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Potsdam Conference

The Postdam Conference was the last of three wartime conferences attended by the Grand Alliance, the wartime alliance between the United States, the Soviet Union (USSR), and Great Britain. It took place from 17 July to 2 August 1945, after the defeat of Nazi Germany but before the war with Japan ended in the Pacific. It marked a severe cooling of the relations between the powers, and tensions began to rise. 

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The Postdam Conference was the last of three wartime conferences attended by the Grand Alliance, the wartime alliance between the United States, the Soviet Union (USSR), and Great Britain. It took place from 17 July to 2 August 1945, after the defeat of Nazi Germany but before the war with Japan ended in the Pacific. It marked a severe cooling of the relations between the powers, and tensions began to rise.

What was the purpose of the conference, and what did it achieve?

The purpose of the Potsdam Conference

The main aims of the Potsdam Conference were to finalise a post-war agreement and to pressure Japan, which was still at war.

In February 1945, the leaders of the Alliance -nicknamed the Big Three- attended a conference in Yalta, where many agreements were made. At Potsdam, these were to be put into action.

Potsdam Conference Cecilienhof, the location of the Potsdam Conference StudySmarterFig. 1 - Cecilienhof, the location of the Potsdam Conference.

These were the key agreements reached in Yalta:

  • Germany would be divided into four zones of occupation between the US, Britain, France, and the USSR, and would pay reparations.

  • Poland’s borders would be redrawn: the Soviet Union would gain some of their lands, and Poland would receive some territory from Germany.

  • Stalin would allow free elections in Poland and Eastern Europe.

  • The Soviet Union would enter the war with Japan three months after the defeat of Germany.

The issues which concerned the leaders at Potsdam were the administration of Germany, deciding on reparations, the occupation of Austria, defining Poland’s boundaries, the role of the USSR in Eastern Europe, and ending the war against Japan.

Potsdam Conference Map showing borders up for discussion at Potsdam Conference StudySmarterFig. 2 - Map showing the borders that were up for discussion at the Potsdam Conference.

Leaders at the Potsdam Conference

The two previous wartime conferences of the Grand Alliance had been attended by Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, US President Franklin Roosevelt, and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. However, the Potsdam Conference saw a change in leadership. Stalin remained in attendance but was instead joined by the new US President, Harry Truman, and new Prime Minister, Clement Attlee who replaced Winston Churchill midway through the conference.

This gave Stalin an advantage as he had greater experience in foreign affairs. Truman in particular had no experience in foreign policy.

To understand what happened at Potsdam, we need to first look at the attitudes and aims of these leaders going into the conference.

Stalin’s aims at the Potsdam Conference

Stalin was determined to obtain huge reparations from Germany to rebuild the Soviet Union. Nearly a quarter of Soviet property had been destroyed during the Second World War. At Yalta, Roosevelt had agreed to these demands, but Truman was not so forthcoming at Potsdam.

Another of Stalin’s aims at the time was the establishment of a buffer zone in Eastern Europe. The Soviet leader was obsessed with security and preventing another devastating invasion of the USSR from the West. This was why he was so uncompromising about having loyal communist governments in the USSR’s surrounding countries.

Buffer zone - a zone between two rivals which diminishes the danger of conflict. In this context, it refers to friendly communist countries surrounding the USSR.

US and British aims at the Potsdam Conference

Truman took a more hard-line approach against communism than his predecessor Franklin Roosevelt and was less willing to appease Stalin. He argued that the occupying powers of Germany should only take reparations from their own zone. This is because he wanted to avoid repeating the consequences of the harsh reparations imposed on Germany in the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, which had contributed to the rise of Hitler.

Truman saw the Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe as aggressive expansionism, misunderstanding Stalin’s need for security.

Churchill and Attlee were also suspicious of and hostile to communism. The British were particularly critical of Soviet action in Austria as Stalin instructed politician Karl Renner to establish a provisional government without asking the US or Britain.

Potsdam Conference agreements

Despite their diverging aims and increased tensions, the leaders managed to make several important agreements at Potsdam.

Germany’s administration and their reparations

The leaders went ahead with plans to demilitarise, denazify, democratise, decentralise, and deindustrialise Germany.

This would involve dismantling all parts of German industry that could be used for military purposes, and removing all military forces. Additionally, all discriminatory laws of the Nazi regime were repealed, the educational and judicial systems were purged of Nazi influences, and war criminals were arrested. Democratic political parties were encouraged to get involved with the administration of Germany on state and local levels.

