World War II ended 75 years ago. 1945 was thus a massive watershed year in history. The biggest war that had ever been fought came to a close, and a new world order was forged. I’ll explore the end of World War II in a three-part miniseries. As war is an instrument of politics to achieve a better peace, I’ll kick the series off with this post on the conferences at which the great powers discussed the winning of the war against the Axis as well as the peace and the new world order which would follow. Several such conferences were held from 1943 on, but this post will only focus on the last two – the Yalta Conference in February 1945, three months before the end of the fighting in Europe, and the Potsdam Conference in July 1945, two months after the end of the fighting. 1945 was the end of World War II, but was it also the beginning of the Cold War? We’ll look into that question as well. As usual, board games will feature!
The Road to Yalta
The great powers fighting against the Axis in World War II were unlikely allies. They were united by their wish to prevent Nazi domination of Europe, but they had gotten into the war in very different ways:
- Britain had intervened on behalf of their Polish ally in September 1939 to stop German expansion which would upset the balance of power in Europe.
- The Soviet Union was the only power of the Big Three to enter the war after a direct German attack (Operation Barbarossa in 1941 which was followed by years of Soviet struggle for mere survival).
- The United States joined the war post-Pearl Harbor. Germany had declared war on the US in the hope that this would lead to an ineffectual split of American forces. America’s main goal was to prevent any hostile power from dominating Eurasia.
The Big Three frequently disagreed on policy. The United States and the United Kingdom, however, shared bonds of language and culture and cooperated directly in the various theaters of the war. Churchill (Mark Herman, GMT Games) makes the two countries distinct players (as opposed to a joint Western Allies player like in many other World War II games), but gives them some joint pieces advancing on the various fronts as well as victory point incentives to cooperate.
The disagreements between the western powers and the Soviet Union lay deeper. Since the October Revolution had brought the Communists to power in Russia, they had been in an ideological antagonism with the capitalist countries. Back then, Winston Churchill, minister in the British government, had supported the multinational expedition force which was sent to the Russian Civil War in a failed bid to strangle the first Communist government in the crib. Two decades later, Churchill was prime minister of the United Kingdom – and now allied with the Soviet Union he had tried to destroy. In a much shorter timespan, Harry S. Truman had experienced a similar development: When Germany attacked the Soviet Union in June 1941, Truman, a US senator from Missouri, had stated that the United States should wait to see which side was winning and then support the other in order to get as many people as possible from both sides killed. Six months later, the United States were at war with Nazi Germany themselves, and by 1945, Truman, now sworn in as vice president, held government responsibility for defeating Germany together with the Soviet Union.
The task to form an effective fighting coalition out of these countries and their leaders was enormous. Therefore, they held several diplomatic conferences in various setups – sometimes only with negotiators from two countries present, sometimes all of the big three, sometimes with leaders from other countries fighting against the Axis like Chiang Kai-Shek from China or Charles de Gaulle from France. In 1943, the highest leaders of all Big Three countries met personally for the first time: Soviet general secretary Joseph Stalin, American president Franklin D. Roosevelt, and British prime minister Winston Churchill came together in Tehran and discussed issues pertaining to winning the war (like the date for the upcoming D-Day landings in France or a Soviet entry into the Pacific War against Japan) as well as issues about the post-war order (like a possible division of Germany, and the founding an international organization to prevent future wars).
After Tehran, it would take another fifteen months for the three leaders to meet again. In the meantime, American, British, and Commonwealth troops landed in Normandy and liberated France. The Soviet army expelled the Axis from the Soviet Union and most of Eastern Europe, including Poland, whose invasion had been the beginning of the war in Europe. Finally, the western troops had just weathered the German attack through the Ardennes in the Battle of the Bulge. Then, in February 1945, the Big Three convened at the Crimean city of Yalta.
Both the timing and the location were favorable to Stalin. His armies had recently reached the Oder River, just a few kilometers away from Berlin. The last major military success of the western powers – the liberation of France – was months ago, and their assault on the Rhine had not yet commenced. And by holding the conference in Yalta, liberated from Nazi occupation only a year before, the American and British negotiators got to see the destruction caused by the fighting and the Nazis‘ policy of racial annihilation in the east. The bleak desolation left a deep impression on the Americans and British, whose countries had seen only a fraction of the horrors which the Soviet Union had suffered.
All three powers expressed their interest to keep cooperating after the war, but they attached importance to very different problems (closely resembling their preferences in the global issues of Churchill):
- Churchill was concerned about the balance of power in the individual liberated countries – be that Poland, France, or the Balkans.
