“The Big Three” at the start of the Potsdam Conference:
Joseph Stalin, Harry S. Truman, and Winston Churchill
Day 1 of the Potsdam Conference:
Tuesday, July 17, 1945, at the Cecilienhof Palace in Potsdam, Germany.
Shortly after Nazi Germany signed the unconditional surrender on 7./8. May 1945, American President Harry S. Truman, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and Soviet Dictator Joseph Stalin decided to meet in Berlin to discuss what to do with a defeated Germany and how to pursue Allied strategy in an endless war in the Pacific Theater. Furthermore, Germany’s eastern borders, reparations, and a number of other matters faced the postwar world – matters that this so-called ‘anti-Hitler coalition’ would have to confront head on.
History commonly refers to this summit as the Potsdam Conference, but it is officially called the ‘Three Power Conference of Berlin’ since the anti-Hitler coalition’s initial intention was to meet in the formal defeated capital of the Third Reich. However, because WWII had left Berlin in a state of ruin by the summer of 1945, the Americans, British and Soviets quickly realized that they would have to seek other alternatives.
The still intact Cecilienhof Palace in Potsdam, just beyond Berlin’s southwest border, was ultimately chosen as the location for the Conference.
Completed in 1917, this was the final residence built by the House of Hohenzollern during its 500 years of dynastic rule in Brandenburg. It was named after Princess Cecilie of Mecklenburg-Schwerin who was the wife of the last Crown Prince of Prussia, Prince Wilhelm (who would have become King of Prussia and German Emperor if Germany hadn’t surrendered at the end of WWI). Unlike most of the Hohenzollern palaces in Berlin and Brandenburg – like the Charlottenburg and Sanssouci Palaces – Cecilienhof’s history was interestingly made while the head of the House of Hohenzollern (Wilhelm) lived a private and secluded life with his family for most of the interwar years. Unfortunately for this former royal family, they would leave the palace before the Soviet advancement at the end of WWII in Europe – and thus abandon their jewel residence that included any valuable possessions that happened to be left behind.
Quickly occupied by units of Ivan Konev’s 1st Ukrainian Front during the Battle of Berlin, the Soviets quickly realized that Cecilienhof could provide ample space and modern amenities; and most importantly, they saw Cecilienhof’s lakeside seclusion on the grounds of Potsdam’s Neuer Garten Park could fulfill the requirements needed to protect the three most powerful men on earth from 17 July – 2 August 1945.
Truman and Stalin Meet for the First Time
On the morning of the Conference’s first plenary session, President Truman and Soviet Dictator Stalin met each other for the very first time at the “Truman Villa” in Babelsberg, an eastern district of Potsdam where the Big Three took up their residence during the summit.
“Promptly a few minutes before 12:00, I looked up from my desk and there stood Stalin in the doorway,” the President wrote in his diary. “I got to my feet and advanced to meet him; he put out his hand and smiled. I did the same, we shook, I greeted Molotov (Foreign Minister) and the interpreter…”
As Truman’s biographer, David McCullough, would write: “He was the absolute dictator of over 180 million people of 170 nationalities in a country representing one-sixth of the earth’s surface, the Generalissimo of gigantic, victorious armies, and Harry Truman, like nearly everyone meeting him for the first time, was amazed to find how small he actually was: ‘A little bit of a squirt,’ Truman described him, as Stalin stood 5’5″(165cm).”
“I can deal with Stalin…He’s honest but smart as hell…,” Truman would later write about Stalin. The Generalissimo, on the other hand, was less sanguine. He once told an aide that Truman was “worthless” and had pretty much already determined that he’d surrender nothing of any kind when the bargaining would begin at Cecilienhof.
The First of Thirteen Plenary Session is Called to Order
At 5:10PM, President Harry S. Truman, Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Soviet Dictator Joseph Stalin entered the conference room through their own separate doors (a maneuver meant to eliminate the problem as to who would set first foot in the conference room if all three had come in together) and sat down with their foreign ministers, various advisers, and interpreters at the large oak table to determine the fate of the post-WWII world.
At Stalin’s suggestion, the Soviet and British immediately and collectively confirmed President Truman as Chairman of the Conference. Truman gladly and modestly accepted this confirmation and began to present some of the proposals that he and his Secretary of State, Jimmy Byrnes, had prepared on their journey across the Atlantic for consideration. Byrnes would later write, “It was evident that the other heads of government appreciated the President’s efforts in having proposals (on the first day) ready for discussion.”
Before the first plenary session was adjourned, the Big Three had agreed on the political and economic principles upon which to discuss the treatment of Germany after WWII. These would famously become known as the “Four D’s”: Democratization, Demilitarization, Denazification, Decentralization. They also had begun to discuss the political future of Bulgaria, Poland, Romania, and Italy. Furthermore, the three nations began to consider how to divide up the German Navy, a topic they all were eager to talk about.
Following this first day of talks, the three leaders retired next door to the Weißer Salon. This large, bright and cheerful room was the Crown Prince’s and Crown Prince’s wife’s music room. During the Conference, though, it served as the Soviet’s reception hall where Stalin’s delegation had prepared a lavish and elaborate buffet for the Americans and the British.
From what President Truman would write in his diary, it became clear that the Soviets really knew how to put on a buffet at day’s end: “The table was set with everything you could think of…Goose liver, caviar, every kind of meat one could imagine, along with cheeses of different shapes and colors, and endless wine and vodka.”
Needless to say, it was a pleasant end to a short, first day.