OTD – July 2, 1955 – GDR President Wilhelm Pieck Opens The Newly Built Tierpark Berlin

Saturday, July 2, 1955 at Friedrichsfelde, East Berlin

GDR President Wilhelm Pieck (center with walking stick) ceremoniously opening the new Tierpark with the Friedrichsfelde Palace in the background

With the devastation of the end of the Second World War still fresh on their minds, many East Berliners were eagerly waiting for some kind of positivity to present itself as they continued to clear away debris and mitigate housing shortages. This finally arrived on August 27, 1954 when the Parliament of East Berlin decided on the ambitious plan to build a zoo despite the many hardships that confronted the city at that time. 

When the Allies carved up the city after WWII, Berlin’s original zoo, dating back to the 1840s, had wound up in the British Sector of Occupation and it was becoming a constant thorn in the GDR’s side that their citizens were journeying over to West Berlin when they wanted to visit a zoo. After all, a zoo can somehow be seen as a part of a ‘real’ capital; and since the East German Government had declared East Berlin its de facto capital, what better reason was there for them to erect their own?

Elector Friedrich III of Brandenburg who became King Friedrich I in Prussia in 1701

The plan was quickly put into action and the place chosen for this development was the overgrown Schlosspark Friedrichsfelde, which is about seven miles east of Berlin’s city center. This area’s home to the Friedrichsfelde Palace which was built under the reign of Elector Friedrich III of Brandenburg (who’d later become the first King in Prussia, Friedrich I), as well as the residence of Prince Augustus Ferdinand who was the youngest brother of Frederick the Great. The land offered an exceptionally spacious 410 acres (160 hectares) to work with, dwarfing the 85 acre (35 hectares) zoo in West Berlin. 

Citizens of East Berlin volunteering their time building the Tierpark in early 1955

What’s interesting about the construction of the Tierpark is the fact that it was actually built by the citizens of East Berlin themselves. Because construction workers couldn’t be taken away from important job sites that were essential to post-WWII rebuilding and redevelopment, the East Berlin City Council called on volunteers. Men and women grabbed their shovels and headed up to Friedrichsfelde, sometimes going before or after their ‘real’ jobs to pitch in. Thousands of East Berliners, including pupils and college students, put in over 100,000 working hours of their free time to build the zoo. 

“Kosko”, the female elephant from Vietnam, makes her way into her new home in 1958

After just seven months of construction, the zoo became the new home to some 400 animals when it opened on July 2, 1955. It’d quickly begin to boast the fact that it had more exotic animals than the zoo in West Berlin, thanks to the ‘socialist brother countries’ like China who supplied the alligator, “Mao”, and Vietnam who provided the female elephant, “Kosko”. Tigers and polar bears from the Soviet Union would eventually follow too. 

Today over 9,000 animals live in Tierpark Berlin and over 1.5 million Berliners and tourists visit annually.

 

June 18, 1945 U.S. President Harry S. Truman Authorizes “Operation Downfall” to End WWII in the Pacific

Monday, June 18, 1945 at the White House in Washington D.C.

At 3:30PM Truman called a meeting to order with his Joint Chiefs and other top civilian cabinet advisors from the War Department. Among those in attendance was U.S. Army Chief of Staff General George Marshall who spoke up immediately after the meeting got underway and claimed that the only course to defeat Japan was to embark on the same kind of ground invasion that had brought the Nazis to their knees in Europe. He presented a two-phase invasion that would begin at the island of Kyushu at the southern end of Japan’s mainland, just 350 miles from Okinwa.

Kyushu, indicated in red, would have been the striking point of Operation Downfall on November 1, 1945

The Allied Expeditionary Forces would strike on November 1, 1945 (D-Day in the Pacific).

When it came to predicting Allied casualties, there was no way to exactly estimate the true number, but Marshall believed that the invasion would be as difficult as Normandy. The General estimated American casualties to be around 30,000 in the first 30 days of Operation Downfall. Another estimate at the Pentagon included the invasion of both southern and northern Kyushu, as well as Japan proper, to be around 220,000 casualties. And finally, in a memorandum on June 4, 1945, written by General Thomas Handy of Marshall’s staff, it stated that the United States would save no less than 500,000 to 1 million lives by avoiding the invasion all together (showing that figures of such magnitude were being discussed at the highest levels). 

