Potsdam Conference

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The final summit conference of World War II (codenamed "Terminal") was held in the Berlin suburb of Potsdam between 17 July and 2 August 1945. The principal issues were the treatment of occupied Germany and that country's eastern border with Poland. Looming over all the discussions was the end of the war with Japan and the use of the atomic bomb.


The conference sessions took place in the Cecilienhof, a mansion built for the crown prince of Germany before the First World War, designed in English "mock Tudor" style. The American, British, and Soviet delegations were housed in the nearby film colony of Babelsberg, Germany's equivalent of Hollywood. Potsdam was the first opportunity for Winston Churchill (1874–1965), prime minister of Great Britain, and Joseph Stalin (1879–1953), the leader of the Soviet Union, to meet the new American president, Harry Truman (1884–1972). The conference followed the pattern of earlier summits such as Yalta, with plenary gatherings of the Big Three and their staffs alternating with meetings of the foreign ministers, who handled the details of policy and planning.

When the conference opened on 17 July, a contrast in styles was immediately apparent. Truman masked his lack of experience with a direct, businesslike manner, insisting that he wanted "something in the bag" each day. Churchill loved to make long speeches, his natural loquacity exacerbated by the fatigue of five grueling years as war leader. Stalin, as usual, listened closely and said little: his interventions were terse, often brusque. At times each leader got on the others' nerves, their frustration intensified by the delays as comments were translated into either English or Russian.

The central issue was the postwar fate of Germany. The country had been divided into four zones of military occupation, under the Americans, British, French, and Soviets. On 18 July, the conference quickly accepted Truman's outline proposals for further progress. In each zone, the Allies would eliminate all relics of Nazism, bring war criminals to justice, and establish democratic government at the local level. For the time being, no central German government would be created.

But the Allies could not agree on the question of reparations. At Yalta they had accepted as a basis for discussion a figure of twenty million dollars, half of which would go to the Soviets, who had suffered most from Nazi depredations. But the Red Army had already systematically looted its zone in the east, and the British and Americans feared that if their zones also had to be stripped bare, they would end up subsidizing western Germany to keep its people alive. In effect, they would be making reparations to Germany, so that the Germans could pay the Soviet Union.

A related issue was the Polish border. It had already been agreed at Yalta that the Soviet Union would recover former tsarist territories in Ukraine, which Poland had controlled between the world wars. In turn, the Poles would gain former German territory in Prussia and Silesia, effectively moving Poland westward, but no conclusion on the western border had been reached at Yalta. Where to draw it was a very sensitive issue. The decision would determine the size of the Soviet zone of occupation in Germany and its capacity to extract reparations. As Churchill warned, it could also cause intense friction between Poland and the new Germany, as had happened after 1919.

Even more acrimonious were the debates about whether to recognize the new governments in some of the defeated Axis powers. The Americans and British wanted Italy admitted immediately into the United Nations. But they refused recognition to Eastern European countries such as Romania and Bulgaria, until their Soviet-imposed governments had been replaced. Stalin attacked this as unequal treatment. Churchill gave a long and effusive speech about Italy being a democracy, whereas the others were not. "Fiction," exclaimed Stalin. The exchanges became heated and no progress was made.


On 25 July the conference adjourned so Churchill could return to London for the result of the British general election. Still confident of victory; he expected to come back in a few days; his doctor even left half his luggage at Potsdam. Instead, Churchill's Conservatives suffered a humiliating defeat, and the Labour Party formed a new government. When the conference resumed on July 28, Clement Attlee (1883–1967) took Churchill's seat as Britain's prime minister. The former labor leader Ernest Bevin (1881–1951) was foreign secretary.

Churchill had been assertive; Attlee was much less so, and it was Bevin who championed British interests in a Churchillian manner. But the dramatic change of personnel weakened the British position, and in any case their power was now far less than that of the emerging "superpowers," the United States and the Soviet Union. One British diplomat wrote privately that it was not so much a meeting of "the Big Three" as of "the Big 2 ½." Truman was anxious to break the deadlock, and his secretary of state, James F. Byrnes (1882–1972), was a veteran political fixer. He offered Vyacheslav Molotov (1890–1986), his Soviet counterpart, a deal whereby the Americans would give ground on the Polish border and the Russians would reduce their demands for reparations.

During 30–31 July this was fleshed out into a three-part package. The Americans conceded a Polish-German border along the Oder and Western Neisse Rivers—the extremity of Polish demands. To placate Bevin, this was billed as a temporary settlement, pending a final decision at a future peace conference. In return, the Soviets accepted that no cash totals for reparations would be established, but they were free to take what they wished from their own zone. After haggling over exact figures, it was also agreed that 10 percent of all industrial equipment in the three western zones that was "unnecessary for the German peacetime economy" would be given to the Soviets. A further 15 percent would be transferred in exchange for food, coal, and raw materials from the Soviet zone. The third element of the deal was agreement that the new council of foreign ministers, set up by the conference, would give priority to drafting a peace treaty with Italy, so that this country could be admitted to the United Nations. Treaties for Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, and Finland would then be drawn up.

