Tampke, Jurgen: Potsdam Conference 70th anniversary conference papers help us to understand European history since World War II

Jurgen Tampke*

‘Potsdam Conference 70th anniversary conference papers help us to understand European history since World War II’, Honest History, [date]

Jurgen Tampke reviews Christoph Koch, ed., Das Potsdamer Abkommen (The Potsdam Agreement) 1945–2015 

This book comprises eleven papers delivered at an international conference commemorating the 70th anniversary of the Potsdam Conference. The Potsdam Conference was held at the Cecilienhof Castle in Potsdam, Germany, from 17 June to 2 August 1945 and was attended by the leader of the Soviet Union, Joseph Stalin, new United States President Harry S. Truman and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and, later, his successor Clement Attlee.

71882175-00-00The ensuing ‘Potsdam Agreement’ provided the legal backing for and put the stamp on Europe’s post-World War II political set-up. Seventy years on, the commemorative conference, attended by scholars from Russia, Canada, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Germany and Poland, was organised by the chairman of the Federal Republic’s German-Polish Association, Professor Christoph Koch of the Free University, Berlin.

The book provides a good summary of the current state of scholarship on the lead-up to, the course of, and the consequences of Potsdam 1945. For example, Vladimir Pečatnov’s chapter on the Soviet Union at the conference draws attention to valuable new documents from Russian archives that throw light on the scale of Soviet preparation for the ‘Big Three’ meeting. Pečatnov highlights the huge scale of the logistics of the Soviets’ visit to Potsdam – Russian personnel amounted to over 17 000 people – and emphasises that the Soviet leadership was suspicious of Western motives.

The Soviets feared that the Western leaders would follow what Russians saw as the usual Western policy towards Russians: use them as cannon fodder, promise them big rewards, but in the end leave them empty-handed. As Stalin put it at the end of the war, Tsarist Russia could ‘win wars but was unable to enjoy the fruits of her victories … Russians are remarkable warriors, but they do not know how to make peace: they are deceived, underpaid.’ This time they were not to be deceived again; Stalin and Molotov braced for tough bargaining.

Russian suspicions were not without cause. Churchill, in particular, was driven by fears of Soviet domination of Europe. During the last stages of the war he had bombarded Truman with gloomy warnings about the Soviet threat and, to forestall the threat, had suggested that the Western allies should be sure to reach Berlin and Prague before the Russians did.

In the end the Soviets played their cards well at Potsdam, surprising the Westerners with two unexpected yet vital concessions: the Russians relinquished claims to a share in German assets located in the Western occupation zones and elsewhere, outside territories under their control, and they discontinued their attempt to raise a six billion dollar reconstruction loan from the United States. This greatly strengthened Stalin’s hand at the negotiation table, and helped to have the Oder-Neisse line recognised as Poland’s western – and hence Germany’s eastern – border, and to have the Western allies (albeit grudgingly) accede to the creation of ‘friendly governments’ in Eastern Europe.

The Soviets also agreed to a proposal made by US Secretary of State, James F. Byrnes, that German reparations at large were to be extracted from the respective, Soviet and US, zones. That such a scenario obviously foreshadowed the economic (and ultimately political) division of Germany bothered neither the Soviets nor their American counterparts. The latter thought, to quote a member of the US delegation, that ‘however undesirable it may be to draw a line across the middle of Germany, this is bound to happen and it is unrealistic to make a bargain except on a basis which assumes that it will happen’.

Titled ‘“Water and fire”: the Potsdam Agreement and Deutschlanddoktrin’, Christoph Koch’s opening chapter contrasts the aim of the victorious powers – to extinguish the flames of the last global war brought about by the German Empire and to re-establish Germany as a peaceful member of the European community of states (characterised as ‘Water’) – with the reaction of the German Federal Republic, which from the beginning set out to invalidate the outcome of World War II and the status of the successor to the German Empire as shaped by the Potsdam Agreement (‘Fire’).

Potsdam_conference_1945-8The Potsdam ‘Big Three’ after Attlee replaced Churchill: Attlee (left), Truman, Stalin; behind Admiral Leahy, Foreign Secretary Bevin, Secretary Byrnes, Foreign Minister Molotov (Wikipedia)

The Allies’ position rested on three pillars based on the successive course of events: the demands for unconditional surrender, the assumption of supreme authority over Germany after the collapse of the Third Reich, and the Potsdam Agreement. Unconditional surrender was signed on 8 May 1945 by General Alfred Jodl at the headquarters of the Western Allies in Reims, and a day later by Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel in front of Marshal Georgy Zhukov in Berlin. The abolition of German supreme authority – authority which the Allied Powers took over officially and without restriction – occurred on 5 June. This established the state of debellatio (the end of a war brought about the complete subjugation of a belligerent nation) legally sanctioned by the Potsdam Agreement. Hence the German Empire had ceased to exist.

The Federal Republic, however, by means of convoluted and spurious juridical mechanisms, from the outset denied debellatio, declaring itself legal heir to the defunct German Reich. This led to the ambiguous, if not deceitful, diplomatic policy of successive governments towards the recognition of Germany’s post-World War II, two borders: the so-called Deutschlanddoktrin.

