MOSCOW. The leaders of the Soviet Union, the U.S. and Britain met on July 17-August 2, 1945, at the Cecilienhof Palace in Potsdam, just outside Berlin.
It was the last Allied conference, and although it adopted vital documents on the proposed world order for the second half of the 20th century, many remained only on paper and many others were distorted beyond recognition. Why did this happen? What prevented the Allies from maintaining partnership relations in peacetime?
Historian Valentin Falin talks with RIA Novosti military commentator Viktor Litovkin about some of the less known aspects of World War II and post-war policies.
Question: I would like to begin with an obvious question. Most people know a great deal about the Potsdam conference. At least, those who read school history diligently and saw the feature film "Liberation" remember that Harry Truman came instead of Franklin D. Roosevelt, and that Churchill, who had lost the election, was replaced by Clement Attlee. They also know that at Potsdam Truman "confidentially" told Stalin that the Americans had created an incredibly powerful weapon, the A-bomb, and that Stalin did not bat an eye at the news. But what was the main aspect of the conference for historians and history?
Answer: There were many sides to the Potsdam conference. There is no clear answer as to its meaning in the final stages of World War II, because Japan was yet to be put on its knees. Opinions differ on the influence of its decisions on global developments in the second half of the 20th century.
Strangely, the very fact that the Big Three met in Potsdam at all was an achievement, because it had many opponents in the U.S. and especially British corridors of power and the weight of the advocates of cooperation with the Soviet Union for building a world free of violence and threats was dwindling.
The impossibility of pushing the Soviet Union into the role of extra in determining the political outlook of Europe became apparent by spring 1945. Developments took an unprecedented turn. Public disappointment in the ability of the Allies to reach Berlin ahead of the Soviets provoked a tidal wave of anti-Russian hysterics across the ocean and in Britain.
The public was stirred by calls to stop the Russian barbarians who had laid a claim to the Western civilization. The conservative press and the church joined the chorus of those who spoke about the incompatibility of the interests of the West and the East.
U.S. Under-Secretary of State Joseph Clark Grew wrote in his diary in May 1945 that as a result of the war the dictatorship and domination of Germany and Japan passed over to the Soviet Union, which would present as much threat to Americans in the future as the Axis powers. He added that a war against the Soviet Union was as imminent as anything in this world can be. Grew was supposed to be a friend of the late President Roosevelt.
People were intimidated by rumors and speculations about "cleansing operations" in the countries controlled by the Soviet army. Reference was made to "witnesses" of the arrest of about 2,000 supporters of the Romanian dictator Ion Antonescu and other members of the opposition.
It is true that the overthrow of pro-Nazi regimes in Germany's satellites was darkened by distortions and outrages typical of the Stalinist system. But no self-respecting historian will find major differences between the purges in Eastern Europe and the persecution of Nazi accomplices in France, where military tribunals sentenced to execution 38,000-40,000 collaborationists and three times the number were sent to hard-labor camps. Those French practices were accepted without much ado.
Q: One rule for us, and another for them?
A: Exactly. That logic determined the attitudes of the U.S. and Britain to events in Western and Eastern Europe, everything that happened there during the war and after it. Take Washington's principles for compensation of damage done by Germany to the victim countries. Some people have forgotten that after World War I the Americans obliged Germany to pay $55 billion in reparations to the U.S., although not a single German bomb or shell had damaged its territory during the first or second world wars. Even before Germany surrendered in 1945, Washington decided to "forgive" the aggressor its "apres moi la deluge" policy.
In March 1945, US Congress approved a resolution recommending that the administration abstain from helping the victims of Hitler's aggression to reconstruct their economies. Minimal assistance was to be provided to the Soviet Union.
By adopting that bill, the Congressmen wanted to prevent Roosevelt, who was still alive, and his finance secretary Henry Morgenthau from giving Moscow promised loans of $4.5-$10 billion.
Today, more than 50 years later, it is very difficult to say what made Roosevelt and Morgenthau promise the money. Was it an honest intention or an attempt to test Soviet readiness for political and other concessions? It appears that the inter-faction struggle in the U.S. in spring 1945 included different views of the Soviet Union, including pro-partnership views.
