On this day in 1945, Allied leaders met in Yalta, Crimea, to discuss the division of Europe in the wake of WWII. As the war drew to a close and it became clear that the Axis were nearing their end, the Allies recognized a need to negotiate spheres of influence in liberated Europe. The Yalta Conference was attended by:
- Winston Churchill, British Prime Minister. He wanted to ensure free and fair (i.e, Soviet-free) elections in liberated Eastern Europe (Poland in particular). Churchill entered the conference in a position of relative weakness due to England’s (relatively) small armed forces and apparent reliance on the Americans.
- Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR), American President. He wanted Soviet assistance in the ongoing fight against the Japanese in the Pacific Theatre. Although his interests lay primarily in the Pacific, FDR wanted to mediate between Churchill and Stalin and ensure a free Europe. He entered the meeting in a position of moderate strength.
- Joseph Stalin, Premier of the USSR. He wanted to ensure that the Soviet Union got a “sphere of influence” in Eastern Europe in order to ensure its security against future invasions. Stalin was particularly interested in Poland, the traditional route for invading armies heading towards Russia. Stalin entered the conference in a position of strength, having won a series of great battles against the German army.
The meeting at Yalta was one of several key conferences at the tail-end of the war. During an earlier conference at Moscow in 1944, Stalin and Churchill had secretly divided up Europe into spheres of Western and Eastern influence (an agreement that Stalin would, of course, fail to honour). At Yalta, FDR’s failing health (he would die later that year) and Churchill’s poor bargaining positions resulted in big wins for Stalin. The exclusion of Charles de Gaulle was not taken well by the French leader, who made efforts to cause trouble in the Western alliance.
To many Europeans, Yalta was seen as a betrayal. The Poles in particular – who had fought for the British army in Africa, Italy and Western Europe – were incensed, and never forgave Churchill. Despite Stalin’s promises, much of Eastern Europe was firmly secured behind the “Iron Curtain” and, although ostensibly free, their governments were run by Soviet actors. The conference signalled a new era in the European power balance, where a newly-weakened England was bullied into submission by a dominant Soviet Union.