A conversation with Michael Neiberg.

In Potsdam: The End of World War II and the Remaking of Europe the award-winning historian Michael Neiberg recounts in vivid detail the extraordinary drama behind the most historic and important diplomatic meeting between world leaders in the twentieth century. The task in front of the three allied leaders and their staff was nothing less than bringing peace and stability to Europe.

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. But just like Versailles, Potsdam was also to be a victor’s peace, again defined by the winning powers.

I caught up with Neiberg to discuss his compelling new book. Over the course of an hour we discussed a number of topics, including Russia’s changing role in world affairs as the Cold War loomed after the Second World War; why Eastern Europe was the biggest loser of the Potsdam Conference; and why Americans tend to have a more positive view of history than most of their European counterparts.

You argue in this book that Woodrow Wilson had relied primarily upon his idealism and the power of his visionin Paris in 1919, but that the Americans of 1945 wanted to back idealism with economic power. Can you speak about this idea in more detail?

Wilson refused to use economics in a way that would influence his British and French counterparts. But he failed to realize that was America’s strong point in 1919. Britain and France were indebted to the United States, and Germany was about to go through this reparations cycle.

James Byrnes, the new American Secretary of State at the time saw that problem clearly. He wanted to use American money as an instrument of what we would today call hard power: so he could force his counterparts to do things that he thought were in America’s interest.

There were also these multilateral institutions [the IMF, the World Bank, and so forth] that the United States would end up having a dominant voice in. And the Americans of 1945 wanted to do things this way. In their view the vindictiveness at the end of the First World War helped to create the great depression and a Second World War. The Americans in 1945 were trying to find a way around that.

How much of a turning point was the First World War for how the United States would dominate the twentieth century, politically, economically, and militarily?

As early as the fall of 1914 it was obvious that the First World War was going to give the United States the opportunity to supplant Great Britain as the world’s center of finance. In 1945 the economies of Europe were devastated; Great Britain was terribly in debt to the United States.

This was the British economist John Maynard Keynes’s major problem about Potsdam. He asked the question: how can you police half the world while remaining indebted to the other half? And again this goes back to 1914.

Can you speak about how drastically Russia’s role had changed as a global power in the Potsdam conference in 1945, in comparison to Paris in 1919, where it didn’t even have a seat at the negotiating table?

Russia understood that it was in a relatively stronger position in 1945 than they had been in 1939.

They knew there was nothing the United States could do to stop their control of eastern Europe.

Mainly this was because they knew they had won the war by blood sacrifice. They also knew that the armed forces of both the United States and Great Britain would be mobilized in places like Japan, whereas Russia would not. So they knew they held most of the cards. It’s why, for instance, the Russians were able to insist on Potsdam as the location for the talks, despite the Americans not wanting to meet there.

The Russians knew exactly what they needed to get out of Potsdam and they got almost all of it.

How much of a disaster was the conference for Winston Churchill?

I doubt any British leader could have done much better than Churchill did at Potsdam.

The British had a small army, and at the end of the war it was going to have to disperse all over the globe to deal with imperial issues. They had to deal with the shadow of Singapore and the problems they knew were coming in India. The American elite was certainly sympathetic to Britain. But it didn’t see the world as Great Britain did. Churchill’s own advisors, Anthony Eden and others, understood that Churchill was tired. He couldn’t convert this military victory into the kind of victory he wanted. But again this is one of the limits to the ‘great man theory’ of history. Because if Winston Churchill couldn’t do it, it’s unclear how any other British leader could have. It’s important to point out Churchill’s mindset. But at Potsdam it’s also important to point out that these problems were far bigger than he was.

Why was Stalin the best prepared of the big three in Potsdam: was it simply a matter of experience?

He had been there the longest, and had by far the most active intelligent network of spies.

He knew about the atomic bomb, while Churchill and Truman didn’t know that he knew about it. He knew the exact situation about the Germans because it was the Russian army that had conquered them. He knew about what was going on in China, much more so than did the United States. And of course, all knowledge is power.

Harry Truman, when he was sworn in as president, didn’t know about the atomic bomb. The War Department chose not to tell him. He wasn’t allowed into the secret map room. And they couldn’t even provide him with the official transcripts of the Yalta accords, because the government didn’t know where they were. And then you had Stalin who had spy networks everywhere. He came in with that level of understanding, which far exceeded what the Americans and British knew.

Was it naïve for the leaders at Potsdam not to recognize the inevitably of the collision course between the West and Soviet Union that would come out of the post-war period? Or do we simply have the benefit of hindsight now to make such judgments?

Yes, it’s easy to see in hindsight, but remember they had come to Potsdam to solve the problem of Germany. They knew there were going to be policy disagreements. So as with all historical events, nothing is inevitable. That the Cold War happened may seem normal or inevitable to us now. But it didn’t have to occur, and it certainly didn’t have to occur the way that it did. Having a few decades of getting away from Cold War politics allows us to see it in a deeper focus.

Was Eastern Europe one of the biggest losers of the Potsdam Conference?

There is no question about that. The price of the agreement meant that the Soviet Union had firm control over Eastern Europe, particularly over Poland, which became the great tragedy that grew out of Potsdam. But as the British and Americans soon realized, the harder you push the Russians on their western borders and on their security, the harder they are going to push back. So there is no way to force the Russians into doing something that you would want to do differently. Even so, all of the other Allies understood this was a tragedy. When Truman came back from Potsdam, he publicly said this was the one thing he was most unhappy about. But they all knew that there was nothing they could do about it. If they were all willing to go to war over Poland in 1939, nobody was willing to do so again in 1945.

How much do you think—without getting into stereotypes—that the outcome of both world wars affected the national character of various countries? Presumably the U.S. has a more positive outlook now than most countries because of how well they benefited economically from both conflicts, right?

Well, increasingly I’m thinking that people have in their heads their own vision of history. And if this vision says that you are moving towards a better future, or a better place, then it’s going to affect you. Likewise, if you think that history is this series of disasters and national calamities, that is equally going to affect you too. It’s perfectly normal to expect a Russian leader like Stalin to have always thought that another war is coming in the next couple of decades, because that was what history was constantly telling him.  

JP O’Malley is an Irish writer living in London.