Myths and truth

Continued from previous issue

Churchill realized that Soviet troops would be the first to enter Poland after the Third Reich’s defeat, so he proposed to timely untangle all knots of the Polish issue. During an informal meeting with Stalin on November 29, he stressed that Poland meant a great deal to Great Britain, considering that the UK had declared war on Germany because of Poland. Churchill went on to say that there was nothing more important for him than the security of Russia’s western frontier. Poland, he said, could move further westward, as soldiers do when ordered to take two steps left. If, by doing so, Poland stepped on Germany’s sore toe, well, too bad, it couldn’t be helped; a strong Polish state would be an instrument required by the European orchestra. This brief, outwardly light-minded (yet well thought-out) monologue concealed a solution to a problem born in 1918. Churchill suggested that Stalin reformat Poland, turning it from the Jagiellons to the Piast heritage. He then cast all jokes aside and said that he had no authority from parliament to make any decisions on frontiers, and that he believed neither did the US president, but he did believe that the three heads of state could combine efforts and work out a certain political scenario, while in Tehran, which they could eventually recommend to the Poles and advise them to accept it.

Churchill has it in his memoirs that Eden, who was present during this conversation, pointed out that he was very impressed by Stalin’s statement to the effect that the Poles could move further westward, as far as the Oder. I am reconstructing this remark from Eden’s account of the conversation between Stalin and Churchill. Stalin seized the proposal to reformat Poland and defined the geographical coordinates. Poland had to relinquish Western Ukrainian and Western Belarusian territories, receiving in return part of Germany with the Oder marking its eastern frontier.

The Soviet head of state pretended he was not sure how to act under the circumstance. Churchill has it in his memoirs that he produced three matches and used them to show Stalin the way he saw Poland’s progress westward. The three matches indicating the USSR, Poland, and Germany were moved westward. This was essentially a graphic demonstration of Churchill’s prior statement about soldiers being ordered to take two steps left.

The Polish issue was on the agenda of the meeting on November 30 between the Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov, Anthony Eden, and Harry Hopkins, one of Roosevelt’s closest advisers. Eden said his government wanted to prevent this issue from becoming a nuisance between the three countries. He added that it would serve everyone’s benefit if the Soviet government agreed to Churchill’s proposal, which had demonstrated using three matches the previous day. Molotov replied that this would be the best way out of the situation. After that his British colleague undertook to get in touch with the Poles and ask whether they would agree to the proposal. The participants in that meeting decided to place the Polish issue on the agenda of the three heads of state.

On December 1, the last day of the Tehran Conference, the Polish issue was deliberated first during an informal meeting between Stalin and Roosevelt. Roosevelt said he didn’t mind the shifting of the Polish border to the west, as far as the Oder, but warned that, for political reasons, he would not be able to be present when this issue would be finally resolved. He admitted that he would run for presidency in 1944 and that wouldn’t want to lose 6—7 million Polish American votes. Roosevelt was aware that the frontier-shifting decision would be markedly unpopular with the Polish-American electorate.

The official roundtable that dealt with the Polish issue started in the afternoon. Roosevelt took the floor by stressing the need to renew Soviet-Polish diplomatic relations. Churchill then voiced his frontier-shifting proposal he previously illustrated using three matches. Stalin said he was surprised by Roosevelt’s idea of talks with the Polish government. He said that the previous day they talked about offering such and such things to the Polish government. Perfectly aware of the crux of the matter, he ended his statement by saying that Churchill had mentioned the three matches and that he would like to know what exactly he had in mind.

Churchill replied diplomatically that it would be a good idea to learn the Russians’ views on the Polish borders here, at this roundtable, adding that the British side believed that Poland should be satisfied at the expense of Germany; that the British side was prepared to tell the Poles that it was a good plan and that they couldn’t expect a better plan. Stalin took Churchill’s bait and responded straightforwardly that Ukrainian territories had to become part of Ukraine and the Belarusian ones, part of Belarus, so that the Soviet Union would have the 1939 frontier with Poland, as laid down in the Soviet Constitution. The historians who believe that 1939 was the year when the Ukrainian territories were “reunited” should reread the document included in the official records of the Tehran Conference. Dated 1943, it mentions this reunion using the future tense. At this point, the Polish issue stopped being discussed, but Churchill returned to it soon enough to refer to the subject as a top priority. This time he mentioned no matches but offered a clear-cut formula: it had been agreed that the heart of the Polish state and people should be located between the so-called Curzon Line and the Oder and that Poland should include Eastern Prussia and the Oppeln province. However, the final delimitation of the frontier required a careful study, including the possibility of settlers being accommodated in certain areas. Oppeln (Opole) was a river port on the Oder, founded by Poles in the 10th century AD, not far from Wroclaw (Breslau in German).

Churchill substantiated his formula by stating that he would tell the Polish side that this would be an excellent place where to live, a territory stretching over 300 miles in any direction. His statement makes it clear that the British prime minister was keenly aware of the uppermost point on every Polish mind in the 20th century: their ancient western lands were Germanized, in Lithuania, Belarus, and Ukraine the Poles remained an ethnic minority, while the central strip of their territory seemed too narrow to them. Stalin agreed to this formula, but promptly reserved the Soviet Union’s right to retain two Baltic seaports, Memel and Konigsberg that never froze. Roosevelt kept his promise to Stalin and never expressed his stand officially. At this the discussion of the Polish issue ended.

It remains to make the final, most important conclusion. In Tehran, Churchill came up with the idea of delimiting Poland’s eastern frontier alongside the Curzon Line. In May 1942, Churchill did not have the slightest inclination to touch upon any territorial issues when working on a Soviet-British treaty. So what happened between May 1942 and November 1943?

In 1941-42, the bulk of Ukrainians drafted into the Red Army had no desire to fight in order to defend the Soviet system. The situation changed when it became clear that the Nazis wanted to annihilate the populace on the occupied territories. The Ukrainian people, along with the other peoples of the Soviet Union, realized that this war was about fighting not only for national independence, but also for the right to live. The war against Nazi Germany and its satellites was now a “patriotic war.” The Wehrmacht sustained heavy losses in the battles of Stalingrad and Kursk. Everyone realized that the Red Army would come out victorious in the end of this long war. The crucial contribution made by the peoples of the USSR in the victory over the enemy that threatened world civilization served as the objective reason behind the UN’s recognition of the right of the Ukrainian and Belarusian people to have their lands reunited. Churchill’s formula met the interests of the three major Anti-Hitler Coalition powers and that of Poland.