Modern history


The Impossible Settlement

‘Those who were not alive at the time may find it difficult to appreciate the
extent to which European politics in the post-war years were governed by
the fear of a German revival and directed to making sure that this never
happened again’.
Sir Michael Howard

‘Make no mistake, all the Balkans, except Greece, are going to be
Bolshevised, and there is nothing I can do to prevent it. There is nothing I
can do for Poland, either’.
Winston Churchill, January 1945

‘Reminded me of the Renaissance despots—no principles, any methods,
but no flowery language—always Yes or No, though you could only count
on him if it was No’.
Clement Attlee on Stalin

‘In the space of five years we have acquired a formidable
inferiority complex’.
Jean-Paul Sartre (1945)

‘Nobody in the world can understand what Europeans feel about the Germans until one talks to Belgians, Frenchmen or Russians. To them the only good Germans are dead Germans.’ The author of these words, written to his diary in 1945, was Saul K. Padover, the observer with the American armies whom we met in Chapter Three. His observation should be borne in mind in any account of the post-war division of Europe. The point of the Second World War in Europe was to defeat Germany, and almost all other considerations were set aside so long as the fighting continued.

The Allies’chief wartime concern had been to keep one another in the war. The Americans and British worried incessantly that Stalin might make a separate peace with Hitler, especially once the Soviet Union had recovered territory lost after June 1941. Stalin, for his part, saw the delay in establishing a Second (Western) Front as a ploy by the Western Allies to bleed Russia dry before coming forward to benefit from her sacrifices. Both parties could look to pre-war appeasement and pacts as evidence of the other’s unreliability; they were bound together only by a common enemy.

This mutual unease illuminates the wartime accords and understandings reached by the three major Allied governments. At Casablanca, in January 1943, it was agreed that the war in Europe could only end with an unconditional German surrender. At Teheran, eleven months later, the ‘Big Three’ (Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill) agreed in principle upon a post-war dismantling of Germany, a return to the so-called ‘Curzon Line’21 between Poland and the USSR, recognition of Tito’s authority in Yugoslavia and Soviet access to the Baltic at the former East Prussian port of Königsberg.

The obvious beneficiary of these agreements was Stalin, but then since the Red Army played by far the most important role in the struggle with Hitler, this made sense. For the same reason, when Churchill sat down with Stalin in Moscow in October 1944 and initialed the notorious ‘percentages agreement’, he was merely conceding to the Soviet dictator ground that the latter was already sure to seize. In this agreement, scribbled in haste by Churchill and passed across a table to Stalin who ‘took his blue pencil and made a large tick upon it’, Britain and the USSR agreed to exercise control over post-war Yugoslavia and Hungary on a 50:50 basis; Romania would be 90 percent under Russian control and Bulgaria 75 percent, while Greece would be 90 percent ‘British’.

Three points are worth making about this secret ‘deal’. The first is that the percentages for Hungary and Romania were purely formulaic: the real issue was the Balkans. Secondly, the deal was largely upheld on both sides, as we shall see. But thirdly, and however heartless this must seem from the point of view of the countries concerned, it really wasn’t significant. The same applies to the discussions at Yalta in February 1945. ‘Yalta’ has entered the lexicon of central European politics as a synonym for Western betrayal, the moment when the Western Allies sold out Poland and the other small states between Russia and Germany.

But Yalta actually mattered little. To be sure, the Allies all signed the Declaration on Liberated Europe—‘To foster the conditions in which the liberated peoples may exercise those [democratic] rights, all three governments will jointly assist the people in any European liberated state or former Axis satellite state in Europe . . . ’ to form representative governments, facilitate free elections, etc. And it was the postwar cynicism of the Soviet Union with regard to this commitment that would be thrown in the face of the West by understandably aggrieved spokesmen for the imprisoned nations. But nothing was decided at Yalta that had not already been agreed at Teheran or elsewhere.

The most that can be said of the Yalta Conference was that it offers a striking study in misunderstanding, with Roosevelt in particular a victim of his own illusions. For by then Stalin hardly needed Western permission to do whatever he wished in eastern Europe, as the British at least understood perfectly well. The eastern territories ceded to Stalin under the secret protocols of the Nazi-Soviet pacts of 1939 and 1940 were firmly in Soviet hands once again: at the time of the Yalta meeting (February 4th-11th 1945) the ‘Lublin Committee’ of Polish Communists brought west in the Soviet baggage train to run post-war Poland was already installed in Warsaw.22

In fact, Yalta left the truly important issue—arrangements for post-war Germany—off the table precisely because it was so important and intractable. And it is unlikely that the Western leaders could have got a better deal out of Stalin during these last months of the war, even if it had occurred to them to try. The only hope for the Poles and others was that Stalin would be generous to them in return for Western goodwill. But he had the latter in any case, and long after the defeat of Hitler it was the Western Allies who sought Stalin’s cooperation, not the other way around. The Soviet Union had to be kept in the war against Germany (and later, as it was then supposed, Japan); the problem of central Europe could wait upon the peace. Had it been otherwise Roosevelt and Churchill might have protested more strongly in August 1944, when 200,000 Poles were killed by the Germans in a hopeless uprising in Warsaw while the Red Army looked on from the other side of the Vistula.

Western leaders may not have shared Stalin’s view of the Poles’ underground Home Army as ‘a handful of power-hungry adventurers and criminals’, but they were certainly not about to antagonize their major military ally just six weeks after the D-Day landings in Normandy. For Poles then and since this was a betrayal of the very purpose of the war—after all, Britain and France had declared war on Hitler in September 1939 over his violation of Poland. But for the Western Allies the case for leaving Stalin a free hand in the east was self evident. The point of the war was to defeat Germany.

This remained the primary impulse to the very end. In April 1945, with Germany already beaten in all but name, Roosevelt could still declare that, even with regard to post-war arrangements for Germany itself, ‘our attitude should be one of study and postponement of final decision.’ There were good reasons for taking this stance—the search for a settlement of the German Question was going to prove horribly difficult, as perceptive observers could already see, and it made sense to sustain for as long as possible the anti-German alliance that bound the wartime partners together. But as a result, the shape of post-war Europe was dictated in the first instance not by wartime deals and accords but rather by the whereabouts of occupying armies when the Germans surrendered. As Stalin explained to Molotov, when the latter expressed doubts over the wording of the well-meaning ‘Declaration on Liberated Europe’: ‘We can fulfill it in our own way. What matters is the correlation of forces.’

In south-east Europe the war was over by the end of 1944, with Soviet forces in full control of the northern Balkans. By May 1945, in central and eastern Europe, the Red Army had liberated and re-occupied Hungary, Poland and most of Czechoslovakia. Soviet troops were through Prussia and into Saxony. In the West, where the British and Americans were fighting virtually separate wars in north-western and south-western Germany respectively, Eisenhower certainly could have reached Berlin before the Russians but was discouraged by Washington from doing so. Churchill would have liked to see a Western advance on Berlin but Roosevelt was conscious both of his generals’ concern for loss of life (one fifth of all US troop losses in World War Two were sustained at the Battle of the Bulge in the Belgian Ardennes in the previous winter) and of Stalin’s interest in the German capital.

As a result, in Germany and in Czechoslovakia (where the US army initially advanced 18 miles short of Prague and liberated the Pilsen region of western Bohemia, only to hand it over to the Red Army shortly afterwards), the line dividing what were not yet ‘eastern’ and ‘western’ Europe fell a little further west than the outcome of the fighting might have suggested. But only a little: however hard Generals Patton or Montgomery might have pressed forward, the final outcome would not have been significantly altered. Meanwhile, further south, on May 2nd 1945 the Yugoslav Army of National Liberation and the British Eighth Army came face to face in Trieste drawing through that most cosmopolitan of central European cities a line that would become the first true frontier of the Cold War.

Of course the ‘official’ Cold War still lay in the future. But in certain respects it had begun long before May 1945. So long as Germany remained the enemy it was easy to forget the deeper disputes and antagonisms separating the Soviet Union from its wartime allies. But they were there. Four years of wary cooperation in a life or death struggle with a common foe had done little to obliterate nearly thirty years of mutual suspicion. For the fact is that in Europe the Cold War began not after the Second World War but following the end of the First.

