Berlin Suburb of Potsdam, Germany July 17, 1945

After Nazi Germany’s fuehrer (leader) Adolf Hitler committed sui­cide on April 30, 1945; and after Hitler’s polit­ical suc­ces­sor Reich Presi­dent Grand Admiral Karl Doenitz agreed to the uncon­di­tional sur­render of all German armed forces on May 7 and 8, 1945; and after Gen. Dwight D. Eisen­hower, Supreme Com­man­der Allied Expedi­tionary Force, dis­solved Doenitz’s govern­ment on May 23; and after Allied repre­sen­ta­tives placed German gover­nance under the author­ity of the Allied Mili­tary Occu­pa­tion Govern­ment on June 5, it was time for the world’s top three states­men and their chief civil­ian and mil­itary advi­sors to meet face to face to nego­ti­ate a just and lasting peace under which a new Europe could emerge.

That meeting, the third between a U.S. President but the first between Harry S. Tru­man, British Prime Minis­ters Win­ston Chur­chill and his successor Clement Att­lee, and Soviet Pre­mier Joseph Stalin, got under­way on this date, July 17, 1945, in Berlin’s rela­tively undamaged, picture-post­card suburbs of Pots­dam and Babels­berg, tempo­rar­ily absent their local citi­zenry. Among the agenda items pushed by the planners of the Pots­dam Con­fer­ence (code­named Termi­nal) was the estab­lish­ment of a new post­war order that would rectify the defects of the past three decades. Since the Big Three’s last meeting in Yalta, Soviet Crimea, five months earlier, Stalin’s armies had over­run the three Baltic States, Poland, Czecho­slo­va­kia (today’s Czech Repub­lic and Slo­va­kia), Hun­gary, Roma­nia, Bul­garia, and half of pre­war Germany (Central [now Eastern] Germany, East and West Prussia, Pomer­ania, and Upper and Lower Silesia). The Western Allies had helped expel Hitler’s armies from Norway, Den­mark, the Nether­lands, Bel­gium, and Italy. (France had been liber­ated the year before.) The victors had divided Germany and Austria into four occu­pa­tion zones. Thus Europe was roughly divided longi­tu­dinally through Central Europe, with Western demo­cratic regimes planted in the West and Soviet-style satellite regimes in the East.

Early in their discussions in Potsdam the Big Three faced up to a mili­tary fait accom­pli by accepting the bifur­ca­tion of Europe into West and East. The issue of estab­lishing new national borders in Central and Eastern Europe based largely on ethnic homo­geneity, how­ever, domi­nated what came next, espe­cially as it affected Poland and neigh­boring Germany. Nazi Germany’s annex­a­tions in the East were reversed, and the country’s eastern border was shifted west­wards to the Oder and Neisse Rivers, effec­tively reducing pre­war Germany in size by close to 25 per­cent (see map below), while over 28,000 sq. miles of Eastern Poland were annexed by the Soviet Union, today forming western Lithu­a­nia, Belarus, and Ukraine (not shown in map). German popu­la­tions in newly con­figured Poland, Czecho­slo­va­kia, Hungary, and the Soviet Union were to be expelled from their ancestral homelands in an orderly and humane manner.

The orderly and humane expulsion of alien nationals never happened. The crea­tion by the three major powers of eth­nically homo­ge­neous nation states in Central and Eastern Europe, in which every nation state would sup­posedly have and live within defen­sible borders, gave rise to an appalling series of forced popu­la­tion trans­fers and resettle­ments (we know them today as “eth­nic clean­sing”), not just of ethnic Germans, but of Eastern Poles, Hun­garians, Roma­nians, Ukrai­nians, and others who after the war found them­selves out­side the borders of their recon­figured home states. The largest single ethnic popu­lation up­heaval in Euro­pean his­tory dis­placed more than 20 mil­lion people in total, of which between 12 and 14 mil­lion were German citi­zens and foreign ethnic Germans. During the up­heaval over 2 mil­lion civil­ians, mostly women and chil­dren, died from hunger, disease, and violence directed at them.

Potsdam Conference Sets Off Large-Scale Population Upheaval and Resettlement. Poland and Czechoslovakia Provide Examples

Potsdam Conference aftermath: Germany’s postwar territorial losses

Above: With the stroke of a pen all prewar German terri­tories east of the dark blue north-south Oder-Neisse line—com­prising nearly one quarter (23.8 per­cent) of the coun­try—were severed from those to the west under border changes promul­gated at the Pots­dam Con­fer­ence (July 17 to August 2, 1945). The dark yellow region (called the Poland Admin­is­tra­tive Area by the Soviets) and the gray region encom­passing the port city of Danzig—both regions popu­lated almost exclu­sively by Germans—became part of post­war Poland. The rust-colored remain­der, con­sisting of northern East Prussia with the large German city and ice-free port of Koenigs­berg (now renamed Kalinin­grad), was allo­cated to the Soviet Union as the Kalinin­grad Ob­last of today’s Russia even though it sat in ethni­cally Polish and Lithu­anian terri­tory. Nearly all ethnic Germans in these reshuffled terri­tories of Central and Eastern Europe—esti­mated at roughly 12 mil­lion as of autumn 1944—fled west on foot or by avail­able trans­port or were later forcibly expelled, adding another 2 mil­lion impov­er­ished and dis­placed persons (DPs) to this fran­tic exodus of frightened men, women, and chil­dren. On July 21 at Potsdam Stalin told Truman and Chur­chill: “There are no Germans left [east of the Oder-Neisse].” Truman sought clari­fi­ca­tion: “Where are the nine million Germans?” Stalin shrugged, “They have fled.” Another 7.8 mil­lion DPs in Germany had been invol­un­tary foreign laborers and recently released in­mates from pris­oner of war and death camps. Over 2 mil­lion DPs, mostly women and chil­dren, perished from dis­ease or star­va­tion or were killed in revenge-driven ethnic cleansing (10–30 per­cent) during this mass migra­tion of more than 20 million people, of which 13.5 million were Germans and upwards of 4 mil­lion were Poles uprooted from areas that became parts of the Soviet Socialist Republics of Lithuania, Belorussia (Belarus), and Ukraine. Such was the price of peace.

