The Yalta Conference was a meeting of the top leaders of the Soviet Union (Joseph Stalin), the United Kingdom (Winston Churchill) and the United States (Franklin D. Roosevelt). It was held from February 4 to 11, 1945 in the Livadia Palace, located in the vicinity of the seaside resort of Yalta in the Crimea. It was prepared by the Malta Conference of January 31-February 2, 1945, where the United States and the United Kingdom worked together to present a united front to Stalin on planning the final campaign against German and Japanese troops and on limiting the advance of the Red Army in Central Europe. The goals of the Yalta conference were:
Stalin”s main objective was to confirm the results of the inter-allied conference in Moscow on October 9, 1944, which outlined a plan to divide Southeast Europe into “zones of influence” for the post-war period. These results, together with those of the second conference in Quebec, led to the “Cold War”. The official Soviet version after the war is based on the concern “to preserve the Soviet Union from future attacks, as in 1914 and 1941, by protecting it with a territorial and political glacis. Soviet diplomacy thus worked to create a Poland led by a government friendly to the USSR.
Churchill and Roosevelt sought a promise from Stalin that the USSR would enter the war against Japan within three months of Germany”s surrender, so both were willing to make concessions.
Stalin negotiated from a position of strength since the Soviet troops were only a hundred kilometers from Berlin.
On the other hand, Roosevelt, whose health was deteriorating, displayed a complete disregard for the moral values of his interlocutor when he said, “If I give him all that I can give without asking for anything in return, noblesse oblige, he will not try to annex anything and will work to build a world of democracy and peace.”
Finally, the media and school textbooks often present this conference as a “division of the world among the powerful”, a tenacious idea already denounced in an article by Raymond Aron, “Yalta ou le mythe du péché originel”, in Le Figaro of August 28, 1968. This “distorted image has a double origin. On the one hand, it reflects, a posteriori, the effective division of the world, which began in 1947, within the framework of the Cold War. On the other hand, it expresses the resentment of leaders frustrated by their absence from the conference or its results.
In February 1945, the balance of power was clearly in Stalin”s favor.
The Soviet forces were by far the first in numbers and armaments, reaching Warsaw and Budapest, and threatening Berlin from the bridgeheads conquered on the Oder a few days earlier. However, Stalin was cautious. His priority was the capture of Berlin, both as a symbol of his victory and for the political and scientific advantages it would give him. He wanted to seize as many German industrial regions as possible, as well as the Institute of Nuclear Physics in Dahlem, where he hoped to find elements for the manufacture of the atomic bomb. He feared a German capitulation, or even a reversal of alliances, which would frustrate him with his victory. He also made his allies believe that Berlin was not a priority and that the main offensive of the Red Army would be directed towards Bohemia and the Danube valley: he invited them to seek a junction in southern Germany.
For Roosevelt, Eisenhower and American officials in general, the priority was to end the war with the minimum loss of American lives. The American president agreed to let the USSR provide the heaviest war effort, even if it meant giving up a larger area of occupation. Unsuspecting, he announced at the beginning of the conference that American troops would leave Europe two years after the end of the war.
For his part, Churchill wanted to re-establish a European balance and avoid Soviet hegemony on the continent, but, having already given up a great deal at the inter-allied conference in Moscow on October 9, 1944, he was no longer in a position to reverse his concessions.
The agreements reached at the end of the meetings provide for:
Germany: defeat, occupation, reparations
In the first plenary session, the main issue is the defeat of Germany through an analysis of the military situation. This leads to the first article of the communiqué available to the public.
According to the last sentence of this article, “A full and reciprocal exchange of information has taken place. General Marshall indicated that a massive offensive was possible on the Western Front but that the Allies could not cross the Rhine until March.
Stalin then made the decision that the Red Army would liberate Czechoslovakia and Hungary, postponing the capture of Berlin. Thus, Stalin avoided any tension with the Western allies. However, this first plenary session was important in that it correctly defined the general framework of the negotiations that were to follow: the Westerners were in an inferior position to the Soviets.