This point was perfectly clear in Poland, which fought a desperate war with the new Soviet Union in 1920; in Britain, where Churchill built his inter-war reputation in part upon the Red Scare of the early 20s and the theme of anti-Bolshevism; in France, where anti-Communism was the Right’s strongest suit in domestic affairs from 1921 until the German invasion of May 1940; in Spain where it suited Stalin and Franco alike to play up the importance of Communism in the Spanish civil war; and above all, of course, in the Soviet Union itself, where Stalin’s monopoly of power and his bloody purges of Party critics relied heavily on the charge that the West and its local associates were plotting to undermine the Soviet Union and destroy the Communist experiment. The years 1941-45 were just an interlude in an international struggle between Western democracies and Soviet totalitarianism, a struggle whose shape was obscured but not fundamentally altered by the threat posed to both sides by the rise of Fascism and Nazism at the heart of the continent.

It was Germany that brought Russia and the West together in 1941, much as it had succeeded in doing before 1914. But the alliance was foredoomed. From 1918-34 the Soviet strategy in central and western Europe—splitting the Left and encouraging subversion and violent protest—helped shape an image of ‘Bolshevism’ as fundamentally alien and hostile. Four years of troubled and controversial ‘Popular Front’ alliances did something to dispel this impression, despite the contemporary trials and mass murders in the Soviet Union itself. But the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of August 1939, and Stalin’s collaboration with Hitler in his dismemberment of their common neighbours the following year, considerably undermined the propaganda gains of the Popular Front years. Only the heroism of the Red Army and Soviet citizens in the years 1941-45, and the unprecedented crimes of the Nazis, helped dispel these earlier memories.

As for the Soviets, they never lost their distrust of the West—a distrust whose roots go back far beyond 1917, of course, but which were well irrigated by Western military intervention during the civil war of 1917-21, by the Soviet Union’s absence from international agencies and affairs for the next fifteen years, by the well-founded suspicion that most Western leaders preferred Fascists to Communists if forced to choose, and by the intuition that Britain and France especially would not be sorry to see the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany engage in mutually destructive conflict to others’ advantage. Even after the wartime alliance was forged and the common interest in defeating Germany was clear, the degree of mutual mistrust is striking: there was, revealingly, very little wartime exchange of sensitive intelligence between West and East.

The unraveling of the wartime alliance and the subsequent division of Europe were thus not due to a mistake, to naked self-interest or malevolence; they were rooted in history. Before the Second World War relations between the US and the UK on the one hand, and the USSR on the other, had always been tense. The difference was that none of them had had responsibility for large tracts of the European continent. Moreover they had been separated by, among other considerations, the presence of France and Germany. But with French humiliation in 1940 and German defeat five years later, everything was different. The renewed Cold War in Europe was always likely, but it was not inevitable. It was brought about by the ultimately incompatible goals and needs of the various interested parties.

Thanks to German aggression the United States was now, for the first time, a power in Europe. That the US had overwhelming strength was self-evident, even to those mesmerized by the achievements of the Red Army. US GNP had doubled in the course of the war, and by the spring of 1945 America accounted for half the world’s manufacturing capacity, most of its food surpluses and virtually all international financial reserves. The United States had put 12 million men under arms to fight Germany and its allies, and by the time Japan surrendered the American fleet was larger than all other fleets in the world combined. What would the US do with its power? In the aftermath of the First World War Washington had chosen not to exercise it; how different would things be after the Second World War? What did America want?

So far as Germany was concerned—and 85 percent of the American war effort had gone on the war against Germany—the initial American intent was quite severe. A directive from the Joint Chiefs of Staff, JCS 1067, was presented to President Truman on April 26th 1945, two weeks after Roosevelt’s death. Reflecting the views of, among others, Henry Morgenthau, the US Secretary of the Treasury, it recommended that:

‘It should be brought home to the Germans that Germany’s ruthless warfare and the fanatical Nazi resistance has destroyed the German economy and made chaos and suffering inevitable and that the Germans cannot escape responsibility for what they have brought upon themselves. Germany will not be occupied for the purpose of liberation but as a defeated enemy nation’. Or, as Morgenthau himself put it, ‘It is of the utmost importance that every person in Germany should realize that this time Germany is a defeated nation.’

The point, in short, was to avoid one of the major mistakes of the Versailles Treaty, as it seemed in retrospect to the policy makers of 1945: the failure to bring home to Germans the extent of their sins and the nemesis visited upon them. The logic of this initial American approach to the German question was thus demilitarization, denazification, deindustrialization—to strip Germany of her military and economic resources and re-educate the population. This policy was duly applied, at least in part: the Wehrmacht was formally dissolved (on August 20th 1946); denazification programs were set in place in the US-occupied zone especially, as we saw in Chapter Two; and strict limits were placed upon German industrial capacity and output, with steel-making particularly severely restricted under the March 1946 ‘Plan for the Level of the Post-War (German) Economy’.

But from the outset the ‘Morgenthau strategy’ was vigorously criticized within the US Administration itself. What good would be served by reducing (American-controlled) Germany to a virtually pre-industrial condition? Most of pre-war Germany’s best agricultural land was now under Soviet control or else had been transferred to Poland. Meanwhile western Germany was awash in refugees who had access neither to land nor food. Restrictions on urban or industrial output might keep Germany prostrate but they wouldn’t feed it or rebuild it. That burden, a very considerable one, would fall on the victorious occupiers. Sooner or later they would need to offload this responsibility onto Germans themselves, at which point the latter would have to be allowed to rebuild their economy.

To these concerns, American critics of the initial US ‘hard’ line added a further consideration. It was all very well forcibly bringing Germans to a consciousness of their own defeat, but unless they were given some prospect of a better future the outcome might be the same as before: a resentful, humiliated nation vulnerable to demagogy from Right or Left. As former President Herbert Hoover expressed it to Truman himself, in 1946, ‘You can have vengeance, or peace, but you can’t have both.’ If, in American treatment of Germany, the balance of advantage swung increasingly to ‘peace’ this was largely due to the darkening prospect for US-SOVIET relations.

Among a restricted circle of Washington insiders, it was obvious from the outset that the incompatibility of Soviet and Western interests would lead to conflict and that clearly delimited zones of power might be a prudent solution to post-war problems. This was the view of George Kennan. Why, he wrote on January 26th 1945, ‘could we not make a decent and definite compromise with [the USSR]?—divide Europe frankly into spheres of influence—keep ourselves out of the Russian sphere and the Russians out of ours? . . . And within whatever sphere of action was left to us we could at least . . . (try) to restore life, in the wake of the war, on a dignified and stable foundation.’

Six weeks later a more pessimistic and implicitly confrontational response to Soviet actions in eastern Europe was proposed to President Roosevelt in a memo from Averell Harriman, the US ambassador in Moscow: ‘Unless we wish to accept the 20th century barbarian invasion of Europe, with repressions extending further and further in the East as well, we must find ways to arrest the Soviet domineering policy . . . If we don’t face the issues squarely now, history will record the period of the next generation as the Soviet age.’

Harriman and Kennan differed implicitly on how to respond to Soviet actions, but they did not disagree in their account of what Stalin was doing. Other American leaders were much more sanguine, however, and not just in the spring of 1945. Charles Bohlen, another US diplomat and the recipient of the Kennan letter quoted above, believed in the possibility of a post-war settlement based on broad principles of self-determination and Great Power cooperation. Recognising the need to maintain Soviet cooperation in working out a solution in Germany itself, Bohlen and others—like the post-war Secretary of State James Byrnes—placed their faith in Allied military occupation of the former Axis states and their satellites, together with free elections along the lines adumbrated at Yalta. Only later—after observing the workings of Soviet power under the auspices of Allied Control Councils in Romania and Bulgaria especially—did they accept the incompatibility of these goals and come to share Kennan’s preference for the realpolitik of separate spheres.

One ground for initial optimism was the widely held view that Stalin had no interest in provoking confrontation and war. As General Eisenhower himself put it to President Truman and his Joint Chiefs of Staff in June 1946, ‘I don’t believe the Reds want a war. What can they gain now by armed conflict? They’ve gained just about all they can assimilate.’ In a limited sense Eisenhower was correct: Stalin was not about to go to war with the USA (although the reasonable conclusion to be drawn, that the Soviet Union thus had an interest in cooperating fully with its erstwhile ally, did not in fact follow). And in that case the US, which had a monopoly of atomic weapons, risked little by keeping communications open with the Soviet Union and seeking mutually compatible solutions to common problems.

Another element in US policy in the initial post-war period were the new international institutions that the Americans had helped bring about and whose success they sincerely desired. Of these the United Nations, whose Charter was ratified on October 24th 1945 and whose General Assembly first met in January 1946, is obviously the best known; but it was the financial and economic agencies and agreements associated with ‘Bretton Woods’ which perhaps mattered more to policymakers at the time.

