CECILIENHOF PALACE: THE POTSDAM CONFERENCE
CECILIENHOF PALACE: THE POTSDAM CONFERENCE

CECILIENHOF PALACE PRIOR TO WORLD WAR TWO

Potsdam, the capital of the German state of Brandenburg, has covered a breathtaking journey from a small garrison town to a royal residence, from grass fields with butterflies to one of the architectural pearls of Europe. It took this small settlement on a river and lakes rich plain three centuries to gain the status of a town since the first documented mention in the X century. Potsdam has historically drawn its territorial importance in controlling the crossing over the river Havel. In the XVI-XVII centuries, the town witnessed first a devastating fire, and later the horrors and destruction of The Thirty Years’ War; the latter cut the number of citizens four times. Against all odds, Potsdam was like a bird Phoenix with a great fate ahead.  As early as 1640, Elector Frederick William, the new ruler of Brandenburg chose Potsdam as his second residence after Berlin and ordered the construction of the first royal palace. The area was nevertheless fated to find its way into history as not only a summer residence and hunting grounds for the aristocracy. In the first half of the XVIII century, the Prussian King Frederick William I (the father of the better-known ‘Frederick the Great’) turned Potsdam into a garrison town as a means to create a strong and mighty army. The new quarters and fields for military exercises were soon expanded to an area of 150 hectares.  

The times of Frederick the Great witnessed a blistering renaissance for the military infrastructure. During his reign, Potsdam actually became the second capital of the state and the town landscape was accompanied by the magnificent Sanssouci Palace. The 1750s witnessed the creation of a new weaver and spinner colony Nowawes, which is nowadays known as Potsdam-Babelsberg. The turbulent events of the Napoleonic wars, unfortunately, did not leave the area aside and during the French occupation, Potsdam for a time became a cavalry hub for 12 000 horses and cavalry soldiers of the Napoleonic troops, which was of course a humiliating reminder of the occupation. The year 1838 saw the opening of the first railway line in Prussia, which connected two capitals: Berlin and Potsdam: at that time the speed of this transport was less than that of horse carriages. In the mid-XIX century the town itself and specifically its status as the royal residence were boosted by the creation of multiple architectural masterpieces. The town became home to many of the Prussian most famous and appreciated palaces and gardens, a favorite country retreat for the aristocracy. Rococo-style Sanssouci Palace (1747), the baroque-style Neues Palais (1769), Charlottenhof palace (1829), and Marmorpalais (or Marble Palace, 1791) became the pears of its time. 

Potsdam 1900 spring parade soldiers
A postcard from 1900 showing a military parade in Potsdam

It is twice symbolically that the last palace and residence created by the ruling German Hohenzollerns dynasty was built in Potsdam, the century-old home of the Prussian Kings. Friedrich Wilhelm Viktor Albert better known as Wilhelm II or Kaiser was the godfather of the last royal residence. The ruler of the mighty dynasty was himself born in Potsdam in 1859 and spent the greater part of his childhood and youth first in Marble Palace and then in the magnificent ‘Neues Palais’ (New Palace, where he would sign the order to mobilize the Army in 1914). In his letters Wilhelm II regarded Potsdam as his personal ‘el dorado’, feeling himself free amid beautiful nature and his favorite Regiment, as opposed to Berlin which he had never liked. Toward the end of his reign, the Kaiser personally owned three palaces in Berlin (Konigliches Schloss, Bellevue, and Monbijou) and thirteen in Potsdam, and more than forty residencies in total throughout the country, estimated to have a value of at least 40 million marks at that time. Apart from the large castles and palaces, the family-owned numerous buildings and one estimate put the total annual income of Kaiser at around 20 million marks: an astronomical figure at any time, especially at the beginning of the XX century. 

Potsdam, commemoration 200th anniversary + Kaiser Wilhelm II coat of arms AK
A postcard created for commemoration of the 200th anniversary of Frederick ‘The Great’ with Kaiser Wilhelm II as his successor, January 1912
Kaiser Wilhelm II and his family. Only the spouses, but not the engaged couple, were allowed to be photographed here
Kaiser Wilhelm II with his closest family
the imperial family on the steps of the Neues Palais in Potsdam on 15 June 1913
The royal family on the steps of the Neues Palais (New Palace) in Potsdam on 15 June 1913
Kaiser Wilhelm is received by the crown prince couple in front of the Koenigsberg Cathedral 1912
Kaiser Wilhelm is greeted by Crown Prince Wilhelm and his wife in front of the Koenigsberg Cathedral, in 1912

In 1912 having no restraint in both the autocratic power and access to a state treasury, Kaiser ordered the creation of a new palace, a gift to his first-born son Crown Prince Wilhelm. When a boy was born in 1882, Wilhelm II, at that time a twenty-three-year-old secretary at the Prussian embassy in Paris, exclaimed that a new generation of the glorious Hohenzollern dynasty came to this world. In 1908 followed by a scandal and trial of some of his friends, the Emperor made up his mind to abdicate the throne in the favor of his son, but both his wife and Crown Prince argued Kaiser out of such a decision during his temporary retreat to a beloved Potsdam. The new residence was aimed to become a family home for Crown Prince Wilhelm and his wife Crown Princess Cecilie (1886 – 1954). Cecilie was the granddaughter of the Russian Emperor Nicholas I. The two had a magnificent wedding in 1905 and used to spend their summer months in the Marble palace in Potsdam, bringing up numerous children. The Kaiser felt obliged to give his son and the future reign, and his grandchildren their own palace for the start. 

Duchess Cecilie of Mecklenburg-Schwerin
Duchess Cecilie of Mecklenburg-Schwerin in her twentieth
Duchess Cecilie of Mecklenburg-Schwerin and Crown Prince
Duchess Cecilie of Mecklenburg-Schwerin and Crown Prince Wilhelm on a postcard devoted to their marriage in 1905
Das deutsche Kronprinzenpaar in Bad Kreuth, Oktober 1906
The royal couple takes their time at Bad Kreuth, October 1906
Crown Prince Wilhelm riding together with the two eldest sons Wilhelm Prinz v. Prussia (1906-1940) and Louis Ferdinand Prince v. Prussia (1907-1994)
Crown Prince Wilhelm riding with his two eldest sons: Wilhelm (1906-1940) and Louis Ferdinand (1907-1994)
Duchess Cecilie Auguste Marie of Mecklenburg-Schwerin
Duchess Cecilie Auguste Marie of Mecklenburg-Schwerin with her sons

Wilhelm II issued a remarkable sum of 1.5 million marks for the creation of a new palace on the territory of New Garden, a giant royal park of 102 hectares located in the North part of the Potsdam area. Marble palace, the cradle for both the father and the son in their youth, was located less than one kilometer to the South. One may assume that the local population of Potsdam was used to the royal castles and wealth next to them, this time the news was met with frustration and question about whether Kaiser needed another palace in addition to the thirteen already existing in Potsdam. The initial end of works was set on October 1, 1915, and the Crown Prince ceremonially laid the cornerstone as early as May 1913, but the ‘Great War’ made its impact. The building up was not suspended completely but a two-year delay became a reality. The royal spouse Wilhelm and Cecilie became happy parents of another daughter in September 1917 and the Princess delivered a child already in a new residence named after her. It is worth noting that a girl, Princess Cecilie Viktoria Anastasia Zita Thyra Adelheid of Prussia, was baptized on November 9, 1917, in the presence of her grandfather Kaiser, who would abdicate his power exactly one year after that day, November 9, 1918. 

The Crown Prince and Princess with their four sons
The Crown Prince Wilhelm and Princess Cecilie with their four sons in 1914
Prussia's Crown Prince Wilhelm presented himself and his family quite modestly at Christmas 1923. He had just come from exile
Crown Prince Wilhelm and his family at Christmas 1923. He had just come from exile

When it comes to the Cecilienhof palace in Potsdam, it was destined to become the last precious stone in the crown of the Hohenzollern and the only palace of the German royal family built in the XX century. The residence has a total area of an impressive 7000 м2 with a facade area of 4000 m2. 176 luxury rooms with bay and stained windows and fifty-five tall chimneys, each of a different design, grouped around five courtyards, which made an even bigger impression. The architectural decisions were inspired by the style of the Tudor era of English houses and the surrounding area by the English landscape design. Crown Prince Wilhelm was himself a well-known Anglophile. At the same time, the final appearance of the Cecilienhof palace in Potsdam was adapted to the existing landscape of the XVIII century New Garden. The heart of the palace was the large, not to say giant, living room accompanied by a bedroom of the royal couple with a mighty carved wooden staircase: in 1945 the main conference room. Apart from the shared space, each of the spouses had its own section in the Cecilienhof palace. Crown Prince Wilhelm luxuriated in a library and a smoking room and princess Cecilie had her own music room and a cabinet in the style of a ship’s cabin. The latter was designed by Paul Ludwig Troost (1878-1934), a talented designer with an experience of work with ocean liners, who would later become the favorite architect of Adolf Hitler. Paul Schultze-Naumburg (1869-1949), the leading architect of Cecilienhof, would also become an admirer of the Nazis in the years to come. 

The project of the Cecilienhof Palace from 1907
One of the early projects of the Cecilienhof Palace from 1907 was made by Albert Geyer
The construction process of the Cecilienhof palace
A panoramic view over the construction of the inner courtyard in 1914

Construction of the Royal palace in Potsdam

Cecilienhof Palace. The main entrance to the large courtyard, after 1917
The main entrance to the large courtyard, after 1917

Corner of the Cecilienhof Palace, site of the Potsdam Conference in Potsdam 1945

The courtyard near the rear of Cecilienhof Palace in Potsdam, Germany where the Potsdam Conference will be held

Cecilienhof palace today

Cecilienhof palace Potsdam

Followed by the exodus of the now-former Kaiser to Holland, where he would live until his eighties and pass away as late as 1941, the Crown Prince also left the country for exile. Cecilie and her six children stayed in the Cecilienhof palace in Potsdam for a time, until all the palaces of the former royal family in Germany were nationalized by the state at the end of WWI. As early as 1920 the former Princess moved to Schloss Oels in Silesia (modern Oleśnica in Poland) while her two elder sons Princes Wilhelm (1906-1940, not to confuse with his father and grandfather Kaiser) and Louis Ferdinand (1907-1994) stayed in the former house for some time until leaving as well. It took Cecilie and her children six years to be able to come back to the Cecilienhof palace. In 1926 the Weimar government organized a nationwide plebiscite to decide whether the Hohenzollern family should be given compensation for their former property or whether this property fully nationalized. 14.4 million Germans or 37% of those who voted, did not approve of expropriation and favored the compensation and on October 29, 1926, the state gave one-third of the former castles and residences back to Hohenzollern, including the Cecilienhof palace in Potsdam. While most of the former royal palaces were turned into museums with public access, Cecilienhof retained the status of a private residence. By receiving material compensation as well, Cecilie and her children once again obtained money to meet their own needs for the royal lifestyle. 

