The End of World War II and the Remaking of Europe


By Michael Neiberg

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The definitive account of the 1945 Potsdam Conference: the historic summit where Truman, Stalin, and Churchill met to determine the fate of post-World War II Europe

After Germany’s defeat in World War II, Europe lay in tatters. Millions of refugees were dispersed across the continent. Food and fuel were scarce. Britain was bankrupt, while Germany had been reduced to rubble. In July of 1945, Harry Truman, Winston Churchill, and Joseph Stalin gathered in a quiet suburb of Berlin to negotiate a lasting peace: a peace that would finally put an end to the conflagration that had started in 1914, a peace under which Europe could be rebuilt.

The award-winning historian Michael Neiberg brings the turbulent Potsdam conference to life, vividly capturing the delegates’ personalities: Truman, trying to escape from the shadow of Franklin Roosevelt, who had died only months before; Churchill, bombastic and seemingly out of touch; Stalin, cunning and meticulous. For the first week, negotiations progressed relatively smoothly. But when the delegates took a recess for the British elections, Churchill was replaced-both as prime minster and as Britain’s representative at the conference-in an unforeseen upset by Clement Attlee, a man Churchill disparagingly described as “a sheep in sheep’s clothing.” When the conference reconvened, the power dynamic had shifted dramatically, and the delegates struggled to find a new balance. Stalin took advantage of his strong position to demand control of Eastern Europe as recompense for the suffering experienced by the Soviet people and armies. The final resolutions of the Potsdam Conference, notably the division of Germany and the Soviet annexation of Poland, reflected the uneasy geopolitical equilibrium between East and West that would come to dominate the twentieth century.

As Neiberg expertly shows, the delegates arrived at Potsdam determined to learn from the mistakes their predecessors made in the Treaty of Versailles. But, riven by tensions and dramatic debates over how to end the most recent war, they only dimly understood that their discussions of peace were giving birth to a new global conflict.



"Ghosts and hopes informed the 1945 Potsdam Conference, which began a new era in European and world history. Michael Neiberg's comprehensively researched, smoothly presented analysis demonstrates that the statesmen who met at Potsdam were as much concerned with ending the era of total war that began in 1914 as with addressing the question of how best to go forward in securing peace and stability. Potsdam describes the processes and consequences in a perceptive work confirming the author's status as a leading scholar of the twentieth century experience."

DENNIS SHOWALTER, Professor of History at Colorado College

"A first rate account of a meeting that played a key role in defining the postwar world. Scholarly, thoughtful, and well written."

JEREMY BLACK, author of Rethinking World War Two

"The Potsdam Conference defined international relations in the second half of the twentieth century, and it continues to influence contemporary events in Europe and East Asia. This book offers a compelling account of the events that led to the conference, the personalities who dominated the conference, and the consequences of their decisions. Neiberg explains why Potsdam was more successful than the Versailles Conference at the end of the First World War, and he analyzes how Potsdam contributed to postwar peace. This is a powerful book with high drama—a must-read for anyone interested in global affairs."

JEREMI SURI, author of Liberty's Surest Guardian: American Nation-Building from the Founders to Obama

Copyright © 2015 by Michael Neiberg

Published by Basic Books

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All rights reserved. Printed in the United States of America. No part of this book may be reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews. For information, address Basic Books, 250 West 57th Street, New York, NY 10107.

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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Neiberg, Michael S.

Potsdam : the end of World War II and the remaking of Europe / Michael Neiberg.

pages cm

Includes bibliographical references and index.

ISBN 978-0-465-04062-9 (epub)

1. Potsdam Conference (1945 : Potsdam, Germany)

2. World War, 1939–1945—Peace. I. Title.

D734.N38 2015



10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

For Sue and John, with love



1. "Jesus Christ and General Jackson"

2. "The Most Terrible Responsibility Any Man Ever Faced"

3. May Days

4. "Our Troubles Might Not Yet Be Over"

5. "A Vast Undertaking": Coming to Potsdam

6. "What a Scene of Destruction"

7. "In Seventeen Days You Can Decide Anything"

8. "I Dreamed That My Life Was Over"