The economic meltdown of the inter-war years seemed to Americans especially to be the root source of the European (and world) crisis. Unless currencies were convertible and nations stood to benefit mutually from increased trade, there was nothing to prevent a return to the bad days of September 1931, when the post-World War One monetary system fell apart. Led by Maynard Keynes—the moving spirit behind the July 1944 meeting at the Bretton Woods conference center in New Hampshire—economists and statesmen sought an alternative to the international financial system of pre-war days: something less rigid and deflationary than the gold standard, but more reliable and mutually sustaining than a floating-rate currency regime. Whatever this new regime was to be, it would need, Keynes argued, something resembling an international bank, functioning rather like the central bank of a domestic economy, to administer it: to maintain the fixed exchange rate while at the same time encouraging and facilitating foreign exchange transactions.

That, in essence, is what was agreed at Bretton Woods. An International Monetary Fund was set up (with US cash) ‘to facilitate the expansion and balanced growth of international trade’ (Article I). The initial Executive Board, modeled on the UN Security Council, had representatives from the US, UK, France, China and the USSR. An International Trading Organisation was proposed, which would eventually take shape in 1947 as the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs (later the World Trade Organisation). Members agreed to tariff and other concessions for contracting partners, as well as codes for trade practices and procedures for handling breaches and disputes. All of this was in itself a dramatic break from earlier ‘mercantilist’ approaches to trade and was intended, in due course, to inaugurate a new age of open commerce.

Implicit in the Bretton Woods goals and institutions, which also included a new ‘World Bank’, was an unprecedented degree of external interference in national practices. Moreover currencies were to become convertible, a necessary condition for sustained and predictable international commerce, on the basis of their relationship to the US dollar. In practice this proved problematic: both Britain and France resisted convertibility, the British because of their protected ‘sterling area’23 and the weakness of their post-war economy, the French through a longstanding obsession with a ‘strong franc’ and their wish to preserve multiple exchange rates for different sectors and products, the neo-Colbertian heritage of a bygone era. Full convertibility took over a decade to achieve, with the franc and the pound finally joining the Bretton Woods system in 1958 and 1959 respectively (they would be followed by the Deutschmark in May 1959 and the Italian lira in January 1960).

Thus the post-war Bretton Woods system did not come about all at once. The participants at Bretton Woods had anticipated universal international convertibility by the end of the 1940s, but their calculations did not allow for the political and economic consequences of the coming of the Cold War (or, indeed, of the Marshall Plan). Put differently, the high ideals of those setting out plans and institutions for a better international system presumed a stable era of international cooperation from which all would gain. The Soviet Union was originally integral to the financial system proposed at Bretton Woods—it was to be the third-largest contributor to the International Monetary Fund quota. It was perhaps naïve for the Americans (and some British) to imagine that these proposals would be acceptable to Russian—or indeed French—policy-makers; in any case, they got around this impediment by the simple expedient of drawing up their plans without consulting the Russians or the French or anyone else.

Nevertheless, they sincerely expected that the mutual benefits to be had from an increase in international commerce and financial stability would eventually overcome national traditions and political mistrust. So when the Soviet Union abruptly announced, at the beginning of 1946, that it would not be joining the Bretton Woods institutions, the United States Treasury Department was genuinely bewildered; and it was to explain the thinking that lay behind Stalin’s move that George Kennan sent from Moscow, on the night of February 22nd 1946, his famous Long Telegram, the first significant move in America’s acknowledgement of the coming confrontation.

Putting the matter thus has the effect of depicting the makers of US foreign policy, Kennan aside, as remarkably innocent. And so, perhaps, they were, and not only those like Senator Estes Kefauver or Walter Lippmann, who simply refused to believe what they were told about Soviet actions in eastern Europe and elsewhere. At least through mid-1946, many US leaders spoke and acted as though they truly believedin the continuation of their wartime partnership with Stalin. Even Lucretius Patrascanu, a senior figure in the Romanian Communist leadership (and later victim of a show trial in his own country), was moved to comment, at the time of the Paris Peace Treaty negotiations in the summer of 1946, that ‘[t]he Americans are crazy. They are giving even more to the Russians than [they] are asking and expecting. ’ 24

But there was more to American policy than innocence. The United States in 1945 and for some time to come seriously expected to extricate itself from Europe as soon as possible, and was thus understandably keen to put in place a workable settlement that would not require American presence or supervision. This aspect of American post-war thinking is not well remembered or understood today, but it was uppermost in American calculations at the time—as Roosevelt had explained at Yalta, the US did not expect to remain in occupation of Germany (and thus in Europe) more than two years at most.

There was strong pressure on Truman to fulfill this undertaking. The abrupt ending of Lend-Lease was part of a general cutting back of economic and military commitments to Europe. The American defense budget was reduced by five-sixths between 1945 and 1947. At the end of the war in Europe the US had 97 combat-ready ground divisions in place; by mid-1947 there were just twelve divisions, most of them under strength and engaged in administrative tasks. The rest had gone home and been demobilized. This met the expectations of American voters, only 7 percent of whom in October 1945 placed foreign problems ahead of domestic concerns; but it played havoc with America’s European allies, who began seriously to fear a reprise of inter-war isolationism. They were only half-mistaken; as the British knew, in the event of a Soviet invasion of western Europe after 1945 American strategy consisted of an immediate retreat to peripheral bases in Britain, Spain and the Middle East.

But even as they were reducing their military commitment to Europe, American diplomats were being taken through a steep learning curve. The same Secretary Byrnes who had initially placed his faith in wartime accords and Soviet goodwill gave a speech at Stuttgart, on September 6th 1946, in which he sought to reassure his German audience: ‘As long as an occupation force is required in Germany, the Army of the United States will be a part of that occupation force.’ It was hardly a ringing commitment to European defense but, prompted perhaps by a letter from Truman in June (‘I’m tired of babying the Russians’), it reflected growing US frustration at the difficulty of working with the Soviet Union.

The Germans were not the only people who needed reassuring—the British especially were anxious at the Americans’ apparent desire to escape their European encumbrance. Britain was not universally loved in Washington. In a speech on April 12th 1946, Vice-President Henry Wallace reminded his audience that ‘aside from our common language and common literary tradition, we have no more in common with Imperialistic England than with Communist Russia’. Wallace, of course, was notoriously ‘soft’ on Communism, but his distaste for American involvement with Britain and Europe was widely shared across the political spectrum. When Winston Churchill gave his famous ‘iron curtain’ speech in Fulton, Missouri, in March 1946, the Wall Street Journal acidly commented: ‘The country’s reaction to Mr Churchill’s Fulton speech must be convincing proof that the US wants no alliance, or anything that resembles an alliance, with any other nation.’

Churchill above all would not have been surprised, either by Wallace or the editorialist of the Wall Street Journal. As early as 1943 he had taken the full measure of Roosevelt’s desire to see the liquidation of the British Empire—indeed, there were times when Roosevelt seemed at least as concerned with reducing post-war Britain as with containing Soviet Russia. If it is possible to speak of a coherent US strategy spanning the years 1944-47 it would be this: reach a continental European settlement with Stalin; pressure Britain to abandon its overseas empire and embrace open trade and sterling convertibility; and withdraw from Europe with all due speed. Of these, only the second objective was achieved—the third falling victim to the impossibility of the first.

The British perspective was quite different. A Cabinet sub-committee in 1944 listed four areas of primary concern to be borne in mind when dealing with the Soviet Union: i) Middle-Eastern oil; ii) the Mediterranean basin; iii) ‘vital sea communications’; iv) the maintenance and protection of British industrial strength. None of these, it might be noted, directly concerned Europe proper—except the second point, which explains British engagement in Greece. There was no mention of eastern Europe. If British leaders were wary in their dealings with Stalin it was not from any anxiety over his plans in central Europe but rather in anticipation of future Soviet moves in Central Asia and the Near East.

This made sense in the light of Britain’s continuing priorities—in East Asia, India, Africa and the Caribbean. But those selfsame Imperial illusions (as some, and not only in Washington, were already calling them) made British strategists much more realistic than their American allies when it came to Europe. From London’s point of view, the war had been fought to defeat Germany, and if the price for this was a Soviet imperium in eastern Europe, then that was how things would be. The British continued to see European affairs in terms of a balance of power: in the words of Sir William Strang, of the Foreign Office, ‘[i]t is better that Russia should dominate eastern Europe than that Germany should dominate western Europe’.

