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Yalta & the Fate of Poland: An Exchange

In response to:

A Comment from the May 29, 1986 issue

To the Editors:

In his comment on the discussion on Yalta between Sir Frank Roberts, Antony Polonsky and myself, Mr. Theodore Draper [NYR, May 29] seems to be astonishingly unaware of what this debate was about. In replying to my remark that the Yalta agreement provided the (ambiguous) legitimacy to the Soviet rule in Poland, he asks rhetorically: “Is it conceivable that they [Churchill and Roosevelt] should have taken the position that it was ‘illegitimate’ for the Soviet army to drive the Germans out of Russia into Poland and then into Germany itself? The presence of the Soviet army and NKVD in Poland was brought about by the war and the German retreat, the ‘legitimacy’ of which no one at that time questioned.”

It is hardly credible that Mr. Draper could have missed the point to such extent. Nobody in this discussion—or in any other, as far as I know—reflected on the absurd question whether or not it was “legitimate” to defeat the Nazis; it was disputed whether the establishment of the Soviet de facto political domination in Poland was made legitimate. Once the real question—whether or not the future sovietisation of Poland was legitimized in Yalta—is replaced by Mr. Draper’s question whether the Western allies needed to “legitimize” the offensive of the Red Army, nothing is easier than to see how stupid one must be to disagree with Mr. Draper. Yet I believe to have stated the question reasonably clearly: did the Western signatories of the Yalta agreement accept the break in the continuity of the Polish state?—although this last expression was italicized in the printed text of the discussion, Mr. Draper simply preferred to omit this crucial question. The presence of the Red Army on the Polish soil was as natural a result of the course of war as was the presence of the American and British army in France or Netherlands. If France and Netherlands became free and independent countries whereas Poland was enslaved, this did not result from the purely military circumstances but from Soviet imperialist designs; the question under scrutiny was whether President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill did in Yalta legalize, however unwillingly, this enslavement. I clearly separated the question of legitimization from the question of what was feasible in February 1945, and stated that to prevent Stalin from enslaving Poland was by that time impracticable. It seems to me, however, that it does not take a great amount of effort to make a distinction between admitting, say, that I have no means to prevent a rape and approving it or pretending that I do not see it. The question therefore is: could Churchill and Roosevelt bona fide pretend that they did not know what was about to happen? I leave aside the question whether or not President Roosevelt aimed at an “honorable settlement” (whatever this means) and to what extent he was knowledgeable or ignorant of complicated problems of Central and Eastern Europe. I rather assume that he was just ignorant of, and not much interested in, those issues but to say so about Churchill would be less credible. I know that some people have argued that the situation in Central Europe had still been open, that Stalin had not yet made up his mind about what to do with Poland and that therefore Churchill could—mistakenly but “honorably”—expect that the promise of free elections in Poland under the communist rule would be kept.

This perception of events might save Churchill’s good faith but, alas, at the expense of his reason. It would amount to making of him a political simpleton, which, I daresay, he most certainly was not. If he was not and thus knew what to think of a wolf, promising that it would become a vegetarian tomorrow, one cannot help suspecting that he simply provided Stalin with a fig leaf to cover his (Stalin’s) insatiable hunger of new conquests. I am not saying, of course, that Churchill was happy about the fate of Central and Eastern Europe under Stalin’s rule; obviously he was not; I only find it difficult to believe that the events of 1945–1949 could surprise him. Could he be more naive than any Polish peasant? I myself did not vote in the 1947 “elections” because I was too young; and I was then on the side of communists; I might have been silly but I certainly was less silly than Churchill would have been on the assumption that he had given credence to Stalin’s promises. And I can assure Mr. Draper that neither communists nor anti-communists in Poland had any doubt about what was going on. It is true that many people foolishly expected that Poland would be saved from sovietisation by an intervention of Western powers but nobody had illusions about the intentions of the Soviet Union. Communists knew better and none of them was trembling in face of such or another diplomatic note, deploring the fraudulent elections. It seems strange that Mr. Draper simply avoids those questions and attacks instead the nonsensical contention which nobody, to my knowledge, has ever made, that one should have “delegitimized” in Yalta the westward march of the Red Army.

The second point in Mr. Draper’s criticism is that instead of blaming Roosevelt and Churchill we should “put the reponsibility for imposing the Communist yoke on Poland after Yalta where it belongs—on the Soviet Union”; on this point he agrees “wholeheartedly with Sir Frank Roberts.” This comment seems to me both obvious and pointless. I am still waiting for someone who would say that it was Roosevelt and Churchill, rather than Stalin, who imposed the communist regime on Poland. They were blamed for having avoided the issue and in fact having given the “legitimacy” to the communist dictatorship by accepting that the continuity of Polish statehood had been broken. There is no need to prove that it was Hitler, and not Chamberlain, who invaded Prague, but why should this fact make automatically Chamberlain blameless? Let us imagine—an unlikely but not quite unconceivable event—that there will be one day an international agreement about Afghanistan, that Western powers accept the legitimacy of the present regime, disavow the Afghan insurgents, and be given, in return, the promise of free elections in this country (in which, we can be sure in advance, Soviet satraps would get 99.998 percent of the votes). Would the West be innocent simply because “the Soviet army is there anyway” and, after all, “we cannot start the world war about Afghanistan”? (The belief that the world war is the only alternative to the acquiescence to Soviet expansionism was one of the solid foundations on which the “socialist” empire has been growing for decades.)

