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Could Stalin Have Been Stopped?

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Koch/Lorber Films/Everett Collection
Polish officers being held by Soviet forces before the massacre in Katyn forest; from Andrzej Wajda’s film Katyń, 2007

Costigliola oddly makes no mention of Czechoslovakia, yet late in 1943 exiled President Edvard Beneš traveled to Moscow with reluctant British permission in order to sign a treaty of mutual assistance with the Soviet Union. Some months later the Czechoslovak government, while still in exile and financed by the British, formally recognized the Polish government in Lublin, a Soviet creation imposed on Poland in July 1944, as the sole legitimate representatives of the Polish nation. In brief, long before the end of the war, the Czechoslovak government in exile had voluntarily subordinated its foreign political interests to those of the Soviet Union; this in exchange for Stalin’s permission to expel several million Germans from Czechoslovakia after the Allied victory.5

The readiness of the Soviets, at least temporarily, not to contest Western predominance in Italy, Greece, Western Europe, and Japan—places where they had no occupying forces—and the willingness of the Western powers to accept Soviet rule in much of Eastern Europe still left open the issue of Poland, at least for a while. At the conferences at Tehran and Yalta an enormous amount of time was spent discussing the Polish question.

Poland’s case was truly special. From the distant past loomed the memory of mutual invasions and, from a more recent past, the Polish advance deep into Russia during the war of 1919–1921, which resulted in Poland’s acquisition of tsarist Russian territory that came to be known as Eastern Poland. The Soviets made it clear they harbored a grievance over the mistreatment and widespread deaths of captured Red Army soldiers when the Bolsheviks were driven out of Poland after World War I. But following the Soviet pact with Nazi Germany signed on August 23, 1939, the Red Army invaded Poland on September 17 without any Polish provocation and at a time when many Poles were being killed by the German onslaught. The Soviets annexed or re-annexed the eastern half of Poland, deported to Siberia and Kazakhstan a large part of the Polish population, and massacred thousands of innocent Polish soldiers and civilians. The opening scene in Andrzej Wajda’s powerful movie Katyń, in which masses of fleeing Polish civilians bump into each other on the bridge connecting the Soviet and German occupation zones, illustrates the entire Polish tragedy.

Back in 1939, Britain and France had made a binding commitment to the defense of Poland but then did little or nothing to stem the combined Nazi and Soviet invasions. The Poles went on fighting nevertheless, both by means of anti-Nazi underground armies and organizations and as soldiers in Norway and France in 1940; as the best of the RAF fighter pilots during the Battle of Britain; in giving crucial assistance in the decoding of German military communications; as sailors in the Polish navy and commercial fleet; as members of the anti-Nazi army formed by General Władysław Anders, which was initially made up entirely of Poles who had survived deportation to the Soviet Union; and as members of the Polish army set up by the Soviet Union.

Polish divisions invaded Nazi-occupied Europe on the side of the British and the Americans in 1944; Polish tanks closed the famous Falaise Gap, thereby helping to destroy the German army in Normandy. Polish troops conquered Monte Cassino in Italy; the Polish Home Army reconquered Warsaw in August 1944. But then the Red Army, which was already in Poland, not only refused to come to their aid but did much to prevent the Allied air forces from dropping supplies to the besieged insurgents. The conquering Red Army treated members of the Home Army as fascist enemies, killing thousands of them, and Polish resistance leaders were tried and sentenced in Moscow.

Costigliola writes that “the Polish Home Army (Armia Krajowa or AK), linked with the London exiles and supplied by British air drops, switched from combating Germans to fighting Russians and pro-Soviet Poles.” But in reality, the “London exiles” had been recognized even by Stalin as the legitimate government of Poland until the break of diplomatic relations, in 1943, over the Katyn massacre, for which the Soviet government ignominiously denied all responsibility. American and British pilots, trying to help the Home Army against the Nazis, had been routinely denied landing rights for fuel by the Soviet military command, and Home Army commanders were lucky if the Soviets only disarmed them and did not throw them in prison or shoot them outright.

Ignoring Polish protests, the often erratic Churchill accepted the so-called Curzon Line as Poland’s new frontier, meaning that the Polish conquests of 1919–1921 were lost. In exchange, the Western Allies squeezed a vague promise out of Stalin for the Soviet-sponsored Lublin government to accommodate a few representatives of the London exile government as well as to allow for fair national elections. Neither promise was kept.

Could the British have extracted some concessions from Stalin regarding Poland? Halik Kochanski, the author of a new and most thorough book on Poland during World War II, argues that in the summer of 1941, when the Soviets were desperate for Western help, “Britain could credibly have bargained with the Soviet Union over Poland’s future.”6 But in fact, as Kochanski herself admits, Churchill did not dare put too much pressure on the Soviets for fear that they might conclude a separate peace with Hitler, and this was a fear that persisted. In any case, the years 1944–1945, when Soviet armed might was many times that of the Western forces and when nothing could stop the Red Army’s advance to Berlin, was not the time for forcible bargaining.