Strang was writing in 1943. By 1945, when the extent of Russian domination was becoming clear, British leaders were less optimistic than their American counterparts. Following the Russian-engineered coup in Bucharest in February 1945, and subsequent heavy-handed Soviet pressure in both Romania and Bulgaria, it was obvious that the local price of Soviet hegemony was going to be high. But the British harboured no fond hopes for improvement in the region—as Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin put it to his US counterpart Byrnes: ‘In these countries we must be prepared to exchange one set of crooks for another.’

The real British fear in Europe was not that the USSR might control eastern Europe—by late 1944 that was a fait accompli—but that it might draw a prostrate, resentful Germany into its orbit as well and thus establish mastery over the whole continent. To prevent this, as the British Chiefs of Staff concluded in the autumn of 1944, it would probably be necessary to divide Germany and then occupy the western part. In that case, as a confidential British Treasury Paper of March 1945 concluded, one answer to the German problem might be to forget about an all-German resolution and instead incorporate such a western German Zone fully into the western European economy. As General Alan Brooke, Chief of the Imperial General Staff, had confided to his diary on July 27th 1944, ‘Germany is no longer the dominating power in Europe. Russia is . . . She . . . cannot fail to become the main threat in fifteen years from now. Therefore, foster Germany, gradually bring her up and bring her into a Federation of Western Europe. Unfortunately, all this must be done under the cloak of a holy alliance of Russia, England and America.’

This, of course, is more or less what happened four years later. Of all the Allied powers it was Britain which came closest to anticipating and even seeking the settlement that finally emerged. But the British were in no position to impose such an outcome, nor indeed to impose very much at all, on their own. By the end of the war it was obvious that London was no match for Washington and Moscow. Britain had exhausted itself in the epic struggle with Germany and could not much longer sustain even the outer trappings of a great power. Between Victory-in-Europe Day in 1945 and the spring of 1947 British forces were reduced from a peak of 5.5 million men and women under arms to just 1.1 million. In the autumn of 1947 the country was even forced to cancel naval manoeuvres in order to save fuel oil. In the words of the American Ambassador William Clayton, a far from unsympathetic observer, ‘the British are hanging in by their eyelashes to the hope that somehow or other with our help they will be able to preserve the British Empire and their leadership of it.’

In these circumstances the British were understandably concerned not that the Russians would attack—British policy was predicated on the assumption that Soviet aggression might take any form except war—but that the Americans would retreat. A minority within the governing British Labour Party would have been happy to see them go, placing their post-war faith instead in a neutrally-inclined European defense alliance. But Prime Minister Clement Attlee had no such delusions and explained why, in a letter to his Labour Party colleague Fenner Brockway:

‘Some [in the Labour Party] thought we ought to concentrate all our efforts on building up a Third Force in Europe. Very nice, no doubt. But there wasn’t either a spiritual or a material basis for it at that time. What remained of Europe wasn’t strong enough to stand up to Russia by itself. You had to have a world force because you were up against a world force . . . Without the stopping power of the Americans, the Russians might easily have tried sweeping right forward. I don’t know whether they would, but it wasn’t a possibility you could just ignore.’

But could the Americans be counted on? British diplomats had not forgotten the 1937 Neutrality Act. And of course they understood very well the American ambivalence about overseas engagement, for it was not so different from their own stance in earlier days. From the mid-eighteenth century through to the dispatch of the British Expeditionary Force to France in 1914, the English had preferred to fight by proxy, maintaining no standing army, avoiding protracted continental engagements and keeping no permanent force on European soil. In the past, a maritime power seeking to fight a European war with someone else’s soldiers could look to the Spanish, the Dutch, the Swiss, the Swedes, the Prussians and of course the Russians for allies. But times had changed.

Hence the British decision, in January 1947, to go ahead with their own atomic weapons programme. The significance of that choice lay in the future, however. In the circumstances of the initial post-war years Britain’s best hope lay in encouraging continued American engagement in Europe (which meant publicly espousing the American faith in a negotiated settlement) while collaborating with the Soviets in so far as this was still realistic. So long as the fear of German revanchism took precedence over anything else, this policy could just about be sustained.

By early 1947, however, it was clearly crumbling. Whether or not the Soviet Union constituted a real and present danger was unclear (as late as December 1947 even Bevin though Russia less of a threat than a future, resurgent Germany). But what was painfully clear was that the limbo in Germany, where the country’s economy was held hostage to unresolved political discussions and the British were footing enormous bills in their zone of occupation, could not long continue. The German economy needed to be revived, with or without Soviet agreement. It was the British—who had fought two long wars against Germany from beginning to end and had been brought low by their hard-won victories—who were thus most keen to close that chapter, establish some modus vivendi in continental affairs and move on.

In better times the British would have retreated to their Isles, much as they suspected the Americans of wanting to retreat to their continent, and left the security of western Europe to its traditional guardians, the French. As recently as 1938 this had been the basis of British strategic calculation: that France, the strongest military power on the continent, could be relied on as a counterweight not just to German ambitions in central Europe but even against future Soviet threats further east. This image of France as a—the—European Great Power was shaken at Munich, but outside the chancelleries of Eastern Europe it was not yet broken. The seismic shock that ran through Europe in May and June 1940, when the great French army collapsed and fell apart before the Panzer onslaught across the Meuse and through Picardy, was thus all the greater for being so unexpected.

In six traumatic weeks, the cardinal reference points of European inter-state relations changed forever. France ceased to be not just a Great Power but even a power, and despite De Gaulle’s best efforts in later decades it has never been one since. For the shattering defeat of June 1940 was followed by four years of humiliating, demeaning, subservient occupation, with Marshall Pétain’s Vichy regime playing Uriah Heep to Germany’s Bill Sikes. Whatever they said in public, French leaders and policymakers could not but know what had happened to their country. As one internal French policy paper put it, a week after the Liberation of Paris in 1944: ‘If France should have to submit to a third assault during the next generation, it is to be feared that . . . it will succumb forever.’

That was in private. In public, post-war French statesmen and politicians insisted upon their country’s claim to recognition as a member of the victorious Allied coalition, a world power to be accorded equal standing with her peers. This illusion could be sustained, in some degree, because it suited the other powers to pretend it was so. The Soviet Union wanted a tactical ally in the West who shared its suspicion of the ‘Anglo-Americans’; the British wanted a revived France to take its place in the counsels of Europe and relieve Great Britain of continental obligations; even the Americans saw some advantage, though not much, in granting Paris a seat at the top table. So the French were given a permanent seat on the new United Nations Security Council, they were offered a role in the joint military administrations of Vienna and Berlin, and (at British insistence) an occupation district was carved for them out of the American zone in south-west Germany, in an area contiguous to the French frontier and well west of the Soviet front line.

But the net effect of these encouragements was to pour further humiliation upon an already humbled nation. And the French responded at first with predictable prickliness. On the Allied Control Council in Germany they consistently blocked or vetoed the implementation of decisions taken at the Potsdam Conference of the Big Three on the grounds that France had not been party to them. The French provisional authorities initially refused to cooperate with UNRRA and Allied military governments in the handling of displaced persons on the grounds that French refugees and DPs should be located and administered as part of an independent and exclusively French operation.

Above all, French post-war governments felt very strongly their sense of exclusion from the highest councils of Allied decision-making. The British and the Americans were not to be trusted separately, they thought (remembering the American retreat from Europe after 1920 and the July 1940 British destruction of the French fleet at Mers-el-Kebir); but above all they were not to be trusted together—a sentiment felt especially acutely by De Gaulle, haunted by recollections of his demeaning wartime status as a guest in London and his low standing in the eyes of FDR. Decisions were being taken in Washington and London, the French came to believe, that directly concerned them but over which they had no influence

Like Britain, France was an Empire, at least on paper. But Paris had become estranged from its colonial holdings in the course of the occupation. In any case, and despite the country’s significant possessions in Africa and South-East Asia, France was first and always a continental power. Soviet moves in Asia, or the coming crisis in the Middle East, were matters with which the French, unlike the British, were by now only indirectly concerned. Precisely because France was now shrunk, Europe loomed larger in its field of vision. And in Europe, Paris had grounds for concern. French influence in eastern Europe, an arena where French diplomacy had been most active between the wars, was finished: in October 1938 a shell-shocked Edouard Benes famously confided that his ‘great mistake before History . . .will have been my fidelity to France’, and his disillusion was widespread in the region.