- Stalin was focused on Germany and how reparations from there could be used to both rebuild the Soviet Union and shield it from any future attack from the west.
- Roosevelt wanted to see his project of the United Nations through to ensure a new rules-based world order resting on the cooperation of the great powers.
Each of the three leaders got a bit of what they wanted, but not everything. The three powers issued a declaration on liberated Europe and agreed that France would be treated as a victorious power of the war and have an occupation zone as well. This was especially important to Churchill, who expected the Americans to bring their troops home soon after the war and did not want to be left alone with the Soviets in central Europe.
Other European issues were not so agreeably resolved: Stalin thought of Europe as divided into spheres of influence. That entailed to him that he would not meddle in the western sphere of influence – and he had therefore stayed his hand when British forces in Greece had put down the left-wing guerillas which had born the brunt of the resistance against Nazi occupation only a few weeks before Yalta. Conversely, Stalin expected the western powers to stay mute about what he did in countries within his sphere of influence – and did not appreciate Roosevelt and Churchill going on and on about the importance of democratic principles in forming the new government of Poland.
When it came to reparations, Stalin was more successful. The Big Three agreed on a fixed amount of reparations worth 20 billion dollars, half of which would go to the Soviet Union.
Roosevelt secured the commitment of the two other leaders to participate in the United Nations. While Stalin was willing to cooperate here, he was suspicious of its processes of international law. The Soviet Union had nothing comparable to the lawyer-dominated political culture of the anglophone countries, so to Stalin the UN smacked of a convoluted way to take advantage of him.
Finally, Roosevelt got Stalin to agree to enter the war against Japan. As a major part of the Japanese forces was stationed in China, only the Soviets had enough ground troops to defeat them reasonably soon. Stalin committed to attacking the Japanese three months after the surrender of Germany.
Said surrender of Germany came to happen on May 8, 1945. And so the Big Three met again in July – this time to decide the future of Europe and make sure Japan would be defeated as well. Once more, Stalin got his way with the location: Instead of somewhere in Britain or the United States, the conference was held in Potsdam, a wealthy suburb of Berlin, and therefore close to the Soviet army’s final victory over Nazi Germany. Not only did the choice of Potsdam convey the Soviet contribution to the victory, it also allowed Stalin, who hated air travel, to arrive by train.
The timing, however, was in favor of the Americans this time. As they had successfully conducted the first test of a nuclear bomb on July 16, 1945, they could conduct the second half of the conference in the knowledge to have the most powerful weapon known to mankind at their disposal. Timing-wise, the big loser was Winston Churchill. The British general election was scheduled to happen in the middle of the conference – too early for Churchill to get a boost at the polls from a successful conference as a great statesman, late enough that when the votes were counted and Churchill’s Tories surprisingly defeated, the British negotiation team was exchanged for the second half of the conference and Churchill replaced with Clement Attlee, the leader of the victorious Labour Party. That made two of the three leaders different from those at Yalta. Roosevelt had died on April 12, 1945, and thus his vice president Truman took over.
Truman was outstandingly ill-prepared to follow in Roosevelt’s footsteps on world affairs – not only because his trip to Potsdam was the first time he left the United States for the first time since returning from France after World War I. He was by no means a confidante of the deceased president. Before he was nominated as Roosevelt’s running mate, he hadn’t even seen the president in a year. The only reason why he was chosen had been that he was acceptable as a compromise candidate to both the conservative wing of the Democratic Party (which had not liked the liberal sitting vice president Henry A. Wallace) and the liberal wing (which had not liked the conservative champion James F. Byrnes). When Roosevelt died, Truman had only been vice president for less than three months. Within these months, he had not dealt with any foreign policy issues, and had not even received a briefing after the Yalta conference. In fact, Roosevelt had explicitly instructed him to limit his communication with him to the „absolutely urgent“ items and keep it short.
Now Truman had still a war to win. Japan was not yet defeated, but the nuclear bomb gave Truman more confidence that he was not fully dependent on the Soviet army to do so. In addition, the nuclear bomb – soon to be dropped over the Japanese city of Hiroshima – had emboldened Truman to run a more confrontational strategy against the Soviets.
In Europe, matters were less promising for the United States. No pan-German agreement on reparations could be reached – while the Soviets wanted to take everything that could be moved, from simple nails to whole factories, the British and Americans argued that Germany’s economy needed to stay functional if further reparations were to be extracted and the Germans not fully dependent on allied food deliveries. In the end, the Big Three resolved that each of them was to take reparations from their own zone of occupation (and apply their own guidelines there). Obviously, the western approach was more popular with the Germans than the Soviet one – as depicted in Wir sind das Volk! (Richard Sivél/Peer Sylvester, Histogame).