At the second plenary session on February 5, Stalin addressed the issue of the occupation of Germany, which he considered the most important.
At the Tehran conference, all Allies agreed on a complete dismemberment of Germany, but this certainty becomes less clear as victory approaches.
The West thinks it can break the Nazi Reich, but should Germany and its people be destroyed? The second article of the publicly available communiqué reads: “We are adamantly determined to destroy German militarism and Nazism,” but the Allies present the German people as victims of Nazism and decide that “It is not our intention to destroy the German people. Churchill then considered Germany as a future ally against Soviet expansionism.
However, a dismemberment of Germany was concluded with a “supreme authority” of the occupiers, supposed to guarantee future peace in Europe. Each of the Allies would occupy a separate zone, and France was invited to participate in this project. However, the Soviets were in a strong position, and the French zone was therefore taken at the expense of the British and American zones.
France was also invited to sit on the Allied Control Council for Germany. Moreover, it was concluded that Germany would be completely demilitarized and disarmed. This measure was even more severe than that provided for in the Treaty of Versailles of 1919, which set the number of German soldiers at a maximum of one hundred thousand.
The question of reparations was also raised by Stalin, who asked Germany for a total of 20 billion dollars in reparations, half of which would go to the USSR.
On this point, it was also Churchill who opposed this excessive sum and insisted that the German economy should not be destroyed. It is written in the third article of the communiqué available to the public that the damages to be paid by Germany will be calculated “to the greatest extent possible”. This question has not been fully resolved.
The various means of repairing the damage to which Germany was obliged were defined: transfers of goods and money, deliveries of goods, and the use of German labor. The two points on which the conference did not agree were the implementation of this plan and, above all, the amount of reparations.
To do this, the Allies decided to create a commission, which would sit in Moscow, bring together representatives of the three Allied countries and set the total cost of reparations on the basis of the Soviet government”s proposal. If the Soviet request was accepted halfway, it was because Roosevelt considered that the Soviets had already made enough concessions and he did not take the side of the British.
Japan: a USSR entry into the war?
The conference is about the issue of the Japanese defeat. It is said that: “The heads of the governments of the three great powers that the USSR will enter into war against Japan. If this formula “common agreement” is used in this case is primarily not to upset Churchill. Indeed, the question of the Far East, concerning the terms and conditions of Soviet involvement, was settled in a private conversation between Roosevelt and Stalin.
The USSR entered the war three months after the German surrender (it was finally on August 8, 1945). The conditions of the engagement were the ones of Port Arthur and the Manchu railroads. The USSR obtained the status quo in Mongolia and the annexation of the Kuril Islands and Sakhalin. Port Arthur was not annexed but internationalized, and the Manchu railroads were not owned by the USSR but controlled by a Soviet-Chinese commission.
Nevertheless, Stalin and Roosevelt wanted the Chinese president to agree to these points, and not to impose them on him. Churchill was not informed of these proposals until the day after the meeting, and despite his hostility and willingness to negotiate, he finally gave in, fearing that he would be sidelined on Japanese affairs.
Roosevelt: for a world political organization
For Roosevelt, the main issue at Yalta was the future United Nations. He intended to succeed, where Wilson had failed after the First World War with the League of Nations, and to become the arbiter between the British and the Soviets. He was therefore not too demanding with Stalin, especially on the issue of Poland. All the actors agreed on this project, but one question was debated: who would be a member of the Security Council, and which countries would make up the Assembly? The Americans supported China”s membership and the British supported France”s membership in the Security Council. Although Stalin objected that he would be at a disadvantage, he eventually gave in. The real problem then arose with the composition of the Assembly. The Soviets feared an Anglo-American takeover (support from the Commonwealth and Latin American countries). The USSR therefore demanded that each of the 16 federated Soviet republics have a seat. In the excerpt from the conference, which is not available to the public, it is noted that the USSR obtained the membership of two federated republics: White Russia (Belarus) and Ukraine. After reflection and negotiations, Stalin asked only for the accession of these two republics and Lithuania. The latter was refused, but Roosevelt had to bow to Stalin to preserve the success of his project (the UN).
