Herald Guest Columnist Loran Smith
POTSDAM, Germany — In the days of the Berlin Wall — that unforgettable symbol of Communist absolutism — the dateline for anything coming out of this city of 159,456, which rests in the middle 20 lakes and rivers, would have required that you link Potsdam with East Germany.
After World War II, Germany was divided into East and West, with the Communist-dominated East known as the GDR, or the German Democratic Republic. It was so democratic you could not leave the East for the West of your own free will. Approval to visit your relatives in Allied Berlin? It could cost you your life if you tried to cross any borders without approval. Democratic enough to hold elections, but you knew how you should vote.
While East Germany’s economy foundered, it was the West where business gained momentum and where people thrived in the workplace as Germans went about the business of rebuilding their country and returning to the world’s society following a brutal war brought on by Adolph Hitler and the Nazis.
The last time I was in Berlin, the Wall divided the city. Prosperity in the West, austerity in the East. You could tour East Germany, but the guides were armed with Soviet-influenced propaganda, which not only was rigorously biased but delivered in a style reminiscent of your mother giving you a dose of cod liver oil. “Take this, it’s good for you.” I can remember the vibrancy of West Berlin and the starkness of the Eastern sector. Cheerful socializing in the West, long and sad faces in the East.
Then it would have been difficult to visit Potsdam, but today all you have to do is hop on a train for a 20-minute ride and grab a taxi to Cecilienhof, the home of Crown Prince Wilhelm Hohenzollern, where the Potsdam Conference took place July 17 to Aug. 2, 1945. The Big Three Powers — Soviet Russia, the United States and the United Kingdom — had convened to determined how to punish Nazi Germany after it signed an unconditional surrender on May 8, 1945, which became known as V-E Day (Victory in Europe).
The atmosphere of the meeting between Communist Party Secretary Joseph Stalin, Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and, later, Clement Attlee and U.S. President Harry Truman to decide defeated Germany’s fate must have been enhanced by the trees, shrubs and flowers that make up the beautiful gardens and grounds of Cecilienhof.
It is fascinating to take a glimpse into the past, into the history that affected so much of the world. The war’s impact leaves you with numbing reactions. Cities were bombed relentlessly. Loss of civilian life was staggering. During World War II, Germany lost 4,200,000 people, civilian and military. Russia’s war dead totaled 20,000,000. For the United Kingdom, deaths attributed to the war were 338,000. The U.S. military lost 400,000, a small total compared with the loss of life experienced by our adversaries. There was no direct loss of civilian life in the U.S.
You can draw many conclusions from sitting where the heads of state once sat and the gardens where they strolled at the end of the day and reflect on the second-guessing that historians have exercised in the time following the Potsdam Conference.
Churchill, such a marvelous leader of his people during the most difficult of times, had to give way to Atlee whose Labour Party defeated Churchill’s Conservative Party near the end of the war. There was a transition of power, too, with the United States. Franklin D. Roosevelt was succeeded by Harry Truman when FDR died in office. Roosevelt was an appeaser when it came to Stalin, but Truman saw though the dictator, perhaps the greatest murderer in history.
Many of today’s generation may never visit places like Cecilienhof. It would be worthwhile if more people would take time out for a journey through the history books and remember those who endured so much brutality. The millions who innocently lost their lives in World War II would be grateful.