Office and library of President Harry S. Truman in the American quarters of Cecilienhof Palace in Potsdam 2

Cecilienhof Palace in Potsdam

Where did the Potsdam Conference take place

Potsdam Cecilienhof

The site of the Potsdam Conference 1945

Potsdam palace

From 1926, the doors of the palace remained closed to the public, but Cecilie turned Cecilienhof into a social meeting place for the German high society from Potsdam and Berlin. Aristocrats, well-known artists, politicians, and actors were frequent and desired visitors similar to the pre-war times. Among the VIP guests was the prominent Austrian-born theater and film director Max Reinhardt (1873-1943). After the Anschluss of Austria in 1938, he would emigrate first to Great Britain and then to the United States. Cecilie also welcomed prominent German conductors of her time: Wilhelm Furtwängler (1886-1954) and Herbert von Karajan (he was Austrian, 1908-1989). In the period between the 1920s and 1930s, Cecilie herself was very active in charitable activity. As for Crown Prince Wilhelm, the temptation of being involved in policy was too high for him. The Nazi officials were among those guests who were invited to Cecilienhof after 1926 and further. Adolf Hitler visited the palace at least on three documented occasions: in 1926, 1933, and 1935. Hermann Göring and Joseph Goebbels were also among the Nazi VIPs and even Benito Mussolini was invited to Cecilienhof during his visit to Germany. In 1932 Crown Prince Wilhelm made up his mind to stand for the post of the Reich President against Hitler and Hindenburg, aiming to restore the monarchy. His father Kaiser, who both supported Hindenburg and was cautious about his son’s ambitions to take his royal right, forbade Wilhelm junior. 

1925 Prince Guillaume, Prince Hubert, Crown Princess Cécilie, Crown Prince Guillaume, Prince Frédéric and Prince Louis-Ferdinand of Prussia, the Princesses Alexandrine and Cécilie
The royal family in 1925
From the celebration of the Crown Prince's 50th birthday in Cecilienhof. Crown Prince and Crown Princess (May 6, 1932)
Crown Prince’s 50th birthday in Cecilienhof, May 6, 1932

It is important to understand that the variety of guests and Wilhelm’s ambitions to become President of the Reich, were not the only occasion for the involvement of the royal family in politics, particularly when it came to right-wing activities. In the 1920s Prinz Eitel Friedrich (1883-1942), the second son of Kaiser, Prince August Wilhelm (1887-1949), the fourth son, joined Der Stahlhelm (The Steel helmet), a right-wing paramilitary organization. Such a rivalry with the government was nonsense for the royal family, yet in the Nazi era, the younger generation of Hohenzollerns was deeply associated with the regime in one way or another. Toward that time they acted not as a family but as seeking individual preferences. On May 1, Alexander, son of Prince August Wilhelm, became a member of NSDAP and later had a prominent post in the Potsdam leadership of the SA formation. The last major social event took place in Cecilienhof in 1938 with the marriage of Louis Ferdinand (1907-1994), the son of Wilhelm and Cecilie. The spouse would leave the palace for the last and final time in 1945. Wilhelm left Potsdam early in January and Cecilie on February 1, three months before the place was captured by the Soviet forces. The family had no chance to take their luxury with them and all art, furniture was left behind until April 26, 1945, and the seizure of the property. 

Ernest Rohm and Crown Prince Wilhelm
The notorious Ernest Rohm and Crown Prince Wilhelm together
Crown Prince Wilhelm at an SA rally in October 1933
Crown Prince Wilhelm at an SA rally in Potsdam, October 1933

 

A COZY SUBURB: POTSDAM IN THE THIRD REICH ERA

With the fall of the royal family as a result of the First World War, Potsdam remained a status of at least a picturesque suburb of Berlin if not a summer retreat for Hohenzollern. The town had its own railway connection with the capital since 1838 and a tram line since the early XX century. On weekends thousands of Berliners used to come to Potsdam for leisure, and the legendary Prussian militarism seemed to vanish during the years of the Weimar Republic. By preserving at least a share of its pre-war elite of the times of Hohenzollern, in the inter-war years, Potsdam did become a home for a new generation of aristocracy: the cinema functionaries. Prior to WWII, Potsdam was regarded as the ‘German Hollywood’ due to the ‘Babelsberg Film Studio’, the largest in Europe at that time. This new elite: actors, producers, and directors, formed a new high society, which was desirable in the villas of the aristocracy and who themselves purchased hundreds of them. It was in these years when the wealthy ‘nouveau riche’ took part in the dinner parties in the Cecilienhof Palace, among them Actors and directors like Max Reinhardt (1873-1943), Curt Goetz (1888-1960), and Heinz Rühmann (1902-1994)

Potsdam in early XX century
A postcard of Potsdam from the beginning of the XX century

In contrast to an established stereotype regarding the inherited militarism of Potsdam, the town came into sight of the Nazi regime for more practical reasons by being an important regional center and a symbol of former might. As early as 1926, the year when the family of the former Crown Prince Wilhelm got back to the suburb of Berlin, the population of Potsdam surpassed 100 000. It should come as no surprise that Adolf Hitler and his regime regarded Potsdam as an important political battleground during their so-called ‘years of struggle. On May 24, 1931 ‘Kampfbund für Deutsche Kultur’ or simply ‘KfdK’ (Militant League for German Culture) held its conference in Potsdam with Hermann Goering and Alfred Rosenberg as speakers, whose rhetoric included the appeals ‘Germany awake’ and ‘Blood and Honour’. On April 4, 1932, Hitler gave several mass-attended speeches in Berlin (Lustgarten and Sportpalast) and Potsdam (Luftschiffhafen Stadium). On October 2, 1932, Hitler addressed the young audience of ‘Hitler Youth’, an estimated 110 000 boys and girls from all of Germany and even from Austria as a staged propaganda event in the stadium in Potsdam. In the late hours of the same day, he had dinner with Prince August Wilhelm, Kaiser’s fourth son, in Potsdam. On January 30, 1933, the day of Hitler’s rise to power as a Chancellor, Joseph Goebbels went to Potsdam to visit Prince August Wilhelm as well, being back home at 3. a.m. the next day. 

Hitler Youth members marching at a Reich Youth Day rally in Potsdam 1932
A photo of the Hitler Youth members while marching at a so-called ‘Reich Youth Day’ rally in Potsdam, 1932
Members of Hitler Youth in march, Potsdam, Germany, 1932
Another photo of the Hitler Youth’s rally in Potsdam, 1932
members of the German National People's Party march in front of the City Palace in Potsdam. They carry black, white and red flags with the motto With God for Kaiser and Reich
Members of the German National People’s Party march in front of the City Palace in Potsdam
Girls of the Nazi Party Bund Deutscher Mädel organization, Potsdam, Germany, May 1935
Girls from the Nazi organization (Deutscher Mädel) in Potsdam, May 1935

 

THE DAY OF POTSDAM 1933

March 21, 1933, went down in world history as the notorious ‘Tag von Potsdam’ or ‘The day of Potsdam’. Followed by the fire of the Reichstag on February 27, which the Nazis had used to suppress the left-wing opponents in German politics, the next parliament assembly was to be held in March. March 21 was chosen not accidentally, but as a symbolic reference to March 21, 1871, when Reich Chancellor Otto von Bismarck and Emperor Wilhelm I (the grandfather of Kaiser Wilhelm II) ceremonially opened the first session of the German Parliament Reichstag. Six decades after that day, Adolf Hitler and President Hindenburg were to recreate the roles of their predecessors. All years prior to 1918, it was a tradition for the German Emperors to ceremonially open the meetings of the new parliament after the election. In 1933, the federal election took place on March 5, just six days after the Reichstag fire and despite Hitler’s chancellorship and the campaign of oppression against other parties, the NSDAP managed to obtain only 43.9% of the total votes. 

It is important to note that the new seat of the Reichstag was the Kroll opera in Berlin and Potsdam was chosen for the opening ceremony as a symbolic site, a cradle of Prussian military traditions and a retreat for Emperors since the early XVIII century. Despite the conventional belief that ‘The day of Potsdam’ was staged by the Nazis and particularly by Joseph Goebbels step-by-step, in fact, Hitler and the Nazis were more politically vulnerable with this event than not. President von Hindenburg and the strong support of his person demonstrated the preserved conservatism of the country and still a powerful attachment to the traditions, including sentiments to the monarchy. The most among the cheering crowd in Potsdam that day in fact greeted and cheered the Reich President, not a newly appointed Chancellor Hitler. The Nazis were invited to attend religious service on the morning of March 21, an invitation which Hitler and Goebbels ignored and instead demonstratively put flowers to the graves of the ‘Nazi martyrs’, including notorious Horst Wessel in the Luise cemetery in Berlin. At noon Hitler and his entourage finally arrived at the key site of the whole event: Garnisonkirche (the Potsdam garrison church). On that day hundreds of swastika banners as well as black-white-red flags of the former empire were hanged in Potsdam. 

21 March 1933, the Day of Potsdam, Kaiser's portrait is rehung in the town hall of Berlin
Kaiser’s portrait is rehung in the town hall of Berlin on March 21, 1933
Day of Potsdam Hitler before Garrison Church
Hitler on his way to Garrison Church, March 21, 1933

Adolf Hitler in a suit instead of an SA uniform

Day of Potsdam 1933
Police while making order with the crows on the Day of Potsdam

The Church was chosen for the occasion for symbolic and referential reasons as a tribute to the Prussian traditions, to the heritage of the Hohenzollerns, and personally to President Hindenburg. Garnisonkirche, founded by Hohenzollern kings in the early XVIII century, was a place of burial for Frederick William I (The soldier King) and his son Frederick II (The Great). Apart from the bonds between Prussian militarism and the monarchy, the church also symbolized the traditions of the Protestant religion. It would be heavily damaged during the air bombing in 1945, and leveled down in 1968. On March 21, 1933, the newly elected Reichstag deputies were all present except for Social Democrats who boycotted Nazis’ oppression and the church included up to 2000 attendees on that day: politicians, officers, and aristocrats. After bowing to the Kaiser’s empty throne, Hindenburg addressed the audience first by reading a short speech from a piece of paper, and then he invited Hitler to speak. The two layered flowers into the tombs of the Prussian Kings in the crypt and later on Hitler and Hindenburg were photographed for one of the most recognized images of the Third Reich era. Hitler in his civil coat bowed his head while shaking the President’s hand. The nazi propaganda later used this photo to symbolize the alliance between the old traditions and conservatism on one side and the Nazi party on the other, as well as the legitimation of Hitler. 

The Garrison Church in 1829
A painting of the Garrison church from 1829
Interior of Garrison Church (1920)
Interior shot of the Garrison Church, around 1920
Hitler delivers his first address at the opening of the new Reichstag in Potsdam. Date 1933 March 21
Hitler delivers his speech at the opening of the new Reichstag inside Garrison Church, March 21, 1933
Tag von Potsdam 1933
President Paul von Hindenburg while delivering his own speech

After the ceremony, both Hitler and Hindenburg attended a military parade of the Reichswehr, as well as of SA, SS, Hitler’s Youth, and ‘Steel helmets’ units, which lasted several hours. It is peculiar to note that while Hindenburg observed the parade from the first row, Hitler and his elected cabinet were satisfied with the second row: another contrast to the established belief about March 21, 1933, as Hitler’s personal triumph. When it comes to the presence of the royal family, on that day several Hohenzollern were seen on the site of the ceremony inside Garnisonkirche. Out of five sons of the Kaiser still alive at that moment (Joachim died in 1920), four were present and cheered Hindenburg and Hitler. Crown Prince Wilhelm (sitting in a chair behind the empty place of his father Kaiser), Prince Eitel, Prince Oskar, and Prince August Wilhelm. The abdicated Emperor himself was listening to the radio broadcast from the church from his exile in Holland and was pleased to hear about paying honor to his empty throne, as well as the “Nun danket alle Gott,” an old hymn, traditionally associated with his ancestor Frederick the Great. 

