Potsdam Conference
First sign of the Cold War
The Potsdam conference was a meeting organized by the victorious Allied Powers of the Second World War, which aimed to reinstate order to the world after the end of the war. It revealed the existence of a Cold War between the two camps, the Soviet and English-American.

The Potsdam conference was a meeting organized by the victorious Allied Powers of the Second World War, which aimed to reinstate order to the world after the end of the war. It took place in the former palace of the Hohenzollern dynasty of Potsdam in Germany, outside Berlin. It was the last meeting between the three heads of state and allowed very important deals to be made. The conference especially concentrated on Germany’s problems and dealt with future peace accords.

The participants at the conference were the representatives of the Soviet Union, England and the United States, the greatest and strongest of the Allied forces, which defeated the Axis powers in the Second World War. At Potsdam, the delegations of the Three Great Powers met, led by H. Truman, I.V. Stalin and W. Churchill.

After Tehran and Yalta, this was the last conference of the “Great Three” during the Second World War. It was called to decide the new order after the war. It revealed the existence of a Cold War between the two camps, the Soviet and American or English-American.

Participants at the conference were: from the USSR, the general secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin; from Great Britain, the English prime-minister, Winston Churchill; and from the USA, the American president Harry S. Truman.

In the American delegation, the presence of Edwin Pauley, the secret representative of the world of finance, passed unnoticed.

Two committees of experts were named, one English-Russian and the other American-Russian. The Potsdam conference defined the political and economic principles which would govern the treatment applied to Germany during the initial control period.

On the conference agenda were problems of international post-war order, problems of peace treaties and gauging the effects of the war. Goals included returning all territories annexed by Germany, separating Austria from Germany and splitting Germany and Austria into four occupied zones. The two capitals, Berlin and Vienna, would also be divided.

The Declaration of Objectives for the Occupation of Germany was adopted by the Allies, together with plan for the division of Germany into zones. Measures would then be taken to destroy Naziism and to prepare the German people to install a democratic regime, so that Germany could no longer be a threat to its neighbors.

In effect, the goal was the disarmament of Germany, destruction of the war industry, disbanding of militarist or fascist organizations, cancellation of Nazi laws, punishment of war criminals and removal of Nazi supporters from public office or privileged status.

The aim was to apply a process of decentralization, reinstate local autonomy, create democratic parties and renew the juridic and educational systems. The economic unity of Germany was affected by the fact that each of the great powers could obtain damages from their own occupied territories.

An accord was obtained for the trial and judgement of Nazi war criminals. The Oder-Neisse line was settled as the border of post-war Poland. Although protested by the American and British representatives, Polish authority was acknowledged over German territories east of the Oder-Neisse line, which Stalin had given to the Polish as compensation for the territories he had taken from them east of the Curzon line. It was proposed that the Germans remaining outside the borders of post-war Germany should be expelled, including those in non-German territories, such as Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary.

War damages were also discussed. The Allies estimated losses of 200 billion dollars. At the insistence of the western allies, Germany was forced to pay 20 billion dollars worth of reparations in the form of German property, industrial produce and workforce. The outbreak of the Cold War hindered the payment of the entire amount. The English and Americans wanted to possess the industrial enterprises which they owned in Romania or to receive a compensation. The Soviets had confiscated them under the pretext that they were German properties. There was no accord reached concerning this point.

The Allies agreed to the Potsdam Declaration, which defined terms for Japan’s surrender. This situation would become law, through the decisions of a peace conference, which would be called as soon as possible.

The goal of the conference was to make decisions regarding Germany and Japan, in order to remove the possibility of militarism returning in these countries. The Allies were planning to keep Germany in a backward state, with a strong emphasis on agriculture, in order to prevent the German people going down the same path taken in previous decades.

During the Potsdam Conference, the three great leaders were in different political situations. This determined the positions they took during the debates.

The Soviet Union had occupied Central and Eastern Europe. The Red Army controlled the Baltic states, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Bulgaria and Romania. This state of affairs had generated an exodus of thousands of refugees, driven by fear of communist oppression. Stalin had installed a communist government in Poland, in spite of strong objections from Great Britain and the USA. He justified his actions by arguing the need for strengthening the USSR’s defence. To Stalin’s mind, the extension of his sphere of influence and control in Eastern Europe was wholly legitimate.

