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Eastern Front4th February 1945


Did the West 'sell out' Eastern Europe at Yalta?
To what extent at the Yalta Conference did Roosevelt and Churchill betray the very ideals many believed they had been fighting the war for?

Video Transcript

Commentary: Yalta, on the southern coast of the Crimea on the Black Sea. And the Livadia Palace, former holiday home of Tsar Nicholas II. In February 1945 this was the site of one of the most famous meetings in all history. One at which the Allies would plot the future of the post-war world. And by the time Winston Churchill and a sick-looking Franklin Roosevelt arrived here at Yalta, they knew the debt they owed to their Soviet hosts. 

Professor Robert Service: We shouldn’t idealise the thinking of Roosevelt and Churchill, who were both content that it was Russian soldiers who were dying rather than American or British ones.

Andrew Roberts: You can plot the increased respect and time that Roosevelt and Churchill have for Stalin on the map of the Eastern Front. Four out of every five Germans who die on a battlefield are killed on the Eastern Front, and Roosevelt and Churchill know that.

Commentary: By February 1945 and the Yalta Conference, Stalin’s Red Army had advanced across almost the whole of Eastern Europe and was preparing for the assault on Berlin. Stalin knew the power this gave him in any discussions about the future of Europe. In any case, Franklin Roosevelt had other priorities. He wanted to get the Soviets into the war against Japan, and Stalin to agree to take part in the United Nations once the war was over. For Roosevelt, questions about exactly what would happen to Eastern European states after the war were much less important.

Professor Robert Dallek: And Roosevelt’s assumption was: what choice do we have? We’re going to go to war with Russia over Poland, over the Baltic states? He was pressured by Eleanor Roosevelt about the Baltics, his wife, he was pressured by the Poles about what he was doing for Poland. And behind the scenes he’s contemptuous of this. He says at one point, ‘Do you expect me to go to war with Stalin over the Baltics?’ Sure, democracy, freedom, the rhetoric tumbles off their lips - the declaration of freedom for the liberated countries from Nazi control in Eastern Europe - it’s rhetoric. The reality is what dictates.

Commentary: And for Churchill in particular, Yalta was the culmination of an unpleasant political reality – the future shape of Poland. At Stalin’s insistence, post-war Poland was to move more than a hundred miles west, so as to make the Soviet Union bigger. And Stalin also demanded that the Baltic states be incorporated into the Soviet Union as well. But for Churchill the big issue was the future of Poland. After all, the British had said they’d gone to war in the first place to protect Poland.

Professor Anita Prażmowska: Quite clearly the reason that he’s a war leader is precisely because he’s able to, for all his emotionality, and he really is quite an emotional man, was able to be brutal also. And if we come back to where we started, Poland was a very small player in what was a very big game. And the game was defeat of Germany and restoration of British influence.

Professor Richard Overy: 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’d fought the war of course, you’d fought the war because you wanted to defend the western world and the western way of life, and so on.

Laurence Rees: The trouble is you’d told everyone you were fighting the war over the question of the integrity of Poland.

Professor 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.

Commentary: There were agreements made at Yalta. Not just about Poland but about the future shape of Germany, and fine promises were made by Stalin about allowing democratic elections in the East. But there was no concealing the fact that Stalin and the Red Army occupied Eastern Europe, nor hiding from the practical consequences that followed.

Sir Max Hastings: Churchill, he worked himself up into almost an emotional fever in his distress about especially the sacrifice of Poland. About 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 Allies had been serious - the Western Allies - about wanting to see that Eastern Europe was free, they would have had to have got into the war on a very big scale. They would have had to have had D-Day in 1943, and if they then fought like tigers and accepted casualties many times the scale of those that they did, they might, they might have been able to save Eastern Europe and Poland from the Russians. Even then it’s pretty doubtful. So all that happened at Yalta was a rubber stamp was put on a lot of ugly, ugly things which had been bound to happen for at least two or three years that the way that the West planned its strategy through the Second World War.

Commentary: But of course Western politicians, particularly Franklin Roosevelt, put the best gloss on Yalta that they could.

Professor Robert Dallek: He comes back from Yalta after the Yalta Conference and he says falsely, knowing that he’s misleading the public, this conference represents the end of balance of power diplomacy, the end of spheres of influence.

Archive of President Franklin Roosevelt (1st March 1945): I come from the Crimea Conference with the firm belief that we have made a good start on the road to a world of peace. Never before have the major allies been more closely united, not only in their war aims but also in their peace aims. And they’re determined to continue to be united, to be united with each other and with all peace-loving nations, so that the ideal of lasting peace will become a reality.

Professor Robert Dallek: He has this profoundly cynical view of human affairs, and of the way in which it works. And you’ve got to be manipulative if you’re going to be a successful politician, especially in a mass democratic society like the United States is.

Commentary: Within weeks of the Yalta agreement being signed, it was clear Stalin would not keep his promises about freedom in Eastern Europe. And by the time of the defeat of Germany in May 1945 and the occupation of Berlin, the relationship between the West and Stalin had deteriorated sharply. Not surprisingly, some people now looked around for someone to blame.

Professor David Reynolds: The so-called ‘Yalta myths’ have been a great part of Republican mythology ever since the 1940s. They were a way of attacking Roosevelt and the Democratic party and it’s been brought up at various times since. The assumption behind it is that Roosevelt ‘sold out‘ Poland and Eastern Europe to the Soviet Union. It’s hard really to square that with the realities of 1945. The Red Army is in control of most of Poland by the time they meet at Yalta so unless you embarked, say, on a war to evict the Red Army from Poland there really is nothing you can do about that.

Commentary: Stalin knew, maybe better than any leader in history, that power comes through the barrel of a gun. And that all the talking here at Yalta made no difference to that reality.