9. "Dismemberment as a Permanent Fate"? Solving the Problem of Germany

10. "The Bastard of Versailles"

11. Dr. Grove's Son and the Fate of East Asia






ON JUNE 28, 1919, the same day that much of the rest of the world marked the signing of the Treaty of Versailles that officially ended the Great War, a US Army captain strolled down the aisle of his local church to marry his sweetheart. Although he had distinguished himself in the war and proven himself as a leader on the battlefield, he had little desire to make the military a career. Nor did he, at this point in his life, express any special desire to enter the world of politics. He and another veteran of the war had instead taken out a lease in order to open a men's clothing store. The war had ended. In the future, he hoped, he would spend his time thinking about his family and his business, not war. On this day of all days his thoughts were far from wars and the peace treaties that end them.1

Across the Atlantic Ocean on that same day, a controversial British politician was savoring a second chance. Having been humiliated and forced from office a few years before, he now had a dominant voice in Britain's defense policies as secretary of state for war and air. Anxious about the postwar world and fearful of the growth of Soviet-style Bolshevism, he had advocated an Allied operation to land British, American, and Japanese soldiers in northern Russia in support of the pro-czarist "Whites" in the Russian Civil War. He disliked the Treaty of Versailles, calling it "absurd and monstrous," in large part because he thought it weakened Germany too much. A dismantled Germany, he feared, could leave a deadly power vacuum in Europe that the Bolsheviks might seek to fill. Wanting to see Bolshevism "strangled in its cradle," he saw the Versailles Treaty as a missed opportunity to remake the postwar world. As early as 1920 he had begun to call for major revisions to the treaty in Germany's favor because of the "unreasonable demands" it made on the Germans, the only possible counterweight on the European continent to the potentially even more dangerous Russians. When the time came for him to write a postwar treaty, he would argue for rejecting the Treaty of Versailles as a model.2

The Bolsheviks then fighting the bloody Russian Civil War took little notice of the Treaty of Versailles. Their revolutionary ardor already anathema to the British, French, and Americans, the Bolsheviks had sealed their diplomatic isolation by surrendering to the Germans in the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in March 1918. That surrender had given the Germans the resources they needed to launch the spring offensives in France that nearly won them the war that year. After the German surrender, therefore, the war's victors had seen no reason to invite the Bolshevik regime to the peace talks in Paris. To Bolshevik leaders, including the newly named People's Commissar for Nationalities, the issues surrounding the Treaty of Versailles paled in comparison to the life-or-death struggle they were waging against the czarist Whites. Only the treaty's formation of a new ­Polish state directly affected them. The ambitious commissar, however, took careful note of the attempts of the Western Allies to support the Whites; he had especially noted the menacing "strangle in its cradle" phrase one of the Western leaders had used. Years later, and under the radically different circumstances that a new war had created, he would have the opportunity to meet the man who made that statement and tell him in no uncertain terms his opinion of it.

Two of those three men—British Secretary of State for War and Air Winston Churchill and the Soviet Union's commissar for nationalities, Joseph Stalin—may well have foreseen themselves one day leading their nations in war and peace. Both men recognized the fragility of the new peace negotiated in Paris and had divined that Europe's period of peace would likely not last long. Ambitious men close to the centers of power in their respective countries, Churchill and Stalin knew that no treaty in and of itself could resolve the core issues of the murderous period of global conflict that had begun in that disastrous summer of 1914. The idea that in the next war they would fight shoulder to shoulder as allies likely would have struck them both as ludicrous in 1919, although they had each seen enough radical change in their lifetimes that perhaps nothing would have surprised them too much.