While Hitler did not regard March 21, 1933, as his triumph yet, the historical consequences of that day were to become long-standing for the regime and the country. The event which, in fact, was far more important than delivering speeches in the old church in Potsdam, was Hindenburg’s signing of the two documents on that day. The first one was of minor importance and ordered the release of the NSDAP members from jails. The second decree gave the new government authorization to arrest any citizen suspected of criticizing this government, thus the Nazi one. Two days later, the notorious “Law for the Relief of the Distress of the People and the Reich.” was signed, an enabling act that gave Hitler new extra-constitutional powers for the next four years on paper and until 1945 de facto. 

Tag von Potsdam 1933 Hitler and Hindenburg
The well-known photo of Hitler showing he is a subordinate to Hindenburg
Tag von Potsdam, Adolf Hitler, Kronprinz Wilhelm
A rare photo of Adolf Hitler and Crown Prince Wilhelm on the Day of Potsdam

Despite all the symbolism of Potsdam in German and Prussian history in the worldview of the Nazis, the citizens of the town met the new regime with no small amount of opportunism, particularly in the first years after 1933. As early as August 1934, the reports of the local Gestapo unit included information about poor support for government initiatives and multiple acts of sabotage. Particularly one report chronicled insubmission in the religious sphere, when 243 churches in Potsdam ignored the government appeal to raise the Nazi banners on November 9, 1935, the anniversary of the 1923 failed Beer-hall putsch. The majority of the population took the mass meetings as a part of the century-old traditions and not as political activity, which the regime demanded from them. 

On October 2, 1937, Baldur von Schirach, the Nazi national youth leader, inaugurated a new school for ‘Hitler Youth’ in Potsdam. Hitler also used to pay attention to the former second capital of the Prussian monarchy, but his visits there were restricted to necessity rather than his desire. On May 23, 1939, Hitler attended the state funeral of Graf von der Schulenburg In the Potsdam Lustgarten: the high-ranking commanders of Wehrmacht were also present, as well as party officials, the latter used to not lose a chance to be closer to the dictator. In one week the Yugoslav Prince Regent Paul and Princess Olga made a tour of Potsdam from Berlin and placed a wreath at the tomb of Frederick the Great in the Garrison church. Hitler made his last state visit to Potsdam on November 25, 1943, on the occasion of another funeral, this time of Ernst Graf zu Reventlow, a former Reichstag deputy and a journalist. 

The picture shows Reichswehr soldiers in the pleasure garden of the Garrison Church firing a 21-gun salute after Hindenburg laid a wreath on the grave of Frederick the Great
Reichswehr soldiers in the garden of the Garrison Church firing a 21-gun salute after Hindenburg laid a wreath on the grave of Frederick the Great

 

THE LAST MONTHS OF THE REICH: POTSDAM IN 1945

Even nowadays, eighty years after the end of WWII, there are still historical debates about whether the Western Allies could capture Berlin earlier than the Russians for a lesser cost from the boat sides. In this scenario, debated in the Ninth US Army in early April, Potsdam was regarded by the American army and the British as the final point of an advance from the river Elba eastwards. General Simpson visited Omar Bradley’s HQ on April 15 to get permission, but after consulting with General Dwight Eisenhower, the Supreme Commander of the Allied forces, got an unequivocal rejection. Potsdam at that time formed the Western border of the first line of defense of Berlin, and in fact, had limited manpower and relied on the natural water obstacles. Nevertheless, during the battle for Berlin in late April, the natural landscape of Potsdam allowed its defenders to hold a relatively strong defense against the overwhelming Red army forces. The so-called Army Group ‘Spree’, made of two weak divisions, managed to resist until April 28 when the 20,000-strong garrison managed to avoid the total encirclement using boats. It is peculiar to recall that until the surrender of the town to the invaders, a meteorological station, whose two operators continued to supply people with a forecast, was still in operation, while the roads were crammed with people, who tried to leave the city in the West direction. 

A german refugee in Potsdam in 1945
A German refugee mother with her child in the forest near Potsdam in 1945

In the last months of the War, not only millions of German civilians filled the roads and seas to avoid the horrors of the invading armies, and tens of thousands of concentration camp inmates were pushed to join the ‘marches of death’. The evacuation involved even the remnants of those, who had passed away many years before. As early as January 1945, the Germans exhumed the remains of President Hindenburg and his wife from the memorial in Tannenberg in East Prussia, and after a journey, they were delivered to Potsdam. The bones of Hindenburg were now stored in the Luftwaffe bunker at the Wildpark at Geltow next to the remains of the Prussian Kings Frederick William I and his son Frederick the Great, which had been taken out of the crypt under The Garrison Church in February. The Church would be destroyed during an air raid on April 14 and in that fashion, the ashes of the Kings were spared. The remains of Hindenburg and of two Williams were not in Potsdam on that day already. In March they were taken, along with museum pieces, and books related to Frederick The Great, to the salt mine in Bernterode in Thuringia. The coffins with the ashes were discovered by the US units on April 27. 

Aerial view after the bombing of Potsdam
Aerial photograph of the Potsdam city center soon after the air raid on April 15, 1945
Altes Rathaus und Nikolaikirche am Alten Markt Potsdam in 1946
‘Altes Rathaus’ and ‘Nikolaikirche’ church in Potsdam, 1946

The massive air raid on Potsdam, which I have already mentioned, took place on April 14, 1945 (precisely on the night of April 15). The crews departed at 6:11 pm on April 14 and landed back in England at 2:52 the next day) and had a devastating effect on the city which had been previously spared from attacks of such scale. This was to become the very last massive British night air raid on Germany in WWII. 500 Lancasters and 12 Mosquitos were sent to attack the center of Potsdam to destroy both the army barracks and the railway depot. The air raid did devastating damage to the historical part of Potsdam, destroying a substantial part of the old town, particularly the historical French Quarter, causing death to at least 3500 citizens. Many historical buildings from the era of the Prussian kings were badly damaged, including the City Palace and the Garrison church. Fortunately, the Potsdam hospital had been mainly evacuated only a day before it was devastated by the attack and the detonation of the train with munition at the nearby train station. The sick children and adults were taken to the Cecilienhof palace where they found shelter next to other refugees, including the elderly officers of the Kaiser’s army with their families. A day after the attack, Winston Churchill was so infuriated with the barbaric raid at the Potsdam city center that he ordered to discontinue attacks starting from April 16, 1945. 

Destroyed Potsdam City Palace
Destroyed Potsdam City Palace after the War

The air raid on April 15 was not the final cause of the deaths in Potsdam in the war as one of the post-war reports estimated that 1200 citizens were killed during the fight in the town, particularly during Soviet barbaric artillery attacks of the urban area, a former cradle of the Prussian kings. While some streets looked like there had been no war at all, 4000 cubic meters of rubble were later cleared from the streets in Potsdam only, at the same time a fraction of the dozens of millions in the nearby shattered Berlin. The drunken Russians broke into the Babelsberg Film Studio, looted the costume warehouse, and were seen by the locals dressed in clothes, which had been previously used to depict different historical eras: from Napoleonic wars to contemporary German cinema. The ‘liberators’ also found the International Red Cross warehouses in Babelsberg, where the British prisoners of War used to work. They destroyed thousands of parcels with precious medical supplies and food for sick soldiers. Thousands of Red army soldiers never saw bathrooms and used to throw bathrobes from the windows of the villas in Potsdam, as well as took different common goods as trophies: water faucets, light bulbs, chairs, bicycles, bassinets, wall clocks, tablecloths, leaving garbage and excrement. More than that, in the first post-war year Potsdam became a destination for at least 50 000 refugees who found relatively appropriate living conditions than in the devastated Berlin nearby. 

Ruin in 1966 shortly before the demolition
The ruins of the Garrison church in 1945 and 1966, shortly before the demolition

 

THE RESHAPING OF THE SITE: SUMMER 1945

In contrast to the seven months, which had once separated the cessation of fire in the battlegrounds of the ‘Great War’ (WWI) and the signing of the Treaty of Versailles on June 28, 1919, the key issues for the post-WWII Europe were to be settled as quickly as possible. The evident issues were to be discussed without a significant delay, particularly regarding the state of devastated Germany and the still-relevant necessity to make Japan capitulate in the East. Followed by the usual lettering between Stalin, Churchill, and now Truman (who had become president after Roosevelt’s death in April), the three leaders agreed to meet in Berlin on July 15, 1945. In fact, the decision to hold the conference in the capital was rather symbolic and the practical considerations testified that Berlin was too devastated and too filled with refugees and troops for the event and the new meeting of the ‘Big three’. Apart from Berlin, Potsdam, located 20 kilometers from the capital, met the end of the War in relative preservation or at least could be fit for use in a short period of time. Just after the seizure of Potsdam, the Red army units took the former Wehrmacht military barracks and confiscated a waste part of the former rural second capital, and turned it into a strictly secured area. A part of that initial ‘forbidden area’, known as “Military Town No. 7” would exist until 1994. 

Soviet occupation officials erected large portraits of Joseph Stalin to hide some of the worst damage to Berlin
Soviet occupation officials used giant portraits of the notorious Joseph Stalin to hide some of the worst damage to Berlin, in 1945

When Potsdam and the Cecilienhof Palace were agreed as the site for the new conference of the ‘Big Three’, the Soviet occupational units had to make the area appropriate for use. In a way that the citizens of Germany were deprived of their rights, the whole streets and towns districts in the area of the potential Conference in Potsdam and Wannsee were expelled and made ‘Germans free’. The first reason for such harsh eviction was the official one: a necessity to ensure security measures for the three delegations. The second and more practical reason dealt with the necessity to host not only the delegates of the USSR, United States, and Britain but to allocate 3000 guards from the ranks of the notorious NKVD and thousands of other military units. Those locals who had still managed to preserve their homes were expelled for the time of the Potsdam conference, and many of them were never let to come back again. 

The security measures of the Potsdam conference
The security measures during the Potsdam conference. The sign in the background signals the necessity of showing permission passes to go further
Potsdam conference, July 1945
A Soviet woman soldier while regulating the move of the cars in Babelsberg, July 1945

The intelligentsia, the former owners of the luxurious villas with Bernstein piano in every second mansion, were the main targets of such ‘secutiry action’. Some of the US and British delegates would later recall Potsdam as ‘the ghost city’, emptied of its population by force. Apart from expulsion itself, the invaders looted valuables from the villas, and destroyed statues, frescos, paintings, and tapestries, which they considered ‘too German’ or ‘too Teutonic’. Potsdam had been long regarded as a cradle for Prussian militarism and now ‘The city of Kings’ was exposed to be cleaned. Apart from the expulsion of the people, the Soviets cleaned the rubble from the streets in Potsdam, Wannsee, and Babelsberg, repaired some sections of the streets, and even built a pontoon bridge on the site of the destroyed Glienicker Brücke (the future symbol of the Cold War, better known as ‘The bridge of spies’ from Steven Spielberg’s movie with Tom Hanks). 

Potsdam in 1945
A photo of the destroyed Glinicke bridge in Potsdam, summer of 1945

 

CECILIENHOF PALACE IN POTSDAM

Potsdam was the ideal variant as a site for the conference of the Big Three not only because of its proximity to Berlin and the relative preservation at the end of the War with many luxurious villas. As a capital of the Prussian monarchy, Potsdam provided the conquerors with dozens of palaces and castles, and one among these residences was destined to play the role of Versailles from 1919. Potsdam Cecilienhof Palace, built in a neo-Tudor style, looked like a huge English country house or golf club. Impressive courtyards, 176 rooms, and fifty-five different designs of fireplaces, gardens, and the nearby lake still made an impression of a royal residence. Cecilienhof was large enough to host all three delegates at once and give them additional accommodation space, which the delegates can use between the sessions. Such an area for a country included several rooms, a meeting room, its own kitchen, bathrooms, and a communication hub to reach the outer world. For the Soviets, most of their soldiers were peasants and never visited a city before the war, the Palace reminded the wealth of Germany and its contrast with a peasant Soviet Union with few paved highways. Some American and British delegates, including Clement Attlee, were not impressed with the palace. 

