Stroll through history: Cecilienhof Palace in Germany

Potsdam is located in the suburbs of Berlin, the capital of Germany. There I visited Cecilienhof Palace with its beautiful garden, where birds chirped and flowers bloomed in the courtyard.

Time passed so slowly that I almost forgot it was the site where the leaders of the United States, Britain and Soviet Union had gathered 70 years ago amid a power struggle over the post-World War II international order.

It was near the end of the war - from July 17 to Aug. 2, 1945 - that Cecilienhof Palace emerged on the stage of world history. Nazi Germany was defeated in May, and the war was in its final phase, with only Japan's surrender awaiting.

Allied leaders US President Harry S. Truman, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and General Secretary and Premier Josef Stalin of the Soviet Union (See below) agreed to hold talks on postwar affairs.

The conference was initially to be held in Berlin, but there was no suitable venue in the city, which had been reduced to rubble by Allied bombings.

Cecilienhof Palace, which had escaped war damage, was chosen instead. Since Potsdam was under Soviet occupation, the conference was hosted by Stalin.

The people of the defeated nation of Germany were left in the dark. " I was 15 then, but had no idea what was going on in the palace," recalled Horst Goltz, an 85-year-old resident of Potsdam.

The flower bed in the courtyard has been edged into the shape of a star, the symbol of communism, evoking the circumstances of bygone days.

"Stalin probably wanted to stress to the visiting US and British leaders that the palace belonged to the Soviet Union," explained Matthias Simmich, a 44-year-old curator who researches the palace's history.

Nonetheless, the palace was the perfect place to host a total of 4,300 delegation members from the United States, Britain and the Soviet Union.

There were a combined 176 rooms in the right and left wings that stretched from the main building, which was constructed so as to encircle the courtyard.

The largest hall was used for the summit meeting, and the round table, which is said to have been brought from Moscow by the Soviet delegates, is still on display there.

The Soviet Union renovated nearby villas and used them as lodgings. The three nations' leaders shuttled back and forth between the talks, each trying to probe the other's intentions.

Unlike today's international talks that proceed hastily, those at the palace continued for more than two weeks. During that time, Churchill lost in the general election and his successor Clement Attlee attended the latter stages of the conference.

Truman, who had been vice president, became president when Franklin D. Roosevelt died in April.

Stalin, a politician more experienced than his counterparts, attempted to seize the initiative. Meanwhile, Truman received a report shortly before the conference that his country had succeeded with its atomic bomb test.

According to a secret agreement signed at the Yalta Conference in February, he tried to end the war quickly before the Soviet Union joined the battle against Japan.

The United States drafted the Potsdam Declaration, which urged Japan to surrender, and tried to prevent Soviet engagement.

On the other hand, Stalin considered the conference a success since it paved the way for the Soviet Union to secure a zone of influence in Eastern Europe.

The German foundation that administers the palace describes Stalin as the "winner behind the scenes" in a study examining the conference.

The words of the three leaders are displayed on the palace walls. Truman said force is the only thing the Russians understand, while Stalin said the United States and Britain are trying to suppress them.

Their words suggest the true extent of the underlying struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union during the conference.

Kudo is a correspondent in Berlin.


Palace room designed like ship's cabin

Cecilienhof Palace is located in a corner of Neuer Garten, a park created by King Frederick William II of Prussia.

Known as the "pleasure-loving king," he contributed to the 18th-century development of the arts in Berlin.

The two-storied palace was constructed at the behest of Emperor Wilhelm II, the last German emperor, for his son Wilhelm. It was completed in 1917.

German architect Paul Schultze-Naumburg was behind the Tudor-style design, which featured a framework including columns and exposed braces. The prince and his wife had seen the style during a trip to Britain and were fascinated by it.

The palace was named Cecilienhof after the crown princess. The princess is said to have loved voyages by ship, and a room designed like a ship's cabin was also built.

This room was used by the delegates of the Soviet Union during the Potsdam Conference. Wilhelm and his wife left the palace in 1945 as the Soviet army approached. The Soviet army used the palace as a recreation facility until 1951, and the government of East Germany managed it after 1952.

Although the conference hall was open to the public while the palace was under East German control, what was displayed there aimed only to praise communism.

After German reunification in 1990, the exhibition contents were changed. In addition to the conference hall, the offices used by the three Allied leaders and other parts of the palace are now accessible to the public. A board with detailed information on the Potsdam Conference in both English and German has been placed in the conference hall. In 2012, an explanation of the atomic bombing in Japan was placed in the office used by US President Truman.

Josef Stalin

Josef Stalin (1878-1953) was the second leader of the Soviet Union. He was born in present-day Georgia with the surname of Dzugashvili. He adopted the name Stalin, literally meaning "man of steel."

He took part in the Russian Revolution of 1917. After Lenin's death in 1924, Stalin eliminated his political foes and numerous critics, establishing a dictatorship. In the 1930s, he launched the Great Purge, which claimed at least 3 million victims.

Though Stalin is criticised as a dictator, he is also recognised for industrializing the country and achieving victory in what the Russians call the Great Patriotic War.