However, the Big Three could all agree to the policy of the „Four D’s“
- Denazification (removal of Nazis from important position and re-education of the population)
- Demilitarization (destruction of the German arms industry and prevention of a new military buildup in Germany)
- Democratization (permission to form parties and trade unions, freedom of speech, press, and religion)
- Decentralization (empowering of regions and municipalities, breaking up of large business trusts)
How these guidelines were to be applied in practice was a matter of contention – for example, the British argued for a lenient approach to denazification in which only top-level war criminals would be put on trial, whereas both Americans and Soviets wanted to be much more thorough. In practice, many things would be decided by each power in their occupation zone.
One of the most contentious matters at Yalta – the future of Poland – was already decided before the Potsdam Conference even began. In the last five months, the Soviets had radically changed the ethnic makeup of eastern-central Europe. Ethnic Poles had been expelled from all areas east of the Curzon line (the proposed eastern border of Poland from the Versailles Treaty, which had been expanded by Poland due to their victory over the nascent Soviet Union in 1920, and which the Soviets had gotten back after the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939). Conversely, almost all ethnic Germans in Silesia, Prussia, and Eastern Pomerania had been expelled to areas of Germany further west – often fleeing a pillaging and raping Soviet army bent on vengeance. The newly de-Germanized areas could therefore be offered to Poland as compensation for the territorial losses in the east. While the western leaders meekly protested, they could not change the fait accompli with which Soviet power on the ground had presented them.
Many other issues which were not as prominent in the minds of the leaders at the time were also decided at Potsdam – and often came back to them years later. For example, the Big Three agreed – on the last day of the conference, almost as an afterthought – on demarcation lines that decided which power would accept the Japanese surrender in which part of Korea and Vietnam. These lines – the 38th and the 17th parallel – would eventually divide both countries and serve as the initial frontlines for the Korean and Vietnam War.
All three leaders saw the Potsdam Conference as a peace conference in the style of the Versailles Conference 26 years earlier. They all wanted to avoid the mistakes from Versailles – which, as they all agreed, had led to World War II – be that
- the ethnically based revisionism in central and eastern Europe
- the promising strategic position of Germany without many checking great powers on it which allowed it to bounce back from its defeat
- the lack of symbolic measures to show the Germans that they had lost the war (which had given way to the stab-in-the-back myth after World War I)
- or American isolationism which failed to couple American wealth, based on its position in the global economy, with American responsibility to get involved on the global stage.
As they saw the problems presented to them, the Big Three successfully formed a better new world order at Potsdam.
When did the Cold War begin?
The beginning and end of historical eras is always up for debate. That holds true for the beginning of the Cold War, defined as a bipolar confrontation between a US-led West and a Soviet-led East. An argument has been made (for example by German historian Jost Dülffer) that Yalta was already the beginning of this bipolarity: Churchill was sidelined on many issues and the United States and the Soviet Union dominated. Similarly, an argument can be made for Potsdam: Not only was the British presence at the company ineffectual, more importantly even, the war in Europe was over, so the cooperation of the unlikely allies of the anti-Hitler coalition ended.
Both arguments are flawed. They understate the importance of Britain at both conferences. To use the parlance of Churchill, the British still „won issues“ – like including France as an occupying power in Germany. That Britain did not play a bigger role at the conferences was at least as much due to their chief negotiators – Churchill’s lack of preparation and over-indulgence in alcohol (especially at Potsdam) and Attlee’s inexperience as prime minister.
Just as well, all three powers were willing to cooperate with each other after the war had ended, and also expected that this cooperation would continue – rocky as it might be, but their alliance during the war was not exactly a threeway match made in heaven either. On the central issue of Germany, the Allies‘ cooperation eroded only slowly over the next few years. They only saw the world as split in two blocs by 1947 – when the United States issued the Truman Doctrine of support of “free peoples” against Communist takeover and the Soviets declared the world to be divided in „two camps“ – the “imperialistic” one led by the US and the “democratic” one led by the Soviet Union. Only then had cooperation become nigh-impossible.
For Yalta in the strategic context of both World War II and the Cold War, see Dülffer, Jost: Jalta, 4. Februar 1945. Der Zweite Weltkrieg und die Entstehung der bipolaren Welt, Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, Munich 1998 (in German).
An excellent account of Potsdam is Neiberg, Michael: Potsdam. The End of World War II and the Remaking of Europe, Basic Books, New York 2015.
You can find the protocol of proceedings of Yalta here.
Finally, the protocol of proceedings of Potsdam is here.