Monday, August 2, 2010

The Yalta Conference

By February of 1944 the front lines in Russia had been pushed back far to the west. Most of Belorussia and the Ukraine had been liberated by the Red Army and Germany's Army Group North, besieging Leningrad, was in a precarious position and would soon be forced to withdraw. Everybody knew that the war would end with an Axis defeat, the only questions were "When" and "How".

The Soviet Union, United Kingdom and the United States of America, called the "Big Three" by this point, decided to hold a top-level conference to discuss these questions and what the post-war world would look like. Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt had already met once before, in Tehran, and had discussed general strategy and issued the "unconditional surrender" proclamation to the Axis powers (Germany, Italy, Japan and their sattelites). After spectacular Red Army successes in 1943 at Stalingrad, Kursk and along the Dnieper River, as well as American successes pushing the Japanese out of the Pacific Ocean, it was time to look to the future.

Stalin, ever paranoid, refused to fly in aircraft, therefore it was decided that the conference should take place somewhere he could reach by train. The Crimea, the famous Ukrainian peninsula which juts out into the Black Sea, traditionally a place of seaside resorts and the home of the Russian Black Sea fleet, was chosen as the site for the conference not only because it offered the most accessible place for all three leaders but also because it represented the stunning successes of the Soviet Union the year before.

The Crimea had been fought over twice during the war. The first time was during the German onslaughts in 1941 and 1942, when the Red Army had heroically defended the port city of Sevastopol against overwhelming odds. The second time was in 1943 when the Red Army returned during their drive west, this time with the Germans defending Sevastopol (although they didn't manage to put up as much of a defence as the Russians had the year before). Because of this the Crimea was in ruins. The resort town of Yalta was chosen because it was the least damaged of towns on the peninsula.

Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin came to the conference with differing agendas. Roosevelt and Churchill, firm allies mutually committed to each other, were being heavily critiscized by the Soviet press and by Stalin for failing to open a second front in 1943. Indeed, the vast bulk of the German forces were facing the Russians and the Soviet Union had borne the overwhelming brunt of the Second World War. All of European Russia was in ruins and tens of millions of its citizens were dead and maimed, and the USSR desperately needed the western Allies to invade nazi-occupied Europe and draw German divisions away from the Russian front. This was the position Stalin was taking at Yalta.

The western Allies, for the their part, had some difficult decisions ahead of them. When war had broken out in 1939 England had been woefully under-prepared. By 1941 the vast British Empire was being threatened with extinction by the Axis in Europe, Africa, India and Asia. England was barely hanging on when America entered the war. The giant industrial capacity of the USA took some time to convert to full war production and resources had to be split between the European and Pacific theatres. Although the Allies, by 1943, had kicked the Axis out of Africa and had invaded Italy, they felt that they were in no shape to mount a full-scale invasion of western Europe. They had to be satisfied with the strategic bombing campaign over Germany and Lend-Lease shipments to the USSR. By 1944 they were preparing for the long-awaited second front, however.

For the Russians this argument was inconsequential. Russia had been outnumbered and outclassed and, through sheer willpower and at tremendous cost in life and land, had fought the Axis to a standstill and then steadily pushed them back. They couldn't understand why the Allies were making only token efforts to fight the Germans while they, the Soviets, did all the bleeding. They believed, perhaps rightfully so (we will never know), that the UK and US were simply letting the nazis and communists bleed each other to death and thus killing "two birds with one stone."

Roosevelt and Churchill also disagreed on some points about the conduct of the war and the shape of the world when it was all over. Roosevelt trusted Stalin and had tremendous respect for him, despite his appallment at the Great Terror Stalin had unleashed on his people before the war. Roosevelt felt certain that he could work with Stalin and that they could come to an understanding (it is interesting to note that Stalin felt the same way about Roosevelt. Nikita Kruschev, in his memoirs, writes that Stalin only cried publicly twice: once when his first wife Nadya committed suicide and then when Roosevelt passed away). Roosevelt was also a strong supporter of opening the second front with a full-scale invasion of France and the liberation of Western Europe.

Churchill, on the other hand, distrusted Stalin immensely and did not hide the fact. He feared that despite whatever assurances Stalin gave, the Soviet Union would never let the people of Eastern Europe, once they were overrun by the advancing Red Army, democratically choose their own way of life. He was terrified of the Red Army overrunning all of Europe, to the English Channel, and imposing a tyrannical Stalinist dictatorship on hundreds of millions of people. Churchill's foreboding clashed with Roosevelt's idealism and helped to lay the roots of the Cold War.

Because of this fear of Soviet conquest, Churchill lobbied hard for the second front to open in South-East Europe, with an invasion of Greece and Yugoslavia. His arguments were that the western Allies could then drive north and liberate Eastern Europe before the Red Army had time to conquer it. Churchill was adamant that this course of action be chosen and even went so far as to publicly denounce the American plans in Parliament. He knew, however, that England would never be strong enough to conduct such an operation alone. He was well-aware that the sun was setting on the British Empire and that two new superpowers were being born by the war: the USA and the USSR. From now on, England would have to go where America wanted.

So when, on February 4th 1944, the Big Three met at Yalta, the course of history was already being decided.

Poland was the first item on the agenda. It was the German invasion of Poland in 1939 that had started the war, and it was from Poland that Germany had attacked the Soviet Union. Britain had guaranteed Poland's independence, and the Polish government was living in exile in London. The Polish people had been suffering the worst of the nazi occupation. Its large jewish population had completely vanished and all the nazi death camps were situated in Poland. Millions of Poles had been murdered and oppressed and taken off for slave labour in German industry. Now the mighty Red Army stood on the Polish borders and the Germans were digging in for a heavy fight.

