The legacy of shame from The Yalta Conference

Middle Israel: World War II’s victors gathered 75 years ago this week in the Livadia Palace, the last czar’s white-marbled summer retreat.

CHURCHILL, ROOSEVELT and Stalin at the Yalta Conference in 1945 – expect the worst from your enemies, and little better from your friends (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
CHURCHILL, ROOSEVELT and Stalin at the Yalta Conference in 1945 – expect the worst from your enemies, and little better from your friends
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
The Crimean riviera was still a string of war-torn resorts when World War II’s victors gathered 75 years ago this week in the nearby Livadia Palace, the last czar’s white-marbled summer retreat.
Retreat, by then, was Germany’s daily lot, as its surrender was less than four months away. The question was who would advance and where. And so, the conclave’s host, Joseph Stalin, and his guests, Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt, spent seven days mapping the postwar global order, while seeking agreement on whom to punish and whom to prize.
The punishing part was easy; the three had already agreed to carve up Germany between them, and now heeded Britain’s demand that France also get a slice of Hitler’s estate.
The question was what would happen to the rest of Central Europe. Stalin’s guests wanted free democracies; he wanted Soviet puppets. The focal point was Poland, and what they did to it is instructive to this day, not only for Poland but for any threatened country, particularly the Jewish state.
POLAND’s WARTIME fate could hardly be more tragic. The European war’s three main stages took place on its soil: first, the war broke out in Poland, with a Soviet-Nazi attack from its east and west; then it was forced to play host to the Holocaust; and finally, in Yalta, it was abandoned to the devices of the Communist scourge.
Stalin made his designs plain in summer 1944, when the Red Army reached eastern Warsaw, sparking the Polish underground’s great anti-Nazi uprising, only to stand by for 63 days and do nothing while the Germans decimated the Polish rebels. Everyone understood that this was a cynical ploy, aimed at depleting Poland of the fighters who might resist the imposition of a Communist regime.
By the time he faced Roosevelt and Churchill in Yalta, Stalin’s agents had already installed that Communist regime, a unilateral act that the Western pair now protested, saying they wanted elections, and also a role for the Polish exile government that worked from London.
Stalin, of course, knew all about those exiles – their return was exactly what he was out to prevent. Then again, he wanted his guests to feel happy, so he signed a document in which they all agreed that in any liberated country a free election would be held, and in Poland’s case there would be a coalition between Communists and non-Communists, including returnees from abroad.
It was as though the free world had forgotten nothing and learned nothing from its prewar surrender of Czechoslovakia to Hitler. Stalin obviously reneged on his promises, and thus sucked millions, from Romania to Estonia, into his despotic orbit, where they remained trapped until Communism’s collapse.
And in that spirit of gullibility, the West also agreed to send back to the USSR all Soviet citizens stranded in the liberated lands.
Some two million were returned that way, many ending up in gulags, and some also shot, for alleged collaboration. This was the context in which Britain granted in 1947 citizenship to some 200,000 Polish soldiers who had fought Germany and refused to return to the Communist paradise Stalin had in store for them.
Yes, there were circumstances in Yalta that were not there when Nevil Chamberlain negotiated in Munich.
In 1938 Germany had yet to occupy one foreign land. In February ’45, by contrast, the Red Army had crossed Romania, Hungary and Poland, and reached deep into Germany. The West could preach to Stalin on how to manage his new possessions, but it could not force him to do anything.
Moreover, with the atomic bomb yet to be tested, there was reason to suspect that the war in Asia might take years to end. Stalin’s agreement to attack Japan had therefore become as urgent for the West as its own invasion of France the previous spring had been urgent for Stalin.
Even so, the bottom line of all this was Poland’s betrayal, which is why Yalta is instructive for any country planning to rely on allies should it face a foreign attack.
POLAND IS right to decry its betrayal by the West, not only in 1945 but also in 1939, when its treaties with France and Britain produced declarations of war but not war itself. However, to be practical about their history’s lessons, the Poles must probe their own leaders’ naivete in those years.
The Poles expected action, especially from France, which borders Germany and was therefore in a position to challenge the German invasion from its rear. The French actually deployed large forces by the Saar, but they didn’t attack.
Still, part of the Polish war plan was to have a large portion of its troops retreat to what then was Romania (and now is Ukraine) and regroup there in order to return storming once the French and British step in. It was no less naive, maybe more, than the Western expectation that Stalin would hold free elections and welcome anti-Communist exiles’ return to his realms.
The Poles fought gallantly, but the invasion caught them unprepared.
They had good pilots, some of whom later excelled in the Battle of Britain, but the Polish army’s aircraft and tanks were inferior to Germany’s, because Polish leaders did not prepare properly for the total war that its neighbor had resolved to wage.
It was in that spirit of denial that Poland also did not prepare its population for its vicious bombardment, consequently seeing millions flee their homes and chaotically clog the highways, thus obstructing the Polish army’s movements.
The lesson from all this – for Poland, its neighbors, and for Israel, too – is simple: expect the worst from your enemies, and little better from your friends.
The writer’s best-selling Mitz’ad Ha’ivelet Hayehudi (The Jewish March of Folly, Yediot Sfarim, 2019) is a revisionist history of the Jewish people’s leadership, from antiquity to modernity.