Post-war Germany

post-war berlin

US soldiers give sweets to children in Berlin, a city starved and ravaged by war

One of the issues confronting the leaders of America, Britain and Soviet Russia was how to deal with post-war Germany. Their opinions on this different, just as they had differed with regard to the future of Poland. At the Yalta Conference of 1943 Roosevelt had proposed that Germany be hacked into small pieces to limit its future capacity for war. The Roosevelt plan would abolish the German nation and create the smaller self-governing nations of Hanover, Prussia, Hesse, Saxony and Bavaria. Stalin, who had more to fear from a resurgent Germany than Roosevelt, enthusiastically agreed. A British report summarised Stalin’s comments:

It is far better to break up and scatter the German tribes. Of course they would want to unite, no matter how much they were split up. They would always want to reunite. In this [reunification] he saw great danger, which would have to be neutralised by various economic measures and, in the long run, by force if necessary. That was the only way to keep the peace. But if we were to make a large combination with Germans in it, trouble was bound to come. We had to see to it that they were kept separate.

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Henry Morgenthau, the American who formulated a plan for post-war Germany

Churchill took a different view. He believed the partitioning of Germany was necessary – but Roosevelt’s proposal would fill Europe with small, economically fragile nation-states. Churchill preferred the creation of three German-speaking states: the largest in the south, another in the north and one to the west. He thought these states would be well resourced enough to be prosperous, but small enough to be supervised and managed, if they attempted rearmament or reunification. Another proposal, the Morgenthau Plan, also appeared in 1944 and was eventually adopted. The Morgenthau Plan suggested the four Allies occupy Germany in discrete zones: the US in the south, the Soviets in the east, Britain in the north and the French a smaller quadrant in the south-west. Occupation would allow them to oversee the deindustrialisation and demilitarisation of Germany, winding its economy back to agriculture and manufacturing. In each of the four occupation zones, German factories would be dismantled, destroyed or re-tooled to make consumer goods; machinery and equipment in these factories was often shipped to France or Russia as payment for Germany’s $10 billion war reparations debt..

Washington’s turnaround

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US secretary of state James F. Byrnes, who gave the 1946 ‘speech of hope’

In late 1946 the US position shifted, from one favouring the partition of Germany to a belief that Germany should be maintained as a single nation. Truman relied extensively on advice from his Secretary of State, James F. Byrnes, who saw considerable benefits in keeping Germany singular and unified. This point-of-view was based both on economic theory and the containment of communism. American economic advisors had come to see how important German economic prosperity was to the rest of western Europe; fragmenting Germany, crippling its production and trade would have dire effects on the economies of its neighbours. Byrnes also believed that most Germans wanted their nation to remain unified, so partitioning Germany might make them more susceptible to communist infiltration and takeover. In September 1946 Byrnes spoke to locals in Stuttgart, delivering what Germans would later describe as the ‘Speech of Hope’:

The Potsdam Agreement did not provide that there should never be a central German government. It merely provided that for the time being there should be no central German government. Certainly this only meant that no central government should be established until some sort of democracy was rooted in the soul of Germany and some sense of local responsibility developed… It is the view of the American Government that the German people throughout Germany, under proper safeguards, should now be given the primary responsibility for the running of their own affairs… The American people want to return the government of Germany to the German people. The American people want to help the German people to win their way back to an honorable place among the free and peace-loving nations of the world.

Bizonia and Trizonia

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A visual display of the divided post-war Germany

Truman also acknowledged that a unified, industrialised Germany was essential for the economic recovery of all Europe. In mid 1946 US and British representatives began discussing a merger of their respective zones into a single economic unit. They invited the French and Soviet zones to join in with this merger but both resisted. In January 1947 the American and British zones combined to form ‘Bizonia’. Six months later, Truman ordered the suspension of further reparations exports and declared that an “orderly, prosperous Europe requires the economic contributions of a stable and productive Germany”. He pushed the British to allow an increase in steel production in Bizonia from 7.5 million tons to 10.7 million tons. The Americans also allowed Germans to take the first steps toward a return to self-government, by establishing a number of local boards to manage food and agriculture, transport, communications, finance and trade. Meanwhile, in the Russian zone, the process of ‘sovietisation’ was well underway. German communists and social democrats formed a coalition under pressure from Moscow; this left-wing coalition dominated 1946 local and regional elections and by 1948 it was effectively in control of the zone, albeit as a puppet of the Kremlin.

In April 1949 Bizonia became Trizonia when the French agreed to merge their zone. Weeks later, Trizonia became an independent state, the Federal Republic of Germany (later more commonly known as West Germany). In October, the former Soviet zone declared itself the German Democratic Republic (East Germany). Over the next four decades the two German states were a focal point of world attention. Many of the Cold War’s most famous symbols – the Berlin Wall, ‘Checkpoint Charlie’, the Brandenburg Gate, Kennedy’s “Ich bin eine Berliner” speech and Reagan’s challenge to “Tear down this wall” – all happened in Germany. The divisions and tensions between communist-controlled East Germany and the US-sponsored West Germany would become a microcosm of the broader Cold War.





1. How to deal with or divide up the defeated Germany was a point of debate for the victorious Allies.
2. The Morgenthau Plan, formed in 1944, suggested that Germany be divided into four occupied zones.
3. By 1946, however, the US position had shifted to a belief that Germany should remain a unified nation.
4. In eastern Germany, the process of ‘sovietisation’ led to the rise of a Moscow-backed socialist government.
5. In 1949 the merged American, British and French zones formed a unified democratic nation: the Federal Republic of Germany, or simply West Germany. The Soviet-backed zone became the German Democratic Republic, or East Germany.

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