Great Britain was in the middle of elections. The final result of these elections brought important changes to the diplomatic corps. The Labour Party won the elections over the Conservatives, which removed the “English Bulldog” from the head of the diplomatic corps and replaced him with the Labour Party leader, Clement Attlee.

The conference was interrupted, because the British leaders returned to London while the votes were being counted from the election. The crushing majority obtained by the Labour party allowed their leader, Attlee, to create a new government, with Bevin as Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs. Churchill and Eden did not participate in the second half of the conference. It was considered that British politics had not changed much.

The United States of America was going through significant changes. The elected president, F.D. Roosevelt, died, and the vice president, Harry Truman, took over the presidency. The change of leadership in the White House brought a new policy, one marked by much more caution in its relations with Stalin’s Soviet Union. At the same time, the prototype of the nuclear bomb underwent a successful first test.

The negotiations between ‘The Big Three’ began at 17:00. The delegates sat at a round table manufactured by the Soviets especially for the conference and brought from Moscow. The discussions were difficult. From the beginning, Churchill wanted to know how those present understood the term Germany. What is Germany? The Allies were interested not only in defining Germany’s geographic territory, but in defining the exact occupation zones of the victor powers, and also in securing their own interests in western Europe.

Discussions around these subjects have been recreated with the aid of a protocol drawn up by the Americans, and a Russian text. Truman didn’t want to or could not reply to Churchill’s question concerning the definition of Germany and turned to Stalin.

At the end of the negotiations, the Potsdam declaration was signed.

Truman: How does the Soviet delegation understand Germany? Stalin: Germany is what is left of the country after the war. A different Germany does not exist. Austria, for example, is no longer part of Germany. Truman: Why don’t we say: 1937 Germany? Stalin: Minus what it lost in 1945. Truman: In 1945, it lost everything. (The Russian protocol shows that Truman said: “De facto, Germany no longer exists.”) Stalin: Germany is, as we are told, a geographic term. It’s impossible not to see the results of the war. Truman: But we need a clear line from which to start... (...) Truman: I have proposed 1937 Germany.

During the conference, Truman spoke to Stalin about ‘powerful new weapons’ without giving details. Stalin, who ironically had known about the existence of the American nuclear weapons before Truman, encouraged the use of any means which would bring the end of the war closer.

The English complained of the situation in Bulgaria and Romania, where the governments were not democratic and where the Allied control committees were not functioning. The Soviet Union was wielding its power alone. Stalin replied with a counter-attack, complaining of the situation in Greece, which was occupied by the British. The main problem was that of organizing free elections. Churchill condemned the fact that members of the British mission to Bucharest did not have freedom of travel: “It seems that an iron curtain has fallen around them.”

The Potsdam declaration was drawn up in regards to the surrender of Japan. It was an ultimatum of the Allied governments, addressed to Japan, which was still at war with Great Britain and the USA.

Great Britain and the USA called for the unconditional surrender of Japan. Japan would be dispossessed of her empire and occupied by Allied forces until the adoption of peacetime policies. If Japan refused these terms, she would be destroyed.

The declaration however was ambiguous about the status of the emperor, who was considered to be a demigod by the Japanese. These terms led to distrust within the radical military circles in Japan. As a result, they affected the more moderate pacifist faction of the politicians, who had only requested that the emperor’s status be allowed to continue.

Japan did not respond to the ultimatum. President Truman authorized the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, thus fulfilling his promise to end the war quickly.

From the beginning of the Potsdam conference, Truman and Churchill knew about the successful test explosion in the Alamogordo desert in New Mexico of a new secret weapon: the atomic bomb. Stalin was informed, through his sources, about the status of the experimental work on the atomic bomb.

At the conference, Stalin arrogantly took on the role of leader, saying that he was: “the only one who knows about the deals with his late friend, Roosevelt”. He said to Truman: “You are a happy follower”. To Churchill, he remarked: “We see you as an observer waiting for the elections, where it’s very possible you’ll lose to Attlee, who is ideologically closer to me”.

