Potsdam: to Stalin the spoils

Review: Archie Henderson

Potsdam: The End of World War II and the Remaking of Europe, by Michael Neiberg (Basic Books)

Potsdam, a city 25km south-west of Berlin, is a charming place of palaces, lakes, rivers, and green space with only a quarter of the area inhabited by its 183,000 residents. On a cold, blustery day, Michael Neiberg roamed the city and was enchanted, but also disappointed. 

Neiberg is a military civilian who teaches history at the US Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and for 17 days in the summer of 1945 Potsdam was centre in the history of World War 2. But nowhere could Neiberg find any books about the history of the city and even elsewhere the offerings were meagre. So, he wrote one himself.

It’s an elegantly organised account of how the conquerors of Nazi Germany arranged their plans for a post-war Europe. At the table were the thuggish Joseph Stalin, untrustworthy and determined to have his way; Harry Truman, just four months into the role of US president after Franklin Roosevelt’s death; and wily but almost irrelevant Winston Churchill, soon to be replaced by Clement Attlee after Labour’s unexpected win in the British general election. 

It’s fascinating cast of diverse characters. 

Truman, on his voyage across the Atlantic to the conference, had to do some terrific catching up – Roosevelt had not shared much with his vice-president. Until he was sworn in, Truman did not even know of the existence of the Manhattan Project, which would produce the first atom bomb.

Even Stalin knew about the bomb, having been kept informed by his spies, especially Klaus Fuchs, who worked on the project. Stalin was also after revenge and reparations (he got half of Germany’s merchant fleet), and much of eastern Europe, including Poland.

Churchill got little, but much credit for coining the phrase “Iron Curtain” once it became clear that Stalin had no intention of keeping any promise, and an oppressive communist rule descended for almost 50 years over those parts of Europe that the Red Army had overrun. 

Churchill’s successor, Attlee, surprisingly, proved tougher; he could see through the Russian dictator. His description of Stalin’s Polish lackeys revealed his suspicions: “I never saw such a collection of shifty-looking individuals in my life.” It would take 45 years for Lech Walesa and his Solidarity movement to remove them.

Potsdam lay in the Russian sector of Berlin, which would become a trip-wire in the Cold War, and the conference was held there because Stalin was too afraid to fly, or to move too far from Moscow (shades of Vladimir Putin today). He caught the train where every kilometre of track was guarded by the Red Army. The city was mercifully untouched by the horrors that befell other parts of Germany, notably the capital, Berlin. 

The venue suited Stalin because he could play the role of mein host and conqueror, and he manipulated his guests, allowing them a brief tour of the devastated Berlin before confining them to the conference venue where he had taken the best palace to stay. He even arranged for hundreds of red geraniums to be planted in the shape of a Russian star, just to show who was in charge.

For all the posturing, the Big Three, as they were known at the time, felt the touch of history on their shoulders. The last time a world war had ended, the victors made a hash of things with the Treaty of Versailles in 1919. This time they were determined not to make the same mistakes, and Russia, which missed out on Versailles because of a revolution, was determined to make up for lost time. There were concessions, mostly by the west on Russian claims of territory, and missed opportunities: Britain refused to put Palestine on the agenda. In the end, the bomb made all the difference.

When the news of Hiroshima broke, Neiberg writes, “As most serious strategists who heard the news instantly recognised, a new era in the history of the world had opened. Although the end of World War II did not also close the book on the problems unleashed by events of 1914, it did surely begin a new chapter in European history.”

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