Was the division of Europe after WW II inevitable?

The Second World War ended in Europe 65 years ago, on May 8, 1945. The Soviet Army was everywhere in the Central and Easter Europe and the Cold War was knocking on the door.


1. Many people in my region still think the Western Allies gave up the Eastern Europe to Stalin pretty easily and Roosevelt and Churchill were too soft on the Soviet dictator. Do you agree or do you not, and why?

2. Do you think there was a chance to prevent somehow the division of Europe, and how or if there wasn’t, why?

3. The democratic leaders were dealing with the dictator. Any lesson we could learn from it for today?vent somehow the division of Europe, and how or if there wasn’t, why?


Robert Maddox, Professor Emeritus, History, College of Liberal Arts, Penn State University

1. I am inclined reluctantly to defend Churchill and Roosevelt at Yalta , where the agreements over Eastern Europe were signed. The Soviets occupied the region in question. If the two western leaders pushed too far, and the conference broke up, there would be no restraints whatever on Soviet behavior. I think Churchill might have wished to take a stronger stand (the Brits, after all, had gone to war over Poland) but FDR was committed to postwar cooperation with the Soviets. And by this time he was the senior partner of the US-UK relationship. Roosevelt hoped that if he convinced Stalin that the Western Allies meant to continue the wartime collaboration, the latter would might treat Eastern Europe relatively lightly. FDR also believed Soviet entry into the war against Japan might save tens of thousands of American lives if an invasion proved necessary. There was no assurance at that time atomic bombs would work, and Roosevelt thought it crucial that Soviet forces pin down Japanese troops on the mainland and prevent them from being brought back to defend the home islands. This was one of many occasions in history where the interests of smaller nations were sacrificed on the altar of large-power politics.

2. I do not think there was any real chance of preventing a division of Europe. FDR was naive in thinking that his personal charm would somehow alter Stalin’s behavior. Given what we now know, it seems clear that Stalin all along meant to enforce Soviet control over the Eastern Europe states. One could argue that he had some justification for this–Russia had been invaded from the west by Napoleon, the Kaiser, and by Hitler–but that is another matter.

3. As an historian, I am reluctant to draw “lessons” from dealing with dictators. There are some obvious similarities (dictators don’t have to deal with an opposition press, etc.) but they are not all the same. Hitler was reckless and emotional, for instance, while Stalin was cautious and willing to bide his time.

Kenneth Osgood, Assistant Professor of History, Florida Atlantic University

1. Some historians think that Roosevelt and Churchill were too soft on Stalin, but virtually all historians agree that there was very little that FDR or Churchill could do about Stalin’s hold on Eastern Europe. At the end of the war, the harsh reality was that the Red Army controlled most of Eastern Europe. The only real way to dislodge Stalin would have been through force — and by 1945, no one was seriously entertaining the prospect of enlarging the war by turning on the USSR. Indeed, when Germany was defeated, it should be remembered, the United States was still embroiled in a very brutal and costly war against Japan. The first priority of Roosevelt and then Truman was getting Stalin’s help in defeating Japan. It was by no means certain, even at the Yalta conference, that the atomic bomb would work, or that if it did work, that it would necessarily lead to Japan’s surrender. This continued to be true after Germany’s surrender — at Potsdam, Truman learned that the bomb had been tested successfully, but he still very much wanted Stalin to declare war against Japan. He expressed little confidence that the bomb alone would lead Japan to surrender.

As I said, some historians do agree that FDR and Churchill were too easy on Stalin. But many more American historians (though by no means all of them) take a different position: that Truman, who succeeded FDR, was too *hard* on Stalin. They believe that Truman too easily jumped to the conclusion that there was no possibility of finding a way to live with Stalin, and through his hardline tactics created a Cold War that might have been avoided. It should be stressed that all historians agree that Stalin was brutal beyond belief — documents released since the collapse of the USSR make him look much worse than we even suspected years earlier. But some sources suggest that even though Stalin was a monster to territories under his control, that he could be bargained with in other areas.