A future conference was scheduled for April 25, 1945 in San Francisco. This conference was organized because the Big Three could not agree on the voting system of the assembly of the future UN and on whether or not to obtain the right of veto. They also did not agree on which states would be able to join the organization. It is therefore stated in an excerpt not available to the public: “Associated nations which have declared war on the common enemy before March 1, 1945” will be invited to the San Francisco conference and will be able to join the UN.
The Polish question
Questions about Poland were the subject of great tension at Yalta. Indeed, on the side of the USSR, Poland was the country from which it had obtained part of the territory since 1939, following the German-Soviet pact, and on the side of the West, Poland was an ally that had been guaranteed help in case of German aggression, which led to the entry of the allies into the war. At the conference, the two main issues concerning Poland were the new delimitation of its borders and the composition of its government, which would define the nature of its future political regime.
The eastern border of Poland was not a problem, as can be seen in Article VI: “The eastern border of Poland should follow the Curzon line, with deviations in favor of Poland over a depth of 5 to 8 kilometers in places. The real problem was the western border with Germany, with Stalin proposing the Neisse River. This shift of the western border to the west was a compensation for the eastern losses, in order not to reduce the size of the Polish territory too much. The question then turns to the choice of the Neisse: the river splits into two, the eastern Neisse and the western Neisse. The three agreed on an ambiguous formula: “Poland should obtain significant increases in territory in the north and west”. Churchill was skeptical: the annexation of this part of German territory, up to the Oder and Neisse rivers, meant that six million Germans would be under Polish sovereignty. However, Stalin declared that “the problem of nationalities is a problem of transportation. In the following year, 11.5 million Germans were “moved” out of these territories, replaced by 4.5 million Poles who were themselves “moved” out of eastern Poland, which had become Soviet.
The question of the composition of the Polish government and its political system is more acute. For Churchill, it had a strong symbolic meaning, since the United Kingdom had hosted the Polish government in exile during the war. For Roosevelt, it had a strong symbolic meaning, since he had just been re-elected after making promises to millions of Polish Americans. There were two governments in Poland: one in exile in London since 1939, in fact rather close to the West, since it had to flee Poland following the Soviet invasion. Stalin set up a second government, of Communist persuasion, installed it in Lublin after the liberation of eastern Poland, officially recognized it in July 1944 and entrusted it with the administration of the Polish territory behind the Soviet military lines, ignoring the government in exile in London. The West refused to recognize this government because they felt that there was a problem of representativeness. To overcome this problem, it was agreed at Yalta that “free and unconstrained elections” would be held. However, Stalin did not have the slightest intention of dissolving the government in Lublin or of submitting to truly free elections. He would only rearrange the Lublin government team by adding a few more Polish members.
The declaration on a liberated Europe
This declaration was proposed by Roosevelt and Stalin and generously outlines the principles for the establishment of a “world order governed by law. It states that in each of the liberated countries provisional governments will be formed in the form and with the policy that each of these states wishes. It also says that free elections will be held in each of these countries. This article is a great proof of naivety on the part of Roosevelt, who congratulates himself for having given a moral tone to the Yalta agreements. Moreover, out of cynicism or weariness, Stalin approved everything without protest.
However, this declaration on a liberated Europe mentions a convention on the release of prisoners, which is not insignificant. This convention does not appear in the official communiqué nor in the protocol of the proceedings. It provides that all the prisoners of the Germans will be grouped by nationality and sent to their country of origin. In reality, many Russian prisoners did not want to return to the USSR, especially since the Red Army regulations equated capture by the enemy with treason. It is estimated that two million Soviets were repatriated against their will and deported to the Gulag as “traitors.
In the official communiqué of February 11, 1945, there is no mention of the three seats granted to the USSR in the UN General Assembly, the evaluation of German reparations or the territorial advantages granted to the USSR in Asia.
