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UNCONDITIONAL SURRENDER AND FALSE ALLIED PROMISES TO JOSEF STALIN
A lot of people forget that the Soviet Union did about 90% of the actual fighting in the war against Hitler. Starting in 1942 Stalin repeatedly asked his "allies" in the west to either open a second front Europe or at least send military forces, particularly air power to help Soviet forces. In both cases he got promises that were never kept.
What he got instead was a declaration of a policy of "unconditional surrender" in early 1943 about which he was never consulted, a policy which gave the Germans every incentive to fight to the bitter end. In spite of repeated protests from Stalin to modify this ill-considered policy, Roosevelt flatly refused to change his position, guaranteeing continued huge Russian losses while the west postponed its promised attack in the west for two years.
Even before the onset of the Cold War in the years after 1945, tension and distrust marked the relationship between Great Britain, the United States and the Soviet Union. Although this tension was understandable given the ideological differences between capitalism and communism, a more important immediate cause was the bizarre, even duplicitous, conduct of President Franklin D. Roosevelt toward Josef Stalin.
The evidence below concerns two important areas of disagreement between the Soviet union and the Western Allies, especially the United States, during the Second World War: 1) the opening of a second front against Germany in Western Europe and 2) the policy of unconditional surrender. Unfulfilled promises made to Stalin by Roosevelt and Churchill (the former in particular) about opening a second front in 1942 and then the American-British adoption of a policy of unconditional surrender without consulting the Soviets deepened the distrust between the West and the Soviets that later developed into the Cold War.
The decisions not to open a second European front in 1942 and to demand the unconditional surrender of Germany also had significant effects on the course of the war itself.
In late May 1942, the Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov made a secret visit to Washington with the expressed aim of securing an American promise to open a second front in France against Germany by autumn of that year. Since fall of the previous year, thus before the United States was even actively engaged in the war, plans for fighting Germany in France had been under development in the War Department. By the spring of 1942 these plans had developed into Operation Sledgehammer, which foresaw an emergency invasion across the English Channel to draw German troops from the Soviet front in case the military collapse of the USSR appeared imminent. What remained unknown was the timetable for such an invasion. Roosevelt favored an unrealistically early assault date. As Robert Sherwood notes,
Throughout the early months of 1942 the Kremlin had desperately sought the active military involvement of British and American forces in Western Europe. However, despite American plans, successive Soviet diplomatic communiqués calling for a second front had been summarily rebuffed by Washington. The negative American attitude appeared to have changed in April 1942 when Roosevelt invited Molotov to Washington specifically to discuss relieving German pressure on the Soviets. After arriving at the White House on May 29, Molotov discussed with Roosevelt the subject of a second front on the next day (May 30).
According to Sherwood, Molotov asked Roosevelt directly:
Three days later, on June 1st, Roosevelt repeated to Molotov his promise to open a second front in 1942 and an official press statement to this effect was prepared for release upon Molotov's safe arrival in Moscow: "In the course of the conversations [between the President and Molotov] full understanding was reached with regard to the urgent tasks of creating a Second Front in Europe in 1942."
His promises to Molotov aside, Roosevelt was well aware that the United States was incapable of launching an invasion of France in 1942. Already, one month earlier during Anglo-American staff talks in London, General George Marshall "spoke at some length of the possibility that they might be compelled to launch the emergency operation, known as SLEDGEHAMMER, sometime before the autumn of 1942. If this were necessary, he said, the American contribution in troops would necessarily be a modest one since there was not enough shipping to transport a substantial force across the Atlantic within the next five months. He said that the President was opposed to any premature operation, involving such great risks, but that if such an operation were made necessary by developments on the Russian Front, American troops should take part in it to the fullest possible extent."
Subsequent events demonstrated that an Anglo-American offensive would indeed become a reality in 1942, but what Molotov and Stalin did not know was that the second front they opened would be in North Africa and not in Europe. The second front in France requested by Stalin would not become a reality until June 1944. The Soviets would thus continue to fight the bulk of the German Army alone for another two years.
Given the past betrayal by Great Britain of its Eastern European allies (see below) and the failure to open a second front in Europe despite the promises of President Roosevelt, Stalin can perhaps be forgiven if by early 1943 he believed the United States and Great Britain were willing to fight the Third Reich to the last drop of Soviet blood.