The buildings show the extent of the Cecilienhof palace in Potsdam
The exterior of the Cecilienhof palace in Potsdam
Russian officers are on duty in front of the main entrance to Cecilienhof Palace in Potsdam
Russian security officers are on duty in front of the main entrance to Cecilienhof Palace in Potsdam, July 1945

Potsdam Conference in the summer of 1945

Cecilienhof palace and how it looks today

Cecilienhof palace, Potsdam, Germany

Soon after the occupation of Potsdam, the Russians expelled the refugees, who used to hide here in the last weeks of the War, including sick and children, and occupied Cecilienhof. Marshal Georgi Zhukov, notoriously known for the heavy losses of his troops during the Battle of Berlin, used the Palace as his temporary headquarters for a few weeks while holding meetings with British and US high-ranking officers. The palace met the end of the War undamaged and, above all, being the newest among the palaces in Potsdam (finished in 1917). It had electricity, modern plumbing, and kitchens. Nevertheless, while still containing the furniture and belongings of Crown Prince Wilhelm, a huge bulk of work was done to make Cecilienhof appropriate for the Potsdam Conference. The ‘hosts’ even brought in an experienced manager from one of Moscow’s hotels (Metropole Hotel) to oversee the process of renovation. In the summer of 1945, a beautiful park around Cecilienhof Palace still included the graves of the Crown Prince’s dogs with the installed tombstones, which neighbored the rough graves of the Germans, killed in the last weeks of the war and buried here. 

The plan of the Cecilienhof
The plan of the Cecilienhof palace
Ceciliehof Potsdam
A rare photo of the main courtyard before the Russians created the notorious ‘Red star’ made of flowers

Potsdam conference museum today

Potsdam conference tour

Schloss Cecilienhof Potsdam

Hundreds of pieces of the interior were brought to the palace, mainly from the nearby villas and castles, and some from as far as the Soviet Union. Similar to the barbaric behavior in the private houses, the occupants burned the books in the library, which they regarded as too German, and destroyed some frescoes and paintings. While tonnes of luxury items were being brought, the opposite looting process meant the taking of some goods out of Cecilienhof, the process which would not be stopped even during the conference. Some of the personal belongings of the royal family were taken away to another building and later almost completely destroyed by an accidental fire. In total, the preparations turned thirty-six rooms into space for the three delegations. The future room for President Harry Truman was furnitured with classicist inventory from the Marble Palace. A cabinet for Winston Churchill got the neo-gothic pieces from the Babelsberg palace and Stalin’s one contained a luxury working table. 

cecilienhof palace in potsdam germany
The workroom of the Soviet delegation inside Schloss Cecilienhof

Cecilienhof castle

cecilienhof palace interior

cecilienhof palace interior Potsdam Germany

In parallel to the preparations with the interior, the Soviets selected trustable personnel of the Secret service to perform as waiters, kitchen chefs, drivers, and maids: each of them spoke English. At the same time, free access to the media was not on the agenda since the very beginning, regardless of the country. The reporters from respected newspapers such as The Washington Post and the New York Times were carefully checked and they had no direct access to the Conference delegates, except for scheduled daily updates without a question session. The American reporters were not accustomed to such an attitude as well to the information about the menu and the clothes of the representatives instead of important details about the agenda. Apart from keeping reporters at a distance, every delegation had its own entrance to the Palace, guarded by Russian soldiers with bayoneted rifles. Truman and US delegates used the front lobby, Churchill took advantage of the courtyard entrance and Stalin used the back side of the palace. Along with that, the flags of all three nations: the Stars and Stripes, the Union Jack, the Hammer, and the Sickle were put on the Cecilienhof front side. 

Journalists during the Potsdam Conference
Western journalists were made to wait for hours for a few general photos of the delegates

Western media coverage of the Potsdam conference in 1945

Potsdam 1945

Prime Minister Winston Churchill and the British delegation occupy this section of the Cecilienhof Palace

 

JOSEPH STALIN AS A HOST

A military triumph over Germany, the occupation of the greater part of Eastern Europe, signing peace treaties with several countries, the June 1945 parade of victory in Moscow, and self-proclamation of Generalisimus rank: all these cemented Stalin’s dictatorship as never before. He was preparing to take part in the Potsdam conference being not only an owner of the Soviet Union but a ruler of a post-WWII superpower with significant territorial influence in Europe and with a pretense for dominance on the continent. Along with that, a meeting with Prime Minister Churchill and the new American president Harry Truman was not expected to be an easy ride, particularly in recognition of the worsening relations between the Allies. After four years of the ‘predictable’ partnership with President Roosevelt, Stalin faced a rival with a new US leader, whose political environment and advisors had been already known for their harsh position toward the Soviet Union. 

Joseph Stalin and the Potsdam Conference in July-August 1945

In contrast to an established belief that Stalin looked for a reason to make matters worse, in fact, his position was both strong and weak: the latter especially regarding the dramatic losses, which the USSR had suffered in manpower and resources. During those four years of the devastating war, Stalin’s USSR lost 1,710 towns, 70,000 villages destroyed or heavily damaged, as well as 32,000 factories and 100 000 farms, with a dramatic 15 million of the civilian population killed, 25 million left homeless, and at least 11 million soldiers killed or missing in action not to count those wounded and captured. In total the USSR lost roughly 14% of its pre-war population not to count those wounded and mentally harmed. 

Stalin's room in his residence in Potsdam
Stalin’s room for the guests in his residence in Potsdam

Stalin’s strong points included the possession of the largest army in Europe, a mighty power that the red dictator had no intention to cut significantly. Apart from these practical means, Stalin anticipated bargaining with the West for his participation in the future United Nations, as well as military assistance in the still ongoing war with Japan. Stalin had a dream to score the results of the humiliating 1904-1905 war and to seize vast territories in the far East: the Sakhalin Island, and the Kuril Islands. Stalin was also definitely interested in the outcome of the civil war in China between the Chiang Kai-shek Party and Mao Tse-tung’s Communist forces. As opposed to another myth that Stalin was informed about the American atomic bomb as late as during the Potsdam conference out of Truman’s words, the net of Soviet spies had been informing the dictator about the US atomic program since March 1942, and just before his leave for Potsdam, Stalin had a discussion with notorious Berya on the issue. Among other things, the communist dictator pursued aims toward the former Italian colonies in Africa and had an idea to overthrow the Spanish dictator Franco. In addition to the reparations from conquered Germany, Stalin was interested in the division of the German navy and merchant fleet

Stalin’s journey to Berlin in the summer of 1945 went down in history as one of the most secure (if not the most) state visits in the history of mankind. A preserved Soviet report gives us a chance to evaluate the unprecedented security measures supervised by odious Berya, who was awarded the rank of Marshal on July 9. Stalin preferred a train rather than a plane and the total length of the route was 1923 kilometers. The Russians had to completely rebuild 800 km of railway lines in Poland and Germany to fit the Soviet gauge and to save Stalin from changing his train on the 1941 border at Brest-Litovsk. Seven NKVD regiments with a total staff of 900 bodyguards were assigned to protect Stalin while he was in his eleven-coach armored train of the Tsarist times, which had been taken from the museum and adopted for the journey beforehand. As the dictator had to cover half of Europe across ‘unfriendly’ territories of West Ukraine, Poland, and Germany, additional 19 000 NKVD men were summoned to guard all the way between Moscow and Berlin, with a density varying from 6 men per every kilometer on the Soviet territory (in its borders since September 1939), 10 men in Poland and 15 men in Eastern Germany. In addition, two armored trains in Poland, two in the USSR and four in Germany were patrolling all the way of Stalin’s journey. In 1949 the Soviets would produce a propaganda movie called ‘The fall of Berlin’. In the scene of Stalin’s triumphant arrival to Berlin, he would be depicted coming in a gigantic airplane with Red army soldiers and happy Germans welcoming him, which was of course far from true. 

Alco diesel Da20-27 and Joseph Stalin
A unique photo of the Alco Diesel DA20-27 locomotive, which brought Joseph Stalin to Potsdam

In Potsdam, the Red Tsar and the Soviet delegation were to be guarded by another 2000 men in a zone of a security divided into three circles. It was an impressive boost of security when compared to 620 bodyguards during the Yalta conference. Separate guards were assigned to protect the communication lines and eleven planes, three for Stalin, which was ready in case of a necessity to leave Berlin by air. On July 16, 1945, the day the Americans successfully tested the first atomic bomb in world history, Stalin finally arrived in Berlin with a delay of one day. As it would be revealed years later, Stalin suffered an insignificant heart stroke which resulted in his unnaturally moderate use of alcohol and cigars in Potsdam in the following weeks. 

The arrival of Stalin to Potsdam
The arrival of the dictator to Potsdam at his temporary residence

For Stalin, an impressive two-story villa at 27 Kaiserstrasse with fifteen rooms and an open veranda was prepared in the Babelsberg district. Stalin had his own bedroom and a cabinet on the second floor with a window overlooking the lake. The design was once created by an acclaimed architect Alfred Grenander, the design father of several Berlin metro stations. Back in the 1930s, the mansion was in the possession of the famous warlord of WWII Erich von Ludendorff. Since then, the villa was a former property of an influential German department store boss, whose family was now forced to leave the property for Stalin. A microcosmos of conveniences was created to supply the dictator with electricity, heat, communication, and food. Three designated farms were organized to supply the zone of the Potsdam conference with eggs, and meat, as well as two bakeries that had the capacity to produce up to 800 kg of bread on a daily basis. The telephone hub gave connection to one hundred different locations. Stalin ordered to take away at least the most extravagant pieces of the interior to follow his adopted spartan habits. On the evening of July 18, he would be visited by Churchill in the villa and the latter would regard Stalin as an old, tired man. 

18 July. Harry Vaughan, Joseph Stalin, Harry Truman, Andrei Gromyko, Charles Ross, James Byrnes and Vyacheslav Molotov at Stalin's residence
Harry Vaughan, Joseph Stalin, Harry Truman, Andrei Gromyko, Charles Ross, James Byrnes, and Vyacheslav Molotov at Stalin’s residence, July 18, 1945

18 July. Harry Vaughan, Joseph Stalin, Harry Truman, Andrei Gromyko, Charles Ross, James Byrnes and Vyacheslav Molotov

In contrast to Churchill and Truman, who made up their mind to visit the devastated Berlin upon their arrival, particularly the former Hitler’s Chancellery, and bunker, Stalin rejected a role of a tourist, instead focusing on the upcoming conference with his opponents. At the same time, he gave permission to his closest entourage, particularly Molotov and Berya, to visit Berlin. The greater part of the Soviet delegation, including the Chief of General Staff, the Commander of the Navy, the representatives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and multiple diplomats and army officers, had come to Berlin two days prior to Stalin’s arrival and were accommodated in dozens of villas in the neighborhood. 