France’s attention was now fixed, indeed fixated, upon Germany. This was not unreasonable: between 1814 and 1940 French soil had been invaded and occupied by Germans on five distinct occasions, three of them within living memory. The country had paid an incalculable price in territorial and material loss and in human lives and suffering. The failure after 1918 to put in place a system of controls and alliances capable of restraining a renascent, vengeful Germany haunted the Quai d’Orsay, home of the French Foreign Ministry. The country’s first priority after the defeat of Hitler was to ensure that this mistake was not repeated.

Thus France’s initial position on the German problem was very clear, and drew directly upon the lessons of 1918-24: so much so, indeed, that to outsiders it appeared an attempt to re-run the script of the post-World War One years, only this time with someone else’s army. What French policy makers sought was the complete disarmament and economic dismantling of Germany: arms and arms-related production were to be prohibited, reparations were to be made (including obligatory labour service in France for German workers), agricultural produce, timber, coal and machinery were to be requisitioned and removed. The mining districts of the Ruhr, the Saarland and parts of the Rhineland should be separated from the German state, their resources and output placed at French disposal.

Such a schedule, had it been imposed, would surely have destroyed Germany for many years to come: that was its half-acknowledged object (and an attractive political programme in France). But it would also have served the purpose of placing Germany’s huge primary resources at the service of France’s own plans for recovery—indeed, the Monnet Plan presumed the availability of German coal deliveries in particular, without which the French steel industry was helpless. Even in 1938 France had been the world’s biggest importer of coal, buying from abroad some 40 percent of its requirements in coal and coke. By 1944 French domestic coal output had fallen to less than half that of 1938. The country was even more dependent upon foreign coal. But in 1946, when domestic coal production regained 1938 levels, French coal imports—at 10 million tons—were still desperately short of the required amounts. Without German coal and coke, the post-war French recovery would be stillborn.

There were, however, a number of shortcomings to French calculations. In the first place they fell foul of the same objections raised by Keynes to French policy a quarter century earlier. It made little sense to destroy German resources if they were vital to France’s own recovery; and there was simply no way to oblige Germans to work for France while being held down to a low standard of living at home with little prospect for improvement. The risk of provoking a nationalist backlash in Germany against post-war foreign oppression appeared at least as great in the 1940s as it had twenty years earlier.

But the most serious objection to French plans for post-war Germany was that they took little account of the interests or plans of France’s Western allies, an imprudent oversight at a time when France was utterly dependent on those same allies not just for her security but for her very livelihood. On secondary issues—such as a customs and monetary union with the Saarland, on which the French got their way in 1947—the Western Allies could accommodate French demands. But on the central issue of Germany’s future, Paris had no leverage with which to oblige the ‘Anglo-Americans’ to do its bidding.

France’s relationship with the Soviet Union was a little different. France and Russia had been in and out of alliances together for the past half century and Russia still held a special place in French public affection: opinion polls in post-war France consistently revealed a substantial reserve of sympathy for the Soviet Union.25 French diplomats in the aftermath of German defeat could thus hope that a natural concordance of interests—shared fear of Germany and suspicion of the ‘Anglo-Americans’—might translate into sustained Soviet support for French diplomatic goals. Like Churchill, De Gaulle thought and spoke of the USSR as ‘Russia’ and reasoned in grand historical analogies: on his way to Moscow in December 1944, to negotiate a rather meaningless Franco-Russian Treaty against any revival of German aggression, the French leader observed to his entourage that he was dealing with Stalin as François Ie had with Suleiman the Magnificent four centuries earlier: with the difference ‘that in sixteenth-century France there wasn’t a Muslim party’.

Stalin, however, did not share French illusions. He had no interest in serving as a counterweight to assist the French in offsetting the foreign policy heft of London and Washington, though this was only finally made clear to the French in April 1947, at the Moscow gathering of Allied foreign ministers, when Molotov refused to back Georges Bidault’s proposals for a separate Rhineland and foreign control of the Ruhr industrial belt. Yet the French continued to dream up alternative ways to secure an impossible independence of policy. There were aborted negotiations with Czechoslovakia and Poland aimed at securing coal and markets for French steel and farm produce. And the French Ministry of War could—confidentially—propose, as late as 1947, that France should adopt a stance of international neutrality, making preventive ententes or alliances with the USA and the USSR and lining up against whichever of the two initiated aggression against her.

If France finally abandoned these fantasies and came round to the position of her Western partners in 1947, it was for three reasons. In the first place, French strategies for Germany had failed: there was to be no dismantling of Germany and there would be no reparations. France was in no position to impose a German solution of her own, and no-one else wanted the one she was proposing. The second reason for France’s retreat from her initial positions was the desperate economic situation of mid-1947: like the rest of Europe, France (as we have seen) urgently needed not just American aid but German recovery. The former was indirectly but unambiguously dependent upon French agreement on a strategy for the latter.

But thirdly, and decisively, French politicians and the French national mood shifted definitively in the second half of 1947. Soviet rejection of Marshall Aid and the advent of the Cominform (to be discussed in the next chapter) transformed the powerful French Communist Party from an awkward coalition partner in government to the unrestrained critic of all French policies at home and abroad: so much so that through the latter part of 1947 and most of 1948 France seemed to many to be heading into civil war. At the same time there was something of a war scare in Paris, coupling the country’s continued worries about German revanchism with new talk of an impending Soviet invasion.

In these circumstances, and following their rebuff by Molotov, the French turned reluctantly towards the West. Asked by US Secretary of State George Marshall in April 1947 whether America ‘could rely on France’, Foreign Minister Bidault replied ‘yes’—given time and if France could avoid a civil war. Marshall was understandably not much impressed, any more than he was eleven months later when he described Bidault as having ‘a case of the jitters’. Marshall found France’s preoccupation with the German threat ‘outmoded and unrealistic’.26

What Marshall said of France’s fears about Germany was doubtless true, but it suggests a lack of empathy for France’s recent past. It was thus a matter of no small significance when the French parliament approved Anglo-American plans for western Germany in 1948, albeit by a significantly close vote of 297-289. The French had no choice and they knew it. If they wanted economic recovery and some level of American and British security guarantees against German revival or Soviet expansion, then they had to go along—especially now that France was embroiled in a costly colonial war in Indo-China for which she urgently needed American help.

The Americans and British could guarantee France against a renascent military threat from Germany; and American policy could hold out the promise of economic recovery in Germany. But none of this resolved France’s long-standing dilemma—how to secure privileged French access to the materials and resources located there. If these objectives were not to be obtained by force or by annexation, then an alternative means had to be found. The solution, as it emerged in French thinking in the course of the ensuing months, lay in ‘Europeanising’ the German Problem: as Bidault, once again, expressed it in January 1948: ‘On the economic plane, but also on the political plane one must . . . propose as an objective to the Allies and to the Germans themselves, the integration of Germany into Europe . . . it is . . . the only means to give life and consistency to a politically decentralized, but economically prosperous Germany.’

In short, if you could not destroy Germany, then join her up to a European framework in which she could do no harm militarily but much good economically. If the idea had not occurred to French leaders before 1948 this was not through a shortage of imagination, but because it was clearly perceived as a pis aller, a second-best outcome. A ‘European’ solution to France’s German problem could only be adopted once a properly ‘French’ solution had been abandoned, and it took French leaders three years to accept this. In those three years France had, in effect, to come to terms with the abrupt negation of three hundred years of history. In the circumstances this was no small achievement.

The situation of the Soviet Union in 1945 was precisely the opposite of that of France. After two decades of effective exclusion from the affairs of Europe, Russia had re-surfaced. The resilience of the Soviet population, the successes of the Red Army and, it must be said, the Nazis’ capacity to turn even the most sympathetic anti-Soviet nations against them, had brought Stalin credibility and influence, in the counsels of governments and on the streets.

This newfound Bolshevik appeal was founded on the seduction of power. For the USSR was very powerful indeed: despite their huge losses in the first six months of the German invasion—when the Red Army lost 4 million men, 8,000 aircraft and 17,000 tanks—the Soviet armies had recovered to the point where, in 1945, they constituted the greatest military force Europe had ever seen: in Hungary and Romania alone they maintained, through 1946, a military presence of some 1,600,000 men. Stalin had direct or (in the case of Yugoslavia) indirect control of a huge swathe of eastern and central Europe. His armies had only narrowly been blocked, by the rapid advance of the British under Montgomery, from moving forward through north Germany as far as the Danish border.

