts: Well, and also a very aggressive Stalin, who embarks straight on to the Cold War as soon as the war is over. But, you know, very few Britons died in the Cold War did they.

Commentary: European cities urgently needed to be rebuilt – no more so than here in Berlin. The trouble was that the Allies found it hard to agree on just who should be allowed to do what in the post-war world. Stalin in particular didn’t see why the West should be allowed to interfere in territory that his soldiers had shed blood to conquer. And that meant most of Eastern Europe.

Professor Robert Service: Stalin plans for an Eastern Europe that is subject to Soviet influence. 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.

Commentary: By the spring of 1946, Winston Churchill was sure where all this was leading, and he said so in a famous speech he gave in Fulton, Missouri.

Archive of Winston Churchill (5th March 1946): From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic an Iron Curtain has descended across the Continent. Behind that line lie all the capitals of the ancient states of Central and Eastern Europe. This is certainly not the liberated Europe we fought to build up. Nor is it one which contains the essentials of permanent peace. There never was a war in history easier to prevent by timely action than the one which has just desolated such great areas of the globe. It could have been prevented, in my belief, without the firing of a single shot, and Germany might be powerful, prosperous and honoured today. But no-one would listen. And one by one we were all sucked into the awful whirlpool. We surely, ladies and gentlemen, I put it to you, surely we must not let that happen again.

Commentary: And in an attempt to not let it happened again, the Americans launched in 1947 one of the biggest packages of economic help in history – the Marshall Plan. Any eligible European country – east or west – could ask for a share of this aid. But to receive it, they had to first agree to abide by concepts alien to Stalin – like the right of free speech. And so in response, in Soviet occupied Eastern Europe, Stalin took decisive action.

Professor Robert Service: 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.

Commentary: By 1947 this was the map of Europe. With almost all of Eastern Europe in Communist control behind what was now known as the ‘Iron Curtain’. But to many, this division of Europe had been all but inevitable.

Professor Robert Dallek: As George Kennan, the great diplomat and later historian said: the price we paid for the Soviets tearing the guts out of the Nazi war machine in World War Two was their domination of East, Central Europe.

Commentary: By the time of Stalin’s death in March 1953 the Soviet Union was an established superpower and the Cold War with America had been launched. Stalin had ensured that the Soviets now had their own nuclear weapons and the uneasy stand off with the West would now last until the fall of the Soviet Union nearly forty years later. Maybe Stalin had never willed the Cold War, but his actions had played a decisive part in bringing it about.