In Tehran the ‘big three’, Joseph Stalin, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Winston Churchill were meeting for their first conference together. Stalin was to press Churchill on whether he was truly committed to the opening of a ‘Second Front’. The decision to invade France had been made by the U.S. and Britain at the Quebec Conference in August. The planning and preparation for Operation Overlord was now proceeding apace. However Stalin was not satisfied until he saw Churchill personally.
In the evening of 29th November there was a dinner hosted by Stalin. The Allies were already beginning to formally address how they were to deal with Germany after the war. During the evening Stalin and Churchill were to argue over the issue – after they had drunk ‘many toasts’.
How serious Stalin was about shooting the ‘top 50,000 German officers’ can only be guessed. Probably Churchill would not have referred to the matter again publicly. However, when the President’s son Elliot Roosevelt later published an account of the exchange, Churchill felt the need to set the record straight in his post war memoirs. It was not the first time, and it would not be the last, that Elliot Roosevelt was accused of embellishing the facts:
Stalin was our host at dinner. The company was strictly limited – Stalin and Molotov, the President, Hopkins, Harriman, Clark Kerr, myself and Eden, and our interpreters. After the labours of the Conference, there was a good deal of gaiety, and many toasts were proposed.
Presently Elliott Roosevelt, who had flown out to join his father, appeared at the door, and somebody beckoned him to come in. He therefore took his seat at the table. He even intervened in the conversation, and has since given a highly coloured and extremely misleading account of what he heard.
Stalin, as Hopkins recounts, indulged in a great deal of “teasing” of me, which I did not at all resent until the Marshal entered in a genial manner upon a serious and even deadly aspect of the punishment to be inflicted upon the Germans.
The German General Staff, he said, must be liquidated. The whole force of Hitler’s mighty armies depended upon about fifty thousand officers and technicians. If these were rounded up and shot at the end of the war, German military strength would be extirpated.
On this I thought it right to say: “The British Parliament and public will never tolerate mass executions. Even if in war passion they allowed them to begin, they would turn violently against those responsible after the first butchery had taken place. The Soviets must be under no delusion on this point.”
Stalin however, perhaps only in mischief, pursued the subject. “Fifty thousand,” he said, “must be shot.” I was deeply angered. “I would rather,” I said, “be taken out into the garden here and now and be shot myself than sully my own and my country’s honour by such infamy.”
At this point the President intervened. He had a compromise to propose. Not fifty thousand should be shot, but only forty-nine thousand. By this he hoped, no doubt, to reduce the whole matter to ridicule. Eden also made signs and gestures intended to reassure me that it was all a joke.
But now Elliott Roosevelt rose in his place at the end of the table and made a speech, saying how cordially he agreed with Marshal Stalin’s plan and how sure he was that the United States Army would support it.
At this intrusion I got up and left the table, walking off into the next room, which was in semi-darkness. I had not been there a minute before hands were clapped upon my shoulders from behind, and there was Stalin, with Molotov at his side, both grinning broadly, and eagerly declaring that they were only playing, and that nothing of a serious character had entered their heads.
Stalin has a very captivating manner when he chooses to use it, and I never saw him do so to such an extent as at this moment. Although I was not then, and am not now, fully convinced that all was chaff and there was no serious intent lurking behind, I consented to return, and the rest of the evening passed pleasantly.
In this context it must be remembered that Stalin had ordered the killing of 15,000 Polish officers in 1940, whose bodies were found by the Nazis in the forest of Katyn. It seems doubtful that Stalin would have had any qualms about dealing with the leadership of the German army in the same way. The informal context of putting the proposal to Churchill and Roosevelt suggests he did not really expect them to agree.