On the verge of an Allied victory in Europe, a new fight was just beginning over who would control which parts of Europe. Using rare archive material only available since the fall of Communism, this episode reveals the hidden forces that were tearing the Alliance apart just as victory was in reach.
As French troops marched down the Champs Elysees, on the Eastern Front, Stalin’s Red Army was also making progress against the Nazis in Poland, Hungary and Budapest. The key question was: were they liberators or occupiers?
In October 1944, Churchill went to Moscow to discuss this with Stalin. Knowing that the Americans planned to leave Europe shortly after the war, Churchill wanted to salvage something from the continuing advance of the Soviets in Europe. In a secret deal, he handed Stalin a hand-scribbled document divvying up the countries of Eastern Europe between the East and the West.
As throughout the war, Poland was the key. Left off Churchill’s list, the country’s fate seemed to rest in the hands of whoever occupied the territory. Stalin was using secret tactics to firm up his hold on the country and had broken off relations with the Polish government in exile. But Churchill managed to get Stalin to meet with the exiled government and pressed the Poles to carry out his plan to shift Poland’s borders – a shift that would radically change the lives of millions of people. But Churchill was exasperated with the exiled Polish government over their refusal to negotiate with Stalin. In a fiery scene, Churchill is seen haranguing the Poles, “You are absolutely incapable of facing facts!”
Meanwhile, the Red Army pressed on, capturing more and more of Eastern Europe. Reports from the time show that the Soviet soldiers looted homes and raped women and children without mercy. Stalin shrugged off the reports callously.
In February 1945, Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin met in Yalta. The once robust Roosevelt was now in ill-health and would soon die. Once again, the future of Poland was on the table. The dilemma of how to reconcile the Polish government created by Stalin and the original Polish government in exile was to be settled by democratic elections. The borders of the new Poland were decided; and the founding of the United Nations was decreed.
While Yalta went smoothly, just a short time later, the documentary shows how the Soviets kidnapped members of the Polish government in exile and imprisoned them. Churchill was outraged by the act, but Roosevelt was more sanguine, telling Churchill to “minimize the Soviet problem as much as possible.” Roosevelt had his reasons: He wanted to secure Stalin’s support for the American operations against the Japanese in the Pacific.
After the Nazis finally surrendered, there appeared to be camaraderie between the soldiers of the West and the Soviets, but behind the scenes lines were being drawn. The free elections in Poland never took place, and Stalin, feeling ever more powerful, began to engage in purges of his own trusted officers.
In 1945, Berlin lay in ruins, and the Soviet troops were continuing to rape and loot the city relentlessly. By then it had become clear that much of Europe had simply swapped the rule of one tyrant for that of another. Minutes of confidential meetings reveal that the Western powers became alarmed that the Soviets were denying millions of Eastern Europeans the very freedoms that the war had been fought to protect.
In July 1945, Stalin, Churchill, and Harry Truman met in Pottsdam. While the Americans and British hoped Stalin would cooperate with them, Stalin still harbored grudges against the West for his perception that the other Allies had not come to Russia’s aid earlier.
The final reckoning at the end of the war would show the massive disparities in losses between the Allies. The British and Americans lost a total of about 800,000 dead – civilians and soldiers. The Soviets lost 27 million.
At Pottsdam, the Americans and British were pushing for democracy and transparency in what were now the Soviet satellite countries. “An Iron Fence has come down around them,” protested Churchill. “Fairy tales,” responded Stalin.
It was also at Pottsdam that the Americans revealed creation of the first atomic bomb. Churchill was elated, believing that now there was a tool for redressing the balance of power with the Russians. Stalin, however, already knew about the weapon through his network of spies. While the bomb would ultimately cause the Japanese to surrender, it would have little effect on the Russians, who would soon develop the bomb themselves.
After the war, the Soviets imposed a police state on Poland. Polish soldiers, returning home after being made unwelcome in England, found a country much different from the one they had known. The seeds were laid for the Polish resistance that would win Poland its independence again three decades later.
At the same time, the Soviets took over the notorious Nazi concentration camp, Buchenwald, and began imprisoning their enemies. Meanwhile, Stalin continued his ruthless purges of his officers, imprisoning and exiling them.
A few short years from the end of the war, the world was divided in two. Rampant anti-Communism had taken hold in America. Stalin died without ever having felt the hand of justice, and there was no longer any doubt that the Soviet Union, the wartime ally of the West, had become the new enemy.