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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

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Debate on postwar Germany’s borders began. At Yalta, six months before, Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill had agreed that a line drawn after World War I would be Poland’s eastern border with the Soviet Union. The three leaders had also decided that Poland should be compensated with “substantial” German territory to its west.

Stalin felt that Poland deserved all of Germany east of the Oder and NeisseRivers. This would force millions of Germans westward and strip Germany of some of its richest farmland. As far as Stalin was concerned, this was a fait accompli: “Germany is what she has become after the war,” he announced.

But Truman refused to consider the matter settled: “Why not say Germany as she was before the war, in 1937?” he asked. Stalin replied, “As she is—in 1945.” Truman reminded Stalin that Germany had “lost everything in 1945,” and that at Yalta, the Big Three had agreed to defer such questions until there was a final peace conference on Germany. Impatient, Truman wrote in his diary, “I’m not going to stay around this terrible place all summer just to listen to speeches. I’ll go home to the Senate for that.”

On Friday, July 20, Truman joined Generals Dwight Eisenhower and Omar Bradley to watch the official raising of the Stars and Stripes over the American sector of Berlin. Speaking without notes, Truman told the crowd of American soldiers, “We are not fighting for conquest. There is not one piece of territory or one thing of a monetary nature that we want out of this war.”

Exactly one year had passed since German Army Col. Claus von Stauffenberg had tried and failed to kill Hitler. If any of the Americans remembered the anniversary, they did not mention it in public. At a moment when they were trying to establish collective guilt for Hitler’s horrors, they did not wish to confuse the issue by reminding the world that some Germans had risked their lives, however belatedly and for whatever reasons, to stop the Führer.

The next day, Saturday, July 21, Secretary of War Henry Stimson brought the President an urgent message. The plutonium implosion bomb tested in Alamogordo, New Mexico, five days earlier had been “successful beyond the most optimistic expectations of everyone,” Stimson said. Truman told his aide that the news gave him “an entirely new feeling of confidence.” He knew that if the United States were sole possessor of a successful atomic bomb, it would be poised to end the Japanese war fast, without Soviet or British help, and exercise American will on the postwar world. That afternoon, Truman complained to Stalin that the Poles had been effectively assigned a zone of Germany “without consultation with us.” Were the three leaders going to “give away Germany piecemeal”? Truman warned Stalin that it would be hard to agree on reparations—monetary and other payments by the defeated Germany to the Allied victors—“if Germany is divided up before the peace conference.”

Stalin replied, “We are concerned about reparations, but we will take that risk.” He insisted that giving German land to Poland should be no problem because no Germans were left in the region. “Of course not,” Leahy whispered to Truman. “The Bolshies have killed all of them!”

Churchill noted that “two or three million Germans remain” in the area Stalin wanted to give Poland. Removing the area from Germany would remove a quarter of Germany’s farmland, “from which German food and reparations must come.”

“France wants the Saar and the Ruhr,” said Truman. “What will be left?” Churchill warned that if Germany lacked sufficient food, “we may be confronted with conditions like those in the German concentration camps—even on a vaster scale.” Stalin said, “Let the Germans buy more bread from Poland!”

Churchill demanded that the food supply of all Germany, according to its 1937 borders, be available to all Germans, “irrespective of the zones of occupation.” He complained that Poland was already selling German coal to Sweden, while the British people faced “a bitter, fireless winter, worse than that experienced during the war.”

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