Stalin wrote a list of his claims: bases in the Dardanelles and Tangier, in the Gibraltar straits, patronage of Tripolitania-Libya, a former Italian colony, to initiate it into “a social experience”, exclusive control in Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia and Hungary, and the incorporation of Prussia, with its capital, Konigsberg, into the USSR.

At the end of the conference, Stalin, like a true demagogue, declared: “At the moment, the USSR demands: payment of war damages to begin immediately, for which it provides a list; the right to exploit Germany’s production; the immediate commencement of denazification, which must be as tough as possible for all guilty parties; whereas for the future… the creation of a centralized Germany, unshackled from capitalism, to which the USSR is able to offer the freeing alternative of socialism.”

At Potsdam there was no official record of minutes. The decisions of the Potsdam Conference were confirmed by France.

Stalin was considered the victor of the conference, because he managed to legalize his control over half the territory of Germany. The USSR had freed most of the territories from the Nazis. Together with Poland, it had suffered the greatest destruction and loss of human life, out of all the countries involved in the war. Stalin obtained a diplomatic and psychologic victory.

During the discussions at the Potsdam Conference, various measures for governing international relations were proposed. However, tensions between Washington and Moscow made the decision-making process very difficult.

The American delegation proposed the creation of a Council of Foreign Affairs Ministers, whose first meeting should take place in London. The Council would be made up of the ministers of: USA, Great Britain, USSR, France and China. The principal task of these ministers must be the elaboration of treaties with the allies of Germany: Italy, Romania, Hungary, Bulgaria and Finland, and ‘proposing guidelines for the problem of unresolved territories.’

Disagreements also arose concerning Austria, Yugoslavia, Poland and Spain.

The extension of Poland’s territory towards the west, and the creation of a Soviet occupied zone in Germany, were approved.

The Americans and the British consulted concerning the use of the atomic bomb in Japan, and agreed to its necessity.

The accord foresaw the complete disarmament and demilitarization of Germany, the disbanding of the national-socialist party, the abolition of Nazi laws, trial of war criminals, purging of Nazi party members, and control of German education. Efforts would be made towards the decentralization and democratization of Germany, and a central German government would not be created in the immediate future. The level of economic production would be severely controlled.

The USSR would take war damages from its own zone and receive 15% of the usable industrial equipment from the western zones. In exchange, it must provide certain food products and prime materials, to an equivalent value. It was also to receive 10% of the equipment which was not indispensable to the survival of the Germans.

The USSR demanded patronage of Italian Libya. The westerners refused. The Soviets wanted to control the Turkish straits. It was decided that the Montreux accords would be revised.

At the Potsdam conference, the delegates defined ‘the political and economic principles which will govern the treatment applied to Germany during the initial control period’. The accord foresaw complete disarmament and demilitarization, the dissolution of the Nazi party, abolition of racist legislation, trial of war criminals and purging of members of Nazi organizations.

Germany’s fate was the biggest point on the agenda for discussion at Potsdam. What was shown at Potsdam was the fact that America and Great Britain were determined from the beginning to treat Germany as a unified country. After whole months of attempts, it became extremely clear that the Soviets wanted to maintain their power monopoly in the east of the country and that the policy of cooperation between the west and the east would never work. Truman wanted to attenuate the demands of the Soviet Union, which wanted Germany to pay huge war damages.

Concerning the German borders, the English and Americans promised to support the transfer of Konigsberg and parts of western Prussia to the USSR.

The Americans agreed to offer the Russians a substantial part of the industrial capital of the western zones. 15% of this surplus of capital would be sent west, in exchange for food and prime materials. 10% would be transferred to the Soviets without exchange. The goal of the Americans was to make the Soviets believe that they were not being tricked at Potsdam.

‘The Big Three’ decided that the Oder-Neisse line would be the border of post-war Poland. Poland would be compensated for the territories taken by the Soviets. However, reparations were not paid in full. The westerners wanted the arrangement concerning the border to remain permanent, however it was not settled according to negotiations. The Polish-German border was first acknowledged according to agreements between the GDR and Poland, then between Germany and Poland. During the Cold War, this uncertainty concerning the borders increased the Soviet Union’s power and influence over Poland and Germany.