Relieved at this breakthrough on 31 July, the leaders dealt rapidly with a series of issues so that the conference could close on 1 August. One of the most significant was a quick and uncontroversial decision that German nationals living in Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary should be transferred to Germany. Their expulsion was a fundamental demand of the new governments in these countries—tit for tat after years of Nazi repression—but it resulted in one of the biggest population movements of modern European history, involving twelve or thirteen million people. Although the Potsdam protocol stated that the transfer should take place "in an orderly and humane manner," the reality was very different, and estimates of German deaths run to one or two million.

Potsdam was intended only as a provisional settlement of German questions, pending a full-scale peace conference. But, as the Cold War deepened, the provisional became permanent. Although the Allies had reaffirmed that Germany should be treated as "a single economic unit," as the British predicted, the agreements on zonal reparations accelerated the division of Germany.


On 16 July the Americans conducted an atomic test at Alamogordo, in the desert of New Mexico. By 21 July, it was clear that this had been a resounding success, and the news buoyed up Truman and the American delegation. It also had an effect on their strategy. The Soviets had promised to enter the war against Japan in the middle of August, and U.S. army commanders, fearful of heavy losses when they invaded the Japanese home islands, still regarded this commitment as militarily vital. But Byrnes, in particular, thought that the bomb could enable the Americans to end the Pacific war without Soviet help; he even hoped it might make Stalin more tractable in Europe. On 24 July Truman told Stalin, with studied casualness, that the Americans had a new weapon of unusual destructive power. Stalin, equally casually, said he hoped they would make good use of it against Japan. Possibly Stalin was dissimulating; more likely, although aware of the U.S. project from Soviet agents, he did not appreciate its full significance until after the bomb was dropped on Japan.

Truman gave fuller details to Churchill: the British were collaborators in the bomb project, albeit now very much as junior partners. The two leaders agreed to issue an oblique final warning to Japan and the so-called Potsdam Proclamation of 26 July threatened the Japanese with "prompt and utter destruction" if their government did not immediately order "the unconditional surrender of all Japanese armed forces." When the Japanese prime minister announced four days later that there was "nothing important or interesting in the Allied declaration," Truman confirmed his order to use the atomic bomb, which was dropped on Hiroshima on 6 August.

See alsoJapan and the Two World Wars; Nuclear Weapons; Warfare; World War II.


Primary Sources

Butler, Rohan, and M. E. Pelly, eds. Documents on British Policy Overseas. Series 1, vol. 1: The Conference at Potsdam, July–August 1945. London, 1984.

United States Department of State Historical Office. Foreign Relations of the United States: The Conference of Berlin: The Potsdam Conference, 1945. 2 vols. Washington D.C., 1960.

Secondary Sources

Chronos-Film. Schloss Cecilienhof und die Potsdamer Konferenz, 1945. Berlin, 1995. Illustrated companion volume to the Chronos video about the conference.

Feis, Herbert. Between War and Peace: The Potsdam Conference. Princeton, N.J., 1960.

Mee, Charles L. Meeting at Potsdam. London, 1975.

David Reynolds

Potsdam Conference

views updated May 11 2018


The Potsdam Conference was the last of the wartime summits among the Big Three allied leaders. It met from July 17 through August 2, 1945, in Potsdam, a historic suburb of Berlin. Representing the United States, the Soviet Union and Great Britain respectively were Harry Truman, Josef Stalin and Winston Churchill (who was replaced midway by Clement Atlee as a result of elections that brought Labor to power). Germany had surrendered in May; the war with Japan continued. The purpose of the Potsdam meeting was the implementation of the agreements reached at Yalta. The atmosphere at Potsdam was often acrimonious, presaging the imminent Cold War between the Soviet Union and the West. In the months leading up to Potsdam, Stalin took an increasingly hard line on issues regarding Soviet control in Eastern Europe, provoking the new American president and the British prime minister to harden their own stance toward the Soviet leader.

Two issues were particularly contentious: Poland's western boundaries with Germany and German reparations. When Soviet forces liberated Polish territory, Stalin, without consulting his allies, transferred to Polish administration all of the German territories east of the Oder-Neisse (western branch) Rivers. While Britain and the United States were prepared to compensate Poland for its territorial losses in the east, they were unwilling to agree to such a substantial land transfer made unilaterally. They would have preferred the Oder-Neisse (eastern branch) River boundary. The larger territory gave Poland the historic city of Breslau and the rich industrial area of Silesia. Reluctantly, the British and Americans accepted Stalin's fait accompli, but with the proviso that the final boundary demarcation would be determined by a German peace treaty.

