This week in history: Truman, Churchill and Stalin meet at Potsdam
On July 17, 1945, Harry S. Truman, Winston Churchill and Josef Stalin met in Potsdam, Germany, to finalize a post-World War II agreement. With Franklin Delano Roosevelt's death in April, the Potsdam Conference was the first meeting of the major Allied leaders in which Truman represented the United States.
During the war, Allied leaders had met repeatedly to discuss strategy and coordinate their efforts. The first meeting of the “Big Three,” Roosevelt, Stalin and Churchill, had been in November 1943 in Tehran, Iran. In February 1945, they had met again at Yalta, in the Crimea, and decided to meet again at the conclusion of the war in Europe. With Germany's surrender in May 1945, the time to meet again had arrived. All parties agreed the meeting should take place in Germany.
By the summer of 1945, however, Berlin had been largely destroyed from Allied bombings and the final battle between Adolf Hitler's forces and the advancing Red Army. Trümmerfrauen, rubble women, worked constantly to clear the city of debris since few German men survived the war. With Germany's capital unable to provide an appropriate venue for the large meeting, to say nothing of accommodations for the armies of diplomats who would descend upon the city, the Allies looked to Potsdam.
A suburb of Berlin, Potsdam had for centuries been the country retreat of the Prussian kings, serving a purpose similar to that of Versailles for France's monarchs. Frederick the Great, the great enlightenment monarch, had constructed his palace at Potsdam and had modeled it on the Palace of Versailles, even giving it a French name, Sansouci (Without Care).
As Prussia absorbed the rest of the German states in 1871 and became the center of the new German empire, the imperial family, still the royal family of Prussia, continued to hold Potsdam in high esteem. Between 1911 and 1916, Crown Prince Wilhelm, the son of Kaiser Wilhelm II, constructed an English Tudor-style palace (ironic since much of the construction took place during World War I, when Germany and England were deadly enemies). He named the palace Cecilienhof after his wife, Cecilia.
The conference was set to begin on July 17, though Truman and Churchill had arrived early in order to prepare. With some free time on their hands, the two men decided to tour the city independently. In his post-war memoirs, Churchill wrote:
“On July 16, both the President and I made separate tours of Berlin. The city was nothing but a chaos of ruins. In the square in front of the Chancellery there was, however, a considerable crowd. When I got out of the car and walked about among them, except for the one old man who shook his head disapprovingly, they all began to cheer. My hate had died with their surrender and I was much moved by their demonstrations, and also by their haggard looks and threadbare clothes.”
The Allies decided to hold the conference at Cecilienhof, while Truman's accommodations and offices were located at the Babelsberg villa. Confiscated by the Soviets, the home had belonged to Gustav Müller-Grote, a wealthy publisher who only a few weeks earlier had seen his daughters violated and the house ransacked by Red Army soldiers. Truman only learned of this horror after the conference, when the publisher's son wrote him a letter.
Under the code name “Terminal,” the conference began its first plenary session on July 17 at Cecilienhof. In the garden before the palace sat a large display of red flowers in the shape of a star, a subtle reminder of Soviet power. The conference took place in the reception hall, which boasted oak paneling and chandeliers of wrought iron, and a large window that looked out upon the gardens, the only bright spot in the otherwise dim chamber. In his book “Truman,” biographer David McCullough wrote:
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