The End of World War II and the Remaking of Europe

Michael Neiberg

Basic Books, New York, 2015, 336 pages

Book Review published on: April 7, 2017

In July 1945, the leaders of the three great Allied powers met at Potsdam, Germany, in order to seek a postwar order that would ensure peace and prosperity in the aftermath of history’s most terrible war. Those leaders, Winston Churchill, Harry Truman, and Joseph Stalin, made their deliberations in the comfort of the Cecilienhof Palace, built originally for the crown prince of Prussia. Yet only a few miles away, Adolf Hitler’s former capital, Berlin, lay in ruins. It was a reminder, if the Allied leaders needed one, of how devastating the war in Europe had been and how badly the world needed peace.

Their efforts to create and foster such a peace is the topic of Potsdam. Early in Potsdam, the author sets up three objectives for what he hope is a fresh analysis of the famous conference. The first objective is to show Potsdam as a product of a period of total war that ran from 1914 to 1945. To this end, Neiberg writes that the conference was “the final paragraph of the chapter that began on a street corner in Sarajevo.” In a second (but related) objective, Neiberg takes a swipe at the “great man” school of history by showing how the men who met at Potsdam were constrained by the strategic environment of the time. Two of the participants were neophytes in the game of great power politics; Truman had recently succeeded the fallen Franklin D. Roosevelt, and the electoral results in Britain had placed Clement Atlee in the seat formerly held by Churchill midconference. Both the new leaders found their courses of action constrained by the circumstances of the time and decisions of their predecessors. As a third and most interesting objective, Neiberg seeks to show how the deliberations at Potsdam were troubled by the ghosts of the past. The failed appeasement at Munich was one such ghost. Another was Versailles where, a quarter century before, the great powers had sought a lasting framework for peace. Their failure was the critical backdrop and cautionary tale for the Potsdam conference.

Neiberg is well known (and highly regarded) in these parts. He currently serves as the Henry L. Stimson Chair of War Studies and professor of history at the Army War College and is a regular visitor to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Much of the author’s previous work has dealt with the First World War, and this interest is reflected in his interpretation of the Potsdam conference. In this new work, like his previous books, Neiberg shows a gift for situating the illuminating anecdote, character sketches, and quotes within the analysis of complex events. Using these devices, he encourages the reader to see events through the eyes of the participants. One might advertise this as a book that sets up the early stages of the Cold War, but more importantly, the book demonstrates the way that powerful men are constrained and haunted by the events of the past.

Book Review written by: Scott Stephenson, PhD, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas