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:
“The conference was officially called to order at 5:10 p.m. Stalin spoke first, saying that President Truman, as the only head of state present (Stalin and Churchill were technically only heads of government), should preside. Churchill seconded the proposal. Truman expressed his appreciation. Then he plunged directly into his prepared remarks, moving rapidly down an item-by-item order of business that he thought the conference should follow.”
Among other things, Truman offered proposals on the administration by the Allies of conquered Germany. He suggested a meeting of all of the Allied foreign ministers. He spoke of the need to follow the declaration made at Yalta, and how the Allies could implement democratic governments throughout liberated Europe. All of his proposals met with promises for discussion and caveats from Churchill and Stalin, who had grown accustomed to a more leisurely pace at these conferences.
Truman also stated that Italy, despite its alliance with Hitler during the war, must be included in the new United Nations organization that was being formed. Churchill, who rambled on during the meeting without really saying much of substance, objected to the Italian proposal. Italy, he argued, had attacked France at its weakest point in 1940 and should be a pariah among nations for the foreseeable future.
Other points of contention included Poland's borders and the status of the captured German navy, which the British held and the Russians wanted. Setting up an agenda for the coming days, it was decided that the foreign ministers would deal with most details of these questions, even as the “Big Three” guided general policy. Stalin earned the first laugh of the meeting when he stated, “As all the questions are to be discussed by the foreign ministers, we shall have nothing to do.”
Truman was disappointed. He had wanted hard decisions as quickly as possible, but soon the new president learned that the wheels of international diplomacy moved slowly.
The conference lasted until Aug. 2, and several important events occurred during it. The day before the conference began, scientists working in the New Mexico desert successfully test-detonated the atomic bomb, and Truman was quickly informed. The test had been timed to coincide with the opening of the conference, strengthening the president's hand at the negotiating table. When he informed Stalin of the bomb, however, the Soviet leader was less than impressed. Soviet spies had followed the progress of the atomic bomb project for years and had diligently kept Moscow informed.
A British general election also affected the players at Potsdam. The last general election had been in 1935 and had confirmed the Conservative Party in power. Under the British parliamentary system, general elections can be called at any time, though an election must be within at least five years of the previous election. Though elections were due in 1940, it was decided to postpone an election until the conclusion of the war.
The election was on July 5 in most of Britain, though the votes were not counted until July 26. Churchill, who had led his nation to victory, was convinced the Conservative Party would be returned to power once again and he would continue as prime minister. In a surprising move, however, the British electorate voted for the Labour Party, making Clement Atlee, Churchill's deputy prime minister in the coalition government, the new prime minister. Now Stalin was the only one of the original “Big Three” who remained in power.
The settlements worked out at Potsdam were not meant to be a final peace treaty but rather to establish a working relationship for the powers as they jointly administered Germany and attempted to come to an understanding on several other key issues. Indeed, most present were convinced the division of Germany would last perhaps one or two years before a final peace treaty was signed and Germany once again became a sovereign, albeit politically neutrally oriented, nation.
In his book “Berlin,” historian David Clay Large wrote: “The Potsdam Agreement essentially confirmed the earlier accords, which placed east-central Europe in the Soviet sphere of interest. Poland, still occupied by the Red Army, was given a new western border on the Oder/Western Neisse Rivers. While postulating 'uniformity of treatment of the German population throughout Germany,' the agreement allowed the occupation powers to extract reparations from their zones according to their individual needs. In accepting these arrangements, the Western negotiators unwittingly set the stage for the long-term division of Europe and of Germany.”