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Dividing the Spoils

In a new book, historian Michael Beschloss re-creates the 1945 Potsdam Conference at which Harry Truman found his presidential voice and determined the shape of postwar Europe

The car pulled up at Hitler’s chancellery, near his underground bunker. Truman refused to go in, saying that he wouldn’t want any of “those unfortunate people” to think he was “gloating over them.” But he muttered acidly to Byrnes that he wasn’t sure the Germans had “learned anything” from the Nazis’ miserable end.

Truman returned to his villa that evening deeply depressed. He wrote to his wife, Bess: “This is a hell of a place—ruined, dirty, smelly, forlorn people, bedraggled hangdog look about them. You never saw as completely ruined a city.” In his diary, he wrote that the “absolute ruin” of Berlin was “Hitler’s folly. He overreached himself by trying to take in too much territory. He had no morals and his people backed him up.”

On Tuesday, July 17, at noon, the President was working in his study when, “I looked up from the desk and there stood Stalin in the doorway. . . . We had lunch, talked socially, put on a real show drinking toasts to everyone, then had pictures made in the backyard. I can deal with Stalin. He is honest, but smart as hell.”

Over lunch, Byrnes, who had joined them, asked Stalin how he thought Hitler had died. The Marshal speculated that the Führer was still alive—“in Spain or Argentina.” Stalin may have been putting forward the idea of a living Hitler in order to license harsher measures against Germany or, as the historian Alonzo Hamby notes, to deflect attention from his own aggressive ambitions.

Truman told Stalin that he was “very anxious to get the German setup in operation” so that the Allied Control Council could “govern” Germany “as a whole.”

The first formal conference session was at 5:00 p.m. July 17 at the CecilienhofPalace, built in 1917. To demonstrate their equality, in a great-power minuet, Truman, Stalin and Churchill entered simultaneously through separate doors.

Seated with his allies at a burgundy-draped round table, Truman recalled the tragedy of Versailles in 1919, when the treaty’s vindictive exactions left Germans impoverished and bitter, and, many believed, opened the way for Hitler’s rise. This time, he said, any final German peace conference should be “prepared beforehand by the victor powers.” He proposed that the groundwork be laid by a Council of Foreign Ministers, composed of the Big Three—the United States, Britain and Russia—plus France and China.

Stalin complained that the French were U.S. lackeys and that the Chinese should not be involved in “European problems.” Truman and Churchill compromised by excluding the Chinese. Stalin joked that if foreign ministers were to do the work, “we will have nothing to do.” Truman said, “I don’t want to discuss. I want to decide.” He hoped they could start early tomorrow morning. To Truman, Churchill jovially promised to “obey your orders.”

Stalin said that since Churchill was in “such an obedient mood,” he wished to know whether the British would “share the German fleet with us.” Churchill said that perhaps the armada should be destroyed. Weapons of war were horrible things. “Let’s divide it,” Stalin suggested. “If Mr. Churchill wishes, he can sink his share.”

On Wednesday afternoon, July 18, Churchill noted that his partners kept using the word “Germany.” He asked them, “What is now the meaning of ‘Germany’? Is it to be understood in the same sense as before the war?”

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