U.S. Army Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall who Truman would appoint Secretary of State in 1947

Whatever the outcome might be, Marshall summed up the situation by saying, “It is a grim fact that there is not an easy, bloodless way to victory in war.”

It was obvious to everyone in Truman’s cabinet that victory would come at a heavy price. They continued to fear that the Japanese would not surrender without a long and bloody struggle. By this point in the war they had already been severely punished, practically defeated, but they continued to show no signs of yielding – no signs of surrendering unconditionally to the Allies. If one looks at the Battle of Okinawa, for example, which was coming to an end at this time, the battle itself was painting a bloody portrait of just how ferocious Japanese resistance could be. The fighting had been raging on since the beginning of April, killing over 10,000 Americans in combat, wounding anywhere between 38,000 to over 55,000, and entrenched in the jungles and caves of the island more than 100,000 Japanese chose to perish over surrender. For Truman and his cabinet, these were startling figures and conditions since they continued to indicate how much of a last ditch battle the Japanese could put up, as well as the kind of battle they could put up on their home islands in man to man combat. Moreover, Okinawa could be taken as an indicator that Japan needed dyer measures to defeat it. 

Truman went around the room and listened to each man give his opinion about a course of action for a ground invasion. By the end of the meeting, there was a unanimous agreement that it should happen within the next four months.

The beaches of Okinawa saw some of the bloodiest fighting of WWII from 1 April – 22 June 1945

The most interesting moment of the meeting probably came at the end when Truman turned to Assistant Secretary of War John McCloy who had pretty much let his boss, Secretary of War Henry Stimson, do all the talking during the meeting. “McCloy,” the President said, “Nobody leaves this room until he’s been heard from….Do you think I have any reasonable alternative to the decision (on the invasion) which has just been made?” McCloy then turned to Stimson, who said, “Say what you feel about it.”

“Well, I do think you’ve got an alternative,” McCloy said. And I think it’s an alternative that ought to be explored and that, really, we ought to have our heads examined if we don’t explore some other method by which we can terminate this war than just by another conventional attack and landing.”

McCloy began saying that he agreed with the topic of easing ‘unconditional surrender’ (something discussed earlier in the meeting) to let the Japanese retain their monarch, Emperor Hirohito. McCloy then brought up the Manhattan Project, the nearly three year old plan being carried out to develop a bomb out of the elemental forces of the universe – a nuclear weapon. He believed that the United States should tell the enemy of the bomb, and if Japan did not surrender, it would be used. He said, “I think our moral position would be better if we gave them a specific warning of the bomb.”

President Truman with Assistant Secretary of War John J. McCloy to his left

The response, as McCloy remembered the conversation: “We don’t know that it will go off; suppose it doesn’t go off; our prestige will be greatly marred.”

McCloy then responded by saying, “All the scientists have told us that the thing will go. It’s just a matter of testing it out now, but they’re quite certain from reports I’ve seen that this bomb is a success…”

Truman concluded matters by stating that this should be explored further, but decisions with regard to the bomb could not be made until it was tested successfully. Truman then ordered the Joint Chiefs to move ahead with plans for a ground invasion of Japan, an order that would begin the process of putting more than three quarters of a million Americans in man to man combat. 

 

Bibliography of Quotations

Baime, Albert J. (2017). The Accidental President. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. ISBN 978-0-544-61734-6

McCullough, David (1992). Truman. New York: Simon & Schuster. ISBN 978-0-671-86920-5

The Berlin Airlift Ends OTD: May 12, 1949

In Berlin on Thursday, May 12, 1949

It was on May 12, 1949 that the Berlin Airlift, one of the largest humanitarian aid efforts in European history, came to an end.

The iconic photo of Berliners waiting on a pile of ruins for Allied supplies that are being flown into Tempelhof Airport.

