15 March 2011
I’ve written before about the Potsdam Agreement, in August 1945, in which the three Allied victors in the Second World War, Britain, The United States and the Soviet Union, agreed on a set of rules to govern their policy in occupied Germany.
The first clause of the agreement was the establishment of a ‘Council of Foreign Ministers’, of Britain, the US, the Soviet Union, France and China. The role of this Council of the ‘Five Great Powers’ in the world was to prepare peace treaties with the Axis powers, defined in the agreement as the 'enemy states': Italy, Rumania, Bulgaria, Hungary and Finland, as well as Germany, and settle outstanding territorial questions.
The Council met five times before the meeting in London in December 1947 ended in acrimony, without a date being set for the next meeting.
It’s interesting to track what occurred at each meeting, so here is a brief summary. I’m not really sure how to interpret this. The traditional ‘Western’ view is that the British and US had no option other than to go it alone, in the face of Soviet intransigence. An alternative view is that neither the British nor the US were prepared to compromise on their ability to run their own Zones the way they wanted, so they engineered the failure of the negotiations, which, in fact, suited all four of the Allies quite well.
1) London: September 1945
After discussing peace treaties for Italy, Hungary, Bulgaria, Rumania and Finland, the meeting broke up without agreement. In a statement to the House of Commons, the British Foreign Minister, Ernest Bevin, blamed procedural difficulties.
2) Paris: April-June 1946
The first session of the Paris meeting of the Council of Foreign Ministers lasted from 25 April – 16 May. The principal topic of discussion was the Italian peace treaty but no firm agreement was reached before the first session was adjourned.
The meeting resumed in mid-June. Agreement was reached on Italy, but there was no progress on Germany and the meeting adjourned after Britain, France the US and the Soviet Union had presented very different proposals:
The French Foreign Minister, Georges Bidault, advocated the separation of the Rhineland from the rest of Germany and the internationalisation of the Ruhr.
The Soviet Foreign Minister, Vyacheslav Molotov, announced he was in favour of a united Germany and the setting up of central German administrations, [which had been vetoed by the French in the Allied Control Council, on the grounds they were not prepared to agree to a central administration for the whole of Germany, before the future of the Rhineland and Ruhr had been settled.]
The US Secretary of State, James Byrnes, proposed a draft treaty which was intended to guarantee the de-militarisation of Germany for 25 years. Molotov rejected this on the basis that they had not yet ensured that Germany was disarmed in the present, let alone in the future. He claimed that some units of the German army, which had surrendered in the British Zone, had not been fully disarmed and demobilised. [This was partly true. Although they had been disarmed, the units, known as ‘Dienstgruppen’, carried out support tasks for the British army, such as transport.]
The British Foreign Minister, Ernest Bevin was concerned about the costs of the occupation. He announced that unless the others were prepared to cooperate economically to ensure that German exports covered the costs of imports [mainly food], the British government would be compelled to ‘organise the British Zone of occupation in Germany in such a way that no further liability shall fall on the British taxpayer.’
The following day Byrnes offered to cooperate economically with any of the other zones willing to do so. After the conference the British accepted the invitation. This was to lead to the formation of the so-called Bizone and the economic fusion of the US and British zones in January 1947.
3) New York: October 1946
The New York session of the Council of Foreign Ministers lasted from 3 November to 12 December 1946. It was preceded by the Paris Peace Conference which lasted from 29 July to 15 October 1946. Agreement was eventually reached on peace treaties for Italy, Rumania, Hungary, Bulgaria and Finland, which were signed on 10 February the following year in Paris.
Discussions on Germany in New York did little more than agree 10 March as the date for the next meeting in Moscow.
4) Moscow: March – April 1947
The Moscow Council of Foreign Ministers lasted from 10 March to 25 April. Having settled peace treaties for the other Axis powers, Germany was now the main item on the agenda.
It was agreed to abolish the State of Prussia, which had survived as a separate state within Germany throughout the Weimar Republic and Nazi Third Reich.
Bidault reasserted the French opposition to creating central administrations [and thereby treating Germany as a single entity, rather than as four separate zones] until the western frontiers of Germany had been agreed and the future of the Rhineland, Ruhr and Saar finalised. Molotov disagreed with both the separation of the Ruhr and Rhineland from Germany and also a decision to allow the French to annex the Saar, which at that time, the British and US would have agreed to.
Bevin presented the British plan for the economic future of Germany, including elements which he probably knew would be unacceptable to the Russians and French: including a decision to proceed with the US in setting up the ‘Bizone’, no reparations from current production [which was one thing the Russians wanted], no four-power control for the Ruhr and no separation of the Ruhr or Rhineland from the rest of Germany.
The new US Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, George Marshall asked for a decision on the US proposal for the 25 year disarmament of Germany. Molotov argued this did not go far enough and the discussions lapsed.
After the conference was over, Marshal delivered his Harvard speech on 5 June 1947, setting forth his ideas for an economic ‘European Recovery Programme’ now known as the Marshall Plan.
At first the Russians were invited to participate, but a meeting in Paris between Molotov, Bidault and Bevin, on 27 June, broke up without agreement over the issue of which countries should be invited to participate. In his view only those occupied by Germany or had contributed to the Allied victory should be invited; not ex-enemy states such as Germany.
Bevin and Bidault went ahead anyway and invitations were sent to 22 European countries inviting them to a conference in Paris on 12 July (known as the Conference on European Reconstruction).
Cominform, (the Communist Information Forum) was founded on 22-23 September 1947 at a meeting at which 9 Communist parties were represented, including the French and Italian parties, in addition to those from the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.
5) London: November – December 1947
Despite ending in acrimony with no date set for the next meeting, progress was made on a few issues including agreement on a new, higher maximum level for German steel production of 10.5 million tons a year. This was something the British had been advocating ever since the Level of Industry negotiations had agreed, in March 1946, on a maximum ‘production’ level of 5.8 million tons, and ‘capacity' of 7.5 million tons; levels the British delegation had always thought too low. It was hoped the new higher level of permitted steel production would enable an increase in exports to offset the costs of the occupation.
The breaking off of negotiations over Germany in London did not extend to Austria, and Foreign Ministers’ deputies continued to discuss this in January 1948. However discussions were postponed indefinitely in May 1948 after disagreement on Yugoslav territorial claims in Carinthia.
Despite its failure to agree a peace settlement for Germany, the Council met again in May and June 1949 in Paris, when they agreed to end the Berlin Blockade. A further meeting in Berlin in 1954 ended in deadlock, but in 1955 a peace treaty was agreed for Austria. In 1971 the four wartime allies met again to discuss and agree the Four Power Agreement on Berlin and in September 1990 they, and the two German governments, signed the Final Settlement with Respect to Germany.
Alan Bullock, Ernest Bevin: Foreign Secretary (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985) (First published in 1983 by William Heinemann Ltd)
Anne Deighton, The Impossible Peace: Britain, the Division of Germany and the Origins of the Cold War (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990)