The following remarks are extracted from the proceedings of a seminar held at All Souls College, Oxford, on October 22, 1985. The seminar, one of a series on “The Partition of Europe 1945–1985,” was entitled “Yalta and the Origins of Partition.” The principal speaker was Sir Frank Roberts, G.C.M.G., G.C.V.O., who attended the Yalta conference as a member of the British delegation, being then on the way to take up his post as minister in Moscow, after having been head of the Central Department of the Foreign Office, responsible for Polish and German affairs. The other speakers were Leszek Kolakowski, who was professor of the history of philosophy at Warsaw University from 1959 until his expulsion (for political reasons) in 1968, and is now a fellow of All Souls College; and Dr. Antony Polonsky, who is reader in international history at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

—Edward Mortimer

SIR FRANK ROBERTS: Roosevelt came to Yalta with his priorities definitely the war against Japan and the United Nations. The future of Eastern Europe obviously suffered from these priorities and Yalta has always been regarded since mainly in the light of the decisions that were there taken on Eastern Europe. Now, rather oddly in my view because there were after all many Americans of Polish origin even of the first generation in America, Roosevelt had never throughout the war shown a very keen or sympathetic interest in the Polish problem…and he really did leave it to Churchill to fight the Polish battle. And in a way I suppose he was justified because after all the war had begun with an Anglo-Polish alliance and the Polish government was in London. But at the same time, as Roosevelt was the stronger of the two westerners, it would have helped I think if the Russians had felt that he was as keen on achieving an honorable settlement there as Churchill was.

Now for Churchill it was a debt of honor very much. Particularly in regard to the fighting qualities of the Polish armed forces. And of course we had been trying to get the Poles and the Russians together from the very moment that Russia came into the war—extremely difficult to do, given history and the fact that the Russians had made use of the Molotov–Ribbentrop pact and the starting of the war in the West to seize half of Poland and to take away a vast number of Poles into imprisonment and exile in Russia. From 1941 onward we tried, and there were some ups: we did get Sikorski to sign a treaty with the Russians as a result of which the Polish prisoners of war were allowed to come out of Russia through the Middle East and form the Polish armed forces in the West. Then there came unfortunately the discovery of the graves of ten thousand Polish officers at Katyn and as a result Polish–Soviet relations were broken off again. Then a little later Sikorski died and he was certainly the Pole in the West with the most authority. And then later on we had the trouble with the Warsaw rising of 1944 when the Russians not only refused to help [the Poles] themselves but refused even to make it easier for us and the Americans to fly help to Warsaw and land on Russian airfields.

So the prospects of agreement had got more difficult with the passage of time and above all with the entry of the Red Army into and through Poland. They had all the cards by that time. But we did achieve a settlement on paper. If you read the agreement on Poland at Yalta, if you read what really went beyond Poland but was part of this—the Declaration on Liberated Europe—as diplomatic documents (I reread them the other day) I don’t think there’s anything to be ashamed of in them. I mean the only trouble about them was that they were not observed by the Russians. They were in effect torn up later on and some of us had our doubts about whether they would in fact be observed. But it certainly was not a position in which Churchill and Roosevelt and Stalin were sitting around a table and, as it were, able to decide what they wanted to do on the map. The particular areas in question—not only Poland but also Romania and Bulgaria—had been occupied by the Red Army, and as I said before, Stalin really had all the cards. I was later on ambassador in Yugoslavia and I remember Tito saying to me once that we would not be talking together as we were if he hadn’t liberated Belgrade himself and hadn’t persuaded the Russians to get their armies out of Yugoslavia and into Hungary very quickly. But unfortunately that could not be the case in Poland because the war had to go on against Germany, and Poland was on the lines of communication.