2. The division of Europe hinged on one issue above all: the future of Germany. No one in the West liked what Stalin was doing in Eastern Europe, but Germany was the biggest concern because Germany was so powerful. For Stalin and the Soviet Union, the paramount priority was simple: prevent yet another German invasion of Soviet territory. Twice in a generation, the Russian people endured unspeakable horror at the hands of an invading German army. Understandably, Stalin wanted to prevent this from happening again. Thus his top foreign policy priority was keeping Germany weak, disarmed, and neutral.

For Americans and many Europeans, the top priority after 1945 became the reconstruction of Western Europe and the defense of Europe against a very large Red Army. Rebuilding Germany was key to both goals: without German economic might, there would be no European recovery and no European defense.

Thus the Americans (and their West European allies) had very different goals than Stalin and the Soviet Union. To my mind, the Americans never seriously explored a sensible possibility: a neutral, unified, disarmed Germany. They were wary of hard bargaining and serious diplomacy. Of course, Stalin’s brutal actions in Eastern Europe reinforced the notion that Stalin couldn’t be trusted — and with good reasoning. But I still can’t help but think that a less confrontational posture might have been able to find a neutral solution in Germany, one that would have gone a long way to easing tensions and perhaps preventing the Cold War.

3. I think an odd but important lesson comes out of Cold War history: not all dictators were Hitler. Yes, Hitler and Stalin shared much in common. Both were horrible, brutal, and unspeakably oppressive. But Hitler was a dangerous adventurer — reckless beyond reason. He was impulsive to the point of self ruin. Stalin, for all the horrors of his rule at home, was more cautious in his dealings with the West. This suggests that there were possibilities for cooperation that were not seriously explored.

In the 1940s, Americans assumed Stalin was an evil puppet master, the brilliant mastermind behind all unrest everywhere in the world. We now know that wasn’t so. Stalin didn’t like things he couldn’t control. He didn’t want war with the West. His diplomacy was clumsy and confrontational, but he didn’t want a Cold War. Thus it is possible we  could have achieved more through negotiations than we assumed at the time. Yes, there were some things no Soviet leader would countenance — Western influence in Eastern Europe, which many a Russian leader viewed as their sphere of influence (much like many Americans leaders viewed Latin America, by the way). But there were other areas where the West might have been more successful and more adventurous in their diplomacy, but they devalued diplomacy itself because they believed that one could never do business with any dictator; they equated all dictators with Hitler.

Ian Kershaw, Professor at the University of Sheffield, Author of the two volume biography of Adolf Hitler – Hitler: 1889–1936 Hubris, Hitler: 1936–1945 Nemesis

1., 2. I think the answer to the first two questions is basically the same. The  western Allies were, towards the end of the war, in a weak position regarding Stalin’s hold over eastern Europe. The Red Army had undertaken the lion’s share of the land fighting, and battled its way back westwards towards Germany, then finally into the Reich. There was nothing militarily that the west could do to remove the Soviet Union from the territory which it had taken. A division into ‘spheres of interest’ was therefore the obvious and only way out. Equally obvious was that the wartime coalition between the western powers and the Soviet Union would break up as soon as the common enemy, Hitler, was defeated.  But to prevent a ‘hot’, not ‘cold’, war developing between the former war partners, lines had to be drawn up that were realistic and defensible. That again meant doing nothing to encroach on territory that the Soviet Union could see as falling within its sphere and as important for its own defences, while holding on to the territory occupied in the  west and agreed in the Three-Power conferences.

3. I can’t see any practical lessons to be gained from these events in the Second World War for our present world diplomacy, since conditions are so drastically changed from those times.

Ellen Schrecker, Professor of History, Yeshiva University

1.I don’t think that either Roosevelt or Churchill were being “soft” on Stalin. The Soviet army was in control of Eastern Europe and they had no choice. True, they were no doubt trying to maintain good relations with the Soviets, but i don’t think they were giving up anything, since they had nothing to give.

2. Neither side trusted the other. Perhaps if they had not been so suspicious of each other’s motives, the division of Europe might not have occurred. But the situation in the late 1940s was such that a kind of vicious spiral occurred. both the West and the Soviets were at fault here.

3. I’m not sure the internal regimes of the two sides made much of a difference. As we have seen recently with regard to guantanamo, etc., democratic governments can behave in very non-democratic ways. national security issues tend to be handled by governments without much regard for democratic processes.


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