Out of response to the Western Allies’ (United Kingdom, the United States, and France) introduction of the new Deutsche Mark into their occupied sectors of Berlin, which the Soviet Union saw as a clear violation (of the Potsdam Agreement of 1945) to treat Germany as a single economic unit, the Soviets responded by shutting down all rail and highway links across their zone of occupation, which stretched between the Western zones of Germany and the Western sectors of Berlin. Two and a half million Berliners living in the American, British, and French sectors now had enough food and coal to last for just a little over a month, since most of Berlin’s power had been coming from the Soviet’s sector and zone of occupation.

In a show of strength against the Soviets, President Harry S. Truman of the United States, and British Prime Minister Clement Attlee authorized a full-scale airlift to fly food and supplies to the beleaguered Berliners. At the height of the Airlift, as targets were being met and exceeded, 1500 flights from the USA and UK (including the British Commonwealth nations) flew into Berlin per day bringing in an around 4,500 tons of supplies.

99 year old Gail Halvorsen of Utah being honored last year at the baseball fields in the former American sector on the north grounds of the former Tempelhof Airport.

In the end, after 10 months and 23 days, 594 supply aircrafts would land on average in Berlin per day, which totaled 277,804 flights that brought in nearly 2.5 million tons of supplies.

The main artery of the Berlin Airlift (along with Kladow Airport in the British sector and Tegel in the French sector), Tempelhof Airport is a city park today.

One of the heroes of the Airlift – and who will always be considered as one of the most beloved figures in Berlin’s Cold War history – was American Lieutenant Gail Halvorsen of Utah, who casually started out dropping candy that was wrapped in handkerchiefs to kids he saw watching his plane from the ground. To no surprise, he became an immediate sensation and started a trend for Allied pilots to drop candy and chocolate bars on their landing approaches. Despite the basic necessities that Halvorsen and the rest of the Allied pilots were flying in, he nonetheless would quickly and heroically become known as the “Berlin Candy Bomber.”

To commemorate last year’s 70th anniversary of the end of the Berlin Airlift, Gail was honored at the baseball fields on the grounds of the former Tempelhof Airport, where he and so many other Allied pilots risked their lives to supply and thus save the free people of Berlin from 1948-1949.

The Berlin Guides Association Commemorates the 75th Anniversary of the Bombing of Dresden

Friday, February 14, 2020 at Dresden, Germany

Our studious members in front of the old entrance to the Tempelhof Airport.

Over a dozen members of the Berlin Guides Association traveled to Dresden last month to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the controversial Allied bombing on the Saxon capital during the late night and early morning hours of 13./14. February 1945.

Our day was kicked off early with organized transportation picking us up at the former main entrance to Berlin’s iconic Tempelhof Airport, which was once dubbed “the mother of all airports” after the National Socialists expanded it under the direction of Ernst Sagebiel in the 1930s and which eventually became the nerve center of the Berlin Airlift from 1948-1949.

Our members gearing up for their exclusive tour by museum curator, Dr. Jens Wehner

Upon arriving in Dresden, our first stop was the Military History Museum. There, we were given a private and exclusive tour by the museum curator, Dr. Jens Wehner, who provided us with an overview of the permanent exhibition and detailed information about the USAAF and RAF raids on Dresden in February 1945. Dr. Wehner informed us that over 700 heavy bombers of the RAF and over 500 USAAF planes collectively dropped close to 4,000 tons of high explosive bombs and various incendiary tactics, killing around 25,000 people and destroying nearly 2,000 acres of the city’s historic center, which, hitherto, had been dubbed as “Venice on the Elbe”. It’s worth mentioning that the National Socialists first wrongly claimed that over 200,000 people had perished during the air raids to boost their deplorable propaganda, but leading historians now agree that approximately 25,000 innocent lives were lost during this horrific event.