So I don’t think you can fairly say that the actual texts of the two documents concerning Eastern Europe and Poland did in fact divide Europe, because they provided for a government in Poland which was to be a combination of the Poles in Poland, the pro-Soviet Poles, and representatives of the Poles in London—admittedly a little bit in favor of the Soviet Poles, but then circumstances made that difficult. Again, there were to be elections, and those elections were in fact held. And I remember Mikolajczyk, who had been the prime minister of the Polish government in London—he’d just ceased to be actually before Yalta but he was the man with whom we were working—he told me when we came back from Yalta: “You’re probably rather worried about what’s going to happen,” as indeed we were. He said, “I’d like you to know that I’m worried too. I don’t think it’s really necessarily going to work, but I’m very grateful to have the opportunity to go back to Poland as I now shall have and would not have had without those Yalta agreements, and I want to show that my Peasant party can make a good showing in those first elections.” Which they did. They made such a good showing that the Russians saw to it that nothing of the kind was ever to happen again. So it wasn’t at once a sort of obvious giveaway, although as I said it all depended on whether the Russians observed what they had undertaken to do….

LESZEK KOLAKOWSKI: My perception of the Yalta agreements is somewhat different from Sir Frank’s, even though I admit I wasn’t there. I was on the left side of the Vistula—already under the Soviet army: it was three weeks after the offensive of the Red Army west of the Vistula.

Now your assessment is essentially the same as I know from the book by Stettinius who was there as well—1

FR: Well it’s the only time I’ve ever agreed with Stettinius….

LK: Perhaps, but I think it’s roughly the same idea. What he says is that there was nothing wrong with the Yalta agreement if you read the text. What was wrong was that people failed to abide by the terms of this agreement. He doesn’t specify really who failed to abide by the agreement, but never mind. The idea was—of course I agree with this entirely, you said that—that the fact of the division of Europe and the incorporation of Central and Eastern Europe into the Soviet empire resulted not from the Yalta agreement but from the sheer presence of the Soviet army on those territories. That’s perfectly clear. Whether or not another military strategy was possible earlier on I don’t know, probably nobody can have a conclusive result about it, but never mind. It was irrelevant by the moment of Yalta. Most of Poland had already been occupied by the Soviet army and there was nothing to discuss about it.

But of course there is a big difference between saying, “We cannot help, that happened and we are in such a situation.” It’s another thing to legitimize this state of affairs as right and legitimate. Now the question is, did or did not the Yalta agreement legitimize actually the Soviet role in this area? And I would argue, yes it did. With due respect I think that on one point you quoted incorrectly the Yalta agreement when you said that it envisaged bringing to Poland people from the government in exile to join the government in Poland. Government in exile is not mentioned at all.

FR: No, I agree.

LK: Only people from emigration in the West. In other words, what was accepted as legitimate was the break in the continuity of the Polish state. The Polish government in exile was made outlaw. It was accepted 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 territories. This I think was accepted as a legitimate state of affairs. Moreover, of course, elections were anticipated, but the Yalta agreement mentions that only “democratic” parties should be allowed to take part in the elections. What it 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.


What would follow was then very easy to predict because after all those countries already had quite a lot of experience with Soviet rule, not only between 1939 and 1941 when the Allied armies—Nazi Germany and the Soviet army—invaded Poland, but in the half-year preceding the Yalta agreement. By the end of July 1944 more than half of prewar Polish territory had already been occupied by the Soviet army. The Home Army, which was in principle the legitimate, legal military force under the Polish government in exile and part of the Allied military machinery, was ordered, before the Soviets entered the prewar Polish–Soviet frontier, to accept them as allies. As a result it was very easy for the Soviets to disarm them and send most of them to the Soviet camps, and kill an incalculable number of them. It was known, because the Polish government in exile was very well aware of it, and communicated these facts to the British government as far as I know. Therefore I think that even though it is true that ultimately the division of Europe resulted from the military facts—irreversible in the moment of the Yalta agreement—I think still it is true that Yalta gave an ambiguous legitimacy to this state of affairs.

This includes of course the question of frontier as well. You used this expression “Curzon Line”2—a favorite expression of the Soviets—but after all….

FR: It was invented by us though.