The third man, Captain Harry S. Truman, could have had no idea that the next time his country ended a major war, he would command not an artillery unit, but the entire nation. "Who the hell is Harry Truman?" demanded Franklin Roosevelt's chief of staff, ­Admiral William Leahy, when he heard that the Democratic convention of 1944 had selected the relatively obscure Missouri senator to run as Roosevelt's vice-presidential nominee. With only a high school diploma and no experience in foreign relations, Truman rose from failed businessman to president of the United States, marking one of the strangest career trajectories in the history of American politics. In July 1945, when he first met with Churchill and Stalin in the posh Berlin suburb of Potsdam, moreover, Truman knew that he had to take the place of a man he himself described as "impossible to substitute." He also knew that Franklin Roosevelt had kept him almost completely in the dark on the most critical matters of wartime policy. Truman arrived at the most important moment of his career woefully and astonishingly unprepared for the monumental task ahead of him. He had not even left the United States once since his return from the battlefields of France in 1919.3


THE TASK IN FRONT OF the three allied leaders and their staffs was nothing less than giving Europe peace and stability, something it had not known since the cataclysm of 1914. All three men, as well as their advisers, had had their worldviews formed in the crucible of the war of 1914–1918. For Stalin, the Russian Revolution and the bloody Russian Civil War that flowed directly from the Great War further proved the point that the transition from war to peace could present as many challenges as the battlefield itself. If the Big Three of Potsdam failed as the Big Three of Versailles had, then Europe would know not a future of peace but another age of strife, death, and more war.4

The three men had different postwar visions, based on the strategic interests and historical experiences of their nations in the first half of the twentieth century. Those years had seen astonishing, revolutionary changes. World War I had eliminated the most powerful monarchies of Europe and left in their wake a struggle between democracy, fascism, and communism to control the political and economic future of the continent. World War II took fascism out of the equation and also left such traditional powers as Germany, Italy, and France in tatters. Even Britain, nominally one of the war's great victors, sat on the edge of bankruptcy and at dire risk of losing the empire that had sustained its great-power status. In place of the traditional powers of Europe now came the United States and the Soviet Union. The former had largely turned away from Europe in 1919 and might still do so again in 1945. The latter, a revolutionary regime fresh from a bloody but triumphal victory, presented a terrible nightmare to some and an alluring future to others. In either case, the future of Europe no longer belonged exclusively, or even primarily, to Western Europeans themselves.

In the minds of the men who met in Potsdam in July 1945 to put the pieces of the world back together, the war that ended in 1945 had begun not in 1939 but in 1914. Men as diverse as British Foreign Secretary Sir Anthony Eden and French philosopher Albert Camus spoke not of two separate world wars, but one Thirty Years' War. The idea had a long heritage, beginning with the celebrated British war correspondent Charles Repington's appropriately titled 1920 bestseller, The First World War, in which he posited that the global troubles that began in 1914 would not end with the Treaty of Versailles; like many of his contemporaries, he fully expected a second world war. American soldier Alexander Clay echoed Repington and spoke for millions of his comrades on both sides of the lines when he remarked after the war: "I can truthfully say that without egotism we, the soldiers of World War I, predicted that within twenty-five to fifty years this war would be fought again. For we had a premonition that it was not entirely settled as it should have been."5

This thirty-year war encompassed not just two enormous world wars between great powers, but also the numerous civil wars and regional wars that emerged from the shattering of the old order in 1914. As Admiral William Leahy wrote in his diary at the end of the Potsdam Conference, "this means the definite end of the world war which started in 1914, had a temporary adjournment for further preparation [from] 1918 to 1939, and today comes to an end." Europeans saw less of an adjournment than Leahy did, given events like the Russo-Polish War (1919–1921) and the civil war in Spain (1936–1939), but however they parsed their history, the statesmen at Potsdam knew that the catastrophe they faced in 1945 had begun not with the German invasion of Poland in 1939, but rather with the events that followed from the assassination of a relatively obscure archduke on a street corner in a provincial Bosnian town in 1914.6

The delegates at Potsdam lived with ghosts that haunted the ­Cecilienhof Palace in the picturesque neighborhood where the meeting took place. The palace, built during World War I as a retreat for the German crown prince and his wife, served as a living reminder of the failures of statesmen at the end of that war. The Germans, so convinced of their imminent victory, built the palace while simultaneously devoting enormous resources to fighting an existential world war. The crown prince had been one of the most vocal militarists of the prewar years and had led an army group on the western front. The palace he never had a chance to inhabit thus stood as a reminder of the hubris of a once-powerful regime that had seemed so solid and so permanent before that fateful summer of 1914. Now, thirty years later, Germany had no government at all and sat at the mercy of its former enemies.