At the end of the Allied war conference held in Casablanca, Morocco between January 14 and 24, 1943, President Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill issued a joint statement calling for the unconditional surrender of the Axis Powers: Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany, and Imperial Japan. Although the policy of unconditional surrender was intended to prevent the rise of a "stab in the back" myth that could fuel a resurgence of German militarism and nationalism after the war, its had a far wider impact than Roosevelt (its primary creator) could have imagined.
Josef Stalin actively disliked the policy of unconditional surrender, until after the tide of the war had shifted decisively in his favor and ongoing German resistance provided a reason for Soviet troops to push deeper and deeper into Eastern Europe and Germany. At the heart of Stalin's disdain for the policy was his deep distrust of the Western democracies. To a considerable this lack of trust derived from direct experience dealing with them.
In 1938 and 1939, for instance, the willingness of Great Britain and France to betray their promises to protect Czechoslovakia and Poland from German aggression (see our page on the Western Betrayal of Poland in 1939), as well as their (particularly Britain's) thinly-veiled diplomatic coldness toward Moscow, led Stalin to sign a non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany. This pact also contained secret clauses that allowed the Soviet Union to occupy eastern Poland several weeks after the German attack.
Then, in June 1941, German forces attacked the Soviet Union and drove to within striking distance of Moscow by December of that year. In 1942 the Soviet situation was desperate and President Roosevelt repeatedly promised to open hostilities on the European Continent against Germany that year. The Red Army thus continued to fight the vast majority of Hitler's troops alone. Soviet arms continued to sustain atrocious losses, the Germans occupied vast sections of Soviet territory, and the country teetered on the brink of destruction.
Until early 1945, therefore, Stalin continued to follow a policy of conditional surrender with the Germans. He made it clear multiple times that the Red Army would gladly enter into peace negotiations with the Germans as long as Hitler and his government were removed from power. For instance, after the victory at Stalingrad in February 1943, just one week after the unconditional surrender announcement at Casablanca, Stalin stated:
This was followed by another Stalin appeal on November 6, 1943, when German forces were in full retreat:
Lastly, according to the American Ambassador to Moscow, W. Averell Harriman, the Soviet Foreign Minister Molotov told him in 1943 that "Stalin had some reservations about it (i.e. the policy of unconditional surrender), that it might make the Germans fight harder." Harriman claims to have advised Molotov to have Stalin "raise the question with the president, which he did [at Teheran]. But Roosevelt never followed up Stalin's suggestion that he clarify his meaning."
STALIN COMPLAINS OFFICIALLY ABOUT UNCONDITIONAL SURRENDER
Stalin never shielded his misgivings about the policy of unconditional surrender from either Roosevelt or Churchill. In fact, he openly asked for some kind of declaration of surrender terms, no matter how harsh. Consider his appeal to Roosevelt and Churchill during dinner on the first night of the Teheran Conference, on Sunday, November 28, 1943:
Considerable confusion has arisen as a result of sloppy record-keeping in connection with this dinner. For example, British records erroneously indicate that the dinner and Stalin's comment occurred the following night, on November 29, 1944. Roosevelt's personal translator, Charles Bohlen, is adamant, however, stating that "during dinner and afterwards" on November 28th Stalin kept returning to the issue of unconditional surrender. The confusion surrounds if and when Roosevelt was present to hear Stalin's concerns. According to Bohlen and the official record Roosevelt was present and finished dinner with the rest of the party. Soon afterward, though, the President took ill, excused himself, and did not return. Stalin then continued to press Churchill on the subject of unconditional surrender without FDR being present. Roosevelt later added to the confusion by claiming in a Memorandum for the Secretary of State on December 23, 1943 that the subject of unconditional surrender "was not brought up in any way at Teheran in my presence." This lapse of memory may have been caused by Roosevelt's illness.
Translator Bohlen was present at the dinner so there is no reason to believe that his memory of this was faulty. Furthermore, Churchill himself recalled Roosevelt being present in a Telegram from Prime Minister Churchill to President Roosevelt on January 2, 1944:
THE POST-CONFERENCE MEMO FROM MOSCOW TO WASHINGTON
Having had his concerns ignored by Roosevelt at Teheran, Stalin made yet another effort to communicate his displeasure with the policy of unconditional surrender. According to Charles Bohlen, some time after the Teheran Conference, Moscow transmitted a communiqué to the State Department "questioning the doctrine of unconditional surrender, which Roosevelt and Churchill had agreed to at their meeting in Casablanca in early 1943.[*] The Kremlin repeated the arguments raised at Teheran that unconditional surrender afforded the Nazi propagandists an opportunity to play on the fear of the unknown and thereby stiffen the German willingness to fight. Impressed by the argument, Hull asked what I thought. I replied that Moscow indeed had a good point. At Hull's suggestion, I drafted a memorandum, which he signed and sent to Roosevelt. Supporting the Soviet suggestion, the memo said:
Roosevelt replied with a flat rejection." Stalin had his answer.