I leave aside the question whether the Polish government in exile should have accepted Stalin’s territorial claims, based on the Hitler–Stalin friendship of 1939 and their subsequent point invasion of Poland; I have no reason to believe that, had this government done so, Poland would have regained independence; Stalin simply wanted to swallow Poland. And, let us remember, Poland was in no way represented in Yalta and the fate of millions was decided by three old men: a bloodthirsty tyrant, a terminally sick states-man who knew little about the issues, and a Realpolitiker of a declining empire.

Politicians and statesmen are blamed not only when they are vícious and malevolent. They are blamed if they are blind or incapable of grasping the meaning of what they are doing. They are blamed if things go wrong and they have failed to predict the results of their decisions. They are blamed even if they were really unable to predict them. To say “we did not mean anything wrong” is no more a good excuse in political affairs than it is in the case of a surgeon who cut out the wrong kidney. Just a professional risk.

Leszek Kolakowski

The University of Chicago

Chicago, Illinois

Theodore Draper replies:

At the All Souls seminar, Professor Kolakowski said:

It was accepted [at Yalta] that a new state would be built on the basis of the existing situation, which means from the Lublin Committee—a Communist-dominated government, eventually joined by some individuals from the West, and the presence of the Soviet army and NKVD on those [Polish] territories. This I think was accepted as a legitimate state of affairs.

I have italicized the words that he now disputes. I cannot see how it can mean anything but that “the presence of the Soviet army and NKVD on those territories” was accepted as “legitimate” rather than illegitimate. In his lengthy second paragraph, Kolakowski never repeats the words that he actually used. Instead we get interpretations not borne out by his original language. Perhaps he did not express himself well or as he intended. He cannot blame me for that. If, as he now says, “the presence of the Red Army on the Polish soil was as natural a result of the course of war as was the presence of the American and British army in France or Netherlands,” he should not have complained that President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill had accepted as “a legitimate state of affairs” for the building of a new Polish state “the presence of the Soviet army and NKVD on those territories.”

I did not comment on his reference to “the break in the continuity of the Polish state,” because I was not sure of its relevance or even meaning. There seems to be a confusion here between the Polish state and government. If state and government are understood to be the same, the break actually took place in September 1939, when the government in exile was formed; if they are not the same, there was a break in the government but not in the state. There were, in fact, two types of break in the continuity of the Polish government—one with the prewar government in 1939 and another with the government in exile in 1945. The Polish government in exile was not in continuity with the prewar Polish government any more than the French government in exile headed by General Charles de Gaulle was in continuity with the previous French government. There is still a Polish state without a break in continuity, despite the fact that the current Polish government goes back to the one established—illegitimately from Kolakowski’s point of view—in 1945. If this was a “crucial question,” I did well to ignore it, because it does nothing to clarify the problem.

The main question has again been rightly posed by Kolakowski—“whether President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill did in Yalta recognize, however unwillingly, this enslavement [of Poland].” But having stated the question properly, Kolakowski then tries to get around it by changing the subject.

The issue was whether Roosevelt and Churchill legalized or legitimized the “enslavement” of Poland at Yalta. That ground has now been given up; Kolakowski now claims that he had clearly separated the question of legitimization from that of feasibility. The question has now been moved to whether it had been feasible for Roosevelt and Churchill to prevent Polish enslavement. Kolakowski now protests that he knew all the time that it had not been feasible. On this we seem to agree.

His next move is startling. He restates the question as follows—“could Churchill and Roosevelt bona fide pretend that they did not know what was about to happen [after Yalta]” (italics added). We are now called on to read the minds of Churchill and Roosevelt, especially that of the former, about what they “knew” was going to happen in the future. Legitimization has been given up; feasibility has been given up; the issue has now become clairvoyance.

The same problem confronted Stanislaw Mikolajczyk and four other “London Poles,” when they entered the reorganized Polish government in 1945. They certainly had few illusions, but they were not willing to give up a chance that they might make a difference. Should they be scorned or condemned because in the end they did not succeed? Mikolajczyk’s Polish critics had no policy other than that of total rejection; their inflammatory rhetoric masked total impotence. When they could not get all that they wanted, they turned their wrath on Churchill and Roosevelt for not getting it for them.