Stalin’s hatred for the Poles was so great that while he allowed Hungarians and Czechoslovaks to form more or less genuine multiparty governments for as many as three years (while also installing secret services loyal to Moscow), he immediately imposed a completely nonrepresentative government on Poland, and both Britain and the US withdrew their recognition from the Polish government in London. The Polish exiles were allowed to remain in the country but were never recognized for their wartime service. For instance, General Stanisław Maczek, who had fought under British command since 1940 and who had led a highly decorated Polish tank division in Normandy, worked as a bartender in an Edinburgh hotel after the war. The British government denied him and his fellow Poles recognition as Allied soldiers; they were given no rights as combatants, and they were given no pensions.

The minor political concessions on Poland that Roosevelt and Churchill had squeezed out of the Russians were immediately violated, but at least they formed the basis for the creation and gradual assertion of the Polish freedom movement between 1956 and 1989. The Polish crisis helped to create an anti-Soviet backlash among the Western leaders and the public.

While Roosevelt’s New Deal–era advisers gradually disappeared from the scene, younger intellectuals around the president looked at the alliance with Russia with growing suspicion. Within the military, the calming influence of Generals George Marshall and Dwight Eisenhower, as well as of Secretary of War Henry Stimson, was challenged by the inflammatory, strongly anti-Russian statements of the popular hero General George Patton and Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal, who as early as April 1945 said to the newly installed President Truman that if the Soviets did not retreat on the question of Poland, “we had better have a showdown with them now than later.” Truman himself fell immediately into a belligerent mood: “I gave it to him straight. I let him have it. It was straight one-two to the jaw,” he reported to his advisers on a meeting with Soviet Foreign Minister Molotov late in April 1945, although he also asked, “Did I do right?”

This was, of course, empty talk, as neither the American nor the British leadership ever seriously considered fighting a Third World War or threatening the Soviets with one. Still, it is characteristic of the general mood created by the terrible Polish crisis that in April 1945, while the Red Army was marshaling two and a half million soldiers, forty thousand guns, and six thousand tanks into the battle for Berlin, sustaining horrendous losses, and while the Western powers were greatly counting on extensive and timely Soviet military intervention against Japan, the British Foreign Office and War Office already viewed Russia as an enemy. In April 1945, the British high command produced a contingency plan, at Churchill’s orders, for an attack on Russia on July 1 of the same year—a plan, however, that made it clear how hopeless such a campaign would be.

At the Potsdam Conference in July–August 1945, both President Truman and the new British prime minister, Clement Attlee, agreed to the expulsion—by then partly accomplished—of over ten million ethnic Germans from the Baltic countries, and from Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary as well as Yugoslavia. This would become one of the greatest and cruelest ethnic cleansings in modern European history. Meanwhile, in Eastern Europe, Poles and Ukrainians continued their informal war that had begun under German occupation. In the forests in many parts of Eastern Europe, anti-Soviet partisans clashed with Soviet and other security forces; the sudden rise of anti-Semitism and the desire to hold on to appropriated Jewish property led to some horrible pogroms.

Did Stalin’s crushing of Poland and the general Soviet ruthlessness that followed cause the cold war? This is not an adequate explanation but both must have contributed to the deterioration of relations. What then caused the cold war? Many historians have debated this question, at first generally putting the blame on the Soviet Union, then in a drastic reversal blaming American imperialist economic expansion, and finally settling on theories of shared responsibility.7 Perhaps one must look at forces beyond the control of Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin. The development of the atomic bomb in the United States upset the precarious balance between the West and the Soviet Union, inevitably precipitating the arms race. There was also the impossibility of agreeing on the terms of reunifying Germany. The US offered the Marshall Plan to the Soviet Union and to the other Eastern European countries, but its strict requirements of economic and financial openness as well as close cooperation with a United States–dominated international agency made it unacceptable to the Soviet leaders.

So the cold war developed and flourished for many decades. But even though some devastating proxy wars were fought, no armed conflict arose between the great powers. Soviet–Western cooperation in preserving world peace continued until 1991, when the former Soviet Union more or less accepted the economic, social, and political model that General Marshall had offered and President Roosevelt had originally envisioned.

Nothing in 1944–1945 could stop the Soviet takeover of Eastern Europe. The installation of the Lublin government in Poland occurred before the cold war broke out; but Roosevelt’s influence on these events and on the developing cold war was very limited indeed. We will never know if he might have helped to prevent even greater suffering and tragedies.

  1. 5

    The Czechoslovak government also wished to expel half a million Hungarians but the Americans and the British at the Potsdam Conference in July 1945 refused their consent; therefore the majority of Hungarians were allowed to stay. 

  2. 6

    Halik Kochanski, The Eagle Unbowed: Poland and the Poles in the Second World War (Harvard University Press, 2012), p. 163. 

  3. 7

    This triune explanation of the causes of the cold war is persuasively presented by the Hungarian historian Csaba Békés in Cold War, Détente, Revolution: Hungary, the Soviet Bloc and World Politics, 1945–1964 (Columbia University Press, 2012). 

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