Next at Yalta arose the issue that would be the most difficult to resolve and that would have the greatest repercussions: Poland. S.M. Plokhy, in Yalta: The Price of Peace, notes that “Every major political sticking point … came together in the debate on Poland.”
The fate of Poland was one of the few issues on which Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt had a basic understanding. While the issue was paramount to Britain and the United States, the Soviets were less willing to discuss it.
The Soviets started out determined to control the government of Poland. They also intended to regain Ukrainian and Belarusian provinces of Poland for the U.S.S.R. The “Polish problem” thus had two components: the borders of the future Polish state and the composition of its government.
Plokhy notes that Franklin Roosevelt introduced the discussion of Poland by taking the role of an impartial observer of the question.
At the preceding Teheran Conference, the Big Three had all but agreed that the Soviet-Polish border would be the so-called “Curzon line.” This was the ethnic boundary between the Poles and the Ukrainians. The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact had granted this border to the Soviet Union.
Plokhy tells the history of the Curzon line and then the talks at Yalta over the town of Lviv (also known as Lvov) and whether that area would fall within Poland or the U.S.S.R. FDR and Churchill voiced the hope that Joseph Stalin might yield Lviv to Poland.
The story then shifts to the concern over Poland’s government. Roosevelt’s main concern was to preserve Polish independence, which depended on the composition of the government. He also stated that the Polish government should be friendly to the Soviet Union, and Churchill agreed. The British goal was quickly to hold elections and create a new Polish government.
Plokhy examines relations of the British and Soviets when they were on opposite sides during the time of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact then as allies later in the war. He also covers the Katyn Forest mass execution of Polish officers by the Soviets and its repercussions. Russian-Polish relations also were harmed by Stalin’s refusal to aid the Warsaw uprising in August 1944.
Polish leadership was split between the government in exile, based in London, and the Lublin Poles, backed by Moscow. The Soviets officially recognized the communist-led Provisional Government of the Republic of Poland on January 5, 1945, over the protests of their allies. FDR continued to hope that the two Polish governments could reach a compromise that Stalin would accept.
The chapter closes with the British and Americans leaving for Yalta, still hoping that Stalin would fulfill his promise of a free and independent Poland.