Here Kolakowski does Churchill an injustice. Far more than Roosevelt, he had come to suspect Stalin’s motives and to question the likelihood that the Soviets would resist the temptation to grab as much of Eastern Europe as they could. He might have been completely fatalistic and have decided to do nothing to stop it. Instead, in the straitened circumstances of the war, he tried to do what was possible at Yalta to make it more difficult, namely, to get as favorable a declaration as he could in favor of a free Poland. No matter how fatalistic or clairvoyant he might have been, that was his statesmanlike duty. To get such a declaration from Stalin was no easy matter; it may have been a forlorn hope; but that is very far from where we originally started—whether Churchill and Roosevelt had agreed to the legalization or legitimization of Poland’s ensnarement at Yalta.

Kolakowski alludes sarcastically to the phrase “honorable settlement” (“whatever this means”). He should have known that I did not originate it. Sir Frank Roberts had denigrated Roosevelt as not being as keen “on achieving an honorable settlement there as Churchill was.” If Kolakowski does not know what that means, he passed up an opportunity to find out from Roberts.

Kolakowski says that he is “still waiting for someone who would say that it was Roosevelt and Churchill, rather than Stalin, who imposed the communist regime on Poland.” He need wait no longer. He was the very one who said:

What it [the Yalta agreement] amounted to was that President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill appointed Stalin an expert on deciding what is or is not a democratic party, and Stalin used his expertise in the way we know.1

This absurd statement says at the very least that Roosevelt and Churchill were equally responsible with Stalin, if not more so, for sealing the postwar fate of Poland. Kolakowski cannot be so innocent of knowing about similar Polish denunciations of Yalta which put the onus on Churchill and Roosevelt to the virtual exclusion of Stalin, who is treated as if they were responsible for what he did. In the above sentence, Kolakowski himself trumped up a far-fetched version of this very proposition. Readers of his letter would never know that he had made Roosevelt and Churchill responsible for the “appointment” of Stalin that supposedly enabled the latter to use his well-known “expertise,” as if he could not have used it without having been “appointed” by them.

In effect, Kolakowski has taken refuge in wordy obfuscation and selective amnesia. He blithely ignores what he himself said at the All Souls seminar. The Yalta conference is one of the best-documented events of its kind. Yet he gives no shred of evidence for any of his statements, however bizarre. Kolakowski’s last paragraph offers a self-serving catalogue of what politicians and statesmen can be blamed for. It would be more to the point in the present context if he had added one thing that they should not be blamed for, namely, for trying to do something to stave off a misfortune against great odds and in the most unfavorable circumstances.

Even if Roosevelt and Churchill were as fatalistically clairvoyant as Kolakowski demands of them, what should they have done at Yalta? To this question Kolakowski has no hint of an answer. Should they have refused to deal with the Polish question at all on the ground that it was foolish to expect that Poland could be saved from sovietization by an intervention of Western powers, as Kolakowski puts it? Was it conceivable that they could threaten the Soviets with the use of force, if Stalin did not live up to his commitment in words? What kind of ultimatum could they have given Stalin to get the kind of Polish government and frontiers demanded by the Polish extremists? Some of them could have been satisfied only by Russia’s ultimate defeat in the war by some sequence of German and Anglo-American action.2 The deeper reason for the disillusionment with Churchill and Roosevelt is that they could not gratify this Polish fantasy.

  1. 1

    This implies that Roosevelt and Churchill granted Stalin a “veto” on the makeup of the new Polish government. In a joint memorandum by Harriman and Clark Kerr to Molotov dated March 19, 1945 (while Roosevelt was still alive), the British and American governments pointed out that “there had been no agreement at Yalta sanctioning a veto for the Warsaw Provisional Government, or for the Soviet Union, in deciding which Polish leaders should be invited to Moscow” (W. Averell Harriman and Elie Abel, Special Envoy to Churchill and Stalin 1941–1946, Random House, 1975, p. 429). In a message to Stalin on April 1, 1945, Churchill declared: “We can never agree to such a veto by any one of us three” (Triumph and Tragedy, Houghton Mifflin, 1953, p. 436). How Churchill can be said to have “appointed” Stalin in the manner that Kolakowski alleges baffles me.

  2. 2

    The diary of Field Marshal Lord Alanbrooke, then Chief of the Imperial General Staff, contains this record of a conversation with Lt. Gen. Wladyslaw Anders, head of the Polish forces in World War II: “He wishes to take part in the occupation of Germany and then has wild hopes of fighting his way home to Poland through the Russians! A pretty desperate problem the Polish Army is going to present us with” (Arthur Bryant, Triumph in the West, Doubleday, 1959, p. 345). Anders and those like him counted on a future war between Russia and the Western Powers to restore prewar Poland. Anders told Mikolajezyk: “Soon the Russians will show what they are after, and this will lead to a global conflict, whether the British like it or not” (Edward J. Rozek, Allied Wartime Diplomacy: A Pattern in Poland, John Wiley, 1958, p. 357). Rozek himself, in sympathy with the extremist historical interpretation, understood that, from 1941 onwards, “there was not much that the Poles could do except to form the secret hope that the march of Hitler’s armies eastward would humble Moscow, or even defeat the Soviet Union and that the growing armed strength of the Anglo-Americans would alone destroy Nazism and its New Order.” (p. 65).

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