Marshal G.K. Zhukov holds a meeting during the Potsdam Conference
A notorious Soviet Marshal G.K. Zhukov holds a meeting during the Potsdam Conference

 

WINSTON CHURCHILL AND THE LAST DAYS IN THE POSITION

Winston Churchill performed his wartime duties as the Prime Minister and Minister of Defense during the most challenging times in modern English history. In the last months of WWII and particularly after the capitulation of Germany, he was increasingly frustrated to witness the dominance of the Soviet armies in Europe, especially in Poland, a country, in which England initiated a war five and a half years before. The Prime Minister was anxious about the upcoming withdrawal of the American forces from Western Europe at any moment, which would open new doors for Stalin and his ambitions. Anyway, Churchill was still self-confident to the extent that he could influence the situation and he regarded England as a mighty ally for Americans in their struggle against Japan. Churchill was an imperialist and it was out of the question for him to discuss the interests of the Empire similar to his harsh position during the Yalta Conference in February 1945. In his worldview, the defeat of the Japanese Empire meant the restoration of the British hegemony in Burma, Malaya, Hong Kong, and Borneo. 

President Harry S. Truman and Prime Minister Winston Churchill on the steps of the Little White House,

US President Harry Truman and Winston Churchill during the Potsdam Conference. July 18, 1945
Harry Truman and Winston Churchill during the Potsdam Conference. July 18, 1945

Winston Churchill in Potsdam 1945

He strongly opposed the idea of independence for the colonies, including those of French and Dutch pre-war supremacy. In regard to Europe, Churchill experienced a strong antipathy toward Italians since 1940 and had a tough relationship with the French and particularly De Gaulle. Apart from the issues of British supremacy in her spheres of geopolitical interest, the Prime Minister had a burden of three billion British Pounds and he craved American support. Churchill cherished an illusion that he still could if not charm president Truman, then at least dispose of him for a more close alliance. Churchill had no idea that Truman’s advisors had cautioned the President that the British Prime Minister would try to drag the country into a war with the Soviet Union. 

British Prime Minister W. Churchill (Winston S. Churchill) bypasses the guard of honor of the Allied forces at the Gatow airfield in Berlin. July 15
Winston S. Churchill bypasses the guard of honor of the Allied forces at the Gatow airfield in Berlin. July 15
July 15. Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery greets British Prime Minister Winston Churchill at the Berlin-Gatow airfield
Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery greets British Prime Minister Winston Churchill at the Berlin-Gatow airfield, July 15, 1945
British Prime Minister Winston Churchill reviews honor guard at Gatow Airport in Berlin, Germany
British Prime Minister Winston Churchill reviews the British honor guard at Gatow Airport in Berlin, Germany

Winston Churchill of course strongly relied on the power of his character but he also backed his personal virtues with a large British delegation, including seventeen aides to himself personally, thirty-four representatives of the Foreign Ministry, and twenty officers of the War Office. Although the basic communication was provided by the Soviets on site, the British delegation brought twenty-six telephone operators and three communication officers, and thirty-nine additional personnel: interpreters, cameramen and photographers, typists, many of them with experience accompanying the Prime Minister in both Tehran and Yalta before. In total, the British delegation included an unprecedented 260 people. It should be mentioned that Churchill had an idea to invite King George VI to Potsdam, but such an idea had been dropped a few weeks before. It should be also noted that Churchill regarded Stalin’s date of July 15 too late and unsuccessfully advocated an earlier date for the Potsdam conference, until Truman confirmed that he would not be ready earlier as well. 

William Leahy greeting Winston Churchill at Harry Truman's residence during Potsdam Conference, Germany, 16 Jul 1945
William Leahy greeting Winston Churchill in front of Harry Truman’s residence during the Potsdam Conference, Germany, 16 Jul 1945
Soviet officers look at Winston Churchill during the Potsdam Conference. July 17, 1945
Soviet security officers look at Winston Churchill during the Potsdam Conference. July 17, 1945
Winston Churchill in the chair of Adolf Hitler, Berlin, July 16, 1945
Churchill in the chair of Adolf Hitler near the former Chancellery building, Berlin, July 16, 1945

The British representatives found themselves in a circle of Soviet security in Potsdam and Babelsberg, which some of them found excessive. The NKVD forces allowed anyone to leave the perimeter without a special pass, which made some British delegates fill themselves in custody. Apart from the guards’ posts and security patrols on the roads, each of the villas was carefully guarded as well, with at least six guards securing Churchill’s villa day and night, and the villas for Eden and Attlee were guarded by three bodyguards each. Above all, the luxury interiors of the former residences of the German cinematographers were superior to those conditions, which the British had been granted five months before in Yalta. In Potsdam, each of the fifty villas for the British had a piano. 

British Foreign Minister Anthony Eden arriving at Berlin-Gatow airfield, Berlin, Germany, 15 Jul 1945
British Foreign Minister Anthony Eden at Berlin-Gatow airfield on 15 July 1945
British diplomats Archibald Clark-Kerr and Alexander Cadogan at the Cecilinhof Palace at the Potsdam Conference.
British diplomats Archibald Clark-Kerr and Alexander Cadogan at the Cecilinhof Palace at the Potsdam Conference, on July 19

Despite Churchill’s acceptance and overwhelming popularity in England, he anyway envisaged a possibility of losing the upcoming Parliamentary elections in July, and not least because of this, the Prime Minister invited Clement Attley, the leader of the Laborist party, with him to Potsdam. The elections took place on July 5, 1945, but the summing up of the total results was postponed for three weeks to count the votes of British soldiers abroad. Churchill used the days between the elections and his leave to Berlin to spend a ten-day holiday with his family. During all those days in Southern France with his wife and a younger daughter, Churchill sent only one telegram to Fieldmarshal Montgomery with an appeal to preserve the scientific and technical basis in the British-controlled zone of occupation. The Prime Minister spent his weekend being absorbed by drawing paintings, conversations with his family, and French wine. On July 15 the Prime Minister left Bordeau for Berlin and from the capital he was taken to Potsdam and accommodated at the luxury villa at Ringstrasse 23, now accompanied by nets protecting him from mosquitoes. Upon arrival, Churchill was welcomed by Antony Eden, Clement Attley, and two field marshals: Alexander and Montgomery. Attlee and Eden got their own villas at Ringstrasse, a favored residential district of the German film magnates of the past. Attlee was pleased to find a luxurious library in his temporary residence. As early as the next day, Churchill had his meeting with president Turman, whose temporary residence was a six-minute walk. Then the two leaders visited the center of Berlin. 

Winston and Clementine on holiday just before the Potsdam conference. Not surprisingly both clearly look tired and apprehensive
Winston and his wife Clementine on holiday just before the Potsdam conference
23 July. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and his daughter Mary Churchill walk into the garden of their residence
British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and his daughter Mary Churchill walk into the garden of their residence, on July 23, 1945

In the interim of the Potsdam Conference, Churchill oversaw the Victory Parade in Berlin on July 21, 1945. As early as the afternoon of July 25 both the Prime Minister and his key opponent in the elections, Clement Attley departed for London, while neither Stalin nor Truman doubted the outcome. Once all votes were summed up it appeared that the Labor Party got an astonishing win with 393 seats in the Parliament when compared to 213 of the Conservative party (as opposed to the former 585). The British Constitution allowed Churchill to come back to Berlin as a Prime Minister and the head of the delegation with a resignation after the end a few days later. Nevertheless, Winston decided to step aside with dignity and on July 27 Attley went to Potsdam as a new representative of his Majesty. Churchill, who was already seventy years old, stayed in London without even saying goodbye to Truman and Stalin. In 1951 Churchill would be once again elected as Prime Minister of England, but his age and healing issues would not allow him to enjoy the post. The Soviet delegation did not regard Attley seriously in the first week of the Conference and Stalin neither had sympathy for Attlee nor for the British Labour Party.

Bernard Montgomery, Winston Churchill, Harold Alexander, and Anthony Eden at the Charlottenberger Chausce reviewing stand during the Berlin victory parade, Germany, 21 Jul 1945
Bernard Montgomery, Winston Churchill, Harold Alexander, and Anthony Eden at the Charlottenberger Chausce during the Berlin victory parade, 21 July 1945

Berlin Victory parade July 1945

British Prime Minister Clement Attlee, accompanied by Brigadier O. M. Wales, inspecting the honor guard of British Scots Guards regiment during the Potsdam Conference
Newly elected Prime Minister Clement Attlee, accompanied by Brigadier O. M. Wales, inspecting the honor guard of the British Scots Guards regiment during the Potsdam Conference

 

HARRY TRUMAN: A MAN WITH AN A-BOMB

After the passing away of the respected President Roosevelt in April 1945, Vice President Harry Truman was to take the post of the leader of the United States. While in practical terms being the youngest among Big three leaders and the newest in the post, Truman was the only head of state in Potsdam, which theoretically put him in superior rank to Churchill and Stalin, who were Prime Minister and General Secretary respectively. Such a privileged position looked impressive, yet the Conference would show that the role of the presiding officer, similar to that of Woodrow Wilson in 1919, would not give Truman any real supremacy. Truman fully recognized the necessity not only to step out of the shape of the legendary Roosevelt but also to deal with the legacy of the previous conferences of the Big Three, particularly the one in Yalta in February 1945.  

The diplomatic achievements from the past may not serve as an advantage for the American delegation in Potsdam. Much to Churchill’s regret, from the very beginning Truman treated England as a younger partner to both the United States and the USSR. He rejected Churchill’s appeal to hold a meeting of the two prior to Potsdam and to discuss a common strategy and sent Joseph Davies, the former ambassador to the Soviet Union and now Truman’s Special Advisor, to London, which brought no results except additional tension. Davies had a bad reputation in Britain due to his painful remarks in regard to the prospects of England after the War. 

President Truman and Prime Minister Winston Churchill leave the Little White House
President Harry Truman and Prime Minister Winston Churchill on the steps of the Little White House
President Truman at Gatow Airport in Berlin, Germany to attend the Potsdam
President Truman walks through the crowd upon his arrival at Gatow Airport in Berlin

While having briefing papers with 163 separate topical briefs, the American President had two key issues on his agenda in Potsdam. The defeat of the Japanese Empire and the end of the war in the far East was his concern number one: the destination point which unfortunately demanded the participation or at least involvement of the Soviet Union. Truman’s aim was to cut down Stalin’s demand for such assistance. The second major issue dealt with the establishment of the United Nations, Roosevelt’s dream, and strong dependence on the participation of the USSR as well. Truman understood that without Stalin’s involvement as one of the founders, the organization had no future. The President was informed about the colossal material and human losses, which the USSR had suffered in the War and he felt he had something to suggest in exchange for principal issues to be solved. In simple words, Stalin’s position regarding Japan and the UN was the absolute priority for the American delegation in Potsdam, Truman’s minimum. The president was also concerned about the growing anti-Soviet rhetorics at home, which could harm his relations with the Soviet dictator. If the truth is said, back in the summer of 1941 Harry Truman was a strong believer in leaving the USSR alone in face of the German invasion to let two dictatorships destroy each other. In total, the Potsdam Conference would become a challenge for Truman with periodical moments of despair that he could not obtain what the US delegation needed. 

Truman and US Secretary of State James Byrnes meet with General Dwight D. Eisenhower in Berlin
President Harry Truman and US Secretary of State James Byrnes meet with General Dwight D. Eisenhower
Truman (in the Stetson), Secretary of State James F. Byrnes, and Chief of Staff Admiral William Leahy, drive past Hitler’s chancellery, as they tour the wreckage of Berlin, on July 16, 1945
Truman, James F. Byrnes, and Chief of Staff Admiral William Leahy drive past Hitler’s chancellery in Berlin

Prior to his departure for Europe, Harry Truman ordered to pack his finest suits, both for cold weather during the ship trip and for hot weather in Potsdam, took several hats for different occasions, and saw a dentist. While these personal arrangements lasted, the Americans had a headache with the Soviet side regarding the on-site accommodation of the president and the US delegation. Even General Floyd Parks, as chief of American reconnaissance personnel, had his troubles before finally being permitted to come to Potsdam and make necessary security arrangements, including the setting of communication equipment. Many of the practical questions such as the nutrition menu, laundry, and medical aid were also strongly supervised by the paranoiac Russian side. In total, thirty-eight houses were assigned to the American delegation apart from their premises in Cecilienhof Palace. The US delegation brought not only diplomats and army officers, but also household staff: barbers, chefs, drivers, and also Secret Service agents, bodyguards, and physicians, which exceeded the initial plan to bring only forty-four men. 

