As the conflict in Europe reached its much overdue conclusion in 1945, the leaders of the Big Three victorious powers gathered for a final time to decide on the fate of the continent – and shape the future of post-war relations.
Over the space of 17 days in July and August 1945, US President, Harry S. Truman, Soviet Generalissimo, Joseph Stalin, and UK Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, convened in Potsdam – to the south west of Berlin. Having escaped relatively untouched by the ravages of war, the city was chosen as the site for the final of the three major conferences that saw these allies gather – Yalta, Tehran, and Potsdam. Chosen for its proximity to the former Nazi capital of Berlin – one of the reasons this would also intially be called the ‘Berlin Conference’ – Potsdam was historically the second city of the Kingdom of Prussia and site of the summer residences of the Prussian Kings and German Emperors.
The specific location chosen to host the conference was the Tudor-style Schloss Cecilienhof, a 176-room royal residence complete with iconic half-timbered walls and 55 different chimneys, constructed in 1917, and deep within the Soviet zone of occupation from 1945.
Hence, one of the most recognisable aspects of the building now lies in its courtyard – a Soviet red star, which is still freshly planted every spring – a message to the Western Allies in attendance that the conference was taking place firmly on territory that the Red Army had spilled blood to take.
The last palace in Germany constructed by the ruling Hohenzollern Imperial family, Schloss Cecilienhof was initially intended to be the residence of Crown Prince Wilhelm and his wife Cecilie (thus the name of the palace).
The Prussian ruling family had for centuries been on close terms with the British royal family, due largely to the latter’s Hannoverian kingdom that was eventually incorporated into the newly formed German state in 1871. Significantly also dating all the way back to the Treaty of Westminster in 1756, that would establish neutrality between Prussia and Great Britain – while the former was tasked with defeating France. The last German Emperor, a grandson of British Queen Victoria in-fact, was also a Colonel-In-Chief in the British Army, overseeing the 1st Royal Dragoons.
It should come as no surprise then that the architecture of the Cecilienhof Palace should have a distinctly English touch – even if it was completed during a war (World War One) which saw Germany fighting against its former British ally.
Designed by architect, Paul Schultze-Naumburg, who would later go on to become a Nazi party member and parliamentary representative, Cecilienhof sits in the northern section of the Neuer Garten – near the shore of the Jungfernsee lake. Ideally situated to be defended, in 1945, by Soviet troops looking to secure a location for the Potsdam Conference.
Although British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, would initially attend the Potsdam Conference alongside Soviet leader, Stalin, and US President, Truman, he would not sign the final protocol. Churchill was replaced by Clement Attlee on July 26th following a general election in the UK.
Within the confines of this palace complex is the central assembly room used for the Conference, still maintained as it appeared in 1945 – complete with the table and chairs – and flags – used by the victorious powers. Beyond the possibility to securely maintain a cordon around the palace, due to its extensive parkland, there was a further reason for choosing to host the conference here – the layout of the interior and ability to allow each of the three leaders independent access to the central room – thus showing no preference in who would be deemed more important. The round table, made in Russia exclusively for the conference, would also reflect this equitable dynamic.
With the military defeat of Nazi Germany complete nine weeks earlier, in May 1945, the Big Three leaders met in Potsdam and issued a statement of aims – known as the Potsdam Agreement – signed on August 1st. Focusing on a series of resolutions – the Four Ds – the conference would lead to the formation of the Allied Control Council to implement deNazification of Germany, demilitarisation, democratisation, and decentralisation resulting in German federalism.
The powers would also conclude a frontier agreement to shift Germany’s eastern edge to the Oder-Neisse line (its current international border with Poland) – resulting in the loss of 25% of the country’s size and much of the historic eastern part of Prussia. Preparations would be made for the trials of Nazi war criminals, the decartelisation of the economy and a focus on light industry and peacetime production of non-military goods.
At this time it was not apparent that Germany would eventually be divided into two – West Germany and East Germany – following the ensuing Cold War discord between the US, British, and Soviet powers. The so-called Iron Curtain had yet to be recognised in the West as having been drawn across the continent.
These three leaders, their translators, and foreign ministers, would sit at the round table in the conference room of the Cecilienhof Palace as equals. Finalising the division of Germany that had been agreed upon at the earlier Yalta Conference was paramount; preparing the ground for the coming confrontation between East and West once the smoke of the Second World War had conclusively settled was incidental.
While War in the Pacific continued to rage, the US and British delegations convened in Potsdam to issue the Potsdam Declaration on July 26th – threatening Japan with “prompt and utter destruction” if it did not surrender. Ten days earlier, in the New Mexico desert, the United States had harnessed a deadly and destructive force. News of the detonation of the world’s first nuclear bomb reached US President Harry S. Truman on July 16th, the day before the Potsdam Conference – where for 13 plenary sessions Truman sat knowing his government possessed a weapon that would change the course of human history forever.