If my country had become the People’s Republic of Britain and been subordinate to the Soviet Union for 45 years I would be asking how did this happen and be looking for someone to blame as a way of putting it behind me. So I’ve been asking myself and others “Who is to blame for Poland’s time as a communist satellite?”.
Please note that I’m no historian, as I’m about to prove, this is just one of my mini explorations into a subject that interests me.
Many I talked to blame Yalta, and singled out Churchill and Britain. For someone who grew up with Britain’s version of history, this comes as a shock and whilst I am accustomed to Britain being blamed for just about everything that went wrong in the world, this particular accusation just didn’t sound “fair” to me. Others had no opinion, or a scattered blame approach and a few shared the conclusion that I come to, that it all started to go wrong with the Treaties of Versailles (1919) and Brest-Litovsk (1918). As soon as you focus on one possible solution it grows branches that lead elsewhere leading you deeper and deeper into the maze of history. So, here’s an almost unbiased opinion of what might have happened.
For more than 200 years before the first world war both Russia and Germany (along with Austria) occupied Poland. At the end of the first war two peace treaties were drawn up, the first (Brest-Litovsk) effectively ceded all of Poland from the Bolshevik’s to the German Empire. The second (Versailles), only a year later, took it away from the German Empire and made it independent. Versailles not only made Poland independent but also moved considerable chunks of territory from Germany to the new Poland. We’ll not delve into the original “ownership” of this territory in this article but it had been effectively German for a very long time. The key issue coming out of the first world war is that the Germans and Soviets lost and Poland gained, big time.
This outcome was the breeding ground for very considerable resentment, particularly in Germany and ultimately led to the rise of the Nazi movement led by Hitler. “It was this treaty which caused a chain reaction leading to World War II” claimed historian Dan Rowling (1951). So, it comes as no big surprise that Hitler invaded Poland and that immediately prior to doing so he was able to conclude a pact with Stalin (Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, August 1939) such that both powers could, in their minds, get back what had been wrongfully taken from them only 20 years earlier.
A few extracts from Hitler’s speech to the citizens of Gdansk (then Danzig) made on Tuesday 19th September, 1939 says it all really:
“At Versailles this peace was not put before our nation as a matter for free negotiation, but was forced upon us as a brutal dictate. The progenitors of this peace visualized in it the end of the German nation. There may have been many people who believed that this peace would mean the end of all distress, yet it was only the beginning of new entanglements.”
“(At Versailles) Regulations were arrived at which actually force one to doubt whether the men who perpetrated them were really in their right mind. Devoid of all knowledge of the historical development of these districts, devoid even of all economic understanding, these people juggled about with Europe, tore States apart, divided up countries, suppressed and handed over nations, destroyed culture. This land, too, was a victim of that madness and the Polish State itself a product of this folly. What Germany had to sacrifice for this Polish State the world probably does not know. One thing only I should like to declare here: The development of all the territories which were at that time incorporated into Poland is entirely due to German energy, German industry, and German creative work. They owe their cultural importance exclusively to the German nation.”
So, in my opinion and without going back so far in history as for this to be a book instead of a short article, to blame Yalta for communism in Poland is the wrong conclusion. Yalta is simply the nearest, and last, point at which people thought there might be some hope left, but were bitterly disappointed by the outcome. By the time of Yalta it was pretty much all over, but let’s take a look at it anyway.
Probably known at the time by its codename “The Argonaut Conference”, held between Feb 4th-11th in the city of Yalta on the Crimean peninsular. Keynote speakers – Winston Churchill, Franklin D Roosevelt, Joseph Stalin, collectively, “The Big Three”. What happened at Yalta has been a hot topic ever since. Most recently used by President Bush in his first European address (2001) saying “no more Yaltas!” and then raising the topic again in his European tour of 2005.
I think the key to understanding what happened at Yalta, and why, is to look at who was in the best negotiating position, what the on-the-ground realities were at the time and also what the various parties wanted to (had to) get out of the conference.
To judge their relative influence at the time, I think you need look no further than the venue. Stalin refused to travel any further than the Black Sea for the conference so, at a time when travel cannot have been easy, or safe, the other two went out of their way to meet Stalin at his chosen venue. If that doesn’t tell you who was holding all the cards, then what does?
Stalin’s position becomes even stronger when you look at what the other two, primarily the USA, wanted him to agree to. Top of the US agenda were two points; for the Soviet Union to join the United Nations and for them to go to war with Japan. The importance of these two points being emphasized by the fact that they topped and tailed the written Yalta agreement. As for Japan, a war was still raging and estimates of American deaths from an invasion of Japan ranged between 600,000-1 million. Although the atomic bomb was being worked on, there was no certainty that it would ever be completed, or work. Getting the Soviet Union to agree to go to war with Japan was therefore extremely important for the USA.
With a few conditions, the Soviet Union agreed to both of these primary US demands and did, as promised, declare war on Japan three months after the end of war in Europe. Of course, as we now know, the atomic bomb was finished, and used, which made this agreement rather less valuable in the end than it seemed to be at the time of Yalta.
What Britain wanted from the conference is not so clear and frankly, although Churchill was perhaps the only one who really understood the nature of Stalin, he was in the worst position of them all to be making many demands. Certainly, I can’t see any outcome of Yalta that was specifically to Britain’s direct advantage. Churchill instead concentrated on looking after others, he concentrated on two issues:
1/ Being nice to France. Due to demands by the US and Britain, France were granted a “zone of occupation” in Germany and invited to be members of the “Allied Control Council”.
2/ Looking after Greece. The Soviet Union would have Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria but not Greece. Control of Greece was left to Britain, this being agreed between Churchill and Stalin privately, without Roosevelt’s participation.
Whenever Churchill complained about Stalin after Yalta the response was always “I kept my word on Greece!” It seems from this therefore that Churchill had used all his limited individual influence for the good of Greece.
So, we have an idea what the US and Britain wanted from Yalta. What about the Soviet Union? By this time, they had played a huge part in defeating Hitler. In terms of loss of life alone, the Soviets had lost roughly double that lost by Poland, Germany, Britain and the US combined. They had paid a big price, the question was what were they looking for in return? As far as I can see, Stalin had three main wishes;
1/ The forced repatriation of all soldiers, refugees and other escapees of the Soviet Gulag (revenge)
2/ Territory – primarily that which its troops already occupied (and probably thought it was entitled to recover – see above), this included at the time, or a matter of weeks later, all of Poland.
3/ Money – in the Yalta text there is a suggestion that the Soviets should get 50% of $22 billion (worth over $500 billion today).
It seems therefore that everyone with a seat at the table came away from Yalta with their main demands satisfied. On the question of Poland the actual words in the agreement do not read like a betrayal. On the other hand, it conspicuously does not say “The Soviet Union will withdraw from Poland, the government in exile will return and establish Poland as a free and independent nation” and I suppose, in theory, it could have done. It does talk about a “Polish Provisional Government of National Unity” but was it known that Stalin had already murdered or kidnapped anyone fighting for an independent Poland and replaced them with his puppets, or not?
I think the Allies were between a rock and hard place at Yalta. Whatever the outcome there would be people claiming they were betrayed. The eventual agreement does seem to have saved the most lives possible and to have brought about the end of a disgusting war. Even if the Allies had felt the issue of Poland should come above all others what would have happened next? General Patton would have been granted his request to keep going and push back the Soviets and, given the eventual actions of the USA to end the war, perhaps an atomic bomb dropped on Moscow as well as Hiroshima? Millions more dead?
Was the verdict of Yalta that this was too high a price or that an independent Poland was by that stage impossible to achieve anyway?