When the world was reinvented: Harry Truman, Joseph Stalin & the end of World War II

Historian Michael Neiberg tells Salon about the perils of the postwar era & the limits of the what great men can do

Published May 16, 2015 7:00PM (EDT)

Winston Churchill, Harry S.Truman, and Josef Stalin pose in Potsdam, Germany, July 23, 1945.     (AP)
Winston Churchill, Harry S.Truman, and Josef Stalin pose in Potsdam, Germany, July 23, 1945. (AP)

Up until the second decade of the 20th century, Europe had been home to magnificent feats of cultural brilliance, architecture splendor, and a central hub of cosmopolitan ideas. By May 1945, however, following the surrender of Nazi Germany, most of the continent lay in ruins. Food and fuel were extremely scarce. Britain was on the verge of bankruptcy. Germany, meanwhile, had been reduced to a giant pile of rubble.

Millions of refugees roamed the continent in search of a future that looked extremely bleak: They were often hungry, homeless, and stateless. For some, there wasn't even a single relative left alive to try and pick up the pieces with. The greatest war mankind had ever witnessed threatened to wipe out western civilization, and replace it instead with a utopian barbarism that had no time for human empathy.

In July 1945, three of the world's leading statesmen from the Allied side -- Harry Truman, Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin -- all met up in a quiet Berlin suburb: The aim of the Potsdam Conference was to negotiate a lasting global peace to a conflict that had essentially begun in 1914. If Europe was to have any sort of lasting stability — economically, politically, and militarily — it needed an immediate solution. All the delegates arrived determined to learn from the mistakes their predecessors had made when the Treaty of Versailles was signed in Paris in 1919.

"In Potsdam: The End of World War II and the Remaking of Europe," the historian Michael Neiberg captures in a dramatic fashion the numerous twists and turns of what was to become the most historic and important diplomatic meeting in 20th century global geopolitics.

I caught up with Neiberg recently to ask him about the book. Over an hour long interview, we discussed the limits of "the great man theory" of history;  debated the pros and cons of the Pax Americana vision that emerged from the Bretton Woods Conference in 1944; we were both equally surprised that the Holocaust never even got a passing mention among the delegates of Potsdam. What follows is a lightly edited and condensed transcript of that conversation.

How much did the shadow of the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 loom over Potsdam in 1945? 

Well it was the First World War that had shaped all of these men. So at Potsdam they were trying to figure out what had gone wrong in Paris 26 years earlier. They were also asking what were the basic fundamental mistakes that those who had gone before them had made? And they did a pretty good job: they had reset the boarders of Europe so that the political/ social/ ethnic lines matched up pretty well. They had more or less fixed the problem about what to do with Germany, settling the reparations issue, albeit in a controversial way, by dividing the country up. But fundamentally, they understood this was a problem that stretched back not just to 1939, but to 1914.

This book argues for some limits to be called on the so called “great man” theory of history. And yet many powerful and important men appear in it. What do you mean by this? 

History is always a mixture of what the individual can do and what circumstances constrains them to do. For a historian, Potsdam is almost like a laboratory. Because the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt brought in Harry Truman. And the British election in the middle of the conference removed Winston Churchill and brought in Clement Attlee.

So you had people who, (a) never thought they were going to be in that position; and (b) lacked the kind of world presence/dominance that their predecessors had. And yet everyone who watched Attlee and Truman made the same observation: The change in personalities didn't change the fundamental economic, geopolitical, and historical reality.

A New York Times reporter, Ann O' Hare McCormick, wrote at the time that Berlin was like a graveyard. I would also add to that: The graveyard was setting the limits on what the undertakers could do. That's not to say that individuals aren't important in history — I think they are — but it's important to understand the way that larger structural factors shape just what those individuals can do.

The Bretton Woods Conference of 1944 reflected many American post-war goals: namely global free trade and the creation of worldwide markets. Many on the left, especially today, would argue that Bretton Woods actually created a global economy where many vulnerable countries lost their autonomy and merely became slaves to a new world order -- where global institutions like the World Bank and the IMF dictated their terms. Would you agree with this thesis? 

Well, there are two things going on here. Firstly, American officials at the time were drawing parallels of 1944 to 1919: When Woodrow Wilson went to Europe with a lot of ideals, but with very few instruments of power. And Bretton Woods is one way Americans wanted to fix that. Secondly, the United States had an awareness that it was the only county that had the economic resources to rebuild Europe in the post-war era. This is where the Marshall Plan essentially came from. There was obviously an enormous amount of self-interest here too.

Many economic historians argue that the reason Bretton Woods came apart a couple of decades later was because it had served its purpose. At the end of the Second World War, the United States was the only economy that was capable of doing something like the Marshall Plan, as well as building parts of China, and being able to offer money to the Soviet block, even though they turned it down.

The British economist John Maynard Keynes famously used the words "swindle" to talk about Bretton Woods. So everybody understood that it was going to benefit the United States tremendously. That said, Americans argued that it was the only way to avoid the economic crisis that had drastically occurred during the 1930s. And it was the memory of Versailles that was driving that.