Reparations was another unresolved problem. The Soviet Union demanded a sum viewed by the Western powers as economically impossible. Abandoning the effort to agree on a specific sum, the conferees agreed to take reparations from each power's zone of occupation. Stalin sought, with only limited success, additional German resources from the British and American zones. Agreements reached at Potsdam provided for:

Transference of authority in Germany to the military commanders in their respective zones of occupation and to a four-power Allied Control Council for matters affecting Germany as a whole.

Creation of a Council of Foreign Ministers to prepare peace treaties for Italy, Bulgaria, Finland, Hungary, and Romania and ultimately Germany.

Denazification, demilitarization, democratization, and decentralization of Germany.

Transference of Koenigsberg and adjacent area to the Soviet Union.

Just prior to the conference, Truman was informed of the successful test of the atomic bomb in New Mexico. On July 24 he gave a brief account of the weapon to Stalin. Stalin reaffirmed his commitment to declare war on Japan in mid-August. While the conference was in session, the leaders of Britain, China, and the United States issued a proclamation offering Japan the choice between immediate unconditional surrender or destruction.

Though the facade of allied unity was affirmed in the final communiqué, the Potsdam Conference marked the end of Europe's wartime alliance.

See also: teheran conference; world war ii; yalta conference


Feis, Herbert. (1960). Between War and Peace: The Potsdam Conference. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Gormly, James L. (1990). From Potsdam to the Cold War: Big Three Diplomacy, 19451947. Wilmington, DE: SR Books.

McNeil, William H. (1953). America, Britain and Russia: Their Cooperation and Conflict, 19411946. London: Oxford University Press.

Wheeler-Bennett, John W., and Nicholls, Anthony. (1972). The Semblance of Peace: The Political Settlement after the Second World War. London: Macmillan.

Joseph L. Nogee

Potsdam Conference

views updated Jun 08 2018

Potsdam Conference

The Potsdam Conference was a meeting of Allied leaders at the end of World War II (1939–45). Soviet premier Joseph Stalin (1879–1953), U.S. president Harry S. Truman (1884–1972; served 1945–53), and British prime minister Winston Churchill (1874–1965), followed by his successor, Clement Attlee (1883–1967), gathered in Potsdam, Germany, from July 17 to August 2, 1945. Germany had surrendered on May 8, and the leaders needed to finalize several issues regarding German territories. They decided that peace treaties would be proposed later by the Council of Foreign Ministers rather than hastily decided at the conference.

The leaders of the Allies had previously decided that a defeated Germany would be divided into four zones of occupation. Each zone was to be administered by one of the leading Allied forces, namely the United States, the Soviet Union, Great Britain, and France. Berlin was similarly divided, as were Austria and its capital of Vienna. Although the zones were to be overseen separately, they were to be united in common policies through the Control Council in Berlin.

Generally the Allied leaders agreed that the guiding principles for rebuilding Germany would be denazification, demilitarization, decentralization, deindustrialization, and democratization. The German economy would be redirected toward the peaceful pursuits of agriculture and light industries, protecting the Allied leaders against economic competition from Germany. With small exceptions, each Allied country would collect reparations, or war payments, in its own zone.

Another issue at the conference concerned the boundaries of both Germany and Poland. The boundaries of Poland had been discussed at the Yalta Conference the preceding February, but they remained largely undefined. The eastern boundary of Poland was to be pushed west to give additional territory to the Soviet Union. To compensate for Poland's loss, the attendees decided that Germany should surrender lands to Poland. As a result, nine million Germans were to be relocated to within Poland under its new boundaries.

Potsdam Declaration

Great Britain and the United States issued the Potsdam Declaration from the Potsdam Conference on July 26, 1945. It was an ultimatum directed at the Japanese government, which had refused to surrender. Demanding Japan's immediate and unconditional surrender to the Allied forces, the declaration threatened increased air attacks and utter destruction.

Japan offered a conditional surrender, but the United States and Britain refused it. President Truman then gave orders to use America's new military weapon, the atomic bomb . On August 6, 1945, one bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan. Though it killed over seventy thousand people and devastated the city, the Japanese government refused to surrender. Another bomb was dropped on Nagasaki on August 9, killing over thirty-five thousand people. The Japanese government offered its surrender the following day, and World War II ended on all fronts.

On August 2, the leaders signed a statement of the agreements, called the Potsdam Agreement. The Potsdam Conference proved to be the last meeting among the Allied leaders. Deepening suspicion and conflicts of interest among the three countries led to strained relationships. The tension between communism in the Soviet Union and capitalism in the United States eventually evolved into the Cold War .

