On This Day in History, February 11, 1945: The final day of the Yalta Conference
by Julia Owerko
Between February 4 and February 11 three world leaders met in the resort city of Yalta, located on the coast of the Black Sea on the southern part of the Crimean Peninsula. The conference was a meeting between three world leaders: British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, the U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt, and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin. It was during these meetings that it was decided that Germany was to be divided into four zones split up between the USSR, Great Britain, France, and the United States. However, the conference also condemned Poland to decades of oppression.
Poland “Gains” Territories
Stalin refused to give away the Polish territories that the USSR annexed following their September 17 1939 invasion. Stalin argued that Poland was used twice as a gateway to invade the Soviet Union and that he needed a barrier that could act as a buffer zone. The return to Poland of the former Polish eastern territories was the first demand of the Polish government in exile that Stalin failed to meet.
Poland was given the port-city of Gdańsk and some of East Prussia in compensation for the loss of their Eastern territory. They also received the so-called Regained Territories.
Communist Control Installed in Poland
However, Stalin did allow politicians from the Polish government in London and other political parties to join the communist-dominated provisional government set up by the USSR. He also promised free elections, thus meeting one of Churchill’s main demands.
All seemed well… on paper. Stalin never intended to allow non-communist politicians to participate in democratic elections. As Professor Kornat, a professor at the History Institute at the Polish Academy of Sciences, notes, “From the very beginning, Stalin was acting in bad faith and was not going to allow unfettered elections to take place in Poland because he knew that unfettered elections, that is free elections, would have brought about a landslide victory for non-communist forces,” squeezing out the puppet government installed by Stalin. Officially, the Yalta Conference agreement envisaged free elections in Poland, but entrusted the communists with their organization.
Soldiers Refuse to Come Home
During the Second World War many Polish soldiers fought under the leadership of foreign powers as the German occupation made establishing an acting military nearly impossible. After the war ended, Polish soldiers were ready to come back home, until they realized it was no longer the country they loved and fought for.
Polish soldiers felt betrayed by their wartime allies for giving Soviets substantial control over Poland at the Yalta Conference. Native Poles could not stand having to live in a country basically lead by a nation with a history of repression and which was responsible for the Katyń Massacre -the mass murder of Polish intellectuals, professors, scientists, and army officers – not five years prior. To make matters worse, the Trial of Sixteen of June 1945 proved that Stalin was preparing for a purge of non-communist representatives. During this staged court case, the NKVD put sixteen leaders of the Polish Underground State on trial and falsely accused the Poles of “illegal activities” against the Soviet Red Army.
Poles could not stand the Soviet influence on their nation. This led many to immigrate to Great Britain. This mass exodus eventually provoked the Polish Resettlement Act of 1947 – the first mass immigration legislation of the Parliament of the United Kingdom. It provided over 200,000 British citizenships to displaced Polish soldiers who fought against the Nazi Germans and protested the Soviet takeover of their homeland.
Yalta Tore Poland Apart
History textbooks talk about the Yalta Conference as a positive end to a tragic war. Although mentioning Stalin’s stubborness in regard to the demands he had for Poland, no syllabus can tackle the decades of backwardness and suffrage that the Poles endured after the war. Oppression, censorship, mysterious disappearances of friends and family, and traumatic violence of the militia – a typical day in the life of a Pole in Polish People’s Republic.
While the rest of Europe was concerned with recovering after the war, for the Poles, the fight for independence had only just begun.