Q: What did the U.S. want from Moscow then?
A: It demanded liberalization, which has become so popular now. It asked Moscow to rescind state control of domestic and foreign trade, to improve its social-economic system, to adopt Western information standards, and so on. But the main requirement was to leave all Eastern and Central European states, which the Soviet Army entered while pursuing the retreating German troops.
Q: And what did Western powers expect to do if the economic carrot or the political stick did not work?
A: Quite a lot. The war was not over yet and the predicted dates of Germany's surrender varied by a large margin. Some said the Reich would crumble within days and hours, while others thought the bloodshed would continue until the end of the year. Most optimists resided in London, and their optimistic view of the future rested on promising contacts with the German military and political leaderships. The British waited with bated breath for the dissolution of the Western front and the transfer of Wehrmacht divisions to the "democratic reserve."
Preparing conditions for the change of policy, Churchill in March 1945 ordered that German weapons and military hardware be collected and stored for easy distribution among the German units with which the West would have to cooperate if the Soviet offensive did not stop.
This was the groundwork for the notorious Operation Unthinkable, under which World War II was to develop immediately, without interim stages, into a third world war, with the goal of ensuring the total defeat of the Soviet Union and its destruction as a multinational community.
An order is an order. The captured weapons were stored and Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, acting in coordination with Dwight Eisenhower, interned whole divisions of German men and officers in Schleswig-Holstein and Southern Denmark.
Hitler's successor, Admiral Karl Doenitz, ordered that hostilities cease against the U.S. and Britain on land, on sea and in the air, but that fighting continue against the Soviet Union to the hilt. Doenitz and Wilhelm Keitel, chief of staff of the Supreme Command, instructed General Alfred Jodl and Admiral Hans-Georg von Friedeburg to sign the hastily prepared surrender documents at Rheims on May 7, 1945 (to prevent the signing of documents approved by the Big Three at Yalta).
As far as I know, Doenitz's order to continue fighting against the Soviet Union to the bitter end was not disavowed during contacts with Jodl and Friedeburg or when the Rheims surrender was signed. Hence, the Rheims surrender could be presented, in case of need, as the capitulation of the German Armed Forces but not the state of Germany.
It was no accident that the Rheims slapstick was enacted against the backdrop of Truman's decision to end cooperation with the Soviet Union.
Under-Secretary of State Grew wrote in his diary that the American policy regarding Soviet Russia should be made harsher on all counts. It would be better and safer to clash before Russia completed restoration and upgraded its tremendous military, economic and territorial potential, he wrote.
Let us compare the dates. May 19: The Grew Memorandum. May 22: The British chiefs of staff report to Churchill on Operation Unthinkable, which includes an attack on the Soviet Union by the combined forces of the U.S., Britain and its dominions, the Polish expeditionary corps and 10 Wehrmacht divisions. The combined force was to consist of 112-113 divisions and the operation was to be launched on July 1, 1945.
Q: Sorry, but Western writers now say that Operation Unthinkable was designed to protect the West from the invasion of Soviet hordes who were spoiling to get to the English Channel.
A: You can say what you like, but fantasy stands on trembling legs without facts. The chiefs of staff's report to Churchill speaks for itself, and historians know about it. In it, the goal of Operation Unthinkable was given as delivering the complete defeat of Soviet Russia with the use of all available means and resources.
You should remember that the A-bomb would be used soon, and Churchill knew about it. Total war, the report said, is the only way to "impose upon Russia the will of the United States and British Empire." There is virtually no limit to infiltration into the depth of Russia, the plan said, which is necessary to preclude resistance.
The plan provided primarily for the occupation of regions without which the Soviet troops would not have the material ability to continue fighting.
The file on Operation Unthinkable declassified in 1998 says nothing about the propaganda chimeras about Moscow's alleged plans of occupying "defenseless Europe" and pushing to the Atlantic coast, as the Chiefs of Staff worked on practical operations directives.