Berlin Guides Association President, Matthew Robinson, laying a wreath of remembrance at the original ruins of the Frauenkirche

Following our guided tour at the Museum, we then headed into the Alt Stadt (Old Town) to the Neumarkt where members of the Berlin Guides Association’s Board of Directors (Vorstand) laid a wreath of remembrance at the surviving ruins of original Frauenkirche. Built in the 1700s, this church – arguably the heart and soul of Dresden – miraculously survived the bombing raids and only collapsed within hours afterward due to extensive heat caused by the Allied fire bombs. Today, we can all take sober satisfaction in knowing that the newly and beautifully designed Frauenkirche has stood in the same spot of its original predecessor since 2005, and thus once again serves as the heart and soul the city’s historic old town.

Our members then dispersed to all parts of town to explore areas that interested them the most for the rest of day. Several of us visited the Yadegar Asisi panorama, a partner institution of the Berlin Guides Association, which focused on the themes of war and destruction as a result of the devastating air strikes on Dresden in February 1945. This exhibition provides the scenery of the destroyed city, as it looked directly after the bombing with the flames and columns of smoke still seen in many of the countless ruined houses. Victims, as well as survivors, covered with layers of ash who sought refuge during the catastrophe, are discernible amidst the apocalyptic, dystopian landscape that this moving exhibit palpably shows.

An uncompromising view of the Hofkirche and part of the Residenzschloss in 2020

Finally, we all rendezvoused at the King Johann statue, in front of the Semperoper, where our transportation back to Berlin was waiting for us. And standing in the middle of that ravishing square, facing east toward the Hofkirche and Residenzschloss, thinking in the context of hundreds of years of the House of Wettin pride, it’s hard to believe that over 80% of the historic city center had been destroyed during that fateful night in February of 1945 given how the old town had been meticulously rebuilt according to its original state over the last forty years.

Before hopping onto the bus back to Berlin, and taking into consideration everything that we’d learned today, it was hard not to reflect on the bombing of Dresden itself and come to realize that, by February of 1945, what had changed during the war was a redefinition of what was a ‘legitimate target’ – that is to say, a ‘legitimate target’ was no longer just simply a city, but rather people in that city who were primarily non-combatant, in what what would result in a virtually redefined total war, so that everybody would become a target.

Unfortunately, this ‘legitimate target’ would be pressed to the max a few months later in Japan.

The Weimar Republic’s Last Ever Election Takes Place On This Day in 1933

Sunday, March 5, 1933 in Germany

Police and SA auxiliary police ‘patrolling’ the streets on election day

The Weimar Republic’s last ever election took place on this day – March 5, 1933 – amid massive violence, intimidation and Nazi Stormtroopers’ free reign to carry guns to ostentatiously raid houses, serve as auxiliary policemen, and patrol the streets after the Reichstag Fire Decree had been passed five days earlier.

647 seats were up for grabs today and even though the NSDAP had been mobilizing and inflicting the same combination of terror, repression and propaganda all across Germany, they only managed to secure 43.9% of the vote, earning them 288 seats and thus falling well short of the 2/3 majority that they’d been banking on to vote out the democracy and install a dictatorship under Hitler and a one party state. 

In other words, not even 1 out of 2 voters voted for the Nazis; as a matter of fact, the Nazis never managed to win an absolute majority in any state or federal election since their rise to electoral significance at the end of the 1920s.

Yet, undeniably, over 17 million people voted for the Nazis in this

Map indicating the NSDAP March 5th electoral results

election with another 3.1 million people voting for the various Nationalist parties. In short, these are over 20 million people who rejected democracy, the Weimar Republic and the Treaty of Versailles.

On the other side of the spectrum, Ernst Thälmann’s Communist Party (KPD) finished as the third largest party, winning 81 seats and just over 12% of the vote.

In short, at a time when over 6 million Germans were out of work – making up 1/3 of the total German labor industry – many voters were frantically looking to the far left and the far right to solve their country’s catastrophic economic and social problems, decidedly and sadly highlighting the mistrust that so many voters felt in their young democracy at that time.