Potsdam Conference aftermath: Sudeten Germans expelled from Czechoslovakia, probably 1945Potsdam Conference aftermath: Sudeten Germans leave Czechoslovakia for Germany, 1946

Left: A group of expelled Sudeten Germans from Czecho­slo­vakia. During the war the Czecho­slo­vak govern­ment-in-exile pursued a two-fold policy: (1) restore Czecho­slo­vakia to its pre-1938 (pre-Munich) boun­daries and (2) remove or at least reduce, through a com­bi­nation of minor border recti­fi­ca­tions and popu­la­tion trans­fers, the state’s German and Hun­garian minori­ties in order to restore the terri­torial integ­rity of Czecho­slo­vakia, estab­lish greater national homo­ge­neity, and reduce the poten­tial risk of their becoming fifth colum­nists. Czecho­slo­vak presi­dent Eduard Beneš, in a May 19, 1945, decree labeled the 3 million ethnic Germans and Hun­ga­rians “unre­li­able for the state,” meaning trai­tor­ous citi­zens based on war­time Nazi acti­vi­ties, clearing the way for nation­wide con­fis­ca­tions and expul­sions of people who found themselves on the wrong side of the Czecho­slo­vak border.

Right: Carrying suitcases, pushing baby carriages and impro­vised hand­carts loaded with few remaining belongings, Sude­ten Germans make their way to the rail­way station in Liberec, Czecho­slo­vakia, to be trans­ferred to Germany in this July 1946 photo. The widely expressed urge to create ethni­cally homo­geneous nation states in Central and East­ern Europe was pre­sented as the key rea­son for the offi­cial deci­sions of the 1945 Pots­dam and pre­vious Allied con­fer­ences as well as the resulting expul­sions of alien resi­dents. Presi­dent Frank­lin D. Roose­velt called forced popu­la­tion trans­fer mea­sures “harsh” but accept­able if they were “the only way to main­tain peace” between quar­reling eth­nic­ities. Prime Minis­ter Chur­chill agreed. But the wrinkle was this: With so many national borders shifting or having shifted, to which coun­tries should these refugees and dis­placed per­sons be repa­tri­ated? Was it ever jus­ti­fied, for example, for non- and anti­com­munist refugees to be repa­tri­ated against their will to coun­tries under Soviet domi­na­tion perhaps to suffer false arrest, arbi­trary imprison­ment, or a worse fate? And what about Jewish sur­vi­vors of the Holocaust? Presi­dent Truman took a cru­cial step of ordering that Jews be iden­ti­fied and regis­tered as Jews, not by their pre­war nation­ality. The cold reality was, first, some Euro­pean states wanted neither the Jews they had nor their Jews to return, and, secondly, Euro­pean Jews had no state of their own to offer them asylum before the state of Israel was estab­lished in May 1948 on ter­mi­na­tion of the British mandate of Palestine.

Potsdam Conference aftermath: Refugees from Poland head for new German border, 1945Potsdam Conference aftermath: Refugees and belongings at Berlin’s Pankow freight station, 1946

Left: East Prussian “repatriants” from what is today Poland drive past ruins to reach the safety of Germany, 1945. By the end of the war in Europe an esti­mated 5.6 mil­lion ethnic Germans had fled their homes in the East, up from 3.5 mil­lion in January 1945, often with nothing but the clothes on their back and what they could carry. Poles believed the expul­sion of Germans from post­war Poland would avoid future atro­cities like those the Nazis had in­flicted on their popu­la­tion during the war. Polish exile autho­ri­ties pro­posed a popu­la­tion trans­fer of Germans as early as 1941. During the war the Polish govern­ment-in-exile and the Czecho­slo­vak govern­ment-in-exile, both located in England, worked toward making this happen as soon as Nazi Germany was defeated. The 1923 Treaty of Lausanne had set such a prece­dent when 1.5 mil­lion ethnic Greeks from Turkey and 500,000 Muslims from Greece had been forcibly removed and resettled.

Right: With their modest possessions, refugees from Germany’s “lost East­ern [Polish] terri­tories” make their way to Berlin’s Pan­kow freight sta­tion to secure rail trans­porta­tion to other parts of Germany. The post­war Polish and Czecho­slo­vak govern­ments charac­ter­ized the forced exile and con­fis­cation of expellees’ pro­perty as “a just punish­ment for Nazi crimes.”

Potsdam Conference aftermath: Refugee family in Bavarian camp, 1945Potsdam Conference aftermath: Refugee camp in Schleswig-Holstein, 1951

Left: A family, possibly from Czech Sudeten­land, takes up new resi­dence in a refugee camp in Bava­ria in 1945. The expul­sion of ethnic Germans from areas out­side the redrawn borders of post-Nazi Germany created major social dis­rup­tions in the receiving German states (Laender). The states were hard pressed to pro­vide mil­lions of new resi­dents with decent housing, schooling, employ­ment, and finan­cial assis­tance. An esti­mate from the year 2000 suggested that as many as 20 per­cent of Germany’s 80 mil­lion citizens were expellees and their descendants.

Right: A photo from 1951 of barracks in a refugee camp in Schleswig-Hol­stein, North­ern Ger­many, shows the poverty into which many refugees, many who were well-to-do and privileged before the war, were forced to settle.

U.S. Army 1945 Newsreel, “Searchlight on Displaced Persons”