The four occupation zones that had been agreed upon at Yalta were set up, and the capital city of Berlin was also divided into four zones. Each occupying power could take reparations from its own zone, although the USSR was compensated with 10-15% of industrial equipment from the Western zones in return for agricultural produce from its zone in the East.

Additionally, the Council of Foreign Ministers was formed to draft peace treaties with Germany’s former allies.

The occupation of Austria

An Allied Control Council was established to deal with issues affecting both Germany and Austria and was made up of representatives of the four allies. Like Germany and Berlin, Austria and Vienna were also divided into occupation zones.

The leaders agreed that reparations would not be taken from Austria.

Poland and Eastern Europe

Poland received a part of former East Prussia from Germany to compensate for their loss of territory to the Soviet Union. The redrawing of Poland’s border with Germany was left unresolved until the peace settlement in 1990. Provisionally, it became the Oder-Neisse line.

Poland, along with Czechoslovakia and Hungary, wanted to expel German populations from their country. The Potsdam Agreement called for them to do so in ‘an orderly and humane manner’.

Truman disapproved of the configuration of the Polish government and demanded the inclusion of the anti-Soviet London Poles as well as the pro-Soviet Lublin Poles. No firm agreement was made that this would happen or that Stalin would conduct free elections in Eastern Europe.

The war against Japan

The day before the conference began on 16 July 1945, the US successfully tested the first atomic bomb. Truman informed Stalin on 24 July and said that the US planned to use its new weapons against Japan if it did not surrender soon.

Truman did not encourage the Soviet Union to join the war as Roosevelt had, and instead, on 26 July 1945, the US, Britain, and China issued an ultimatum calling for Japan’s surrender. After the conference had ended, the US used nuclear weapons against Japan, which ended the Second World War.

It’s important to remember that the US possession of nuclear weapons created fear in the Soviet Union and eroded trust further.

The outcome of the Potsdam Conference

Little progress was made at Potsdam, other than putting the agreements made at Yalta into action. There was also a significant deterioration in relations. With the lack of a common enemy in Nazi Germany, the tensions between the powers and their vision of post-war Europe came to a head.

Consequences of the Yalta and Potsdam conferences

By the end of the conference, Stalin had become more mistrustful of the US and Britain, in no small part due to the hostility of new president Truman. He became convinced that the Soviet Union was a threat and he needed to adopt a tougher policy with regard to the USSR.

Potsdam was the last time the Big Three met, and relations began to worsen significantly after this as the Cold War started.

Potsdam Conference - Key takeaways

  • The Potsdam Conference intended to follow up on agreements made at Yalta concerning the future of post-war Europe, the main concern being the administration of Germany.
  • The leaders disagreed on what to do about Germany as Stalin wanted to take massive reparations from Germany to compensate for the losses of the Soviet Union in the Second World War. Truman, on the other hand, argued that the occupying powers of Germany should take reparations from their own zone only to avoid repeating the consequences of the Treaty of Versailles.
  • Poland was compensated with land from Germany as the Soviet Union claimed some of their territory, although their borders were not officially drawn. Poland along with other countries in Eastern Europe expelled Germans from their country.
  • The Conference was also intended to pressure Japan to surrender. At Yalta, Stalin had agreed to commit the Soviet Union to war against Japan but this was no longer necessary as Truman revealed to Stalin that the US had possession of atomic weapons.
  • Key tensions arose around US nuclear power, the lack of agreement around the Soviet role in Eastern Europe. Germany was to become a key arena of the Cold War conflict.

References

  1. Fig. 1 - Cecilienhof, the location of the Potsdam Conference (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Cecilienhof_in_Potsdam.jpg) by Drrcs15 (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Drrcs15) Licensed by CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/deed.en)
  2. Fig. 2 - Map showing borders up for discussion at the Potsdam Conference (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Vertreibungsgebiet.jpg) by amerikanisches Außenministerium (no profile) Licensed by CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.en)

Frequently Asked Questions about Potsdam Conference

The Potsdam Conference finalised the agreements on the administration of Germany after the Second World War and decided on policies concerning Austria, Poland, Eastern Europe, and Japan.

It was where important actions were taken regarding post-war Europe, but it also exposed tensions between the US and the USSR.

Germany was officially divided into four occupation zones.

The major issue was how to handle Germany, but issues with Poland also caused tension.

It decided upon the future of post-war Europe, but was also significant for Truman revealing to Stalin that the US had successfully tested an atomic bomb.

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