On This Day – February 27, 1933 – Reichstag Fire

Monday, February 27, 1933 at Berlin – Tiergarten

Reichstag on February 27, 1933

It was 87 years ago today that one of the most controversial events in modern German history occurred when the Reichstag – the national parliament building and symbol of Germany’s young democracy – was the target of an arson attack just shy of a month after Hitler’d been appointed Chancellor of Germany.

The person apprehended at the scene and the one whom the Nazis not only blamed for the crime but eventually executed for it, was a 23 year old unemployed Dutch construction worker named Marinus van der Lubbe who had been on a lengthy trek across Central Europe, trying to work his way to the Soviet Union, a state which he greatly admired. As a teenager, he trained to become a mason, entered the Dutch labor movement and joined the Communist youth movement not long thereafter. But he soon came to dislike the party’s strict code of discipline and authoritarian structure, and left it in 1931 to join a radical anarchy-syndicalist organization. After getting as far as Poland, decided to head back west and arrived in Berlin on February 18, 1933.

With the Nazis in power, he felt that the left was being ruthlessly suppressed. A believer in direct actions since his anarchy-syndicalist days, he thought it was time for the unemployed and those who felt deserted on all levels to protest against the bourgeois state and send a direct blow to it, and he decided that he was going to be the one to do it.

Marinus van der Lubbe

Arson was the method he chose.

After unsuccessfully attempting to burn down a welfare office in the Berlin district of Neukoelln, and then that district’s city hall, and finally the former Berlin royal palace three days prior, he decided to spend his last remaining money on matches and lighters on the morning of the 27th, and as historian Richard J. Evans would write – “he sought out the supreme symbol of the bourgeois political order that, he thought, had made his life and that of so many other unemployed young men a misery, and decided to burn down the Reichstag.”

Even though several leading historians on the subject, like Evans, believe that van der Lubbe most likely set the fire, it still isn’t exactly certain that he had. Yet, what’s important to see is the bigger picture in all of this.

Berlin police officers investigating the fire

The Reichstag fire came one week before the very critical March 5th national elections were going to take place – elections on which the Nazis were banking (as already the largest party currently in the Reichstag) to increase their representation in the parliament and win a 2/3 majority of the seats so that they themselves could democratically vote out the democracy and install a one party dictatorship under Hitler. Yet, this fire came as a godsend to Hitler and the Nazis as it conveniently enabled them to use the fire as a pretext that a communist uprising was occurring and thus convince President Paul von Hindenburg to take action the following day by using his presidential powers to evoke Article 48 (an article that allowed the Weimar president to legally rule by decree) of the Weimar Constitution and as a result, suspend basic civil liberties and essentially bestow ultimate power to the Cabinet (i.e. Hitler).

Therefore, after the Nazis successfully convinced old Hindenburg that the government was under attack, Hindenburg issued the “Decree of the Reich President for the Protection of People and State” (also referred to as the the Reichstag Fire Decree) to:

– Immediately put restrictions on free expression of opinions, including the freedom of the press and on the right of assembly and association
– House searches without warrants were now permissible
– Mail and telephone privacy now suspended
– Restrictions on property rights were now permissible beyond all legal limits.

In other words, the Reichstag Fire Decree would now ultimately serve as the “legal” basis for the imprisonment of anyone considered to be opponents of the Nazis including politicians, journalists, writers and basically anyone who’d been loyal to the Weimar constitution. This decree, ‘valid until further notice,’ would now provide the legal pretext for everything that was about to be unleashed in the next few months as the National Socialists continued on their path to seize ultimate power in absolute earnest.

Public notice of the Reichstag Fire Decree

Moreover, because of the events that would unfold so perfectly well for Hitler and the Nazis after the fire – as they now began to eliminate anyone who stood in their way of establishing a one party state – this is why it’s believed that van der Lubbe didn’t set the fire, but rather it was the Nazis themselves. Books have been published on this and students working on PhDs have argued this; yet at the end of the day, we’ll never know for sure who was fully responsible – it’s indeed one of the greatest mysteries of modern German history.

Professor Eric Weitz and author of the book, Weimar Germany: Promise and Tragedy once said in a lecture: “It’s not so important to understand who set the fire; it’s more important to understand who benefited from it – which of course were the Nazis.”

