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Early Cold War: 1945–1962

Potsdam Conference and Allied Occupation of Germany

Potsdam Conference

In May 1945 Churchill, Stalin, and Truman met in Potsdam, Germany, to finalize plans for dealing with Germany after its surrender.

Germany surrendered to the Allied forces on May 7, 1945, marking the end of World War II in Europe (1939–45). In July British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin, and U.S. President Harry S. Truman met in Potsdam, Germany, outside of Berlin, and finalized the plans for dealing with a defeated Germany. This was the first meeting of the "Big Three" that included President Truman in place of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who had died three months earlier. At Potsdam the Allied leaders confirmed the earlier agreements from the Tehran Conference in 1943 and at Yalta early in 1945.

At the Tehran Conference in Iran, Stalin, Churchill, and Roosevelt had agreed to open a second front against the Nazis in Western Europe. The second front helped relieve pressure on Soviet troops, which allowed them to advance on Germany from the east while the British and the Americans pushed toward Germany from the west.

At Yalta in Crimea, the discussion had centered on the defeat and joint Allied occupation of Germany. The Allies agreed on a set of terms Germany would be forced to comply with in order to prevent the possibility of another war. The country would be demilitarized and broken up into four zones, each occupied by a different country—Great Britain, the United States, the Soviet Union, and France. The German people would be subject to forced labor to repair war-torn countries, and Nazi war criminals would be put on trial under international law in what would become known as the Nuremberg trials.

Allied Occupation of Germany

The Allied forces agreed at the Potsdam Conference in 1945 to jointly occupy defeated Germany.

The Allied occupation divided Germany into four zones, with the United States, Great Britain, France, and the Soviet Union each occupying a zone. The American, British, and French zones occupied the western part of Germany, while the Soviet zone occupied the country's eastern part. Berlin, the country's capital, is located in northeastern Germany and was in Soviet-occupied territory. In addition Berlin itself was placed under a joint four-power authority giving each Allied power administration over a sector. All four powers were part of the Allied Control Council that formed to jointly exercise authority over all of Germany. Each occupying power administered its zone separately except for economic initiatives, which were pursued jointly.

Once Germany was defeated, however, the general spirit of cooperation among the Allied powers—especially between the United States and the Soviet Union—began to wane. A mutual distrust eventually grew between the two countries that greatly affected the occupation. Day-to-day cooperation became difficult, and the administration of the zones moved in different directions. The United States and the Soviet Union's opposing social, economic, and political systems simply failed to merge in the Allied occupation.

As early as the summer of 1945, the zone authorities allowed German political parties to form and elect new local and regional representative assemblies. By 1946 the occupying authorities permitted regional units, or states, to form. In the western zones these states had freely elected parliamentary assemblies by 1947. Some progress was made in the Soviet zone, but a Soviet-controlled political party dominated the political process.

When it became clear the Soviets would not permit free, multiparty elections in its zone, the United States and Great Britain combined the administrative systems in their zones into a single unit called Bizonia. Their ultimate goal was to spur economic recovery. In 1948 the western Allied powers formed a German council to write a provisional constitution for western Germany. In early spring 1949 France merged its zone with Bizonia, creating Trizonia. By May 1949 the Federal Republic of Germany, known as West Germany, was formed.

Four Zones of Allied Occupation of Germany, 1945

The United States, Great Britain, and France controlled Germany's western zones, while the Soviet Union had jurisdiction over the country's eastern zone. Similarly Germany's capital city, Berlin, was divided into four sectors.