Stalin argued that Poland should fall under the Soviet sphere of influence, and that eastern Poland (annexed by the USSR in 1939 in a secret treaty with Hitler) should remain part of the Soviet Union and its borders be extended westwards into Germany in compensation. Stalin refused to recognized the Polish government-in-exile in London, and insisted that the Polish Communist Party (then in exile in Moscow) was the legitimate government.

Both Roosevelt and Churchill were against Stalin's suggestions for Poland, and as a result Stalin gave in a little and promised that free democratic elections would be held in Poland after the war ended. As it turns out, there were elections in Poland under Soviet guidance, but only Communists were allowed to run for office, and only those who were sympathetic to the Stalinist leadership. It was exactly as Churchill feared.

Roosevelt, for his part, wanted the USSR to enter into the war with Japan through an invasion of Manchuria and Korea. Stalin wanted US recognition of Mongolia as part of the Soviet Union and Soviet interests in the Manchurian railway. Roosevelt agreed despite never consulting with the Chinese government. Stalin then agreed to declare war on Japan three months after Germany was defeated.

Other points that the Big Three discussed were the occupation of Germany and, particularly, Berlin once the fighting was over. It was agreed that the Allied and Soviet demarcation line through Germany would be along the Oder River, which cuts Germany in half. Berlin, deep inside the Soviet zone, would be a strange "open city" split into four, with zones of occupation divided between the Soviets, the Americans, the British and the French. The inclusion of the French in Germany's occupation was a surprise for both Roosevelt and Stalin, but Churchill insisted upon it. After all, France had fallen and been completely occupied by the Germans in only 6 weeks in 1940, and it would be Allied soldiers doing all the fighting to liberate her.

Stalin also agreed to allow "free" elections in all territories overrun by the Red Army, but in the end the same format of elections were implemented as in Poland. One area of historical discontent, and indeed even shame for the western powers, was the provision that came out of the Yalta Conference that all former citizens of the USSR currently residing in the west or liberated from German camps by the west's armies were to be returned to the USSR at the end of the war. It is unknown why Roosevelt and Churchill agreed to this without even giving it a second thought, but the fate of millions of emigres, Soviet POWs and even death-camp survivors was sealed at the Yalta conference.

After the war Stalin started a second great purge of the Soviet empire (for indeed by 1946 it was a vast empire, stretching from the Oder River to the Pacific Ocean). Stalin declared that to be captured alive represented treason, and so rather than be hailed as returning heroes, those Soviet soldiers who had been taken prisoner by the Germans were sent off to the GULAG in Siberia or executed. Civilians who had been forced into German labour camps were also considered traitors after their liberation, and the few surviving Jews from the concentration camps were treated with open suspicion and hostility. A fate much worse met those Russian emigres who had left during or after the 1917 Revolution and settled in the west. Many Russians living in America, England, Canada, France, Netherlands, Australia and other points of the western world were forcefully repatriated back into the hands of Stalin's NKVD, where they were tried with treason and shot.

One of the biggest, and arguably most important, results of the Yalta Conference was the finalization and formation of a world governing body, the United Nations. Although Stalin wanted all 16 of the Soviet Republics recognized in the UN, the Big Three settled on two: Russia and the Ukraine. It was decided that the UK, the USA, the USSR, China and France (again an unexplained insistence by Churchill) make up the top-echelon permanent Security Council of the United Nations. The site for the United Nations was to be San Francisco although this was later changed to New York. The basic mission statement and operating procedures of the UN were drafted at this conference and an historic world body was formed.

The conference lasted for 7 days, and in the evenings the three powerful leaders had a chance to talk candidly with each other away from the world's media. Churchill refused to speak with Stalin in private and even had his and his delegation's rooms swept for microphones each evening. Roosevelt and Stalin, on the other hand, spent many long hours in discussion. Roosevelt was still not confident that the planned invasion of France, set for late May, would be succesful and he voiced his fears to Stalin. Stalin, for his part, promised to open a massive new offensive in the east that would help draw German divisions away from France (a strange concession considering that Stalin had been arguing for the west to draw German divisions away from Russia). In the event, Stalin kept his word and a few months before the Allied invasion of Normandy the Red Army launched the biggest offensive in world history that took them all the way to Berlin and the Oder River.

When the conference ended the three leaders drafted a press release outlining the results and posed for photographers. They then shook hands and went home to have the agreements ratified by their respective governments. In Moscow the Central Committee was quick to rubber-stamp Stalin's side, but in Washington and London both Congress and Parliament bickered over the wording and the provisions of the agreements. Parliament was especially concerned about Soviet hegemony in Eastern Europe but, tired by five years of war, they conceded and drafted it into law.

Three months later the Red Army launched "Operation Bagration" which would overrun all of Eastern Europe while the Allies, shortly after that, landed on the beaches of Normandy and began a long and brutal advance through Western Europe. Roosevelt would die soon after and the next time the "Big Three" would meet, at Potsdam after the war, the US would be represented by President Truman, an avid anti-Communist. The Cold War, which would plunge the entire world into 60 years of nuclear paranoia and has its beginnings at the Yalta Conference, would begin and the shape of everything that has happened since was formed at the little seaside resort town of Yalta.

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