As Koch’s striking analysis shows, this situation stands out particularly in relation to Germany’s borders with Poland. In both the 1970 Treaty of Warsaw and the German-Polish Border Treaty of 1990, Germany acknowledged the borders as they existed at those times but stopped short of affording them full legal recognition. The German legal position (carefully hidden) is that the German borders are still those of 1937. Hence, Germany has never really given up its claim on territories lost at Potsdam (such as Silesia, Pomerania and East Prussia).

It is highly unlikely, of course, that a German government today would demand a return of the Polish territories Germany was obliged to cede in the Potsdam Agreement. But there is still a future, and history is known to take unexpected courses. No one in the West foresaw the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, or the events of September 11. The ghosts of the past have not been put to rest

There is good material in every chapter of this book. Norman Paech’s contribution deals with the refusal of the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) to accept the legality of the Potsdam Agreement on the grounds that Germany did not take part in the negotiations. Paech highlights the stated aims of the victors to destroy German militarism and the Nazi legacy. German industry should never again be in a position to pursue an aggressive war, and only through peaceful means should the German nation re-establish itself. Of this, little came to pass. The FRG had rearmed itself within less than a decade, joined NATO a little later, participated in the destruction of Yugoslavia (an act that violated international law) and to this day is participating in numerous war theatres globally. Moreover, Germany ranks third in the world as an exporter of weaponry.

Geoffrey Roberts analyses the numerous myths surrounding the Big Three meetings at Yalta and Potsdam, such as the myth of betrayal, the myth of appeasement and the myth of lost opportunities – all of them in one way or another implying that the West sold the countries of Eastern Europe down the drain. A particularly pronounced version of these myths was advocated by the late Zbigniew Brzezinski, chief security adviser to US President Carter. Brzezinski throughout the Cold War peddled the claim that Churchill and Roosevelt had conceded to Stalin what became the communist bloc in Eastern Europe, and that Yalta marked both the end of an independent Eastern Europe and the beginning of a struggle with the Soviets over Central and Western Europe.

MSC_2014_Brzezinski_Kleinschmidt_MSC2014_(cropped)_2Zbigniew Brzezinski not long before his death in 2017 (Wikipedia)

As Roberts points out, the notion that Yalta was all about spheres of influence had little or nothing to do with what really happened at the conference. There were no such discussions, implicit or explicit. If anything, Yalta pointed to a united and integrated Europe, not a divided continent. This was not all that Brzezinski got wrong. Despite his being ranked during the 1970s and 1980 as the chief authority on Eastern Europe, one rather wonders what he got right – as shown, for example, by his claim in 1986, three years before the collapse of the Soviet Union and the German re-unification, that the Soviet leadership would never surrender its most precious satellite, East Germany. The same critical observation, by the way, goes for most Western analysts of the ‘Soviet Bloc’.

Bill Bowring’s chapter on the legal significance of Potsdam is about the seamless transition of top officials from the Nazi administration to that of the Federal Republic. Bowring illustrates this process in his account of Wilhelm Grewe. Impervious to the fate of Europe’s Jewish population, Grewe became a key diplomat in the German government of Konrad Adenauer (1949-63).

Grewe was co-founder of the ill-famed Hallstein Doctrine which threatened to break off economic links with any country recognising the existence of the German Democratic Republic. This plump attempt to blackmail the Soviet Union into abandoning the GDR created a curious situation. On the one hand, West German politicians and media shed great crocodile tears about the fate of their suffering brothers and sisters in the ‘Soviet Zone’ while, on the other, they did everything they could through the Hallstein Doctrine to strangle the GDR’s economy. Where this would lead should have been obvious from the start.

Michael Carley’s stimulating chapter looks at the British position vis-à-vis the USSR. The position was straight-forward: what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is mine too. The West was already starting to re-establish its rules as the rules. Carley likens this to ‘a stacked deck of cards with which everyone has to play and where the West always wins’.

330px-Bundesarchiv_B_145_Bild-F078072-0004,_Konrad_Adenauer (1)Konrad Adenauer (Wikipedia)

The tragic fate of the Polish people is the subject of Werner Röhr’s chapter on Poland at the Potsdam Conference. Having suffered over five years of brutal subjugation by a murderous regime, Poland was further ravaged by the battles between the retreating Wehrmacht and the Red Army. Adding to the already colossal devastation was a civil war between a newly-formed government, representing the bulk of the rural population and urban workforce, and the London-based government made up of members of the old privileged elites and enjoying the support of the Western Allies. This civil war began the moment Soviet forces started to liberate Poland, was fought with absolute savagery and lasted well into the post-war era. The popular alliance won the conflict, and by hard toil managed to put the nation back on its feet again – an achievement for which it is receiving little recognition from the current Polish government.

Of the eleven chapters, five (the key ones) are in English, the remainder in German with summaries in English. This excellent book is essential for an understanding of European history post-1945.

* Jurgen Tampke is a retired academic who taught for many years at the University of New South Wales. He is the author or editor of numerous books, including Weimar and Nazi Germany and Czech–German Relations and the Politics of Eastern Europe.


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