The ghosts of the Cecilienhof Palace paled in their power to haunt compared with the ghosts of the Palace of Versailles. Everyone at Potsdam saw the Versailles Treaty as a horrible warning from history of the failures of making peace. They all believed that the failures of 1919 had directly led to the outbreak of war twenty years later. The American president, Harry Truman, greatly admired one of the architects of that treaty, Woodrow Wilson; Truman had even taken his oath of office under a portrait of Wilson. Nevertheless, Truman saw the treaty as Wilson's greatest failure. He opened the Potsdam Conference by reminding his fellow statesmen of the "many flaws" that the treaty had produced and warned the delegates to learn from that experience or risk repeating it. No one at Potsdam disagreed with Truman on that score; nor did the president need to remind his fellow leaders that, if they did nothing else, they had to avoid a repeat of the Versailles disaster at all costs.7

That the statesmen of Europe had gathered for the second time in as many generations to negotiate an end to a catastrophic world war was proof enough of the futility of the Treaty of Versailles. Everyone, it seemed, brought his own criticism of the treaty, and the process that produced it, to Potsdam that summer. To some, the problem was the process itself. The treaty had emerged from a series of awkward compromises, trade-offs, and misunderstandings, but once committed to paper they brought with them the force of international agreement, even if most observers and participants could see the flaws inherent in them. Thus did many of the statesmen in 1945 come to Potsdam wanting the meeting not to produce a definitive treaty with specific policies for which they or their successors might later have to answer, but rather to be a symbol to the world that the Big Three stood together and would work in unison to produce a more just and peaceful future.

Moreover, several of the principles of the Treaty of Versailles already lay in tatters by 1945. Foremost among them was the Wilsonian ideal of national self-determination. In 1919 the great powers had moved borders in an ultimately futile attempt to match up political and ethnic boundaries. That process yielded not peace but a new round of irredentism and hyper-nationalism that produced repeated diplomatic crises in the 1920s and 1930s. As early as September 9, 1939, barely a week into the European war, Britain's New Statesman magazine argued that self-determination "has been a failure" and should not guide the peace process following the British victory the editors had already forecast. Their position reflected one held more generally; thus, national self-determination, a keystone of the 1919 negotiations, would play only a small role in 1945.8

A British Foreign Office assessment written in 1943 argued against another pillar of the Versailles Treaty, the League of Nations. The paper did not argue against the creation of an international organization per se, but it concluded that any future organization should not follow the democratic model of the League. Instead, the great powers should run it directly. Since, in the Foreign Office's estimation, only three or four great powers would exist at the end of the war (the United States, Britain, Russia, and maybe China), the design of any new international body should reflect their interests. France, Italy, Germany, and Japan would therefore not "be readmitted to the ranks of the Great Powers" at the conclusion of the war. Like other minor or regional powers, they would assure their future security needs through an international body that the great powers would firmly control. Stalin agreed, telling American envoy Harry Hopkins that "two world wars have begun over small nations." With the exception of the later elevation of France's status, one can see here the core of the idea that later became the United Nations Security Council.

American delegates at Potsdam had largely forgotten the stated reasons for the Senate's rejection of the treaty in 1919. Senators then had focused on the threats to American freedom of diplomatic maneuver. By 1945, few Americans remembered or cared about those seemingly ancient debates. To the American diplomats at Potsdam, the treaty's great flaw involved the financial aspects that forced a reluctant United States to assume the burden of Germany's reparations without receiving anything meaningful in return and without producing any positive steps toward a lasting peace. To the contrary, those same arrangements had created the conditions that had led to a global economic depression that had in turn led to the rise of the Nazis and the outbreak of war in 1939.

A few ideals from 1919, however, did survive. The idea that the victors would write the treaty without the direct participation of the defeated reflected the spirit of Versailles, as evident by the arrangements at Potsdam. The conquered Germans had no representatives; nor did the Italians; nor—much to their dismay—did the French or the Poles, who saw themselves as having been on the winning side, and therefore deserving of representation. The Big Three, however, disagreed. Potsdam, like Versailles, was to be a victor's peace, defined, yet again, by the great powers.