As Western generals well knew, there was absolutely nothing to stop the Red Army advancing to the Atlantic if Stalin ordered it. To be sure, the Americans and the British had a clear advantage in strategic bombing capacity, and America had the atomic bomb, as Stalin knew even before Truman told him so at Potsdam in July 1945. There is no doubt that Stalin wanted a Soviet atomic bomb—it is one of the reasons why he insisted on Soviet control of those parts of eastern Germany and, especially, Czechoslovakia where there were uranium deposits; within a few years 200,000 east Europeans would be working in these mines as part of the Soviet atomic programme.27

But the atomic bomb, though it worried the Soviet leaders and made Stalin even more suspicious of American motives and plans than he already was, did little to alter Soviet military calculations. These derived directly from Stalin’s political goals, which in turn drew on longstanding Soviet and Russian objectives. The first of these was territorial: Stalin wanted back the land the Bolsheviks had lost, at the 1918 Treaty of Brest-Litovsk and in the course of the war with Poland two years later. This goal had been partly achieved in the secret clauses of his 1939 and 1940 pacts with Hitler. The rest he owed to Hitler’s decision to invade the Soviet Union in June 1941, allowing the Red Army in turn to reoccupy the disputed territories in the course of its advance on Berlin. That way, the Soviet occupation and annexation of Bessarabia (from Romania), the Bukovina (from Romania), sub-Carpathian Ruthenia (from Czechoslovakia), western Ukraine (from Poland), eastern Finland, the three independent Baltic republics and Königsberg/Kaliningrad in East Prussia could all be presented as the spoils of victory, rather than deriving from unsavoury deals with the Fascist enemy.

For the Soviet Union the point of this territorial aggrandizement was twofold. It ended its pariah status. This was a matter of some importance to Stalin, who now became the leader of a huge Eurasian bloc in world affairs, its newfound power symbolized by the Soviet Union’s insistence on a system of vetoes in the new UN Security Council. However, land represented not just prestige but also and above all security. From the Soviet viewpoint a glacis to its west, a broad swathe of land across which Germans especially would have to pass if they wished to attack Russia, was a vital security concern. At Yalta and again at Potsdam Stalin made explicit his insistence that these territories between Russia and Germany, if they were not to be wholly absorbed into the USSR itself, must be run by friendly regimes ‘free of fascist and reactionary elements’.

The interpretation of that last phrase would prove, to say the least, contentious. But in 1945 the Americans and British were not disposed to give Stalin an argument on the matter. The Soviets had earned, it was felt, the privilege of defining their security as they saw fit; just as it was initially agreed that Moscow was within its rights to extract reparations, booty, labour and materiel from former Axis countries (Germany, Austria, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and Finland). Looking back, we may be tempted to see in these territorial seizures and economic spoliation the first stages of the bolshevization of Europe’s eastern half, and so of course they proved. But at the time this was not obvious to everyone—to Western observers there was even something familiar and reassuringly traditional about Moscow’s initial post-war stance.28 And there was a precedent.

Overall, it is not possible to understand the Communist regime in Russia unless we take seriously its ideological claims and ambitions. But there were moments, and the years 1945-47 are one of them, when even if one knew little of Bolshevik doctrine it would be possible to make reasonably good sense of Soviet foreign policy simply by looking to the policies of the czars. It was Peter the Great, after all, who introduced the strategy by which Russia would dominate through ‘protection’ of its neighbours. It was Catherine the Great who drove the Empire forward to the south and south-west. And it was Czar Alexander I, above all, who established the template for Russian imperial engagement in Europe.

At the Vienna Congress of 1815, where—as in 1945—the victorious and mutually suspicious allied powers met to re-establish continental equilibrium following the defeat of a tyrant, Alexander’s purposes had been quite explicit. The concerns of small nations were to be subordinated to those of the Great Powers. Since British interests lay overseas and no other continental power matched that of Russia, the Czar would serve as arbiter of a post-war continental arrangement. Local protests would be treated as threats to the arrangement at large and put down with appropriate energy. Russian security would be defined by the territory under Czarist control—never again must a Western army be able to reach Moscow unimpeded—and by the success with which its occupants were forcibly reconciled to the new system.

There is nothing in that account which does not apply to Soviet calculations in 1945. Indeed, Alexander and his ministers would have seen nothing with which to cavil in a policy memorandum written by Ivan Maisky, the Deputy People’s Commissar for Foreign Affairs, in November 1944: ‘The most advantageous situation for us would be the existence in Europe after the war of only one mighty continental power—the USSR, and one mighty maritime power—Britain.’ Of course, at a distance of 130 years nothing is ever quite the same: in 1945 Stalin was more concerned with Central Asia and the Near East than Alexander had been (though Alexander’s immediate successors were very active there); conversely, Soviet strategists did not fully share the Czarist obsession with Constantinople, the Straits and the south Balkans. But the continuities of policy far outweigh the differences. They are linked, as it were, by the calculations of Sazunov (Russia’s foreign minister on the outbreak of war in 1914), who was already envisaging the future of eastern Europe as a cluster of small, vulnerable, states; nominally independent but effectively clients of Great Russia.

To these enduring themes of Czarist foreign policy in Europe, Stalin added distinctive calculations of his own. He truly expected the coming economic collapse of the West—extrapolating from inter-war precedent as well as Marxist dogma—and he exaggerated the ‘inevitable’ conflict between Britain and the US as imperial competitors for a shrinking world market. From this he deduced not just a coming time of increased turbulence—and thus the need for the Soviet Union to nail down its gains—but the real possibility of ‘splitting’ the Western allies: over the Middle East especially but perhaps over Germany as well. That was one reason why he evinced no haste in reaching a settlement there—time, Stalin believed, was on his side.

But this did not make him any more secure. On the contrary, defensiveness and a wary suspicion characterized all aspects of Soviet foreign policy—‘the Kremlin’s neurotic view of world affairs’ as George Kennan described it in 1946. Hence the famous February 9th 1946 speech at the Bolshoi Theatre, where Stalin announced that the Soviet Union was returning to its pre-war emphasis on industrialization, war-preparedness, and the inevitability of conflict between capitalism and Communism, and made explicit what was already obvious, that henceforth the Soviet Union would cooperate with the West only when it suited her.

There was nothing new here: Stalin was retreating to the ‘hard’ line taken by the Bolsheviks before 1921 and again between 1927 and the onset of the Popular Fronts. The Bolshevik regime had always been insecure—it was born, after all, of a minority coup in unpropitious circumstances and a highly unsympathetic environment—and Stalin, like all tyrants, needed to invoke threats and enemies, whether domestic or foreign. Moreover Stalin knew better than most that World War Two had been a close run thing: if the Germans had invaded a month earlier in 1941 (as Hitler’s original schedule required) the Soviet Union might very well have folded. Like the USA after Pearl Harbor, but with rather better cause, the Soviet leadership was obsessed to the point of paranoia with ‘surprise attacks’ and challenges to its new-won standing. And the Russians (even more than the French) continued for many decades to see Germany as the main threat.29

What, then, did Stalin want? That he anticipated a coming cooling of relations with the West and was out to make the best of his assets and take advantage of Western weakness is doubtless true. But it is far from obvious that Stalin had any clear strategy beyond that. As Norman Naimark, the historian of the Soviet occupation of post-war East Germany, concludes, ‘The Soviets were driven by concrete events in the zone, rather than by preconceived plans or ideological imperatives’. This fits with what we know of Stalin’s general approach, and it applies beyond the East German case as well.

The Soviets were certainly not planning for World War Three in the near term. Between June 1945 and the end of 1947 the Red Army was reduced from 11,365,000 personnel to 2,874,000—a rate of cutback comparable to that in US and British forces (though leaving a far larger contingent still in the field, comprising many well-armed, motorized divisions). Of course, Soviet calculations were by no means self-evident to western contemporaries, and even those who read Stalin as a cautious pragmatist could not be absolutely certain. However, Molotov is surely telling the truth when he suggests in his memoirs that the Soviet Union preferred to take advantage of propitious situations but was not going to take risks in order to bring them about: ‘Our ideology stands for offensive operations when possible, and if not, we wait.’

