The Allies now believed that the end of the war was in sight. Attention turned to the post war settlement. Churchill had just been in the United States to confer with Roosevelt. The international negotiations at Dunbarton Oaks, Washington had also been largely completed, where the future structure of the United Nations had been decided. He now travelled to Moscow to meet Stalin.
Aside from the mechanisms of the United Nations the real politik was about the relative sphere of influence amongst the Allies in Europe, particularly in those countries which were emerging from German occupation. Churchill was trying to get the Polish Government in Exile to enter talks with Stalin, but also to sort out which of the Allies were to take primary role in the other countries of eastern Europe. It proved to be relatively easy to deal with Stalin, at least it appeared so at the time.
At ten o’clock that night we held our ﬁrst important meeting in the Kremlin. …
The moment was apt for business, so I said, “Let us settle about our affairs in the Balkans. Your armies are in Roumania and Bulgaria. We have interests, missions, and agents there. Don’t let us get at cross—purposes in small ways. So far as Britain and Russia are concerned, how would it do for you to have ninety per cent. predominance in Roumania, for us to have ninety per cent. of the say in Greece, and go ﬁfty—ﬁfty about Yugoslavia?”
While this was being translated I wrote out on a half—sheet of paper:
The others …10%
Great Britain …90% (in accord with U.S.A.)
The others …25%
I pushed this across to Stalin, who had by then heard the translation. There was a slight pause. Then he took his blue pencil and made a large tick upon it, and passed it back to us. It was all settled in no more time than it takes to set down.
Of course we had long and anxiously considered our point, and were only dealing with immediate war-time arrangements. All larger questions were reserved on both sides for what we then hoped would be a peace table when the war was won.
After this there was a long silence. The pencilled paper lay in the centre of the table. At length I said, “Might it not be thought rather cynical if it seemed we had disposed of these issues, so fateful to millions of people, in such an offhand manner? Let us burn the paper.” “No, you keep it,” said Stalin.
Churchill was certainly acutely aware that such an arrangement was open to misinterpretation. A day later he cabled the British cabinet to explain his thinking:
These percentages which I have put down are no more than a method by which in our thoughts we can see how near we are together, and then decide upon the necessary steps to bring us into full agreement.
As I said, they would be considered crude, and even callous, if they were exposed to the scrutiny of the Foreign Offices and diplomats all over the world. Therefore they could not be the basis of any public document, certainly not at the present time.
They might however be a good guide for the conduct of our affairs. If we manage these affairs well we shall perhaps prevent several civil wars and much bloodshed and strife in the small countries concerned. Our broad principle should be to let every country have the form of government which its people desire.
We certainly do not wish to force on any Balkan State monarchic or republican institutions. We have however established certain relations of faithfulness with the Kings of Greece and Yugoslavia. They have sought our shelter from the Nazi foe, and we think that when normal tranquillity is re-established and the enemy has been driven out the peoples of these countries should have a free and fair chance of choosing.
It might even be that Commissioners of the three Great Powers should be stationed there at the time of the elections so as to see that the people have a genuine free choice. There are good precedents for this.
In the light of subsequent events, when the Soviet Bloc took over eastern Europe the meeting was sometimes interpreted as the carving up of Europe on the back of an envelope. Hopes in the west that “countries should have a free and fair chance of choosing” their governments were very misplaced. The de facto occupation of countries in eastern Europe by Soviet troops meant that Stalin was the one who decided.
Contemporary newsreel footage of the Eastern Front in late 1944: