A calculation written on a slip of paper and slid across a desk changed the political landscape of the world, seventy five years ago this month.
The Yalta conference—a meeting between Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin—stands out as an attempt by our rulers to smash working class resistance at the end of the Second World War.
The meeting in 1945 was key for the Allied powers in putting an end to revolts across Europe. Both Stalin and Churchill wanted to stamp out the threat of revolution.
British, Russian and US delegates held a series of conferences in 1943, 1944 and 1945—culminating in the Yalta and Potsdam meetings—where they simply carved up the world between them.
They did this without any care for the wishes of the people concerned.
At Yalta, the US, Britain and Russia agreed their “spheres of influence” laid out in a 1944 document.
They agreed to split Bulgaria, Greece, Hungary, Romania and Yugoslavia between British and Russian control.
But it was more than just a power grab—Yalta was an attempt to smash a wave of resistance opposing Nazi occupation. In particular, movements were erupting in Greece, France and Italy.
All the powers involved shared one common fear. They all remembered how the First World War had ended in workers’ revolution across Europe.
They all remembered how close the whole capitalist system had come to being overthrown in the revolt that began in Russia in 1917, spread to Germany in 1918 and then shook almost every country in Europe.
All the rulers in the Second World War were determined to avoid any repeat. The result was to prolong the war for far longer than necessary. It meant millions more died.
Yalta is a lesson of how—as well as clashing—imperialist powers can work together to maintain their rule.
It was part of a process of cementing control of territories by imperialist rulers and an attempt to crush those who fought the Nazis.
In country after country the Allies imposed governments of their choice. Britain, Russia and the US carved up the world.
Perhaps the clearest example is Greece. Nazi occupation devastated the country. Some 550,000 people died as a result—about 8 percent of the population. Some 402,000 houses were destroyed alongside 1,770 villages and 1.2 million people were left homeless.
The occupation didn’t just produce death, destruction and endless horrors but scenes of mass resistance.
An attempt to introduce conscripted labour for the Nazis was beaten by a popular movement.
On one day, some 200,000 people—a quarter of the population of Athens—marched through the city, enduring “a hail of bullets”.
This demonstration made it impossible to introduce conscription, and Greece became the clearest example of how the Nazi slave labour programmes could be halted.
Armed and organised resistance groups, filled with guerrillas—known as “andartes”—fought back. These resistance fighters led by the Communist Party enjoyed overwhelming support. By the autumn of 1944 they had driven the Germans out of most of the country.
Around 50,000 Greeks battled the Nazis. Some 19,000 andartes from the biggest resistance group, ELAS, were killed
Despite receiving almost no international support, the group liberated four-fifths of the Greek mainland from the stranglehold of the occupation.
The victory was not, however, welcomed by the Allied leaders.
The efficiency, organisation and courage of the resistance fighters in Greece terrified Churchill and Stalin.
The British had earlier tried to negotiate a “separate peace” with Germany to allow an unopposed landing to “avoid a period of chaos” which might lead to Communist control.
British Brigadier Barker Benfield was clear that, “Our long-term policy towards Greece is to retain her as a British sphere of influence”.
He argued that British troops could be sent to Greece “at the appropriate time” to ensure “British military control of the whole country”.
Eventually British troops were diverted from fighting in Italy and sent to Greece. They landed in December 1944 with Churchill ordering General Scobie, “Do not hesitate to act as if you are in a conquered city where a local rebellion is taking place.”
Scobie acted accordingly—restoring Greece’s pre-war leaders and monarchy, shooting down workers and beginning a civil war that lasted until 1947 with victory for the extreme right after US intervention.
Italy was another key territory. When Nazi forces invaded in 1943 it stoked mass resistance.
A wave of strikes across the country erupted after fascist Benito Mussolini’s army suffered heavy defeats.
The country was in revolt, and the ruling class manoeuvred to re-assert its control.
In order to stop the popular movement military and political leaders chose to ditch Mussolini. They attempted to form a new regime, with the king as a key figurehead.
The new government, led by Colonel Badoglio, crushed strikes and protests. And the Communist Party played a role in disarming revolts, and sought to negotiate new governments.
And while Churchill worried that further revolution was on the horizon, the Communist Parties of France and Italy worked in coalitions, opposing strikes.
In Britain, the Communist Party argued for a continuation of the wartime coalition.
The critical “percentage agreement” at Yalta was the rulers’ response to this wave of revolt. Churchill listed countries with proposed percentages of division between Russia and the West, and passed this scrap of paper to Stalin.
For instance, it was decided Britain would receive 90 percent of Greece, Russia 10 percent.
Yugoslavia and Hungary would both be divided equally between the forces. Russia would grab 75 percent of Hungary, Britain getting the rest.
“There was a slight pause,” said Churchill.
“Then he took his blue pencil and made a large tick upon it and passed it back to us. It was all done in no more time than it takes to set down.”
“After this there was a long silence. The pencilled paper lay on the centre of the table.
“At length I said, ‘might it not be thought of rather cynical if it seemed we had disposed of these issues, so fateful to millions of people, in such an off-hand manner?” he said.
Imposing the deal meant smashing working class organisation.
For instance, in Greece, Churchill ordered that some 20,000 resistance fighters were sent to North African concentration camps.
In France the bulk of the resistance had been led by Communists and by 1945 the Communist Party was the most popular party.
However, Britain and the US, backed by Stalin, ensured the new state was dominated by people who had worked in collaboration with the Nazis under the Vichy regime.
Ultimately the conference was an opportunity to band together to maintain the rule of their class over ordinary people.
And the ramifications could be felt across the globe.
The deal forged in Yalta saw Russia join the Pacific War and immediately rush to occupy the northern half of Korea. This was one factor that later led to the outbreak of the Korean War.
Despite the tensions within the shaky alliance at Yalta—all the imperialist powers were united in a shared goal.
They claimed they all wanted to enforce a peace throughout Europe—but on their own terms.
It wasn’t driven by a commitment to making life better for ordinary people—but so countries militarily depleted by the Second World War could build up arms. Yalta exposed how Stalin’s state capitalism worked in tandem with the interests of the West.
And he used his influence in Eastern Europe to bolster capitalist governments in countries where mass movements struggled to bring about change.
Despite Churchill’s fear of Bolshevism, he claimed he and Stalin got on “like a house on fire”.
Yalta wasn’t the last word on zones of control, borders and international trade agreements. The conferences and deals continue to this day.
But it is an example of what lengths our imperialist rulers will go to enforce their regimes of cruelty, dominance and exploitation across the globe.