Stalin himself was famously risk-averse, which is why some commentators then and since regretted the West’s failure to exercise ‘containment’ sooner and further forward. But no-one wanted another war in these years, and whereas Stalin could readily be dissuaded from trying to destabilize Paris or Rome (since he had no armies there), the Soviet presence further east was a non-negotiable affair, as everyone recognized. In the Allied Control Councils in Bulgaria or Romania the Soviets did not even pretend to take note of British or American wishes, much less those of the locals. Only in Czechoslovakia was there a degree of ambiguity, the Red Army having long since withdrawn.

From his standpoint, Stalin operated in what passed in Moscow for good faith. He and his colleagues assumed that the Western Allies understood that the Soviets planned to occupy and control ‘their’ half of Europe; and they were willing to treat Western protests at Soviet behaviour in their zone as pro forma, the small change of democratic cant. When it seemed to them that the West was taking its own rhetoric too seriously, demanding freedom and autonomy in Eastern Europe, the Soviet leadership responded with genuine indignation. A note from Molotov in February 1945, commenting upon Western interference over Poland’s future, captures the tone: ‘How governments are being organized in Belgium, France, Greece, etc, we do not know. We have not been asked, although we do not say that we like one or another of these governments. We have not interfered, because it is the Anglo-American zone of military action.’

Everyone expected World War Two to end, like its predecessor, with an all-embracing Peace Treaty, and five separate treaties were indeed signed in Paris in 1946. These settled territorial and other business in Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary, Finland and Italy, though not in Norway, which remained technically in a state of war with Germany until 1951.30 But however much these developments mattered for the peoples concerned (and in the case of Romania, Bulgaria and Hungary they signaledtheir definitive consignment to Soviet domination), such agreements could be reached because in the end none of the Great Powers were willing to risk confrontation over them.

The business of Germany, however, was starkly different. To the Russians especially, Germany mattered very much indeed. Just as the war had been about Germany, so was the peace, and the spectre of German revanchism haunted Soviet calculations every bit as much as it did those of the French. When Stalin, Truman and Churchill met at Potsdam (from July 17th to August 2nd 1945, with Attlee replacing Churchill following Labour’s victory in the British General Election), it proved possible to reach agreement on the expulsion of Germans from Eastern Europe, the administrative sub-division of Germany for occupation purposes and the goals of ‘democratization’, ‘denazification’ and ‘decartelization’. Beyond this level of general common intention, however, the difficulties began.

Thus it was agreed to treat the German economy as a single unit, but the Soviets were also granted the right to extract and remove goods, services and financial assets from their own zone. They were further accorded 10 percent of reparations from the Western zones in exchange for food and raw materials to be supplied from eastern Germany. But these accords introduced a contradiction, by treating the economic resources of East and West as separate and distinct. Reparations were thus to be a divisive issue from the start (as they had been after the First World War): the Russians (and the French) wanted them, and the Soviet authorities did not hesitate to dismantle and remove German plant and equipment from the outset, with or without the consent of their fellow occupiers.

There was no final agreement on Germany’s new frontiers with Poland and even the common ground of democratization posed practical difficulties in implementation. Accordingly, the Allied leaders agreed to differ and to defer, instructing their Foreign Ministers to meet and continue the talks at a later date. There thus began two years of meetings of the Allied Foreign Ministers—representing the Soviet, American, British and, latterly, French governments: the first gathering took place in London two months after Potsdam, the last in December 1947, again in London. Their goal, in principle, was to draw up definitive arrangements for post-war Germany and prepare Peace Treaties between the Allied Powers and Germany and Austria. It was in the course of these encounters—notably in Moscow during March and April 1947—that the gap separating Soviet and Western approaches to the German problem became clear.

The Anglo-American strategy was driven in part by calculations of political prudence. If the Germans in the Western zone of occupation remained beaten down and impoverished, and were offered no prospect of improvement, then they would sooner or later turn back to Nazism—or else to Communism. In the regions of Germany occupied by American and British military governments, therefore, the emphasis switched quite early to reconstructing civic and political institutions and giving Germans responsibility for their domestic affairs. This offered emerging German politicians considerably more leverage than they could have hoped for when the war ended and they didn’t hesitate to exploit it—intimating that unless matters improved and the occupiers followed their advice, they could not answer for the future political allegiance of the German nation.

Fortunately for the Western allies, Communist occupation policies in Berlin and the Soviet-occupied territory of eastern Germany were not such as to attract disaffected German sentiments and votes. However unpopular the Americans or British or French might be in the eyes of resentful Germans, the alternative was far worse: if Stalin sincerely wanted Germany to remain united, as he instructed German Communists to demand in the initial post-war years, then Soviet tactics were grievously ill-chosen. From the outset, the Soviets established in their zone of occupation a de facto Communist-led government without Allied consent and set about rendering superfluous the Potsdam accords by ruthlessly extracting and dismantling whatever fell within their grasp.

Not that Stalin had much choice. There was never any prospect of the Communists gaining control of the country or even the Soviet zone except by force. In the Berlin city elections on October 20th 1946, Communist candidates came far behind both the Social Democrats and Christian Democrats. With that, Soviet policy perceptibly hardened. But by this time the Western occupiers were running into difficulties of their own. By July 1946 Britain had been forced to import 112,000 tons of wheat and 50,000 tons of potatoes to feed the local population of its zone (the urban and industrial north-west of Germany), paid for out of an American loan.

The British were extracting at most $29 million in reparations from Germany; but the occupation was costing London $80 million a year, leaving the British taxpayer to foot the bill for the difference even as the British government was forced to impose bread rationing at home (an expedient that had been avoided throughout the war). In the opinion of the British Chancellor of the Exchequer, Hugh Dalton, the British were ‘paying reparations to the Germans.’ The Americans were not under the same economic constraints and their zone had not suffered as much war damage, but the situation appeared no less absurd to them—the US Army in particular was not well pleased, since the cost of feeding millions of hungry Germans fell on its own budget. As George Kennan observed: ‘the unconditional surrender of Germany . . . left us with the sole responsibility for a section of Germany which had never been economically self-supporting in modern times and the capacity of which for self-support had been catastrophically reduced by the circumstances of the war and the German defeat. At the moment we accepted that responsibility we had no program for the rehabilitation of the economy of our zone, preferring to leave all that to later settlement by international agreement.’

Faced with this dilemma, and growing German resentment at the dismantling of plant and installations for shipment east, the US military governor, General Clay, unilaterally suspended deliveries of reparations from the American zone to the Soviet Union (or anywhere else) in May 1946, observing that Soviet authorities had failed to keep their part of the Potsdam arrangements. The British followed suit two months later. This signaled a first parting of the ways, but no more than that. The French, like the USSR, still wanted reparations, and all four Allies were still formally committed to the 1946 ‘Levels-of-Industry’ agreement under which Germany was to be held down to a standard of living no higher than the European average (excluding Britain and the Soviet Union). Moreover the British Cabinet, meeting in May 1946, was still reluctant to accept a formal division of occupied Germany into eastern and western halves, with all the implications that would have for European security.

But it was becoming obvious that the four Occupying Powers were not about to reach an agreement. Once the main Nuremberg Trial ended in October 1946 and the terms of the Paris Peace Treaties were finalized the following month, the wartime Allies were bound by little more than their co-responsibility for Germany, the contradictions of which thus came increasingly to the fore. The Americans and British agreed at the end of 1946 to fuse the economies of their two occupation zones into a so-called ‘Bizone’; but even this did not yet signify a firm division of Germany, much less a commitment to integrating the Bizone into the West. On the contrary: three months later, in February 1947, the French and British ostentatiously signed the Dunkirk Treaty in which they committed themselves to mutual support against any future German aggression. And US Secretary of State Marshall was still optimistic, in early 1947, that whatever arrangements were made to resolve the German economic conundrum need not result in a divided Germany. On this, at least, East and West were still in formal accord.

The real break came in the spring of 1947, at the (March 10th-April 24th) Moscow meeting of the Foreign Ministers of the US, Britain, France and the Soviet Union, convened once again to seek agreement on a Peace Treaty for Germany and Austria. By now the fault lines were clear. The British and Americans were determined to build up the Western German economy, in order that the Germans might support themselves but also to contribute to the revival of the European economy in general. The Soviet representatives wanted a restoration of reparations from the Western zones of Germany and, to this end, a united German administration and economy as initially envisaged (albeit vaguely) at Potsdam. But by now the Western Allies were no longer seeking a single German administration. For this would entail not just the abandonment of the population of the western zones of Germany—by now a political consideration in its own right—but the effective handing over of the country to the Soviet sphere of control, given the military asymmetry of the time.

