September 17, 2019
In July 1945, the leaders of the three Allied Powers that had just defeated Hitler – Churchill, Truman, and Stalin – met at Potsdam, southwest of Berlin, to plot the continuing war against Japan and the immediate future of post-war Germany.
They met at Schloss Cecilienhof, a rambling Tudor mansion built by the Crown Prince before WWI. As the Russians were hosting, the guests were greeted by a big red star of flower at the main entrance, which is still there today.
The delegations were each assigned villas in nearby Babelsberg, which had largely escaped wartime destruction. Some compared it to living in Hollywood, which is quite accurate, because Babelsberg is home to Germany’s oldest and largest film studio, still in operation today.
President Truman stayed in this villa, which is now owned by a German public policy think tank Friedrich Naumann Foundation, which graciously gave me a tour.
The villa was originally built by a German publisher who used it as his weekend getaway from Berlin to hold literary and intellectual discussions with friends. The motto above the fireplace strictly forbids talking business.
Unfortunately the villa suffered a serious fire about 20 years ago, and the historic rooms where Truman stayed were gutted, and the interior replaced with a modern one.
But the view out the back window of Truman’s villa looks pretty similar. (During the Cold War, the stretch of water out back was the border between West Berlin and East Germany, and several people were shot trying to swim across).
Those back steps (which have been replaced) were the site of this famous photo when Truman and Stalin first met, before the formal conference began. That’s also Soviet Foreign Minister Molotov (of cocktail fame) and US Sec of State Byrnes.
A short drive down the road is the villa where Churchill stayed. It is privately owned and the owner recently rejected requests to place a historical marker on the grounds.
And a little bit further down the street (now Karl Marx Strasse) is Stalin’s villa, which does have a small historical marker on it. I’ve read that before Stalin claimed it, the house once belonged to German WWI General Erich Ludendorff.
Before the conference began, the Americans and British were allowed to tour the ruined city of Berlin. The utter destruction made a great impression on them.
The thing everyone commented on the most was the sickly sweet smell of thousands of bodies decomposing under the rubble in the summer heat. They all hurried back to Potsdam and never ventured into Berlin again.
Every day, the delegates commuted to the Cicilienhof, where they each had separate rooms set aside for their use. This is Stalin’s desk and chair in the Soviet study, and windowed area for holding small side conferences.
This is the adjoining Russian reception room where musical performances and other diversionary entertainment was provided by members of each country’s armed forces.
The Potsdam Conference itself took place in this room. The table and chairs are original. You can see where each leader sat (in the high-backed chairs) by where each flag is located.
Compare these first three historical photos to the room today (last photo) which is hardly changed at all.
The curtained entrance and carved wooden stairway that provides the backdrop to some of the historical photos.
Out the other side of the conference room is the private study set aside for Churchill and the British.
And next to it, the private study set aside for President Truman and the Americans.
Apparently several of the American delegation helped themselves to some of the books from the Crown Prince’s private library left in their study, as souvenirs.
Churchill walking in the main entrance, behind him. Churchill lost the post-war election whole the Potsdam Conference was taking place, and Attlee has to step into his shoes before it ended – to everyone’s great surprise, including Attlee’s.
I’m not 100% sure where the famous conference photo of the three leaders was taken, but it might have been in this garden. The windows of Stalin’s study are to the right.
Here is the outside of the main conference hall (left) and next to it the windows of the British and American studies (US is farthest right).
Each delegation entered the building each day through a separate door. This was the American entrance. But note the Soviet graffiti carved into the stone ball. This may date from the house’s later use as a Soviet officers club.
A group of German military personnel visiting the site of the Potsdam Conference. Though Germany was divided into four occupation zones, most delegates left Postsdam believing the division was only administrative and temporary. No one expected it to last for decades.
The Soviets agreed at Potsdam to enter the war against Japan soon. Truman told Stalin the US had developed a devastating new weapon (which Stalin already knew from spies inside the Manhattan Project).
It is very likely that President Truman ordered the bombing of Hiroshima either in his study at the Cecilienhof or at his villa in Babelsberg.
Although they had no idea at the time, the conference at Potsdam took place just short 5-10 minute drive from another villa, at Wannsee, where the Nazis held their own conference three years before to plan the Holocaust.
The houses in these quiet, leafy Berlin suburbs certainly have their stories, and their secrets.