July 15. James Byrnes, Andrei Gromyko and Andrei Vyshinsky at the Berlin-Gatow airfield
James Byrnes and two notorious figures: Andrei Gromyko and Andrei Vyshinsky at the Berlin-Gatow airfield
Secretary of State James Byrnes and Averell Harriman leave the Cecilienhof Palace, scene of the Potsdam Conference
Secretary of State James Byrnes and Averell Harriman at the Cecilienhof Palace
US Army Captain Thomas Ryan checking in civilian photo technicians at a checkpoint in Potsdam, Germany, 14 Jul 1945
US Army Captain checking technicians at a checkpoint in Potsdam, Germany, 14 July 1945

On July 15 the Potsdam or if be correct to say Babelsberg welcomed president Truman with a luxury residence. The villa at Kaiserstrasse 2 (later renamed by the Communist regime the ‘Karl-Marx-Strasse’), appeared to be a three-story mansion with twenty-three rooms. With a reference to the seat of American presidents in Washington, the villa was regarded (during Truman’s staying here) as ‘The Little White House’, being in fact of a yellow color. The Secret Service agents checked the house and found bugs, similar to the Soviet practice both in Tehran and Yalta before. They also set up eighteen guard posts around the president’s temporary residence, while the lake was protected by a motorboat patrol and another five military posts. Kaiserstrasse survived the war untacked by the bombs with its two and three-story villas built mainly at the turn of the XX century for industrial magnates and movie figures. 

President Harry Truman at the Potsdam conference 1945
President Harry Truman meets with an army officer in Berlin
Military Police stand guard at the entrance to the Little White House, the residence of President Truman in Babelsberg.
A rare photo of the Little White House, the residence of President Truman in Babelsberg, July 1945
 the guard at the entrance to the Little White House, the residence of President Truman in Babelsberg
US Military Police guards the entrance to the Little White House, the residence of President Truman

Despite the popular belief that the villa had been previously owned by some German movie producer, whose fate is unknown and was such to Truman, it is not true. Since its building in 1896, it had been in the ownership of the Müller-Grote family, the German publishers, as their summer residence. In the 1950s Truman would receive a letter from Hans-Dietrich Müller Grote (1910-1990), a son of the former owner with a short story of how their home had been taken away. In early May of 1945, the Russians broke into the villa and repeatedly raped Hans-Dietrich’s sisters in front of the family and children. The intruders smashed the furniture with the bayonets of their rifles and looted the house. The humiliated Müller Grote family had only two hours to leave their property forever and once they left, the occupants took away their belongings, including books from the library, taken to fill the nearby bomb crater. In the Spring of 1946, it was used by a notorious Georgi Zhukov. The interior, which president Truman saw in July 1945, was brought here from elsewhere, and The New York Times reporter, who would get in the house after the conference, would call it “oppressive and gloomy”, similar to Truman’s own word a ‘nightmare’. 

View of the grounds of the Little White House, residence of President Harry S. Truman in Babelsberg
View of the grounds of the Little White House and the nearby lake
President Harry S. Truman (left) and Secretary of State James Byrnes talk together on the grounds of the Little Whit House
President Harry S. Truman and Secretary of State James Byrnes on the grounds of the Little White House

On the second floor of the villa Truman now had his own bedroom with a bathroom, a living room, and a cabinet with windows facing the lake, a former favored destination for the Berliners in the summer months. There were talks that back in May the Russians threw a few sick German POWs into the lake and they drowned. The president shared this residence with US Secretary of State James F. Byrnes (1882-1972), Defense Advisor William D. Leahy (1875-1959), President’s Military aide Harry H. Vaughan (1893-1981), an expert on the Soviet Union and interpreter Charles E. Bohlen (1904-1974), political aide James Vardaman (1894-1972), and White House Press Secretary Charles Ross (1885-1950). Byrnes and Bohlem lived on the first floor; Ross, Vaughan, and Vardaman on the third, and Admiral Leahy shared the second floor with Truman. The agents of the secret service nicknamed every VIP in the villa: President Truman was the ‘Kilting’, Byrnes was the ‘Iceblink’, and Leahy was codenamed ‘Coffeetree’. Shortly after arrival, Truman welcomed Stalin and Molotov in the villa, the first acquaintance of the two. When it came to the President’s route from the villa to Cecilienhof Palace, his cortege had to drive beside Stalin’s temporary villa a Kaiserstrasse 27, then use a pontoon bridge across Griebnitzsee into the US zone, then use a wooden bridge across Havel River into the Soviet zone. 

A room with a piano from the Little White House, the residence of President Truman during the Potsdam Conference
A room with a piano in the Little White House in Babelsberg, July 1945

The other Washington delegates apart from Truman’s closest entourage were accommodated in the nearby villas, thus forming a kind of American district in Babelsberg. The US flag was put on each of the mansions, nicknamed “State Department”,  “Foreign Office.” or “Chiefs of Staff” depending on those who stayed there. Each delegate was informed about his personal space in the villa, as well as about the particularly permitted locations for visiting and those forbidden. The Americans got their copy of the so-called “Safeguard Your Health” booklet, with instructions on how to stay safe during the Conference, including ‘drinking water only from authorized sources’, generally meaning the thousands of bottles of the French water arrived daily. Truman openly asked the delegation to avoid bringing souvenirs from the German houses. The US delegation brought an enormous tonnage of goods and supplies with them for those three weeks in Potsdam, including 5,000 linen sheets, 3,000 rolls of toilet paper, 100 garbage baskets, 100 bedside lamps, 250 bottle openers, 50 vacuum cleaners, 20 electric typewriters. Apart from this, it took American engineers weeks to install wireless communication across 150 km of Soviet-occupied zone to supply the delegation and President with communication. 

July 16. Lieutenant May Felts, chief nutritionist for the American delegation to the Potsdam Conference, inspects food being prepared.
Lieutenant May Felts, a chief nutritionist for the American delegation to the Potsdam Conference, inspects food being prepared, July 16, 1945
US Army Lieutenant A. H. Hadden and his staff working on passes issued to participants of the Potsdam Conference, Germany, 14 Jul 1945
US Army staff working on passes issued to participants of the Potsdam Conference, 14 July 1945
July 20. Dwight Eisenhower, George Patton, Harry Truman, Henry Stimson, Omar Bradley and others during the raising of the American flag over Berlin
Dwight Eisenhower, George Patton, Harry Truman, Henry Stimson, Omar Bradley, and others during the raising of the American flag over Berlin, July 20, 1945

 

THE FRENCH AND ITALIANS

Despite the creation of the anti-fascist government in both countries during the War, the Potsdam Conference was always planned as the meeting of the Big Three. Stalin, Churchill, and even Truman had no desire to preserve the pre-war balance of forces in Europe. In regard to France, back in 1944 the Allies planned the occupation of the country upon the liberation of the territories from the Germans, yet an unexpected activity and support for De Gaulle among the population and of His Free French forces made corrections to the plans. Along with that, toward the start of the Potsdam Conference, France had not yet conducted a democratic election and De Gaulle’s rhetoric about the possible opposition to the occupation of Italy, made Truman suspend American arms supplies to France. More than that, the wartime Vichy government’s collaboration with Hitler left unsolved questions. Being left as no participants in either Yalta or Potsdam, the French strongly opposed the idea of the restoration of the German state. While the French were ignored at Potsdam, the country suffered great human and material damage: 500 000 buildings in France were destroyed during the war, and 67 000 people were killed only as a result of the Allied air raids. 

When it comes to Italy, though the government abandoned Mussolini in 1943, the Big three regarded the country in the same way as Germany and Austria with painful demands for reparations. 

Potsdam conference Schloss Cecilienhof

 

THE LEGACY OF POTSDAM: EUROPE AFTER WWII 

Substantially, the three leaders took thirteen formal meetings in Potsdam, in parallel accompanied by numerous acquaintances of the delegations. If we take a closer retrospective look at the decisions taken between July 17 and August 2, 1945, they determined the future of Europe in the post-war decades. While the Paris agreement in 1919 diversified the continent compared to the pre-1914 empires under Hohenzollern, Habsburg, and Romanovs, the settlement of 1945 turned Europe into two opposite parts roughly separated by the Elbe river. The communist Eastern Europe and ruthless occupation in some way solved the so-called ‘German problem’, yet it gave no chance for establishing a lasting peace between the nations and Great powers. In this way, the Potsdam conference is regarded as a great missed opportunity to unite Europe. In wider means, Western Europe on the one side of Elbe was spared to stay with the democratic means and Stalin’s dictatorship was to relapse Eastern Europe into autocracy of a single political system. Nevertheless the ‘Cold war’ would not be shaped until 1946-1947 with its rivalry between West and East, a depressing reminder of disputes which originated as far back as Potsdam. The post-war deterioration in relationships between the former allies against Hitler was slow and uneven, yet the roots of it should be traced to the July-August 1945 meetings of the Big Three. Nevertheless, most historians agree that the Big Three in 1945 produced a ‘better’ treaty than their predecessors in 1919, though some topics such as the Holocaust and the future of the Jews were omitted. 

A site of the Potsdam conference in Potsdam, Germany

Cecilienhof palace, Germany

 

THE BORDERS OF POLAND 

The issue of Poland as well as the dispute over reparations from Germany was the key apple of discourse during the meeting of the Big Three in Potsdam. Back in 1919, the winners of the First World War restored a Polish state for the first time since the late XVIII century. Its territory was taken from three former empires: the German, Austro-Hungarian, and Tsarist, and its existence was regarded in Weimar Republic (and since 1933 in Nazi Germany) and in USSR (who lost the war against Poland in 1920) as a humiliation and threat. 

In September 1939 after Hitler’s brutal invasion of independent Poland, both England and France stayed firm in their commitments and declared war on Germany, and in the course of WWII Poland suffered more than any other country if to take the proportion of the annihilated population, the devastation, the forced deportations and the annexation of territories. The Polish soldiers bravely fought in the battlefields for six years next to the Allied forces and were frustrated to witness the Soviet occupation of their state, the massacre of the Polish officers in the Katyń Forest, and several more execution sites by the Russians in 1940: the issues which were now out of the discussion. The Western countries, mainly the United States and England, were increasingly ready to compromise with the USSR at the expense of Polish independence and territories. In wider means, neither Truman nor Churchill showed a political will to make the issue of Poland a key topic in Potsdam from the perspective of their determination to restore the country to its pre-1939 state. Churchill refused to meet with the delegates of the government-in-exile during the Potsdam conference and Truman gave them twenty minutes to speak, leaving them with no means to influence the future of their country. 