Truman tried to limit the proportion of war damages, knowing that this problem had led to the expansion of Naziism after the First World War. Byrnes, the USA secretary of state, realized during the conference that collaboration with the Soviet Union would be impossible. America and Russia had antagonistic visions. Each of the Allied forces would take control of a zone of occupied Germany. Byrnes offered to accept the Oder-Neisse line as the Eastern German border.

The participants at the conference accepted Truman’s proposal. According to this, they defined four occupied zones. France received its own occupied zone. In practice, Germany had lost its territorial, political and economic unity. The Potsdam conference marked the beginning of a period of political bartering between the Western powers and the Soviet Union. This situation was transformed, a few years later, into a cold war. Negotiations continued until the Potsdam declaration was signed.

Germany would be divided. It was a solution through which the Allies could leave as friends and divide their zones of influence in Europe amongst themselves. The Soviets had begun to violate the Potsdam accord and the communal program of import and export for the whole of Germany. The Soviets desperately wanted a large part of Germany all to themselves and had no intention of keeping Germany united, even though there were two spheres of influence.

Since Germany had already surrendered, the only country continuing the war was Japan. After Potsdam, Truman was convinced that it was necessary to use the atomic weapon, in the context of the Soviets’ joining the conflict in Asia.

Towards the end of the conference, Japan was given an ultimatum, being threatened with ‘immediate and total destruction’, although without mention of the nuclear bomb. After Japan rejected the ultimatum, the Americans launched the nuclear attacks at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Truman made the decision to use atomic weapons while he was still at the conference.

In the communique given out after the Potsdam Conference, the problem of war criminals was taken up. In chapter III it says: ‘War criminals, the German nation and also individuals who participated in planning or executing Nazi initiatives, working towards or carrying out atrocities or war crimes, will be arrested and brought to justice. Nazi leaders, influential people from the party and high-up functionaries of Nazi organizations and institutions, together with any other person dangerous to Allied occupiers or to their goals, will be arrested and detained.’

In London, representatives of the USA, Great Britain, France and the USSR decided to create an International Tribunal for the trial and judgement of the main Nazi war criminals.

As with all the other conferences held during the war, the Potsdam Conference was interpreted differently in different places.

The transfer of East Germany to the Soviets has remained a controversial moment in history. Hundreds of thousands of ethnic Germans were forced to abandon their houses and flee from the new Soviet-occupied territory.

The Allies had to admit defeat concerning Poland. Stalin refused to put the issue of Eastern Europe on the agenda of discussions. The Allies acknowledged the provisional government supported by the Soviets, instead of the Polish government in exile in London. Truman and the others became convinced that the Soviet Union was an aggressive expansionist power and a military threat to western Europe. The Potsdam conference would conclude what was proposed at Tehran and decided at Yalta concerning Germany, Poland, Central Europe and the Balkans.

The Americans and the British hoped to save what they had given up. At Yalta, the fate of Eastern Europe had been decided, but Germany’s fate was still undecided. At Potsdam all that was done was to accelerate the beginning of the Cold War.

When he returned to Washington, Truman declared in a radio interview: “I have just returned from Berlin, the city from which the Germans intended to rule the world. It is a ghost city. The buildings are in ruins, its economy and its people are 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.”

The Potsdam Conference was a turning point in international history. The German Reich had been destroyed, and the coalition of world powers had begun to crack.

The charismatic British prime-minister, Churchill, was replaced during negotiations by the Labour leader, Clement Attlee, who won the first elections after the war.

President Truman, who took office after Roosevelt, gave the order to launch the first atomic bomb while at the conference.

Even though the main priority of the meeting in the Cecilienhof Palace was to punish the war’s aggressor, the meeting’s message was one of hope. The first proposals, which foresaw the transformation of Germans into slaves or into a nation of farmers, were not taken any further. The door for Germany to return to the international community remained open due to the United States, which understood the strategic importance of western Germany in the context of the massive spread of the Soviet Union.