On This Day – February 25, 1947 – The Allied Control Council Officially Abolishes Prussia

Tuesday, February 25, 1947 at Berlin-Schöneberg 

The sheer size of Prussian territory at the time of German Unification in 1871 indicated in red

After the Kingdom of Prussia was established in 1701, its kings – especially Frederick the Great – would quickly transform it into a formidable military state and expand its hegemony deep into current day Poland and across what is much of northern Germany today. And it would be this so-called “Iron Kingdom” that would create a single unified German state for the first time in 1871.

Unfortunately for Prussia, its reputation would be tarnished after Hitler came to power in 1933 as the National Socialists would fuse this ‘old glorious’ history to their ‘new’ regime, making it obvious to the western Allies by the end of WWII that – according to historian Christopher Clark – Nazism was merely the latest manifestation of ‘Prussianism’. As a matter of fact, as early as 1943, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt told a joint session of Congress in September of that year, “This is one thing I want to make perfectly clear: “When Hitler and the Nazis go out, the Prussian military clique must go with them. The war-breeding gangs of militarists must be rooted out of Germany.” 

The upper torso and head of a fallen statue of Kaiser Wilhelm I lie near a chunk of his horse in front of the still standing city palace in 1950

After Nazi Germany signed the unconditional surrender at the end of WWII, it didn’t take the occupying Allies long to quickly see that this defeated corpse that was Prussia needed to finally be ended. The Allied Control Council – established under Part II, Section A, Point 1 of the Potsdam Agreement of 1945 – soon began to discuss its future in the summer of 1946 when a member of the British Allied Control Authority submitted a memorandum to the Council putting the case against Prussia rather succinctly:

“I need not point out that Prussia has been a menace to European security for the last two hundred years. The survival of the Prussian State, even if only in name, would provide a basis for any irredentist claims which the German people may later seek to put forward, would strengthen German militarist ambitions, and would encourage the revival of an authoritarian, centralised Germany which in the interests of all it is vital to prevent.”

Map of the current states of Germany that are completely or mostly situated inside the old borders of Prussia

Therefore, it was on this day – February 25, 1947 – that the Allied Control Council issued Control Council Law Number 46 liquidating the State of Prussia, its central Government, and all its agencies. Technically the Nazis had already done this when they issued the “Law on the Reconstruction of the Reich” on January 30, 1934 which dissolved all federal states and placed them under the authority of governors who were now going to be appointed by Hitler himself, but Control Council Law 46 had now made the dissolution of Prussia official.

Today, its name is rarely seen, only a handful of structures exist to remind us of its past, and Prussia’s once humongous territory has now been divided up among nine federal states within the borders of current day Germany. 

 

The Yalta Conference Ends On This Day 75 Years Ago

Sunday, February 11, 1945

The Big Three at the Livadia Palace at Yalta

It was 75 years ago today – February 11, 1945 – that the original “Big Three” – President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and Soviet Dictator Joseph Stalin – would meet together for the final time with the conclusion of the Yalta Conference, which was the second of three WWII wartime summits between the three heads of government of the United States, Great Britain and the Soviet Union.

The key points on the agenda at Yalta were major questions related to military tactics in the Pacific War and post-war politics in Europe. The Soviets pledged to join the war against Japan three months after the end of the war in Europe, and Germany was to be divided into four occupation zones (which involved the French) and the establishment of a “United Nations” organization was also agreed upon.

Germany would be divided into four occupation zones at Yalta, with its eastern frontier and the Polish question remaining unanswered

Yet, the question of Poland and its borders would dominate much of the eight day summit, as it would five months later when the ‘new’ Big Three would arrive at Potsdam for their final wartime summit. At Yalta, Poland’s western frontier was left undefined, but it was agreed that it would receive “considerable” territorial compensation from Germany, while Stalin ‘pledged’ to permit free and democratic elections in Poland based on the Atlantic Charter that had been signed in 1941. Yet, as soon would become the case, massive intimidation, electoral fraud and a wave of persecution would be unleashed under communist cadres that had the protection of the occupying Red Army throughout Poland and other parts of Eastern Europe. Historians claim that it was finally made obvious to Churchill at Yalta that nothing could change the reality that Stalin had conquered Poland and would thus decide its future, realizing that it wouldn’t be long before it was a fully pledged Soviet satellite state.

