Post-war divisions

post-war divisions

Joseph Stalin and Franklin Roosevelt, pictured during the Yalta conference of 1945

Through the 1930s, most politicians in the West viewed Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia in similar terms. Nazism and communism may have occupied opposite ends of the political spectrum, but each was as dangerous and threatening as the other. Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin might have hated one another, but to the West they were mirror-image dictators, each guilty of the same political oppressions and disregard for humanity. In August 1939 Hitler and Stalin signed a non-aggression treaty, promising not to go to war on each other for a decade. This development horrified Western observers: it seemed as though the two dictators had come to an agreement that might allow them to divide and conquer Europe. In reality the Nazi-Soviet non-aggression treaty was nothing more than a stalling tactic. Hitler fully intended to break the treaty and invade Russia, sometime before 1943. Against advice from his generals, the German leader ordered an attack on the USSR in June 1941. This pushed Stalin and his country into an awkward but critically important military alliance with the US and Britain.

post-war divisions

The ‘Big Three’ at Yalta, 1945

During the war, Stalin participated in several high-level conferences with American and British leaders. The first of these summits was in Tehran, Iran in November-December 1943; a second was held in Yalta in February 1945. Present at both were Stalin and the two men who had once reviled him as a tyrant: Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill. By the Yalta Conference, the level of co-operation and friendship between the so-called ‘Big Three’ and their countries was at its strongest level. The Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union had stalled and then failed; the D-Day landings had been successful. By early 1945, Russian and American troops were close to meeting and Hitler’s forces were just weeks from defeat. Victory was well in sight when Roosevelt, Stalin and Churchill met at Yalta – not to plot the defeat of Germany, but to decide the future of the post-war world.

Difficult relationships

In the end, [Churchill] knew well that when he dealt with the Soviet tyrant he dealt with the “devil” and that the Soviet system was vile. Here lay the crucial difference between Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt. Churchill proved willing throughout the war to negotiate geopolitical deals with the Soviets, but Roosevelt rejected this approach and ambitiously aimed higher. He hoped to domesticate and to civilise the Soviet “devil” to adopt the American way. “Churchill”, as Patrick Glynn persuasively argued, “…understood the essential nature of the Soviet regime and of Stalin. Roosevelt, whatever his other virtues and abilities, never did.
Wilson Miscamble, historian

Personal relations between the three men were mixed. Roosevelt was optimistic about his ability to manage Stalin as an ally; consequently he enjoyed amicable relations with the Soviet leader, at least on the surface. Stalin, noticing that Roosevelt was in poor health, gave him a warm welcome in Yalta and expressed hope that a US-Soviet alliance might continue in peacetime: “I want to drink to our alliance, that it should not lose its character. I propose a toast to our alliance, may it be strong and stable.” Roosevelt also showed empathy for the significant loss of life and property damage sustained by the Soviet Union. More than 20 million Russians had been killed, another 25 million rendered homeless, 7 million horses killed and 65,000 kilometres of railway line destroyed. Stalin suggested a reparations figure of $10 billion and Roosevelt supported his claim.

Not all shared Roosevelt’s idealistic evaluation of Stalin. Winston Churchill showed some admiration for Stalin (he once observed in private that “I like this man”) but his views about Stalin’s leadership and Soviet communism were consistently pessimistic. Churchill communicated with Stalin much less frequently than did Roosevelt; he was more cautious about revealing too much to the Soviet leader. This distance is hinted at in press-call photographs of the wartime conferences, where Stalin and Churchill were usually separated by Roosevelt. For Churchill, allying with Stalin to defeat Hitler was little more than choosing between the lesser of two evils.

The Polish dilemma

post-war divisions

A cartoon depicting the fate of Poland in 1939

The main issue on the table at Yalta was the future of Poland. Both Roosevelt and Churchill were acutely aware that Stalin had already double-crossed the West before over Poland. Stalin’s 1939 pact with Hitler included a secret clause to divide Polish territory between Germany and the USSR. But at Yalta, Stalin proved quite frank in his discussions about Poland. He admitted liability for entering into a pact with Hitler – but he justified it by explaining that Poland had frequently been used as a corridor for attacks on Russia. It was therefore important, Stalin said, to have a stake in Polish territory – or at least a Soviet-friendly government in Warsaw – to ease these fears of invasion from the west. Roosevelt and Churchill accepted this argument and agreed to let Stalin keep the eastern half of Poland, as per the 1939 Nazi-Soviet Pact. In return, Stalin promised to permit free elections in Poland. This agreement invited stinging criticisms of Churchill back in Britain, where he was accused in parliament of ‘selling out’ the Poles. The violation of Polish sovereignty had triggered Britain’s declaration of war on Germany – and now Churchill had “bargained it away” at Yalta.