How to deal with Germany was obviously a crucial aspect of  the Potsdam conference. Was there a general consensus among the Big Three?  

The real problem in 1945 regarding Germany was, (a) who is really to blame for this? Is it the German people? That is to say: If you devastate Germany are you in fact punishing the wrong people. And, (b) what is best way going forward to try and re-build a peaceful Europe?

Again you have to go back to Versailles in 1919, where the Allies devastated Germany. However, they also left Germany strong enough to do something about it. And that was a fundamental mistake. So what they did at the end of the Second World War was to apply hard power -- they divided Germany, reduced the size of it, occupied it, and kept the army down.

But they also applied liberal solutions too: They tied western Germany into the international economy, and into a wider alliance like NATO, which allowed it to have a military force. But at the same time they didn't allow Germany to operate that military force independently.

What was the reasoning behind this?

They thought that if you give Germany enough time, hopefully enough Germans can come to the fore who won't believe [the Nazi ideology] that their parents and grandparents believed. And that worked. Germany may be the most dominant power in Europe today; but most Europeans -- outside of Athens of course -- aren't particularly worried about Germany as they might have been in, say, the 1930s.

But presumably you have an interest as a historian in understanding why the Germans voted for the Nazi party in the first place? 

Well it's a tough question to deal with because you are contrasting rationality with emotion. Did the Germans vote for the Nazis because the Germans are a wicked evil people? Or did they vote for the Nazis because the economic and political circumstances made Germany such a pariah that they really had no other choice?

And all of the leaders of Potsdam were wrestling with that question, and also asking: What is the best way to go forward?

There was something called The Morgenthau Plan [proposed by the Secretary of the Treasury, Henry Morgenthau, in 1944], which argued for making the central government of Germany almost powerless. It wanted to take away the industrial power and utterly devastate it. But there were others, mostly the British in fact, who said, no, what you want to do is to rebuild Germany, and by extension, they can then run the economy of Europe. Questions many asked at the end of both World Wars included: What is the fundamental problem? Is it German people? Is it their form of government? Or is it an economic problem?

Is this is a distinctly American way of looking at international relations, though, because they had a certain distance from the emotive elements of the war in the eastern front. And I guess the Russians didn't, right?

Yes, I think so. Americans are more likely to say, look, this is the government's fault, not the people's. The Russians had a very different approach to that. When 20 million of your citizens have just been killed by a country that remains on your boarder, things are, naturally enough, going to look very different.

Why was the conversation about the Holocaust so carefully avoided in Potsdam? Was anti-semitism an issue and did this come from the Soviets?

Actually, it seems the anti-semitism was predominantly created in the American State Department, where there was a real desire to avoid talking about what happened to the Jews across Europe. It appears that each country had its own vested interest for not talking about what happened. For the Russians, Stalin was quite clear: He didn't want the suffering of any Soviet citizen taking precedent over any other Soviet citizen. His view was that 20 million people died, therefore they were not going to be separating their suffering apart from the other deaths. There is a certain logic in that, I suppose. The British didn't want to talk about it of course because of Palestine. They saw Palestine as a British issue, and they really wanted to avoid the United States and Russia at Potsdam advising them on what they ought to do.

Is there lessons of Versailles also coming into the equation once again here too?

Yes. In Paris in 1919 every country that had a grievance came to to lay it out for the Big Three. But at Potsdam in 1945 they decided that wasn't going to happen. Their main priority was to deal with the issue of Germany and Poland. This surprised me enormously when I started doing the research for this book. I just automatically expected that they would have talked about the concentration camps, and about the barbarity of the thing they had just defeated. But they didn't.

How important was the discussion of the Manhattan Project at Potsdam, in terms of how it would shape the paranoia and fear that would stoke Cold War politics for the coming decades? 

It appears Truman tried to present the subject of the atomic bomb very casually.

He was saying: We have this new weapon and we are going to use it on Japan. But it seems quite clear that the knowledge of the atomic bomb scared the Soviet leaders the most. They knew despite their victory, and all of their sacrifice, the atomic bomb could negate everything. It was the American use of two nuclear weapons, though, rather than anything that happened at Potsdam, that really reinforced Soviet paranoia about their own security. This began a cycle of real mistrust during the Cold War. And of course it forced Stalin to increase the speed and tempo of Soviet research also.

How important was the fate of the Russian casualties in World War II in accelerating the paranoia of Cold War politics? 

The talk of just how much the Russians actually suffered only got multiplied during the Cold War. And the Americans and the British tended to downplay what World War II did to Russia. The figure of 20 million people is almost impossible for a British person or an American to get their heads around.

The numbers are just mind boggling. Every time Poland was brought up, Stalin would slam his fists and say: Did your armies liberate Poland, Mr. Churchill? Basically what Stalin was getting at was this: It was our blood that made Poland possible, so don't come in here and tell us what kind of Poland it's going to be. The Americans and British didn't like it. But they really had no choice but to accept it.

By J.P. O'Malley


Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Europe Harry Truman History Joseph Stalin Winston Churchill World War Ii Wwii_revisited