THE NATIONAL COMMITTEE FOR A FREE GERMANY AND LEAGUE OF GERMAN OFFICERS
Thus the policy of unconditional surrender would be followed by the Western Allies until the bitter end. However, Soviet policy toward German surrender continued to be marked by ambivalence. As the war continued into 1944 it appeared publicly that Stalin had fallen into line behind unconditional surrender. Yet behind Soviet lines various appeals for German surrender on any terms would continue to be made. The most famous of these appeals were made by the members of the National Committee for a Free Germany (NKFD) and the League of German Officers (BDO).
Formed in 1943, the NKFD was comprised of German expatriates (typically German communists) and former German soldiers who had either been captured by the Red Army. The NKFD formerly came into existence in July 1943 with the future president of the communist German Democratic Republic, Walter Ulbricht, as its head. The members of the NKFD published a weekly newspaper and distributed leaflets across the battlefront calling for the surrender of German troops. They also produced radio programs and employed trucks fitted with loudspeakers which went to the front and asked German troops to lay down their arms. The League of German Officers was formed several months later in September 1943 following the German defeat at Kursk. Its chief was General Walther von Seydlitz, who had capitulated at Stalingrad.
In July and August 1944 the NKFD and BDO experienced their greatest successes thanks to the failure of an assassination attempt on Hitler's life on July 20th. On July 22 eighteen senior ranking officers from what formerly had been Army Group Center crossed Soviet lines. Army Group Center had once been a hotbed of opposition to Hitler and many officers had been complicit in a failed plot to kill Hitler in 1942. These officers now feared for their lives in the purge that followed the failed assassination. Two weeks later, on August 8th, Field Marshal Friedrich Paulus, the man who had surrendered the Sixth Army at Stalingrad in February 1943, also joined the NKFD, becoming the organization's highest-ranking member. Paulus had grown increasingly critical of Hitler and the war effort throughout his captivity. However, until this point he would not voice his opposition publicly. Finally, with the failure of the assassination plot in 1944, Paulus declared a complete break with the Nazi regime. He spent the rest of the war making radio broadcasts on the Eastern Front calling for Germans to turn away from Hitler and to surrender.
The Casablanca Conference
The Teheran Conference
The Casablanca Conference
Friedrich Paulus German
Friedrich Paulus Biographie German
The Teheran Conference
The Debate over Unconditional Surrender
1. Robert E. Sherwood, Roosevelt and Hopkins: An Intimate History (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1948), pp. 518f.
2. Sherwood, Roosevelt and Hopkins, p. 563. That Molotov left Washington fully expectant that the U.S. would open a second front in 1942 is also recorded in the memoirs of Stalin's personal translator. See Valentin M. Berezhkov, At Stalin's Side. Trans. Sergei V. Mikheyev (Birch Lane Press ), pp. 244f.
3. William H. McNeil, America, Britain & Russia: Their Co-Operation and Conflict, 1941-1946 (NY: Johnson Reprint, 1970), p. 182.
4. Sherwood, Roosevelt and Hopkins, p. 535.
5. Felix Wittmer, The Yalta Betrayal (Caldwell, Idaho: Caxton Press, 1954), p. 32.
6. Wittmer, The Yalta Betrayal, p. 32.
7. W. Averell Harriman & Elie Abel, Special Envoy to Churchill and Stalin, 1941-1946 (New York: Random House, 1975), p. 269.
8. See Bohlen Supplementary Memorandum "Memorandum of Marshal Stalin's Views as Expressed during the Evening of November 28, 1943," in U.S. Department of State, Foreign Relations of the United States Diplomatic Papers: The Conferences at Cairo and Teheran, 1943, pp. 513-514. Also see Sherwood, Roosevelt and Hopkins, pp. 782f.
9. Charles E. Bohlen, Witness to History, 1929-1969 (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1973), p. 144.
10. Bohlen, Witness to History, pp. 156f.
11. For example, in October 1943 the Soviets signed the Joint Four-Nation Declaration in Moscow, the preamble of which promised "to continue hostilities against those Axis powers with which they respectively are at war until such powers have laid down their arms on the basis of unconditional surrender." Yet one month later Stalin expressed his displeasure with unconditional surrender at Teheran. Read the Joint Four-Nation Declaration.