The British Foreign Office paper also included a study circulated in mid-1943 of the errors committed at Versailles. This insightful assessment warned that the situation at the end of the war would "be very different from that of 1918." It expected even greater hostility toward Germany than had existed in 1918, and also noted that this time, the Russians would surely play a large role in setting peace terms, whereas France likely would not. Unlike in 1919, in 1945 the Allies would need to occupy the whole of Germany and work with German officials, even though—or especially because—there might be no surviving government in that country. Nor could planners eliminate the possibility of German partisans fighting on even after the Nazi regime surrendered. Ending the war in Europe, moreover, likely would not end the war with Japan, meaning that the Allies would surely have limited resources for a long occupation and the rebuilding of Germany. Finally, it noted that the twin tasks of providing immediate relief and long-term humanitarian assistance likely would exceed those of 1918–1919 many times over.9

Although the British Foreign Office noted that "it is impossible to forecast how events will work out because there are so many unknown qualities," its analysts did a remarkable job of identifying the challenges ahead. In their critique of Versailles, they highlighted the failed economic mechanisms that devastated the very European economy that the great powers of 1919 had tried to rebuild. They also criticized David Lloyd George's bowing to the whims of British public opinion for an unduly harsh treatment of Germany, and the failure of the United States to ratify the treaty for "fatally affect[ing] its operation." This time, the Foreign Office argued, the British government must at a minimum secure the cooperation of the United States at any cost; force the Germans to acknowledge the magnitude of their defeat; and keep the Russians as far east as possible.10

The Western statesmen at Potsdam did all they could to dissociate their conference from the unmitigated disaster they all saw when they looked back at 1919. Whereas the men of that year had failed to establish the conditions for a lasting peace, the men of 1945 sought to build a Europe of stability and prosperity. Yet they could not escape the long shadows of Versailles. Whether they succeeded or failed at Potsdam, they would all walk away anxious to tell themselves, and their peoples, that they had not repeated the mistakes of 1919.

Yet a third ghost haunted the villas and palaces of Potsdam that summer of 1945, the ghost of the appeasement of the 1938 Munich conference. Many American and British diplomats had already begun to see in Soviet behavior, especially the USSR's highly selective implementation of the agreements made at the Yalta Conference of February 1945, echoes of Germany's aggressive behavior in the 1930s. Invoking the Munich analogy to oppose concessions to the Russians (or, for that matter, the Japanese) immediately brought to mind all of the fears and failures of the period from 1933 to 1939. The Munich example carried with it a powerful reminder of the costs of appeasement, and to those who believed in the analogy, it implied that the Americans and British should use a firmer hand in their initial postwar dealings with the Russians.


WHETHER OR NOT ANY of these ghosts remained relevant to the problems the world faced in 1945, no one at Potsdam could avoid them. They reminded the delegates of the cataclysmic failures of the men who had gone before them. Virtually every decision the statesmen of 1945 made they made through the prism of events like the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 and the appeasement symbolized by the Munich Agreement of 1938. And these events did not come from a distant past. Unlike the men of 1919, who sometimes used vague historical understandings of the Concert of Vienna of 1815 as a rough guide, everyone seated around the conference tables, elaborate formal dinners, and social gatherings at Potsdam had personally watched the murderous events of 1914–1939 unfold. Some had even played key roles in them. Winston Churchill, of course, had staunchly opposed his own government's appeasement policy in the late 1930s, as had others in the British delegation at Potsdam. To them, especially, the ghost of Munich haunted the halls of Potsdam, as did the specter of an expansive Bolshevik Russia.

The new US secretary of state, James Byrnes, had attended the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 as a junior adviser to President Wilson; he may well have been the man who convinced Wilson to go to Paris. He, too, felt the presence of the ghosts of the past weighing on the minds of the men at Potsdam. Byrnes concluded that the American delegation had made two critical mistakes. First, President Wilson had refused to bring along any Republican senators to the Paris Peace Conference, thus dooming the resulting treaty's prospects for ratification in the Senate. Byrnes, who had served for fourteen years in the House of Representatives and for ten in the Senate, ensured that both houses of Congress remained informed of the ongoing issues and discussions at Potsdam. Second, he argued that the United States had made too many commitments to solve the economic problems of Europe in the postwar years by essentially financing German reparations. That mistake, he believed, had contributed to the economic and political instability that had produced the Great Depression.11