As Robert K. Murphy, the political adviser to the US Military Government in Germany, recognized, ‘it was the Moscow Conference of 1947 . . . which really rang down the Iron Curtain.’ Ernest Bevin had abandoned any serious hope of agreement over Germany before he even arrived in Moscow, but for Marshall (and Bidault) it was the defining moment. For Molotov and Stalin as well, no doubt. By the time the four Foreign Ministers next met, in Paris from June 27th-July 2nd to discuss Marshall’s dramatic new Plan, the Americans and British had already agreed (on May 23rd) to permit German representation on a new Bizone ‘Economic Council’, the embryonic prelude to a West German government.

From this point on, things moved rapidly forward. Neither side made or sought any further concessions: the Americans and British, who had long feared a separate Russo-German Peace and had countenanced delays and compromises in order to forestall it, ceased to take into account an eventuality they could now discount. In August they unilaterally increased output in the Bizone (to a chorus of Soviet and French criticism). The Joint Chiefs of Staff directive JCS 1067 (the ‘Morgenthau plan’) was replaced by JCS 1779 which formally acknowledged the new American goals: economic unification of the western zone of Germany and the encouragement of German self-government. For the Americans especially, Germans were rapidly ceasing to be the enemy.31

The Foreign Ministers—Molotov, Bevin, Marshall and Bidault—met one last time, in London, from November 25th through December 16th 1947. It was a curious gathering, since their relations had already in practice broken down. The Western Allies were moving forward with independent plans for West European recovery, while two months earlier Stalin had established the Cominform, instructed the Communist parties of France and Italy to take an intransigent line in their countries’ affairs and clamped down sharply on the Communist-controlled countries in what was now a Soviet bloc. The Ministers discussed, as in the past, the prospects for an all-German government under Allied control and other terms for an eventual Peace Treaty. But there was no further agreement on the common administration of Germany or plans for its future and the meeting broke up without scheduling any future gatherings.

Instead Britain, France and the US began tripartite discussions on Germany’s future at an extended conference, once again held in London, beginning on February 23rd, 1948. In that same week the Communist Party in Czechoslovakia staged its successful coup, signaling Stalin’s definitive abandonment of his earlier strategy and his acceptance of the inevitability of confrontation rather than agreement with the West. In the shadow of the Prague coup, France and Britain extended their Dunkirk Treaty into the Brussels Pact of March 17th, binding Britain, France and the Benelux countries in a mutual defense alliance.

There was now nothing to inhibit the Western leaders and the London Conference rapidly agreed to extend the Marshall Plan to western Germany and lay down schemes for an eventual government for a West German state (an arrangement approvedby the French delegation in exchange for the—temporary—separation of the Saar from Germany and a proposal for an independent authority to oversee the industry of the Ruhr). These plans constituted an explicit departure from the spirit of the Potsdam accords and General Vassily Sokolovsky, the Soviet representative on the Allied Control Council (ACC) in Berlin, duly protested (neglecting to acknowledge the Soviet Union’s own frequent breaches of those same accords).

On March 10th, Sokolovsky condemned plans for western Germany as the enforced imposition of capitalist interests upon a German population denied the chance to demonstrate its desire for Socialism, and repeated Soviet assertions that Western powers were abusing their presence in Berlin—which he claimed was part of the Soviet Zone—to interfere in eastern German affairs. Ten days later, at an ACC meeting in Berlin on March 20th, Sokolovsky denounced the ‘unilateral actions’ of the Western Allies, ‘taken in Western Germany and which are against the interests of the peaceful countries and peace-loving Germans who seek the peaceful unity and democratization of their country’. He then swept out of the room, followed by the rest of the Soviet delegation. No date was set for a further meeting. The joint Allied occupation of Germany was over: less than two weeks later, on April 1st, the Soviet military authorities in Berlin began to interfere with surface traffic between western Germany and the Western Allies’ zones of occupation in Berlin. The real Cold War in Europe had begun.

It should be clear from this narrative that there is little to be gained from asking ‘who started the Cold War?’ To the extent that the Cold War was about Germany, the final outcome—a divided country—was probably preferred by all parties to a Germany united against them. No one planned this outcome in May 1945, but few were deeply discontented with it. Some German politicians, notably Konrad Adenauer himself, even owed their career to the division of their country: had Germany remained a quadri-zonal or united country, an obscure local politician from the far-western Catholic Rhineland would almost certainly not have made it to the top.

But Adenauer could hardly have espoused the division of Germany as a goal, however much he welcomed it in private. His chief opponent in the first years of the Federal Republic, the Social Democrat Kurt Schumacher, was a Protestant from West Prussia and a tireless advocate of German unity. In contrast to Adenauer he would readily have accepted a neutralized Germany as the price for a single German state, which was what Stalin appeared to be offering. And Schumacher’s position was probably the more popular one in Germany at the time, which was why Adenauer had to tread carefully and ensure that the responsibility for a divided Germany fell squarely on the occupying forces.

By 1948 the United States, like Great Britain, was not unhappy to see the emergence of a divided Germany, with American influence dominant in the larger, western segment. But although there were some, like George Kennan, who had perceptively anticipated this outcome (as early as 1945 he had concluded that the USA had ‘no choice but to lead her section of Germany . . . to a form of independence so prosperous, so secure, so superior, that the east cannot threaten it’), they were in the minority. The Americans, like Stalin, were improvising in these years. It is sometimes suggested that certain key American decisions and declarations, notably the Truman Doctrine of March 1947, precipitated Stalin’s retreat from compromise to rigidity and that in this sense the responsibility for European divisions lay with Washington’s insensitivity or, worse, its calculated intransigence. But this is not so.

For the Truman Doctrine, to take this example, had remarkably little impact on Soviet calculations. President Truman’s March 12th 1947 announcement to Congress that ‘It must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or outside pressure’ was a direct response to London’s inability to continue with aid to Greece and Turkey following the British economic crisis of February 1947. America would have to take over Britain’s role. Truman thus sought Congressional approval for a $400 million increase in his budget for overseas aid: to secure the funding he presented the request in the context of a crisis of Communist insurgency.

Congress took him seriously, but Moscow did not. Stalin was not much interested in Turkey and Greece—the chief beneficiaries of the aid package—and he understood perfectly well that his own sphere of interest was unlikely to be affected by Truman’s grandstanding. On the contrary, he continued to suppose that there were very good prospects for a split within the Western camp of which the American assumption of erstwhile British responsibilities in the Eastern Mediterranean was a sign and precursor. Whatever led Stalin to adjust his calculations in Eastern Europe, it was decidedly not the rhetoric of American domestic politics.32

The immediate cause of the division of Germany and Europe lies rather in Stalin’s own errors in these years. In central Europe, where he would have preferred a united Germany, weak and neutral, he squandered his advantage in 1945 and subsequent years by uncompromising rigidity and confrontational tactics. If Stalin’s hope had been to let Germany rot until the fruit of German resentment and hopelessness fell into his lap, then he miscalculated seriously—though there were moments when the Allied authorities in western Germany wondered whether he might yet succeed. In that sense the Cold War in Europe was an unavoidable outcome of the Soviet dictator’s personality and the system over which he ruled.

But the fact remains that Germany was at his feet, as his opponents well knew—‘The trouble is that we are playing with fire which we have nothing with which to put out’, as Marshall put it to the National Security Council on February 13th 1948. All the Soviet Union needed to do was accept the Marshall Plan and convince a majority of the Germans of Moscow’s good faith in seeking a neutral, independent Germany. In 1947 this would radically have shifted the European balance of advantage. Whatever Marshall, Bevin or their advisers might have thought of such maneuvers, they would have been helpless to prevent them. That such tactical calculations were beyond Stalin cannot be credited to the West. As Dean Acheson put it on another occasion, ‘We were fortunate in our opponents.’

Looking back, it is somewhat ironic that after fighting a murderous war to reduce the power of an over-mighty Germany at the heart of the European continent, the victors should have proven so unable to agree on post-war arrangements to keep the German colossus down that they ended up dividing it between them in order to benefit separately from its restored strength. It had become clear—first to the British, then to the Americans, belatedly to the French and finally to the Soviets—that the only way to keep Germany from being the problem was to change the terms of the debate and declare it the solution. This was uncomfortable, but it worked. In the words of Noel Annan, a British intelligence officer in occupied Germany, ‘It was odious to find oneself in alliance with people who had been willing to go along with Hitler to keep Communism at bay. But the best hope for the West was to encourage the Germans themselves to create a Western democratic state.

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