The Potsdam Quartet by David Pinner
Directed by Anthony Biggs
Oct – Nov 2013
Jermyn Street Theatre
As they headed to the Potsdam Conference with Stalin in July 1945, the most important fact that faced Churchill and Truman was the frustratingly unalterable presence of four times as many Soviet troops in Europe as there were British and American forces. Plus, the Soviets had twice as many tanks. Those troops weren’t going anywhere in a hurry, and, at the time, they were following Stalin’s orders to continue to dismantle the German industrial machine that had made possible the Wehrmacht’s prowess, shipping the industrial parts back to the U.S.S.R. More realistic than Churchill about Britain’s ability to stand up to this new and dangerous presence, Sir Alan Brooke, chief of the Imperial Staff, wrote in his diary, “There is no doubt that from now onwards Russia is all powerful in Europe.”
In The Potsdam Quartet, the unmoving Russian soldier who might dangerously make a move is, therefore, a figure whose symbolism must not be overlooked. Churchill pushed Truman to call for the Potsdam Conference because of his fears that American withdrawal from Europe would, as he told his military planners, leave Russia with “the power to advance to the North Sea and the Atlantic”, and his hopes that, as he confided to Truman, some kind of “understanding with Russia” could be reached. A unexceptional goal on paper, reaching an understanding with the Russians, however, amounted largely to sanctioning the presence of Russian troops – in eastern Berlin and Germany, in the Baltic States, in Romania, Yugoslavia, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and, most upsetting of all to Churchill, in Poland — and somehow doing it without losing face with the British and American publics.
So the victorious national leaders all lied at the end of the conference and claimed they had not agreed to respecting each other’s “spheres of influence” when they actually had. From 1946 on, West and East blamed one another for the split of Germany and for the remorseless raising of suspicions and tensions throughout the world. The Potsdam Conference ended in smiles and handshakes and, arguably, helped to precipitate the Cold War.
Of course, Churchill wasn’t smiling at the end because he wasn’t there, having on 26 July suffered the great personal blow of losing the election to Clement Attlee, who, on Churchill’s invitation, had attended the conference from its start. The historian Charles Mee sees Churchill’s electoral defeat as capping a series of humiliations. Arriving at Potsdam without having done any preparatory reading and, like his financially strapped country, “exhausted”, Churchill charmed, blustered, and tried feebly to use his best playing card, the empire that Stalin admired and Attlee was determined to discard. Churchill was weak, and he desperately wanted Stalin to like him. He probably succeeded there, but he gave more to Stalin than he might have, and he encouraged both Truman and Stalin to distrust one another. Potsdam was far from his finest hour.