The stories about the "Red hordes" grew on the field, where fear and hatred of Russia had been nurtured since Peter the Great, the war against Napoleon and the Crimean war. The idea was most often used after the 1917 October Revolution.
It does not matter for our opponents that the Soviet concept of post-war Europe did not stipulate the enforcement of pro-Soviet regimes in Poland, Czechoslovakia and other countries, which the Red Army liberated from the Nazis. What the Soviet Union attempted to do was replace the sanitary cordon of states that hated Bolshevism, as Churchill said, which surrounded Russia after World War I, with a belt of friendly countries.
Stressing the importance of the Soviet-Polish union treaty, Stalin recommended that Warsaw sign similar agreements with Britain, France and the United States. He said, "The Polish people must not follow the Soviet Union; they must rise against the common enemy, the Germans."
Q: When was this?
A: Soon after Yalta, in April 1945. Take the original documents of the era, which are available now. They will show with mathematical precision that the top priority of the Soviet policy in 1945-1947 was not to export socialism but to guarantee national security. Moscow was open to dialogue with the Western powers and strictly abided by the four-party agreements.
U.S. General Lucius Dubington Clay, the father of the Berlin Airlift, said that until the U.S. clashed with the Soviet Union over the German problem, the Soviet side could not be accused of violating the Potsdam agreements. Moscow is honestly fulfilling these decisions, he reported to his Washington bosses, and is demonstrating a sincere desire to be friends with America, as well as a certain respect for the U.S. We did not believe for one moment in the possibility of a Soviet aggression, Clay concluded.
Regrettably, the same cannot be said about the U.S., Britain and France, to judge by their actions rather than declarations.
A three-D program was adopted in Potsdam: the democratization, denazification and demilitarization of Germany. What was the result of that policy in the province of Cham (the British zone)? Former Nazis constituted 74% of judges there. As a result, none of the verdicts of the Nazi "people's courts," which sentenced thousands of Germans to execution for betraying the Nazi regime, deserting the army and refusing to fight to the last bullet, were invalidated. The local and regional governments there were dominated by the inheritors of the Third Reich. The feeble explanation was that no qualified replacements were found for them. But we will discuss this issue a bit later.
Q: What did most Americans knew about Operation Unthinkable?
A: It is not clear to this day. We know that after the death of Roosevelt the British prime minister worked hard to involve the Americans in his plans of pushing the Russian barbarians behind the Volga, if not the Urals. Churchill probably stood a stone's throw from his dream of exploiting the victories of the Crimean War of the 19th century to bring about the ruination of Russia.
At a conference in the White House on April 23, 1945, Truman called for a U-turn in American foreign policy. Moscow has played the part it was given by the "democracies" in the struggle against Nazi Germany, he argued, and the U.S. no longer needs to cooperate with it. The Americans can force Japan to surrender without the Soviet assistance, he implied.
This means that the Yalta agreements were no longer necessary for America. At the time when Truman advocated a turn in the U.S. policy, he was not aware of the Manhattan Project to create a nuclear bomb.
The American military rejected the ideas of their new president. If the Soviet Union does not enter the war against Japan, as it had promised in Tehran and Yalta, said the chiefs of staff, the conflict in the Pacific would drag on for 12-18 months. If the Red Army does not contribute to defeating Japan, the Americans would have to land on the Japanese islands. Taking into account the Japanese fanaticism and the ability to redeploy troops from China and Korea, the U.S. would lose over 1 million troops. It is unacceptable, the generals said.
And they did not abandon the idea of joining forces with the Soviet Union at the final stage of the war against Japan, even after the successful test of the first atomic bomb in Nevada.
So, it would not be an exaggeration to say that the Potsdam conference could not have been held had not the US generals kept Truman from invalidating the Yalta agreements in April 1945. The crucial decision to preserve the anti-Hitler coalition until the surrender of Japan prevented Churchill from undermining the Potsdam conference. The British prime minister only succeeded in postponing it for a week or two, which had a negative effect. But the main thing is that the conference was held, even though it became the final farewell to the anti-Hitler alliance.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of RIA Novosti.