  • "Potsdam is a thought-provoking book with many noteworthy perceptions and much good description."—New Criterion
  • "[A] well-researched, perceptive history."—America in World War II
  • "[Neiberg is] a skilled storyteller."—Weekly Standard
  • "[A] crisp, elegantly organized account of Potsdam.... [An] excellent book."—Financial Times
  • "An easily digestible page-turner."—Wall Street Journal
  • "An intriguing and readable book about a conference that has been relegated to footnotes for much too long. A must-have account for everyone."—Library Journal
  • "[A] thoughtful, mildly controversial account.... Neiberg's insightful history makes a case that Potsdam worked much better than Versailles had in 1919."—Publishers Weekly
  • "This is a solid account of the conference, concisely summarizing its results and significance without excessive indulgence in entertaining personal anecdotes. Fills a hitherto surprisingly empty niche in the World War II library."—Kirkus Reviews
  • "Michael Neiberg has given us a taut, masterful account of Potsdam, revealing that the Big Three operated more from fear-of each other, of their peoples, of their rivals, and of fast-moving events on the ground---than from any degree of confidence or certainty. The Cold War was born at Potsdam, and Neiberg seats us at the conference table, to feel the tension and acrimony."—Geoffrey Wawro, author of A Mad Catastrophe: The Outbreak of World War I and the Collapse of the Habsburg Empire
  • "The Potsdam Conference defined international relations in the second half of the twentieth century, and it continues to influence contemporary events in Europe and East Asia. This book offers a compelling account of the events that led to the conference, the personalities who dominated the conference, and the consequences of their decisions. Neiberg explains why Potsdam was more successful than the Versailles Conference at the end of the First World War, and he analyzes how Potsdam contributed to postwar peace. This is a powerful book with high drama--a must-read for anyone interested in global affairs."—Jeremi Suri, author of Liberty's Surest Guardian: American Nation-Building from the Founders to Obama
  • "Michael Neiberg's Potsdam is a masterpiece of much needed compression on the Potsdam Conference of 1945, and the contrast with peacemaking in 1919 is excellently brought out."—Norman Stone, author of World War Two: A Short History
  • "Ghosts and hopes informed the 1945 Potsdam Conference, which began a new era in European and world history. Michael Neiberg's comprehensively researched, smoothly presented analysis demonstrates that the statesmen who met at Potsdam were as much concerned with ending the era of total war that began in 1914 as with addressing the question of how best to go forward in securing peace and stability. Potsdam describes the processes and consequences in a perceptive work confirming the author's status as a leading scholar of the twentieth century experience."—Dennis Showalter, professor of history, Colorado College
  • "With the end of war in Europe in May 1945, Truman, Stalin, Churchill, and their advisors met at Potsdam to solve the 'German problem' once and for all. They agreed upon the main task, but on little else. Shrewdly and economically, Michael Neiberg delineates the conflicting motives and interests that separated the leaders of 'the Big Three.' Mr. Neiberg provides deft pen portraits of the principals as well. He has taken an enormously complicated subject and made it comprehensible for the general reader."—Jonathan Schneer, author of Ministers at War: Winston Churchill and His War Cabinet
  • "Although the Potsdam Conference isn't as famous as those held at Casablanca, Quebec, or Yalta, Michael Neiberg brilliantly shows how the decisions made at Potsdam color today's world far more than its counterparts. With compelling prose and first-class scholarship, Neiberg superbly captures its spirit of misplaced optimism, as the world teetered on the brink of a totally unnecessary Cold War."—Andrew Roberts, author of The Storm of War: A New History of the Second World War
  • "A first rate account of a meeting that played a key role in defining the postwar world. Scholarly, thoughtful, and well written."—Jeremy Black, author of Rethinking World War Two

On Sale
May 5, 2015
Page Count
368 pages
Basic Books

Michael Neiberg

About the Author

Michael Neiberg is a professor of history and the Henry L. Stimson Chair of History and Security Studies in the Department of National Security and Strategy at the U.S. Army War College. The author of several award-winning books, Neiberg lives in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.

Learn more about this author