Marshal of Poland Michal Rola-Zymerski at the Cecilinhof Palace during the Potsdam Conference on July 24
Marshal of Poland Michal Rola-Zymerski at the Cecilinhof Palace during the Potsdam Conference, July 24

As early as 1944 the Soviets created a puppet pro-communist government, thus diminishing the democratically elected pre-war statesmen in exile in London. The Potsdam conference brought no relief or hope to the people of Poland and their country now fell under the Communist autocracy, which meant the reshaping of the borders where the Soviets wanted, the suppression of democratic forces, and ruthless ethnic cleansing. The new border between Poland and USSR along the Bug river, known since 1919 as the ‘Curzon Line’ (named after a British diplomat) finally gave Stalin a free hand in Eastern Europe and particularly against his old rival. In 1944 the Soviets already expelled 117, 212 Poles to the West of that line, 742, 631 in 1945, and 640 000 in 1946. Apart from those numbers, the Soviet regime continued the eviction of the Poles from Ukraine (782, 582 people), Belarus (231,152), and the Baltic States (at least 170 000) to new borders of Poland. In total, between 1939 and 1949 every fourth Pole had to change his or her residence. 

Potsdam conference. Leaders in between meetings
The three leaders in between the meetings of the Potsdam conference

 

THE ISSUE OF REPARATIONS

The issue of reparation, thus compensation by Germany for the damage and losses of the other countries in WWII, was the second major center of a dispute during the Potsdam Conference. Stalin needed no permission from his allies and partners for initiating an unprecedented mass looting and ravaging in Eastern Europe months before the meeting of the Big Three. As early as the summer of 1945 at least 70 000 Soviet so-called ‘economic experts’ were assigned to supervise and remove the German assets, available in the occupied zone. As it would be revealed decades later after the fall of the communist regime, only in the period between January and July 1945 did the Soviets steal 1 280 000 tonnes of mineral resources. Stalin voiced his estimation of 128 billion dollars as equivalent to reparations, but the actual looting of Europe by Russia would be relatively identified decades later. In the period between 1945 and 1948, the occupying forces removed up to 50% of the production facilities in their zone, at least 4500 enterprises (2885 by 1946) of 17 000, and forcibly nationalized the rest. The greater proportion of those businesses which were spared from looting would have to operate at a loss to fulfill the orders from the USSR. 

Leaders of the "Big Three" of the anti-Hitler coalition at the Potsdam Conference

With all information today, it is unimaginably hard, to sum up, other material values, particularly private property, gold and precious metals, museum pieces, even restaurant kitchens, and animal feed from Zoos and animals themselves which were expropriated. The preserved documentation throws daylight on only those stolen values that were documented, thus expropriated ‘officially’. Only during the first months of occupation, the Russian ‘brigades’ took 458 612 radio sets, 60 149 pianos, 188 071 carpets, 264 000 wall clocks, 941,605 pieces of furniture, 3,338,348 pairs of shoes, 7.1 million dresses and 1.2 million costs, 1,052,503 hats, 6000 railway cars with wallpaper, 600 cars full of tableware, 2 million tons of grain, and 20 million liters of alcohol. 400,000 railway wagons in total, thus turning Eastern Germany into a giant shop for looting. The  Russians ruthlessly dismantled much of the S-Bahn overground metro lines, as well as one railway line of the famous Berlin-Potsdam destination, and much of the central telephone exchange. On one occasion the NKVD forces surrounded a football stadium in Leipzig during a match and took all able-bodied men to dismantle a nearby factory. The Soviet warlords were in the vanguard of the mass scavenging of private property in Germany. The notorious Marshal Zhukov filled his dacha with 55 stolen classic paintings, silverware, 44 rugs, 323 pieces of furs, and 400 meters of velvet and silk. Such figures sound even more astonishing if you consider that in 1945 around 25 million Germans were homeless or displaced. 

Cecilienhof castle, Potsdam, Germany

Despite Stalin’s desire to harmonize or better to say coordinate the mass looting from all the territory of Germany, particularly from the industrial Ruhr, the discussion of the Big Three revealed that such an approach could not be applied to the Western zone of occupation. The bloody dictator dreamt to make ‘Ruhrgebiet’ (Ruhr area) into a zone of shared occupation, but he did not succeed in such claims. As a result, the calculated damage of 128 billion dollars was cut to 10 billion and it was to be expropriated from the Soviet zone only, which the looters had been doing for months now. The Americans themselves spent over 400 billion dollars for the common Allied efforts in Europe only. It is interesting to recall that after WWI, the Germans paid off only 4.5 billion of the 33 billion agreed upon in Versailles in 1919. Stalin, Churchill, and Truman discussed preliminarily that the USSR would obtain a part of the industrial production facilities (supposed to be useless for the peacetime economy) in the American-British-French zone in exchange for the resources from the Eastern sector. The time will show that this claim was not satisfied as well. The issue of reparations and the lack of unified ground would play a dramatic role in the partition of Germany into the zones of influence between the former Allies. 

Potsdam conference. Group portrait of leaders
Another famous photo from the conference with Clement Attley as the British Prime Minister instead of Winston Churchill

 

THE REFUGEES

The issue of German refugees and forcibly evicted people of different nations, first of all, women, children, and elderlies, remains one of the most unpopular and rare in discussion in the context of WWII even eighty years after the end of the War. In the last half a year of the war millions of Germans from the borders of the nazi Reich, as well as ‘ethnic’ Germans better known as ‘Volksdeutsche’, fled from the advance of the Red Army during the ferocious winter. For many of them, this evacuation was the second occasion of dislocation since 1939 after deportation from the Soviet-controlled Baltic states and Eastern Poland. Hitler’s claim for the fight to the last man resulted in mass escape rather than an orderly evacuation. At the start of 1945, there were already 4.8 million internally displaced persons in the borders of the ‘Old Reich’ and another 4 million who fled the Eastern reaches of the Reich in fear of the Soviet advance

The Potsdam Conference was not a direct cause of the most massive emigration in the history of mankind, yet the inability and which is more important the lack of desire of the Big Three to work out a shared position for the sake of saving millions of lives resulted in one of the most dramatic processes in our history. Toward the start of the Conference in July 1945, the new puppet pro-communist government in Poland as well as the other countries of Eastern Europe had already begun the deportation or rather to say ‘ethnic cleansing’ of millions of Germans. The issue was probably the third most debative in Potsdam after the disputes over Poland’s borders and reparations, yet Stalin, Truman, and Churchill and their delegations took no action to avoid or stop or make the refugee crisis more human. All millions of people got was the general phrase that ‘the transfers of people would be taken in an orderly and human manner’. At the same time, Stalin made Truman and Churchill admit that not all the deportations are such, as many Germans fled willingly. 

18 July. Joseph Stalin, Harry Truman, Andrei Gromyko, James Byrnes, Vyacheslav Molotov, Harry Vaughn, Charles Bohlen, James Vardaman and Charles Griffith_
Joseph Stalin, Harry Truman, Andrei Gromyko, James Byrnes, Vyacheslav Molotov, Harry Vaughn, Charles Bohlen, James Vardaman, and Charles Griffith

The Big Three: Churchill, Truman, Stalin

The British and American sides were afraid of the uncontrolled dislocation of millions of people to their Western sector of Germany and even regarded this process as Stalin’s pursuit to destabilize their zone of influence. Formally, the Big three issued a creation of a commission, which had to supervise the distribution of refugees with particular regard to the question of the ‘fair distribution’ of these Germans among the occupation zones. Their appeal to Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary to halt, at least temporarily the deportations brought no success, and the Deliberate and violent expulsions followed in the following years. People were expelled, assaulted in masse, and sometimes murdered and one of the authoritative modern estimates put the figure of those who died in the process of this ethnic cleansing as high as 2.28 million civilians out of 11.73 million deported persons. It is an enormous number of victims when compared to 3.25 million of total combat losses (killed and missed in action) of Germany between 1939 and 1945, or to 60 000 civilians killed by German air bombings in the United Kingdom, or 393 000 civilians in Japan. 

Toward the end of 1946, the American zone of occupation received 2.7 million people, the British took 3.1 million, the Russians 3.6 million, and the French 150 000. Summing up, the population in Germany grew by 16% compared to the end of the War and its lowest point. As the time shows, the British were the only side who insisted on the provisions in ‘’an orderly and humane manner’’ and they even signed an agreement with the Poles, which obliged the latter to stay close to strict routes for the deportees, and the monthly number of those displaced, to supply German displaced persons with food and protection of their trains. Unfortunately, the Polish side mainly ignored the agreement on the lowest, the most important level, and the campaign of forced eviction continued with a cruel zeal. The expulsion of the Germans was turned into a prolonged phenomenon, another shameless page in the history of the XX century. For example, during the expulsion of the 2.5 million Germans from the Czech Republic, mainly from the Sudetenland (a course of discord in 1938), at least 30 000 people died in the process and more than 5500 committed suicide. The cruel war ended with even more cruelty and revenge. 

Churchill, Truman, and Stalin shaking hands during the Potsdam Conference, Germany, 23 Jul 1945
Churchill, Truman, and Stalin shaking hands during the Potsdam Conference, 23 July 1945

It is crucial to emphasize that in contrast to the major importance of the issues of the future of Germany, particularly the forced demilitarization and denazification, the outcomes of the Potsdam conference defined no exact decisions about the prolongation of the occupation or the final frontiers or the political and social future of the divided nation. What was more important to the Big Three was the complete disarmament and dismantling of all major German fortifications. As for denazification, the Allies of course could not cope with more than six million NSDAP party members. In the following years in the Soviet zone, more than 300 000 Germans were dismissed from their jobs for their alleged Nazi past. Among 3.6 million of those checked in the Western zone until 1948, only 1667 were classified as hardcore Nazis, and 23 000 incriminated into Nazism. While the denazification was a process in a relatively peaceful manner, the issue of the German prisoners of war was more painful. Toward the summer of 1945, in total about 11 million German soldiers were taken prisoner since 1939: 3.8 million by Americans, 3.7 million by the British side, 3.2 by the Soviets, and 250 000 by the French. One-third of the German POWs taken by the Red army would die in captivity. Some lucky among those who survived were sent back to Germany as early as 1947, while the majority remained in Soviet Gulags until the mid-1950s, with the last ones returning only in 1957, twelve years after the end of the War. In total, in five years between 1943 and 1948 around 20 million Europeans were deported or had to leave their place of living: a staggering number that dramatically fits 30 million people dispersed between 1939 and 1943. 

General Alexei Antenoff, General George Marshall, General Henry Arnold, Admiral Ernest King, and other Allied officers meeting during the Potsdam Conference, Germany, 27 Jul 1945
General Alexei Antenoff, General George Marshall, General Henry Arnold, Admiral Ernest King, and other Allied officers during the Potsdam Conference, 27 July 1945

 

THE ISSUE OF JAPAN

July 26 witnessed the signing of the so-called “Potsdam Declaration” which among other topics was primarily addressed to the Japanese government, which had been carefully absorbing the news from Berlin in the past ten days. The fact that Stalin was actually excluded from signing this ultimatum and the still lasting neutrality of the USSR against Japan, for some time allowed Japan to have hope for ‘better peace terms’. The ‘Declaration’ called for the Japanese government to accept immediate unconditional surrender and her armed forces would be completely destroyed. The document was in fact a reasonable threat and a reminder of the fate of Germany, especially while the Allies were sitting 20 kilometers from the devastated and conquered Berlin. The ultimatum already included the details on how the Americans would create ‘a new order’ in Japan by removing the autocracy of the Empire and bringing the war criminals to justice. On July 28 the new Japanese premier, Suzuki Kantaro declared that they would ignore the decision in Potsdam. The Japanese were naive enough to have faith in the Soviets preserving the non-aggression pact between the two countries and they were backstabbed by Stalin’s military intervention in early August 1945. 