This communiqué therefore made a deep impression on the press and in parliamentary circles. Spontaneous or organized, the enthusiasm is very evident in the United States and the USSR.
In Western Europe, satisfaction was more nuanced, with the British referring to the German chaos after Versailles as an example not to be followed. In France, although Charles de Gaulle emphasized the lack of precision in the Polish case and perceived the naivety of the “Declaration on a liberated Europe,” the conference and its conclusions were generally welcomed, especially since it admitted France among the “Big Four” and made substantial concessions in relation to the status that the Anglo-Americans had been willing to grant France for a time.
The results of Yalta were approximate. The Anglo-Americans obtained few important concrete commitments on the European future in return for what they offered to Stalin, who was moreover determined to make the most of his position of strength in Eastern Europe.
The three heads of government or state did not negotiate any points on the question of the deportees, the Soviets having liberated Auschwitz on January 27 without revealing anything until the beginning of May.
Contrary to the legend, it was not at Yalta that the “division of Europe” into “rates of influence” was decided, but in Moscow, on 9 October 1944, through an agreement between Churchill and Stalin. The United States, presided over by President Roosevelt, who was committed to the right of peoples to self-determination, was not informed at first.
This agreement had been prepared in the spring of 1943 when Churchill and Anthony Eden went to Moscow to confer with Stalin and Vyacheslav Molotov.
According to Churchill, these agreements were only provisional, for the duration of the war, but it is unlikely that he did not perceive the risk, even if he underestimated the violence that would be unleashed on the countries left to the Soviets. His main objective was to obtain from Stalin a renunciation of Greece, where the Greek civil war would result from the clash between the Greek resistance with a communist majority and the British desire to keep Greece in the Western sphere of influence. The establishment of Soviet tutelage in Eastern Europe would result in several decades of dictatorship in the Eastern bloc, and in Greece the unrest and dictatorship of the colonels reflected Anglo-American tutelage.
Almost immediately after Yalta, Stalin violated the agreements. In Romania, the communists infiltrated the institutions, suppressed the protests in a bloody manner and forced the king to appoint a communist government by the coup d”état of March 6, 1945, while the Romanian army was fighting against the Wehrmacht in Hungary and Czechoslovakia. The case of Bulgaria followed the same rules. In Poland, the Soviets favored the politicians they had placed, stalled discussions with the Allies to suppress the opposition and set traps for non-communist members of the resistance. During all this time, Roosevelt tried to make Stalin change by playing the appeasement card.
The next conference bringing together the three Allies was the Potsdam Conference of August 1945, which attempted to clarify certain points that had been considered too vague at Yalta, but the USSR and the Allies had made the bed of the Cold War. The agreement also stipulated the return to the USSR of those who had joined the Wehrmacht to fight communism and of all Soviet prisoners. However, being taken prisoner at the front was considered by the Soviet military code as treason punishable by death (for those who had surrendered) or deportation to the Gulag (for those who had been captured)
In reality, Roosevelt and Stalin quickly reached an agreement because American and Soviet interests converged: first, to crush Germany, then to divide the world into zones of influence. In this spirit, Western Europe, that of Charlemagne, with which the United States had the closest commercial and cultural relations and from which most of the emigrants came, was reserved for American influence, while Eastern Europe, made up of weak and recently existing states, useful for constituting a protective glacis for the USSR, was reserved for Soviet influence. Roosevelt”s mistake, strongly influenced by his eminence grise, Harry Hopkins, was twofold: on the one hand, believing in the durability of the Soviet-American alliance, while de Gaulle and Churchill, more lucid had anticipated the future breakup, for classic geopolitical reasons, namely the end of the common enemy, on the other hand, Hopkins and Roosevelt will be completely wrong about the nature of the Soviet regime and the personality of Stalin, whom they familiarly called “Uncle Joe”, unlike de Gaulle and Churchill, there too, more lucid.
: document used as a source for the writing of this article.