Morality and Law
Potsdam 75 Years On

What could be interesting today about the historical legacy of the Potsdam Conference, which ended 75 years ago? The first and most obvious is that, following the Crimean Conference, which laid the foundations for the Yalta-Potsdam system of international relations, it helped to avoid a repeat of the catastrophes of the two world wars. In Potsdam, the key issues pertaining to the post-war borders were resolved, agreements were concluded that largely determined the post-war status of Germany, and the conference consolidated the special responsibility of the four victorious powers in the German question, which became one of the pillars of the entire European order. At the same time, the principles and mechanisms for peace treaties were agreed upon, and the issue of joint actions against Japan was finally resolved, as well as the recognition of the Provisional Polish Government of National Unity. This is not to mention the more private decisions that influenced the fate of the post-war world order.

But there is another, less noticeable feature of the Potsdam heritage, which takes on special relevance today: the lessons of the interaction between the three great powers. The conference took place at the unique junction of two opposing trends: on one hand, the spirit which unified the extant  alliance of the "Big Three" in the war with the "Axis" countries, and on the other, the divisiveness which accompanied the recent allies’ attempt to share the fruits of common victory. As the unifying common threat disappeared, geopolitical and ideological contradictions came to the fore, and a struggle for influence flared up in the power vacuums that emerged as a result of the war in Europe, East Asia, Central Asia and the Middle East. Before the Potsdam Conference, the former allies had identified their main geopolitical interests and were ready to vigorously defend them. The Soviet Union’s priorities were to achieve the legitimisation of its sphere of influence in Eastern Europe and the Balkans, obtaining reparations from Germany and access to the resources of the western zones of occupation (including the Ruhr region), the recognition of Poland's new western border, and to obtain its share of the German and Italian fleets. The ultimate goal included a solution to the Straits problem on Soviet terms and a breakthrough to the Mediterranean by taking over the former Italian colonies. The Anglo-American military-political command was already beginning to view the USSR as a potential geopolitical adversary and was prepared  to oppose the further expansion of Soviet influence. Nevertheless, in Moscow, Washington and London, the prevailing mood was not one that favoured confrontation, but  tough bargaining and reaching agreements. The essence of this attitude was well-conveyed by the programme memorandum of A. Cadofan; the right hand of the head of the Foreign Office, Anthony Eden, conveyed to W. Churchill on the eve of the conference: “... It is very important not to give up our few trump cards at the beginning of the conference. Even if Stalin's requests are reasonable, we should only satisfy them in exchange for concessions on his part regarding our reasonable requests."

And so it happened. The Potsdam decisions were a series of compromises reached through intense diplomatic bargaining. However, the took place in a very appropriate and respectful atmosphere, the tone of which was set by Stalin, who invited Truman to chair the conference. The strategic breakthrough of the USSR in the Mediterranean was blocked by the united opposition of the Anglo-Americans. But Stalin managed to achieve the recognition of Poland's western border along the Oder-West Neisse. As Vyacheslav Molotov informed the Soviet diplomatic corps about the results of the conference, this decision was “of the utmost importance" and "was made after prolonged resistance from the British and Americans". This resistance was overcome with the help of a clever invitation to the conference of representatives of the new Polish government (including the pro-Western Stanisław Mikołajczyk), who actively supported this position. Stalin and Molotov failed to achieve full recognition of the pro-Soviet governments in Bulgaria and Romania, but they were able to reserve this opportunity by prompting the Western powers to withdraw their demand for international control of elections in these countries and include them in the list of countries to conclude peace treaties with before such elections were held. This compromise solution, Molotov commented "for his own", "seems to us satisfactory, especially because it unties our hands in the diplomatic recognition of Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary and Finland". In a conversation with Georgi Dmitrov,  Molotov was even more frank, calling the Potsdam decision "the actual recognition of the Balkans as a Soviet sphere of influence". On the issue of reparations from Germany, the Soviet side had to abandon the establishment of their fixed amount and agree to the Western proposal on the zone-based collection of reparations, but the persistence and flexibility of Stalin (who forfeited claims to German assets in Western Europe) made it possible to increase the Soviet share in the seizures of industrial equipment in Western zones. Having met the American proposal to create a Council of Foreign Ministers to prepare peace treaties, the Soviet delegation ensured that this body would sit not only with five members (in which the USSR was in a clear minority), but also within the Big Three, depending on the issues under consideration. “This solution, limiting the number of our partners to the required minimum, is the most flexible and convenient from our point of view,” explained Molotov in his circular. Another success of Soviet diplomacy was the decision to annex Konigsberg and the adjacent region to the USSR.
In general, the balance of concessions and acquisitions made during the Potsdam conference seemed quite acceptable in Moscow. “Summing up, we can say that the Conference ended with quite satisfactory results for the Soviet Union,” Molotov summed up in his final missive. The assessments of the Allies were also similar. “Given the trump cards we got from the war, the results have been satisfactory,” Attlee and Bevin wrote to Churchill. “I think we didn’t perform badly,” Cadogan wrote in his diary. “True, Uncle Joe (Stalin - author) got most of what he wanted, but the main cards were in his hands, but we still managed to get something, mainly on the issue of dealing with Germany." Indeed, given the real balance of power and the situation on the ground, all parties got what they could and had reason to be satisfied with what they had achieved. There were no losers in Potsdam, and this was a guarantee of the survivability of the reached agreements. As noted in a recent American study of the Potsdam Conference, "virtually all observers rated Potsdam as a tremendous improvement over the Versailles porridge".

Indeed, the Yalta-Potsdam system, created by great powers belonging to opposite social systems, turned out to be much stronger than the Versailles system - the brainchild of states which were structured similarly. The reason is that this system did not exclude Russia, without which it was impossible to ensure international security, and was based on the principle of the collective responsibility of the great powers. Geopolitical rivalry does not exclude cooperation, and this is one of the most important lessons of the Potsdam Conference.Potsdam Conference.
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