In the end, the American pursuit to end the war and the use of the Atomic bomb in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Soviet back-stabbing invasion despite the non-aggression pact, as well as inner disputes in Japan made the government appeal for unconditional surrender. The only major issue for the Japanese was the formal preservation of the Emperor and his immunity against the possible trials against the war criminals. It is also important to understand that the might of the Soviet advance in the far East in the summer of 1945 is generally exaggerated to the extent of the great dependence of the Red Army on the American lend-lease. This topic would be intentionally kept silent for decades by both the Communist regime and later the Russian autocracy until the present day. Out of 5400 planes on the Soviet side against Japan in August, 3721 were given by Americans, as well as 85,819 American trucks and jeeps involved, 250 Sherman tanks, and 60 000 tonnes of US petroleum. Summing up, 1.58 million Red Army soldiers were heavily dependent on lend-lease vehicles and planes, wore a greater proportion of US-made boots, were fed by American provision, and used foreign munition extensively as well, thus destroying the myth of the ‘ultimate influence of the Soviet power against Japan’. 

Truman’s first meeting with Joseph Stalin (July 17, 1945), one day after the Trinity atomic bomb test
Truman’s first meeting with Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin one day after the Trinity atomic bomb test, July 17, 1945
The Big Three leaders in Potsdam
The Big Three: Attley, Truman, and Stalin in the late days of the Potsdam Conference after Churchill left

 

THE NUREMBERG TRIALS

The details of the upcoming trials against war criminals among the German top-rank politicians and military men were also on the agenda of the Potsdam Conference and among a few issues which England succeeded to defend. The necessity of the tribunal was indisputable in itself, yet the British delegation insisted on Nuremberg as a site for the trials, instead of Berlin. Nuremberg had been long regarded as a cultural and ideological capital of the Nazi regime, a seat of the annual Party Rallies until 1938. In practical terms, the city was located in the Western zone of occupation in contrast to the capital in the hands of the Red army. The British delegates also defended the position to use the tribunal to trial major war criminals rather than dispersing attention to many minor trials. Followed by his return from Potsdam to London, on August 8 the new prime Minister Clement Attlee signed the well-known ‘London declaration’ which would include the basic principles of the upcoming Nuremberg trials, as well as the list of the key defenders. 

Stalin, G. Truman and W. Churchill at the Potsdam Conference [1] July 23, 1945

 

THE FATE OF AUSTRIA

At the moment of the Potsdam Conference, the former territory of Austria in its pre-1938 borders was occupied by 200 000 Soviet, 50 000 American, 65 000 British, and 40 000 French soldiers. A severe humanitarian crisis and the lack of provisions were intensified by one million refugees. For some time the population of heavily damaged conquered Vienna, around 500 000 people, depended upon the unreliable obligations of the Russians to supply the city with food. While the leaders in Potsdam agreed upon a position that Austria had been a victim of German aggression in 1938 and was spared reparations, the Soviet occupants were scavenging the looting across their zone of influence. In Vienna, the conquerors were stealing tram cars, private automobiles, art pieces, and even cattle when a tenth of thousands of people were starving. The malnutrition in the capital was so dramatic in the first months after the end of the War, that half of the children in that period were born dead. The bodies of thousands of people were still lying under the remnants of the devastated buildings in Vienna, destroyed by Allied air raids and Soviet artillery. Austria was fated to become another arena for ruthless ethnic cleansing due to the position agreed in Potsdam, that all Germans who had come to the country after March 1938 would be expelled. Unfortunately, not only the Soviet side but also the French demonstrated cruelly in their attitude. The people in the so-called ‘Displaced persons camps’, whose numbers in Austria peaked at 400 000 in 1947, more than in 1945, were another painful aftermath of the War. 

Potsdam conference. Leaders in between meetings

 

THE HISTORY OF POTSDAM AND CECILIENHOF AFTER 1945

Similar to other Soviet-occupied territories, in Potsdam, the political system in the years after the war was based on suppressing any activity opposing the communist regime. From 1946 the so-called SED (Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands or The Socialist Unity Party of Germany) was the ruling party in occupied Eastern Germany. The new Potsdam puppet authorities used systematic persecution, expulsion, and bullying of the political opponents and casual non-supporters, some of which had survived the Nazi persecution before and now faced the new autocracy. Potsdam was the capital of the Brandenburg province until 1952 and later on as one of 14 district capitals in the GDR. in 1961 the erection of the notorious Berlin Wall cut off Potsdam from its historical transport links with Berlin, which had existed since 1838. A small neighborhood known as Klein-Glienicke was for years surrounded by the Wall except for a small bridge over Tetlow Canal. The nearby Glienicke Bridge became world-famous as the “Bridge of Spies” in the 1960s. The reconstruction of the Potsdam city center (heavily damaged during an air raid on April 15, 1945) was initiated as late as 1950, and the historical buildings were demolished to make space for new houses of ‘social housing’. At The same time, the SED government advocated the preservation of unique Potsdam palaces and gardens, including the former royal residence Cecilienhof palace. In the decades after the Second World War, the population of the city of Potsdam grew from 114 00 in 1950 to 147 000 in 1990, and 182 000 nowadays

Cecilienhof palace in Potsdam and how it looks today

Potsdam today

While Sanssouci and Babelsberg parks were accessible to the public, the territory of the New Garden and particularly the Cecilienhof Palace remained closed to the public for years. Followed by the end of the Potsdam Conference in August 1945, the occupational Soviet forces used the palace as a clubhouse for military personnel, allowing no German to visit it, except for specially permitted individuals. As late as January 1, 1952, the former residence of Crown Prince Wilhelm was turned into a “National Memorial to the Potsdam Agreement” museum, soon after the state government of Brandenburg had obtained the ownership. It is important to note that the first personnel with appropriate academic education and experience were hired as late as 1960. At that time, the museum ignored the history of the palace and its former royal masters and focused primarily on the political (thus pro-communist) aspects of the Potsdam conference in 1945. The museum was intensively used for propaganda purposes exaggerating the role of the communist regime and particularly of the GDR government. The Western German political system was condemned as revanchist and neo-fascist. 

Inside the grounds at Cecilienhof Palace

Potsdam, Hotel Cecilienhof
The site at the time of ‘Hotel Cecilienhof’
Cecilenhof Palace. Main entrance to the large courtyard, around 1964
Cecilenhof Palace. The main entrance to the large courtyard in the 1960s

Along with the museum, a part of the Cecilienhof palace was made an accommodation for the members of the DFD, so-called ‘The Democratic Women’s Association of Germany’. In 1960 the Hotel Cecilienhof was opened in the converted wing of the palace. Throughout the next decades, it was a desired destination for numerous tourists from the USSR and Eastern Germany, mainly ignored by the democratic world, whose representatives were anyway unwelcomed. The Hotel distorted the authentic appearance of the Cecilienhof palace when it was extended to forty-five rooms with bathrooms in 1986/1987. The former dining room of Hohenzollerns was turned into a restaurant. The staircase in the former Wilhelm’s library, once leading to the taunting chamber, was now closed. The double functioning of the Palace as both a museum and a hotel provoked a conflict of interest. 

The site of the Potsdam conference July-August 1945

Potsdam Conference castle

Cecilienhof today

Followed by the reunification of Germany and the fall of the communist dictatorship in Europe, the Prussian Palaces and Gardens Foundation of Berlin-Brandenburg finally succeeded in restoring the historical importance of Cecilienhof palace and revealed its pre-1945 history to the public. The informational boards in the museum were renewed in 1993 and since that year the research has been going on. The former residence of the Crown Prince was placed under the protection of UNESCO in 1990. The new phase of the renovation finally took place in 1994 and resulted in eliminating the dubious past of the Hotel and returning to the authentic state of the numerous premises. The inauguration of the restored Cecilienhof palace and the museum inside took place on July 31, 1995, to match the 50th anniversary of the Potsdam conference. For the first time since the end of WWII, the original state of the rooms in their 1920s appearance became accessible to the public. Former US president George Bush Senior stayed here in 1995, Queen Elizabeth visited the site in 2004. The latest revision of the historical information about the place took place in 2012 and the renovation of some rooms took four years between 2014 and 2018. The works included the renewal of 500 windows, 40 chimneys, and 11,500 square meters of façade, as well as the renovation of the roof: at a total cost of ten million euros. 

The type of exhibition around 1980, SPSG
That is how the exhibition looked like in the 1980s

Potsdam conference place today

Schloss Cecilienhof today

Where the Potsdam conference was signed

Palace in Potsdam
One of the restored rooms of the former Princess Cecilie made in the style of a ship cabin

 

THE CONFERENCE ROOM

In the times when the palace was a royal residence of Crown Prince Wilhelm and his wife Cecilie, this spacious room was used as the palace reception hall, furnished with luxury pieces of interior. The room is 26 meters long and 12 meters wide with a high ceiling covering two floors. The luxurious wooden surface of the walls, large panoramic windows, and multiple decorative elements make the rooms look like an English palace. Evidently, the most recognized part of the interior is the stairs made of dark oak, which used to lead to the second floor to the personal bedroom of the royal spouses. In 1945 the former reception hall was used as the major conference room for the Big Three: Stalin, Truman, Churchill, and Attley made decisions of historical importance in this room. The giant wooden table 3,05 meters in diameter was produced by one of the Russian furniture productions specifically for the Conference. The red carpets and red plush chairs, as well as red drapes and red bunting for decoration, were brought here in July 1945 to accompany the table. The flags of all three countries were put in the center of the giant table and placed on the walls of the conference hall. Each delegation had five seats at this table, and three of them, decorated with miniature cupids, for Churchill, Truman, and Stalin had superior height when compared to the others. Each leader was generally accompanied by an interpreter and by three sides. Each delegation used to enter the Conference hall by means of a separate door that led to the suits of premises for their country. The conference room was so intensively lightened, that it sometimes bothered the Big Three during the conference, which had been previously codenamed as the ‘Terminal’. 

The Confrerence room of the Potsdam Conference
July 13, a few days prior to the start of the Potsdam Conference
Cecilienhof palace conference room
The conference room from a rare perspective looking toward the old Crown Prince’s wooden staircase
Delegations of the "Big Three" at the negotiating table at the Potsdam Conference. July 19, 1945
A crowded Conference room with the delegations of the “Big Three” at the negotiating table at the Potsdam Conference. July 19, 1945

Potsdam conference room

Cecilienhof palace conference room

The Staircase in Potsdam

 

THE INNER COURTYARD

While Cecilienhof palace was almost an ideal choice for the Potsdam conference in 1945, especially when it comes to luxury and space, the Russians made exterior changes as well. Evidently, the most significant ‘alteration’ to the palace could be still found in the main courtyard. A giant red Soviet star, a symbol of the communist regime led by Stalin, is made of geranium flowers. The size of the star reached 7.2 meters and hundreds of geraniums were used to create such an ornament. While it was the main courtyard of the whole palace, and many windows faced it, every delegation had no alternative than to see this propaganda symbol during the Conference, while entering through the main entrance. As some members of the US delegations noted, the star of flowers was set by the Russians to remind them who were the hosts of the whole events and who had the power in Berlin at that time, who were the conquerors of Germany. The star has survived decades and is still a part of the exhibition despite its dubious historical importance and notorious symbolism. 

Courtyard of Cecilienhof Palace, Potsdam, Germany, 13 Jul 1945; note star formed by red begonias
Courtyard of Cecilienhof Palace and the odious Red star made of flowers, 13 July 1945

Cecilienhof palace courtyard with flowers

The courtyard in 1960
A color photo of how did the courtyard look in the 1960s
Potsdam Conference courtyard
I took this photo in September 2019 early in the morning while the palace was still empty of tourists

Cecilienhof castle today