LK: No. I would say no, because the Curzon Line was suggested by the Foreign Secretary, Curzon, at the end of July 1920, as a line of armistice and not as a state boundary. It was during the Polish–Soviet war. And of course it has no significance whatsoever because the course of the war within days changed entirely the situation. But apart from that it was suggested as an armistice line and not as a state boundary. But the Soviets loved to use this expression because it gave a sort of respectability to their robbing Poland of half of its prewar territory—“Curzon Line,” which means something that the British suggested. It was actually not exact.

FR: Well, if I may just comment very briefly on that: I mean I quite see that position as seen through Polish eyes, because after all I was dealing very closely with the Poles at that time. But, as I said, we could have said “no, we’ll have nothing to do with it,” in which case the Russians would have gone ahead. There wouldn’t even have been this, perhaps you may say, hypocritical possibility, by getting some Poles back into Poland, by having elections. There were after all democratic parties in those elections: the Peasant party was not invented by Stalin, nor were the Polish Socialists invented by Stalin; and there was another democratic party, I’ve forgotten which one—so that it wasn’t entirely Stalin who decided who would be in the elections. That was the alternative. We could have continued to recognize the Polish government in exile, and said everything was wrong. But I don’t see that this would have been a better position. It would have, if you like, enabled us all to feel much nicer, if we hadn’t given way to this terrible Stalin. But in practice I don’t see how it would have helped anybody very much.

I wouldn’t say you couldn’t have done that; of course we could. But then you must put it, as I did say before, in the setting of what was going on at that time. Of course this was a very important question, but it was only one of the four important questions discussed at Yalta. There was a war still being fought against Hitler’s Germany, for the successful completion of which arrangements had to be, and were, agreed at Yalta; there was another war in the Far East still to be fought to a finish; there was the future of the world order to be arranged—so that people had to take all these things into account. If we had been just dealing with Eastern Europe, if there had been a peace conference on Poland, that might have been rather different. But it wasn’t, it was part of a wider picture. Of course we won’t agree on this: I’m merely putting it as we saw it and you’re putting it as you saw it.

ANTONY POLONSKY: I’d like to make just a short comment on this. I agree with a lot that Professor Kolakowski has said, but the Polish question at Yalta reminds me a bit of the old Irish joke about the man who asks a farmer, “How do I get from here to Dublin?” and he says, “If I was going to Dublin I wouldn’t start from here.” Yalta was a very bad time. I think that the mistakes had been made earlier, and where I’d differ from Professor Kolakowski is on the frontier question. I know it was very painful to have to give up Vilna—maybe Lwów one could have saved—but I think it was a grave error of judgment within the Polish government in exile not to change the focus of argument from the frontiers to the future government. I mean the British also bear a responsibility here, but if the “Teheran solution” had been pushed through with conviction, that is to say [if] in return for accepting the Curzon Line as the eastern frontier, the British had pushed strongly for the acceptance by the Soviets of the government in London, it’s possible that a Finnish-style situation could have emerged in Poland. It’s a very small hope—I think that we don’t know what would have happened and I don’t hold out any strong conviction that this could have worked—but there were differences between Poland and, say, Czechoslovakia and Hungary. In the first place the Communists were extremely weak in Poland. They were in no position to take power, and moreover they were distrusted by Stalin. Stalin didn’t like them.

LK: He had exterminated most of the Communist leaders.

AP: That’s right. He said to Benes in a series of conversations in December 1943: “Where are there Poles whom I could talk to?” And moreover Poland had the strongest underground movement in Europe outside Yugoslavia. If there had been somebody who had advanced this—Mikolajczyk wanted to advance it, but it wasn’t advanced with any conviction—it’s quite possible I think that this could have worked. It could have preserved a greater modicum of independence; and it’s interesting that in the government-in-exile records Kulski, who was then I think undersecretary….

FR: Kulski was the minister-counselor in the embassy….

AP: Yes. He wrote a memorandum in which he said, “We are making a grave error in putting all our money on the frontier. We should give up the frontier and concentrate on the future government.” And he was right.

FR: And poor Kulski was regarded as a traitor by nearly all the other Poles in London.

This Issue

May 29, 1986