Looking Back on 16 Days That Shaped History


POTSDAM, Germany — Winston Churchill’s walking cane, Panama hat and cigar tube are on their way here, but they’ve been delayed.

The items are traveling from the wartime prime minister’s former home in England to this city, about 20 miles from Berlin, for an exhibition to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Potsdam Conference, the 16-day summit meeting at the end of World War II during which the victorious powers established a new world order that endured until the fall of the Berlin Wall. Because of the coronavirus lockdown in Britain, an export license for the items took longer than expected to procure — but they should arrive any day now, after making the same journey their owner took in 1945.

The cane, hat and cigar holder will go on display in Cecilienhof Palace, the ivy-clad country house set in tranquil parkland where the conference took place. After Germany’s surrender at the end of the war, Churchill, President Harry S. Truman and the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin met at Cecilienhof to negotiate the future of the defeated country and to redraw borders in Eastern Europe.

The show, “Potsdam Conference 1945: Shaping the World,” running through Dec. 31, presents historical documents, films, photographs and mementos of the era to bring the event to life and to examine how it sculpted world history. The conference’s official conclusions, set out in the Potsdam Agreement, had immediate repercussions for Germany and for the rest of Europe, but the exhibition also shows how the behind-the-scenes discussions had far-reaching implications for Asia and the Middle East.

From July 17 to Aug. 2, 1945, the “Big Three” met at a round table (on display in the exhibition) in front of a large bay window that overlooks a lake. After preparatory discussions among delegates, and then among foreign ministers, the leaders convened for a total of 13 sessions starting at 5 p.m. and lasting for one to two hours. In the evening, there was entertainment.

“The U.S. thought the relationship with Stalin was going to be a difficult one, but they thought it would be manageable,” said Michael Neiberg, a historian and author of “Potsdam: The End of World War II and the Remaking of Europe,” in a phone interview. “The participants were not yet talking about a Cold War. Potsdam was an exclamation point at the end of Germany being the big problem in Europe. The mood was jubilant; they sang songs together; they ate at banquets together.”

After the Red Army conquered Berlin in May 1945, the city was under Soviet control for two months, and Stalin proposed hosting a postwar conference for the victors there. In the end, the Allied powers settled on holding it in nearby Potsdam, because it was less damaged than Berlin, whose downtown was a wasteland still reeking of corpses, sewers and smoke.

Cecilienhof, built for the eldest son of Germany’s last emperor and his wife, Cecile, was almost unscathed by World War II, aside from a few cracked windows. The palace’s genteel, carpeted 1945 décor has been meticulously recreated for the exhibition — down to the finely painted Venetian glassware in cabinets in the breakfast room — with the help of archive footage and photographs from the Russian State Film and Photo Archive and the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum.

On display for the first time in the exhibition is the diary of Joy Milward, then a 19-year-old secretary with the British delegation, which records her impressions of the conference and the broken country in which it took place. Recalling the journey from the airport to Potsdam, she wrote: “The road was lined with old men and women, children and young women all carrying packs on their back or pushing carts loaded with family belongings.”

With their homes and livelihoods destroyed, people were on the move all over Germany. The conference also had to decide what to do with millions of ethnic Germans living in what was then Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary, some of whom arrived as settlers after those countries were annexed by the Third Reich. The Potsdam Agreement called for an “orderly and humane” transfer, but the expulsions that followed were anything but: As many as 14 million people were displaced, and hundreds of thousands starved to death or were killed as an anti-German backlash swept the liberated nations.

Using the stories of individual refugees and their mementos of lost homelands — items such as a gilded samovar and a set of sheep shears — the exhibition shows how the decisions of the three leaders threw the lives of millions into tumult.

While the great powers focused their attention on Europe, the war in Asia was still raging. On the evening before the conference began, Truman learned that the United States had carried out the first successful test of an atomic bomb. On July 26, the United States, Britain and China issued an ultimatum to Japan, known as the Potsdam Declaration, calling for unconditional surrender, or “prompt and utter destruction.”

Four days after the conference ended, the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, killing tens of thousands of people. Three days later, Nagasaki was annihilated. One touching exhibit on loan to Cecilienhof from the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum is the blackened metal lunchbox of a 12-year-old schoolboy, Koji Kano, whose body was never found.

The last section of the show addresses the Soviet invasion of Japanese-occupied Manchuria that occurred a week after the meeting ended, and how the ultimatum to Japan eventually led to independence for Korea. Displays also touch on the withdrawal of British and Soviet troops from Iran and the failure of the three powers to settle compensation for Holocaust survivors or to decide what should happen next in Palestine.

Developments in Britain also overshadowed the conference, which was interrupted for two days while Churchill traveled back to London to find out the results of the general election. He lost in an unexpected landslide for Clement Attlee’s Labour party: For the final five days, Attlee replaced him at the negotiating table.

Truman suggested at the end of the negotiations that the Big Three should meet again in Washington, a gathering Attlee said he hoped would represent “a milestone on the road to peace between our countries and in the world.” But that event never took place and the uneasy wartime alliance between the United States and the Soviet Union unraveled as the Cold War began.

So can the Potsdam Conference nonetheless be considered a success?

“Their mind-set was not to repeat the mistakes of the Treaty of Versailles by failing to set the right conditions for peace,” Mr. Neiberg said. “They were moderately successful in this. They solved the fundamental problem of Germany. They also set the initial terms that prevented the Cold War from becoming a hot war. The people who paid the price were the Eastern Europeans who ended up living under the Soviet yoke.”

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