Caricature poking fun at post-WWII Soviet expansionism published in the Daily Mail

After the final pictures were taken, Churchill would say goodbye to his close friend, President Roosevelt, whom he had a very special bond with, for the final time, and leave Yalta deeply embittered, realizing that the cause for which Great Britain had entered the war – a free Poland – had been lost.

In short, the Yalta Conference divided Europe between those states that were under the rule of the Red Army and those that were to join the West in one association or another (de facto, not formally). It would also divide Germany ostensibly into occupation zones, but ultimately into separate states.

Thus, it’s largely accepted among historians that Yalta ignited the beginning of the Cold War that would last for the next half century.

Bibliography

Smyser, William R. (1999). From Yalta To Berlin: The Cold War Struggle Over Germany. New York: St. Martin’s Press. ISBN 0-312-06605-8

On This Day – April 3, 1948 – The European Recovery Program Is Passed

Saturday, April 3, 1948 at the White House in Washington D.C. 

WWII had ended just over two years earlier and the winter of 1946-1947 had been the worst one in living memory. With mass starvation, chaos and the spread of communism riddling Western Europe since the end of the war,  a comprehensive system of economic aid for Europe had now finally come to the fore.

Its official title was the European Recovery Program (ERP), but history and the world would better know it as the ‘Marshall Plan’, named after Secretary of State George C. Marshall – one of the most highly respected and most popular persons in the United States at that time.

General George C. Marshall

What Secretary Marshall and President Truman were proposing was not military action, but an economic plan that would involve a delay in the withdrawal of American forces from Europe and a program of financial aid that would pump anywhere between $8-17 billion dollars into the economies of receptive countries. This money would then be used to buy food, resources and other goods from the United States in the hopes that it would help them combat mass starvation, rejuvenate their economies, rebuild utterly destroyed areas, and prevent their democracies from rapidly moving toward the Left – something that was seen as a real danger at the time.

Therefore, it was on this day 72 years ago that U.S. President Harry S. Truman signed the Marshall Plan, initially granting $13 billion dollars in economic assistance to 16 European nations. With this coming a little over a year after Greece and Turkey had been granted $400 million dollars in aid, no other president in U.S. history has ever approved so much money to aid people who weren’t Americans.

Propaganda Photo of Receptive European Countries of the Marshall Plan


The success of the Plan has been criticized by modern historians who argue that some recipient nations had already been experiencing economic recovery, while others negatively argue that it strengthened American economic imperialism abroad. Yet, what’s important to keep in mind is that this stimulus came at a time when a psychological boost was badly needed as countries were still struggling to cope with the economic and human aftermath of WWII, as well as the terrible aforementioned winter.

In short, many people at that time – who were living history forward and not backward – understood the Marshall Plan as a compassionate program and found it to be a real badge of honor for the Truman administration. 

President Truman signing the Marshall Plan on April 3, 1948

“Some of the White House Staff suggested to President Truman that they didn’t much like the idea of General Marshall getting credit for it, but Truman was very firm on that: ‘The Congress will do anything that George Marshall wants. If my name is on it, it will probably become controversial. I don’t want it to become controversial. I want it to succeed. It will be called the Marshall Plan and we will have no more talk about changing the name.’

– Administrative Assistant to the President, George M. Elsey, on President Truman

On This Day – March 21, 1933 – “Day of Potsdam”

Tuesday, March 21, 1933 at Potsdam, Germany

With the “Decree of the Reich President for the Protection of People and State” (The Reichstag Fire Decree) only 22 days old and having served as the “legal” basis for the arrests of thousands of opponents of the Nazis up until that point, Hitler and the National Socialists were on the brink of fully recruiting the remaining nationalist parties in the Reichstag to pass a law that would turn over all  government functions to Hitler himself.

