The Yalta Conference was a meeting between the Soviet, US and British heads of state, held from 4-11 February 1945.

Recognising that the defeat of Nazi Germany was inevitable, Joseph Stalin, Franklin D Roosevelt and Winston Churchill met to discuss how post-war Europe would be organised – most notably the partition of Germany. The agreements – not all of which were honoured – shaped European politics for the next five decades.

Background to the Yalta Conference

By early 1945 Allied forces had encircled Germany. In the West, Northern France and Belgium had largely been liberated. To the South, Rome had been captured, and to the East, the Soviet armies had rumbled through Poland, finally capturing Warsaw in January 1945. It was clear that Nazi Germany would ultimately be defeated – the question was what to do next?

It was agreed that the leaders of the three Allied Powers should hold a second meeting (the first, the Tehran Conference, had been held in 1943) to discuss how Europe should be structured after the war, how Germany should be treated, and whether the Soviet Union should enter the Pacific War against Japan.

Roosevelt had initially wanted to hold the conference in a neutral venue somewhere in the Mediterranean. Stalin, arguing that he had been advised by his doctors not to travel, opposed this plan. Eventually it was agreed that the conference should be held in the Southern Soviet city of Yalta, on the shores of the Black Sea.

Who attended the Yalta Conference and what were their objectives?

Roosevelt, Stalin and Churchill attended the Conference at Yalta, along with key aides. Each leader had slightly different aims coming into the Conference.

Stalin, whose armies in Eastern Europe were three times as large as the Allied armies in Western and Southern Europe, felt that he was in the strongest bargaining position. He wanted, at the very least, to ensure the further security of the Soviet Union by ensuring that Germany was left strategically too weak to attack again, and to secure Soviet domination of the countries of Eastern Europe.

Roosevelt’s primary aim was to secure Soviet agreement to enter the war against Japan. Although the Pacific War was going well, and Japanese forces were slowly being pushed back, Roosevelt was conscious that the war would probably not be concluded without invading the Japanese home islands – an assault that his advisors argued could cost up to a half a million American lives.

Churchill pushed strongly for democratic elections in each of the liberated European countries. Recognising that Britain was strategically the weakest of the the major allies, he reverted to the standard British policy that a divided Europe could not pose a threat to British security. To this end, he also supported Roosevelt in his attempts to bring the Soviet Union into the soon to be established United Nations.

What was decided at the Yalta Conference?

Tense discussions at the Yalta Conference ultimately led to agreement that:

  • The Allies would insist on the unconditional surrender of Germany, which would be demilitarised and forced to pay reparations.
  • Germany would be broken into four zones, each occupied by a different power (the fourth ‘power’ would be France) while the ‘Committee on Dismemberment of Germany’ considered its future.
  • The Soviet Union would enter into the war against Japan “two or three months after Germany has surrendered”.
  • The Soviet Union would join the United Nations. Although Stalin originally insisted that each of the 15 Soviet Republics be given a seat, ultimately only three were granted.
  • Provisional Governments would be established in every liberated country. These Governments would be supported in rebuilding their countries and, through democratic elections, choosing their own governments.

Source: A copy of the full text of the Yalta agreement – known formally as the Protocol of the Proceedings of the Crimea Conference – can be found here: http://avalon.law.yale.edu/wwii/yalta.asp

Significance of the Yalta Conference

The Yalta Conference has had a massive long term impact on the structure of the world we live in today. In fact, a better question might be: how did the Yalta Conference contribute to the Cold War?

The text of the document, combined with power politics on the ground ensured that Europe was effectively split into two. Western European nations would come under a US sphere of influence under NATO, and Eastern European nations came into the Soviet sphere of influence under the auspices of the Warsaw Pact. The partition of Germany, which was set in motion by the text of the agreement at Yalta, ensured that there could never be a major power in the centre of Europe and effectively set the boundary between East and West that would endure until the end of the Cold War.

As it quickly became clear that Stalin would not honour his promises to allow free elections, Roosevelt and Churchill were both criticised at home of selling out the Eastern European nations.

Whether or not they did so consciously is not entirely clear. Comments made by each indicated that they were inclined to trust the Soviet leader. Roosevelt, for example, is reported to have said:

“I just have a hunch that Stalin is not that kind of a man. … and I think that if I give him everything I possibly can and ask for nothing from him in return, noblesse oblige, he won’t try to annex anything and will work with me for a world of democracy and peace.”

But, at the same time, it both Roosevelt and Churchill would certainly known that, with a massive Soviet army camped just to the East and an unfinished conflict with Japan in the Far East, they were not in a strong negotiating position. It may well have been that they felt they had no option but accept a deal that looked good on paper but which they knew full well would never be properly implemented.

Further afield, agreements reached about the United Nations also shaped the development of global international system that remains largely in place at the start of the 21st century.

Soviet entry into the Pacific War did little to alter the strategic balance of power in that region, which was influenced more strongly by the US decision to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.