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Churchill, Truman, Stalin shaking hands
Image: picture alliance

Potsdam Conference

Ralf Bosen /tw
July 17, 2015

In the summer of 1945 the world's eyes were trained on a German palace where the three most powerful men of the day had gathered to discuss post-war European order.

On a sunny afternoon exactly 70 years ago, limousines carrying the British, US and Soviet leaders pulled into the courtyard of Potsdam's Cecilienhof palace. It was just over two months after the end of World War II, but inside the building, which resembled an English country manor, the horrors of the six-year conflict seemed a distant reality.

US President Harry Truman, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin had come together to discuss the a framework for European peace and how to deal with the legacy of Germany's darkest hour. The fact that chose to do this on German soil was seen as symbolic. Their talks, which were conducted with their own interests in mind, were to cover the issues of reparations, and to lay the political and economic foundations for a country that had caused immeasurable suffering.

In a later interview on US radio, President Truman said Potsdam had provided agreements to destroy Nazism and the war industry as well as the General Staff and its military tradition. An important aim of reparations, he said, was to ensure Germany had nothing that could help it prepare for a new war.

17 days of debate at the hotel CecilienhofImage: Bundesarchiv/Wikipedia

The Big Three, as the leaders were known, began their negotiations at five in the afternoon in the wood-paneled reception hall of Cecilienhof. They sat around a vast round table the Soviets had commissioned especially for the meeting and had brought in from Moscow. Churchill appeared to flummox his counterparts early in the talks, by asking how post-war Germany should now be interpreted.

Referring to Germany's political and geographical territory, he said it was not only about ensuring the country was no bigger than it had been before Hitler's invasion of Poland, but about the size of the allies respective occupied zones and as such their influence in the heart of western Europe.

Tug-of-war over German borders

American transcripts and a Russian text from the Potsdam Conference suggest that Truman initially either didn't want to, or couldn't answer Churchill's question about the new interpretation of Germany. Maybe it caught him off-guard, or maybe he just wanted to buy himself time for a considered answer.

In any case, he turned to Stalin and asked him for the Soviet delegation's view. Stalin replied that Germany was what the war had made it. "There is no other Germany. Austria, for example, is no longer a part of Germany." Truman's response was to suggest reverting to the frontiers of 1937.

The conference delegates agreed. They also decided to divide Germany up into autonomous eastern and western reparation zones – thereby essentially stripping the country of geographical, political and economic unity. These reparation zones later became the Federal Republic of Germany and the German Democratic Republic. As such, Potsdam represented the start of the power game between the West and the Soviet Union, which led to the start of the Cold War just a few years later.

Eventful days

Negotiations went on until 2. August and ended with the Potsdam Agreement. Under its terms, it was decided, among other things, that the Oder-Neisse line should serve as Poland's western border, and that Poland should be compensated for land it had been forced to surrender to the Soviet Union. They also agreed on the expulsion of Germans in Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary. On the issue of reparations, the three powers decided they should not be organized centrally, but on a zone-by-zone basis. How much Germany should pay was not set in stone.

Ultimately Potsdam marked a turning point in international history. The German Reich was in ruins and the allied coalition had begun the process of deciding the way forward. Although other major events were happening at the same time. Part-way through the negotiations, Winston Churchill was replaced by Labour leader Clement Attlee, who won the country's first post-war election. And Truman, who had taken over from Franklin D. Roosevelt following his death in April, and was inexperienced in foreign policy, ordered the dropping of the first nuclear bomb.

Chance for a return to the international community

But what did the meeting mean for Germany? Although the talks at Cecilienhof were largely aimed at agreeing on a suitable punishment for the aggressor nation, the conference also provided a glimpse of hope. Earlier suggestions of turning Germans into slaves or a nation of farmers were not on the agenda, and the door for Germany's return to the international community remained ajar. Not least because the US quickly realized the strategic importance of West Germany in light of an expanding Soviet Union.

When Truman flew back to Washington from Berlin, he gave a radio address to the American people. "I have just returned from Berlin, the city from which the Germans intended to rule the world," he said, going on to describe it as a ghost city where the buildings, the economy and the people were in ruins. "We are going to do what we can to make Germany over into a decent nation, so that it may eventually work its way from the economic chaos it has brought upon itself, back into a place in the civilized world."

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