Before this could happen, as far as Hitler was concerned, a ceremony that would underscore the National Socialists’ politics of propaganda and terror needed to be triumphantly held to illustrate a glorified connection between the traditional powers of the “old Reich” and Hitler’s “young” and “dynamic” Nazi movement.

Potsdam’s Garrison Church around 1900. This was the place where the likes of Napoleon and Russian Tsar Nicholas I came to pay their respects to Frederick the Great, whose memorial statue is in the foreground

Always the dramatist, Nazi propaganda head Josef Goebbels staged the inauguration of the new Reichstag (following the national election of 5 March) in the “Day of Potsdam” by convincing President Paul von Hindenburg to go to Potsdam and give his blessing to the new Nazi regime 86 years ago today. Even today’s date – March 21 – had symbolic significance to the “old Reich” for it was the date on which Otto von Bismarck had first opened the all-German Reichstag following the German Unification of 1871.

In addition to a motorcade parade through Potsdam, the main ceremony took place in the Garrison Church, located just blocks away from the Potsdam City Palace – which had served as the second official seat of the dynastic Princes of the Holy Roman Empire, Kings of Prussia, and German Emperors of the House of Hohenzollern for nearly three centuries. Moreover, the Garrison Church had been the final resting place of Hitler’s hero and one of the most influential monarchies in European history, Frederick the Great.

An unusually well-dressed Hitler and his new cabinet on their way to the Garrison Church. Vice Chancellor Franz von Papen is immediately to his left

With the last Crown Prince of the Hohenzollern dynasty – along with his brothers – in attendance, the ceremony got underway just after noon local time. Hindenburg marched down the nave of the church while decked out in his gray field marshal’s uniform and carrying his spiked helmet in his left hand. Just before reaching the church’s Imperial Gallery, the old general paused and saluted the empty pew of the last Prussian King and German Emperor, Kaiser Wilhelm II.

Hindenburg then reached the altar, turned, and gave a brief homily that would consecrate the Nazi regime:

Reich President Paul von Hindenburg of the “old Reich” opening the new Reichstag at the Day of Potsdam

“May the old spirit of this celebrated shrine permeate the generation of today, may it liberate us from selfishness and party strife and bring us together in national self-consciousness to bless a proud and free Germany, united in herself.”

Hitler, who was wearing a black suit with striped pants (a far cry from his usual brown stormtrooper uniform and high boots), responded with:

“Neither the Kaiser nor the government nor the nation wanted the war. It was only the collapse of the nation which compelled a weakened race to take upon itself, against its most sacred convictions, the guilt for this war.”

Having gone to the altar himself, Hitler looked down on Hindenburg, who had taken a seat in the front pew near Goebbels and Reichstag President Hermann Goering. Hitler then looked at Hindenburg and addressed the “old Reich” directly:

Hitler addressing the new Reichstag – in particular, Reich President Hindenburg

“By a unique upheaval in the last few weeks, our national honor has been restored and, thanks to your understanding, Herr Generalfeldmarschall, the union between the symbols of the old greatness and the new strength has been celebrated. We pay you homage. A protective providence places you over the new forces of our nation.” 

After uttering these words, Hitler stepped down from the altar, bowed to Hindenburg, and shook his hand – producing one of the most infamous photographs in modern history.

Yet at the end of the day, this melodrama inside the Garrison Church at Potsdam was more than a triumphant ceremony. This was the moment in which Hitler – the leader of the young and dynamic Nazi movement – proclaimed the creation of the “Thousand Year Reich” in the presence of the symbols of Germany’s glorified past.

A national mood of euphoria in this new “Volksgemeinschaft” (People’s Community) had been born and it unfortunately resonated with broad parts of German society throughout the country. Along with this wave of enthusiasm, the collective optimism of the German people – which hadn’t been felt since 1914 – began to blossom as well, with only limited opposition to this new national hysteria.

Alas, Nazi Germany had now come into existence.