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

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He reported that the declaration signed at Potsdam was “intended to eliminate Naziism, armaments, war industries, the German General Staff and all its military tradition.” It hoped to “rebuild democracy by control of German education, by reorganizing local government and the judiciary, by encouraging free speech, free press, freedom of religion and the right of labor to organize.” German industry would be “decentralized in order to do away with concentration of economic power in cartels and monopolies.” Germans would be granted no higher standard of living than their former victims.

Truman said that the wartime allies were resolved to “do what we can to make Germany over into a decent nation” and “eventually work its way” back into the “civilized world.”

Truman’s speech largely obscured the unresolved questions and harsh compromises that were the legacy of Potsdam. The Soviets would get reparations, but the victors had still to agree on specifics or exact terms. Germany would be treated as an “economic whole,” but in each zone, the commander would have paramount authority. The defeated nation would not be partitioned; the shift of land to Poland was merely “provisional.”

As the American diplomat and scholar W. R. Smyser wrote in 1999, at Potsdam “each side paid what it had to pay to get what it wanted most.” Stalin got almost one quarter of pre-World War II German territory for Poland. Britain and America, by demanding that each victor seize reparations from its own zone, spared postwar Germany the staggering reparations and debt that in the 1920s had brought inflation, unemployment and Hitler. They had also prepared a means to protect western Germany from Soviet encroachment.

Assistant Secretary of War John McCloy knew that if Soviet–American relations deteriorated, the slash between the Soviet and Western zones would become much more than an abstraction. He wrote in his diary, “We are drifting toward a line down the middle of Germany.”

In the wake of Potsdam, Germany and Europe were divided for almost half a century as the Soviet Union and the West were engaged in a bitter cold war. In October 1990, after the tearing down of the Berlin Wall, East and West Germany were reunited. Chancellor Kohl promised the world’s leaders that “in the future, only peace will emanate from German soil.” Today, no longer trapped behind the ugly wall, the CecilienhofPalace is a museum. Its chief attraction is the round oak table at which Truman, Stalin and Churchill once sat to decide the fate of the world.


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