Potsdam Conference

views updated May 18 2018


POTSDAM CONFERENCE took place in a suburb of Berlin from 17 July to 2 August 1945. President Harry S. Truman, Marshal Joseph Stalin, and Prime Minister Winston Churchill (replaced at midpoint by the newly elected Clement Attlee) met to reach accord on postwar Germany and the Pacific war. The "big three" confirmed a decision, made at Yalta, to divide Germany into British, American, Russian, and French occupation zones. They pledged to treat Germany as a single economic unit while allowing each of the four occupying commanders to veto any decision. Germany was slated for total disarmament, demilitarization, the trial of war criminals, and denazification. Other provisions included reparations (with the final sum unspecified); the forced return of 6.5 million Germans from Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary in an "orderly and humane manner"; and the temporary retention of the Oder-Neisse boundary. The Council of Foreign Ministers, a body composed of the United States, Great Britain, France, and Russia, was entrusted with preparing peace terms for Italy, Romania, Bulgaria, Austria, Hungary, and Finland. On 14 July, having been informed of the successful atomic tests at Alamogordo, New Mexico, three days before, Truman told an unsurprised Stalin, "We have perfected a very powerful explosive which we are going to use against the Japanese and we think it will end the war."

As Russia had not yet declared war on Japan, the Potsdam Declaration of 26 July 1945 was signed only by the United States and Great Britain, though with China's concurrence. It threatened the "utter devastation of the Japanese homeland" unless Japan accepted "unconditional surrender." Specific terms included total disarmament, the destruction of its "war-making power," the limitation of Japan's sovereignty to its home islands, stern justice to "all war criminals," the establishment of "fundamental human rights," the payment of "just reparations in kind," and the limitation of its economy to peacetime undertakings.


Feis, Herbert. Between War and Peace: The Potsdam Conference. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1960.

Gormly, James L. From Potsdam to the Cold War: Big Three Diplomacy, 1945–1947. Wilmington, Del.: Scholarly Resources, 1990.

Mee, Charles L., Jr. Meeting at Potsdam. New York: M. Evans, 1975.

Justus D.Doenecke

See alsoGermany, American Occupation of ; Japan, Relations with ; World War II ; Yalta Conference .

Potsdam Conference

views updated May 23 2018

Potsdam Conference (1945).On 17 July 1945, Josef Stalin, Harry S. Truman, and Winston S. Churchill (who was replaced on 28 July by Clement Attlee) met for eleven days at Potsdam near Berlin. They faced two related issues: ending the war against Japan and restructuring Germany and Eastern Europe.

Germany ranked high on everyone's list of problems. Truman's goal was to create principles to guide the proposed Allied Control Council in preparing for unification of Germany. Stalin was concerned about reparations and Germany's border with Poland. Accepted were the American principles, including denazification, demilitarization, and democratization, and the Soviet desire for the Oder and Neisse Rivers as Germany's eastern border. Agreeing on reparations was difficult and was resolved only at the end of the conference by a formula calling for each power to take reparations from its zone, with the Soviets receiving some from other zones.

As for Japan, Stalin agreed to Soviet entry into the war by mid‐August, while Truman informed Stalin in vague terms about a new weapon to be used against Japan, but failed to specify that it was an atomic bomb. At the end of the meeting, Truman and Attlee issued the Potsdam Declaration, calling upon Japan to surrender unconditionally or face destruction.

Specifics about reparations and issues of Soviet‐occupied Eastern Europe were deferred to a newly created Council of Foreign Ministers, which was to draft the peace treaties. This allowed general agreement, and left each power partially satisfied. Much was left undone, and the Big Three's ability to cooperate and work toward similar postwar goals was still unknown. Potsdam remains a transition point as the former Allies moved from World War II to the Cold War.
[See also World War II: Postwar Impact; World War II: Changing Interpretations.]


Herbert Feis , Between War and Peace: The Potsdam Conference, 1960.
Charles Mee, Jr. , Meeting at Potsdam, 1975.

James Gormly

Potsdam conference

views updated May 29 2018

Potsdam conference, 16 July–2 August 1945. This overlapped a British general election, Churchill and Eden being replaced midway by Attlee and Bevin (Labour). The Americans and Russians, however, observed no significant change in British policy, with both struck by Bevin's pugnacity. A compromise was reached on German reparations—the Treasury having earlier expressed its concern at the cost of the British occupation zone unless reparations were restricted and Germany treated as one economic unit. Churchill hoped that the acquisition of the atomic bomb by the USA would increase the bargaining power of the West with the USSR as well as hasten the end of the war with Japan.

C. J. Bartlett

Potsdam Conference

views updated May 11 2018

Potsdam Conference (July–August 1945) Summit meeting of Allied leaders in World War II, held in Potsdam, Germany. The main participants were US President Harry S Truman, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin and the British Prime Minister, at first Churchill, later Attlee. It dealt with problems arising from Germany's defeat, including the arrangements for military occupation and the trial of war criminals, and issued an ultimatum to Japan demanding surrender.


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