For all his candour, Stalin had no intention of honouring any promises regarding Poland. The Soviet occupying forces in Poland delayed elections there while they nullified opposition; in March 1945 they arrested sixteen Polish political leaders, conducted a show trial in Moscow and detained them in a labour camp. The elections weren’t held until January 1947, by which time Soviet agents had engineered a victory for local communists. Roosevelt soon realised that he had been wrong to trust the Russian leader. On April 1st 1945, the US president wrote Stalin a firm letter of protest over the lack of democratic developments in Poland. “I cannot conceal from you the concern with which I view the development of events… since our fruitful meeting at Yalta,” Roosevelt said. He pointed out the “discouraging lack of progress” in the implementation of Polish democratic government, and said that “a thinly disguised continuance of the present Warsaw regime would be unacceptable and would cause the people of the United States to regard the Yalta agreement as having failed”. Two weeks later Roosevelt was dead, following a massive stroke brought on by long-term illnesses, his immense workload and the stresses of office.

Constructing post-war Europe

post-war divisions

A cartoon depicting the task confronting European leaders

The leaders of the US, USSR and Britain met again in Potsdam, Germany in July 1945. This time, however, the situation had changed radically. The war in Europe was over, though the Pacific war against Japan continued. Soviet forces occupied much of eastern Europe, including the Baltic states, Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Romania. There had been no free elections held or scheduled in Poland, which was still occupied by Soviet forces. The dead Roosevelt had been replaced by his vice-president, Harry Truman, who was more interested in containing the spread of communism than maintaining a productive relationship with Stalin. Churchill himself was replaced by Clement Atlee during the conference, after losing a general election in Britain. Western leaders were now under no illusions about Stalin. Among the terms agreed to in Potsdam:

  • Germany would be occupied in four zones by the Allied powers – the US, Britain, France and Soviet Union – for an indeterminate period of time. The Allied military would act as the government in their respective zones.
  • German sovereignty would eventually be restored, with Germany to remain as a single nation.
  • Germany was to be ‘denazified’, demilitarised and democratised. Members of the Nazi Party should be removed from government and public offices.
  • The German armed forces should be scaled down, while factories and plants capable of producing armaments should be deconstructed or permanently converted to other uses.
  • The German economy was to be converted to agriculture and light industry; its production and exports would be strictly controlled by the Allies. The long-term goal was to return German government to democratic institutions.
  • The borders of Germany were redrawn so that she was 25 percent smaller than in 1937. European nations formerly annexed by Germany, such as Austria and Sudenten Czechoslovakia, were to be returned to their original peoples, while German citizens living in those areas would be relocated to Germany.
  • The US had ceased exporting lend-lease supplies to the USSR immediately after the end of war in Europe. With Russia in desperate need of resources, Stalin demanded massive war reparations from Germany. The Potsdam conference agreed that the Allies should receive reparations totaling $20 billion, to be taken in goods and machinery from their respective zones.
  • The borders of Poland were also redrawn. The Soviets retained control over the Polish territory they had seized in 1939, while sizeable portions of eastern Germany were given to Poland. In effect, the entire nation of Poland was shifted to the west. The Allies recognised a coalition of parties in Warsaw as the official government of Poland.

The seeds of division

The wartime conferences at Yalta and Potsdam revealed fundamental differences that contributed to the development of the Cold War. Stalin wanted a Soviet sphere of influence in eastern Europe, ostensibly to protect Russia from a western attack. The Soviet leader wanted to divide and cripple Germany so that it could never again threaten his country; he also wanted massive reparations from Germany to help rebuild the war-ravaged USSR. The Americans and British were uncertain about what to do with Germany – but they wanted European nations to have political systems and governments based on self-determination and democratic principles. But Stalin was a cunning negotiator – and one who couldn’t be taken at his word. He had a fundamental distrust of Western leaders and was paranoid about their intentions toward Russia. Stalin made promises he had no intention of keeping, simply so he could buy time to establish Soviet-controlled regimes and satellite states in eastern Europe. This encroachment established the first battleground for the Cold War: Europe divided by the Iron Curtain.





1. Before World War II, Stalin was reviled by the West as a totalitarian dictator, in the same vein as Hitler.
2. Germany’s invasion of the USSR in 1941 led to a difficult but important alliance between Stalin and the Allies.
3. This alliance began to fracture in Yalta and Potsdam in 1945, as leaders decided on the reconstruction of Europe.
4. Stalin gave assurances about the future of Poland and other Soviet-occupied nations, though he soon broke these.
5. The 1945 conferences exposed Stalin’s desire to create a Soviet sphere of influence in Poland and other parts of eastern Europe. These post-war negotiations opened divisions between the USSR and the West and planted the seeds for the Cold War.

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This page was written by Jennifer Llewellyn, Jim Southey and Steve Thompson. To reference this page, use the following citation:
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